Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
After at least a year and a half of serious (more or less) Presidential campaigning — highlighted in the final days when supporters of President Obama dredged up a comment Mitt Romney had made in a Republican debate on June 14, 2011 suggesting that he didn’t think disaster relief was a proper function of the federal government — and an election season editor Dave Rolland of San Diego CityBeat called “cruelly, inhumanely, incomprehensibly, irrationally long,” on November 6 the mountain labored and brought forth … more of the same. Barack Obama remains President, the House of Representatives is still controlled by Republicans, the Senate is still in Democratic hands and the partisan gridlock voters on both sides complained about beforehand is all too alive and well. Ironically, according to the Pennsylvania Weekly, more people voted for Democrats to represent them in the House than for Republicans — 53,952,240 (50.25 percent) for Democrats versus 53,402,643 (49.74 percent) for Republicans — but the GOP kept its majority by gerrymandering election districts in states where they had control of the governorship and the state legislature.
This year’s election actually turned out pretty well for progressives nationwide, in California and especially in San Diego County. Not only did Obama fend off Romney’s challenge, but California voters passed Proposition 30, Governor Jerry Brown’s package of temporary tax increases to ward off drastic education cuts. They rejected Proposition 32, a cynical attack on organized labor’s ability to fund political action disguised as a “campaign finance reform” measure; and also Proposition 38, the rival tax-increase measure introduced by one-percenter Molly Munger (half-brother of key Proposition 32 supporter Charles Munger, Jr.) quite possibly as a stalking horse to defeat Proposition 30.
The statewide vote had its disappointments. Californians responded to the siren song of food-industry propaganda and rejected Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of genetically modified foods. They also rejected Proposition 34, which would have abolished the state’s death penalty and replaced it with life imprisonment without parole. But even those initiatives lost by surprisingly slender margins — a pleasant surprise, especially for Californians with long enough memories to remember when any initiative to expand the death penalty would pass by a 2-to-1 margin instead of the mere 5 percent by which 34 lost.
Locally, things went even better for Democrats — who’d been scared in June when Republican Scott Sherman won the San Diego City Council District 7 seat outright in the primary and Councilmember Carl DeMaio’s Proposition B, eviscerating what’s left of San Diego’s city employee pension system and imposing a five-year wage freeze, passed with two-thirds of the vote. Not only did Obama become the second Democratic Presidential candidate in history to carry San Diego County, but Bob Filner won the Mayor’s race over DeMaio by a four-point margin. Embattled Democratic Councilmember Sherri Lightner hung on to her seat — and to the Democratic majority on the Council — by a substantial nine-point margin. Dave Roberts became not only the first openly Queer person elected to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors but the first Democrat on that board in 20 years. And Democrat Scott Peters won the county’s hardest-fought and biggest-spending Congressional race over Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray.
The Right’s Ideas Still Rule
But though in many ways the November 2012 election looked good for Democrats — not just moderates like Peters but strong progressives like Filner — the winning Democrats, including Obama, will still be playing on largely Republican, corporate-Right and Tea Party turf. The continued dominance of Right-wing ideology and the corporate money behind it was exemplified by the issues that weren’t discussed in the election, particularly in the Presidential campaign. Not once during any of the three debates between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, nor during the vice-presidential candidates’ debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, were the words “global warming” or “climate change” spoken: not by the candidates, not by the moderators, not by the carefully vetted “audience members” in the so-called “town hall” format of the second debate.
You’d never guess from the campaign that there’s a case that climate change is the issue — one which, if the scientific consensus that it’s happening is correct, will force major changes in the economy and society if the human race is to survive at all. Since the election, Obama has made two fleeting references to it, one in his victory speech and one in a few public comments on Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the East Coast during the closing weeks of the campaign. But these comments — including Obama’s promise that nothing his administration does about global warming will get in the way of improving the economy and creating jobs — only underscored the silence with which it had been greeted (save for Romney’s sneering attacks on Obama as the candidate who had supposedly promised he’d stop the oceans) throughout the campaign. Indeed, Obama’s framing of the issue bought into the Right-wing line that protecting the environment in general, and dealing with climate change in particular, is somehow opposed to job creation and economic growth — which is nonsense, but it’s what the radical Right and its corporate funders want you to believe.
Nor did you hear much in the Presidential campaign about the growing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. Though the American political process is not as totally controlled by corporations and super-rich people as many on the Left believe — there’s enough residual resentment of the 1 percent, and especially the 0.01 percent, that Romney’s status as not only rich but super-duper-ice-cream-scooper-rich probably hurt him — it’s clear that the priorities of the corporate elite shape and dictate the limits of American political discourse. Curbing the power of private insurers over health care, breaking up the big banks through antitrust suits, prosecuting the titans of finance who ran the American economy into the ground, protecting the rights of private-sector workers to organize unions and bargain collectively, and amending the U.S. Constitution to end the sham of “corporate personhood” weren’t about to be advanced by any candidate or campaign with any hope of actually winning the presidency or any other major office.
Which isn’t to say that elections don’t matter. When Zenger’s endorsed Ralph Nader for President in 2000 over George W. Bush and Al Gore (and I caught hell from my friends in the Democratic Party for doing so) it was reasonable to argue that there was no substantial difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Twelve years later, the difference has become a yawning gap — not because the Democrats have moved to the Left but because the Republicans have become so hard-line Right they’ve repudiated much of what they used to stand for. The aggressive Right that started in the 1930’s, in response to Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal and the huge Left-wing movement outside the electoral system that pressured the Democrats into far more radical programs than they would have adopted on their own, has proven over the decades that it’s a resilient, committed movement that has steadily grown in influence and power despite several reverses.
The modern Right survived World War II, when many of its early leaders were accused (with reason) of sedition for either passively supporting or actively opposing America’s involvement in the struggle against fascism. It survived the disgrace of its first major elected official, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), in the 1950’s. It survived the landslide defeat of its first Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, in 1964. The electoral coalition between economic libertarians committed to lassiez-faire capitalism — “freeing” the rich from all restrictions and regulations on their ability to make money, no matter how many people below them economically suffer lost jobs, decimated social safety nets, deprivation of health care and a ruined environment as a result — along with religious social conservatives and out-and-out racists came together in 1968, when Richard Nixon and George Wallace between them won 57 percent of the Presidential vote to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 — which also gave Republicans an outright majority in the Senate and, in alliance with conservative Democrats, a working majority in the House — completed the reshaping of American politics in the Right-wing image that has dominated ever since.
Since 1968 the Republicans have won seven Presidential elections to the Democrats’ five, but if anything this statistic underestimates the long-term influence the Republicans, and particularly their libertarian and social-conservative Right wings, have had over national politics. The extent to which the Republicans have been able, by holding this seemingly unlikely coalition together (if it had an honest slogan, it would be, “Get government out of the boardrooms — and into the bedrooms, where it belongs!”), to dominate American politics and push it ever farther Rightward is shown by Obama’s health care and climate-change initiatives. Obama adopted as his own a health insurance reform plan first concocted by the Right-wing Heritage Foundation and first implemented in Massachusetts by his 2012 election opponent, Mitt Romney — and he couldn’t get a single Republican to vote for the Republicans’ health care plan. He also adopted the unwieldy “cap-and-trade” alternative to a straight-out tax on carbon as a response to climate change — and he couldn’t even get enough Democrats on board to overwhelm the solid Republican opposition to what had originally been a Republican idea.
Ruling Class Isn’t a Monolith
Leftists tend to write about the “ruling class” or the “corporate elite” or some such term as if it were a monolith. It isn’t. Its members may be united on the need to preserve capitalism in general and their fortunes in particular, and beginning in the early 1970’s they moved pretty much in lock-step away from the relative class peace of the 1940’s and 1950’s towards a more aggressive stance to drive down wages, eliminate “burdensome” government regulations and drive organized labor out of existence. But there’s a world of difference between relatively enlightened capitalists like Warren Buffett and George Soros on one side and libertarian maniacs like the Koch brothers on the other. Indeed, one of the most dramatic developments in the ruling class in the last two decades has been the emergence of people like the Kochs who have read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (a Right-wing novel in which the world’s capitalists disappear and hide out in a mountain redoubt in Colorado until the world realizes it can’t do without them) and believe it.
There used to be a lot of people in the ruling class who tolerated politically populist rhetoric from politicians as long as they could be assured that the politicians who screamed “change!” the loudest on the stump wouldn’t bring it about once in office. No more. As Richard Eskow wrote in a September 19 blog post on ourfuture.org, not only do the Right-wing radicals in the ruling class want even more of the nation’s wealth and income than they have now, “they want adoration. From the looks of it, nothing short of an Roman Imperial cult — complete with their apotheosis as state deities upon their death — would satisfy them. Obama’s corporate-friendly policies, which have protected their wealth and protected them from judgment, aren’t enough. They want him to pledge his fealty on the White House steps — or they’ll destroy him.”
And if that seems like hyperbolic exaggeration from a Left-wing blogger, let’s hear it from one of the super-rich: private equity (read: “hedge fund”) manager Bob Israel. In a November 2 Los Angeles Times article, Israel explained that the reason Wall Street’s campaign donations were going overwhelmingly to Romney despite all Obama had done for them (keeping the big banks big, bailing them out with billions in taxpayers’ money, refusing to prosecute any of their executives, and not restoring any of the New Deal-era financial regulations that kept American capitalism relatively honest and healthy between the 1930’s and the 1970’s) was that Obama “has really been harassing businesses” — not in actual policy, but on the campaign trail. “The history of our country is not to hold up wealthy people as villains,” Israel said, “but as beacons, as magnets, as examples you’d want to emulate.”
Israel is a lousy historian — check out the late 19th century cartoons of Thomas Nast (whose last name contributed the word “nasty” to the English language) and his vicious caricatures of the robber barons of the time — but his attitudes, and those of the people who attended Mitt Romney’s now-notorious May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida, are indicative of many of today’s elite capitalists. The sneering contempt with which Romney attacked the “47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That — that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them,” is a good indication of the attitude of much of America’s modern-day ruling class.
GOP to People of Color and Youth: Don’t Vote!
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the mainstream media about the Republicans’ supposed dilemma after the 2012 campaign. Most of the explanations of Romney’s loss center around two facts: the demographic shifts in the American population — we’re now a younger and considerably less white country than we used to be, and in demonizing people of color in general and Latinos in particular the Republicans have allegedly shot themselves in the foot with growing segments of the electorate — and also that Obama’s people had a better “ground game”: that they worked harder and got more people knocking on doors to bring out their potential voters. So far the Republican response has been to do more of what they tried to do before the 2012 election: strike back at the growing number of younger and darker voters by preventing them from voting at all.
Just three days after the election the U.S. Supreme Court announced it’s going to take a case on whether Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is constitutional. Section 5 identifies 18 states with particularly strong histories of disenfranchising African-American voters and requires them to “pre-clear” any changes in their election laws with the federal government to make sure they don’t have a racially discriminatory effect. It was under this law that a court set aside the Virginia legislature’s attempt to impose a photo ID requirement on its voters — and that decision quite likely enabled Obama to carry Virginia in 2012. In the run-up to 2012 the Republican governors and state legislators passed photo-ID requirements, cut back on early registration and voting, and passed other laws designed to hamper youths, low-income people and non-whites from voting at all. One Republican State Senator in Pennsylvania openly boasted that the photo ID bill he introduced would enable Mitt Romney to carry the state — and it might have if a judge hadn’t temporarily set it aside.
It’s clear that for some Republicans — including the five-justice Republican majority on the current Supreme Court — the long-term, or at least medium-term, solution to the changing demographics of the U.S. electorate is to make it as hard as possible, preferably altogether impossible, for those younger, poorer and darker people to vote at all. And even if they do vote and Democrats get elected, decades of Republican ideological hegemony and the enormous power of Big Money in our elections process — made even worse by the 2010 Citizens United decision and the crushing weight of the mega-rich through super-PAC’s and so-called “social welfare” organizations that don’t even have to disclose their donors — ensure that they won’t be able to do much of anything.
Left Wills Itself Into Impotence
It also doesn’t help that the American Left has been reduced to a pitiful remnant of its former self. In the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s there were mass Left movements that put pressure on Democrats and Republicans alike and pushed them to places they otherwise wouldn’t have gone: antitrust legislation to break up the huge concentrations of corporate power; Social Security and minimum-wage legislation; acceptance of the right of workers to organize into unions and bargain collectively; effective controls on the ability of banks and other financial institutions to speculate with the 99 percent’s money; an end to racial segregation and at least the beginnings of legal and social equality for people of color, women and Queers. Now, however, the “Left” in the U.S. is a series of tiny debating societies, cut off from its roots among working-class people and centered around academe.
What’s more, it’s willed itself into impotence by consciously rejecting any effective involvement in electoral politics (which means, in the U.S. political system, participating in the Democratic Party) and adopting an insane way of governing itself based on so-called “internal democracy” and “consensus,” “non-hierarchical” or “horizontal” decision-making. This is the big reason why the big mass protest movement that arose from the economic collapse of the 2000’s was from the Right — the Tea Party — and the Occupy movement became yet another of the Left’s occasional missed opportunities that fizzled out and had virtually no long-term effect on U.S. politics at all. Unless the Left does some fundamental rethinking of these boneheaded strategic and tactical decisions — and abandons the delusion that choices of political strategy and tactics are issues of profound morality, which has led many U.S. Leftists to reject either the Democratic Party or involvement in electoral politics at all — there will never be the kind of mass U.S. Left that helped push progressive reforms through unwilling legislatures in the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s.
This only adds to the bind America faces as it comes to grips with the decline of its imperial ambitions at the hands of both nature (the ultra-wasteful fossil-fuel economy on which the U.S. built its economic and industrial supremacy is no longer sustainable) and money (as the U.S. becomes ever more reliant on foreign borrowing to keep its ultra-rich ultra-rich). Despite Obama’s two Presidential victories, America remains under the thumb of a Right-wing ideology that regards environmental protection as a luxury we can’t afford; vast inequalities of wealth and income as either the impersonal workings of “The Market” or no less than what the rich deserve; organized labor as a 20th century idea whose time has come and gone; and access to health care as a privilege, not a right. The real takeaway of 2012 is how far Right the U.S. has moved long-term — to the point where the relatively progressive platforms of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and even Richard Nixon in 1968 are far to the Left of anything any major-party Presidential candidate would dare advocate today.