Campaigning on the ‘left’ but preparing to rule on the right
After the final state primaries, Barack Obama has effectively secured the Democratic nomination for the presidential election in November. The fact that the contest was between an African-American and a woman symbolises deep social changes in the US.
The two campaigns were quite different, however. Hillary Clinton arrogantly presented herself as the rightful, dynastic heir to the Democratic presidency, and she relied on a traditional, top-heavy election machine. Obama, though a Senator, has presented himself as an insurgent outsider. Massive rallies (e.g. 75,000 in Portland, Oregon) showed that he has aroused a ‘movement’, mobilising more young people and blacks than in the past (35% of primary voters compared to 29% in 2004). Many of his supporters were voting for the first time.
Obama’s grand themes have been optimism and change. He has promised to “create a new kind of politics”, to “transform this country”, and “create a kingdom right here on earth”. Will Obama deliver on the massive expectations he has aroused? For millions, he appears to be promising better conditions of life and a brighter future.
There is no joy in treading on people’s dreams. But Obama’s own statements show that he is tied to a big-business agenda. Like previous candidates (including Bill Clinton) he is campaigning on the left but preparing to rule on the right. On the housing crisis, for instance, with up to two million families now facing foreclosure, Obama’s proposals are even more limited than Clinton’s.
He advocates tax credits (of around $500) to homeowners. But he opposes a moratorium on foreclosures, a freezing of mortgage interest rates, and massive government support for distressed home-buyers. Under pressure of a worsening situation, however, he might – as president – be forced to implement more effective, emergency measures to dampen a backlash against the housing disaster.
At the start of his campaign, Obama stressed his opposition to the Iraq war (which put him ahead of Clinton who had voted for war). More recently, he has stressed that he will defend the interests of US imperialism. He promises to take a hard line against Iran. He is advocating another $30 billion of US aid to the state of Israel, and has endorsed the annexation of Arab East Jerusalem. The blockade of Cuba, he says, should continue, and he supports US military aid to the repressive Uribe regime in Colombia.
Obama boasts that a big slice of his election funds has come from small donors (giving under $200 each). But he has also collected millions of dollars from Wall Street executives and the heads of major corporations. Representatives of these power brokers are involved on a weekly basis in Obama’s campaign planning. While the grassroots movement provides the votes, representatives of the ruling elite steer Obama’s policies.
Big business candidates
In reality, November’s presidential election will once again be a contest between two big-business candidates, rival representatives of the Dem-Rep duopoly that dominates US politics. The money spent on the campaign will be phenomenal. Up until the end of April, Obama had spent $225.5 million, Clinton had spent $192 million, while McCain had spent $78.6 million – and millions more will be spent before November.
Can Obama beat John McCain in November? During the primary battle, Hillary Clinton suggested that Obama had a problem with “white working-class males”, an unscrupulous, thinly veiled reference to the race factor. Yet Obama not only won nine of the ten blackest states, he also won seven of the ten whitest. Race may still be an issue in November, but if Obama takes up economic and social issues – crucial for workers – he may well strengthen his support among white blue-collar workers.
It ought to be impossible for a Republican to win the presidency after eight disastrous years of Bush. Previously, McCain was seen as a rival to Bush, a ‘maverick’ Republican with liberal views. Since he entered the presidential race, however, McCain has swung to the right, shamelessly courting the hard-core Republican right.
He has dropped the issue of campaign finance (i.e. restricting big-business contributions). He supports making permanent Bush’s tax cuts for the super-rich. He enthusiastically supports Bush’s ‘surge’ in Iraq and advocates “fighting on to victory”. He has brutally opposed all legislative proposals to help homeowners facing foreclosure as a result of the housing crash and mortgage scams.
In short, McCain advocates more of the same. And it seems likely that Obama will win.
Is there an alternative? As in 2000 and 2004, Ralph Nader is running as an independent candidate (with the support of many of the left Greens). Nader is a radical populist, rather than a socialist, who campaigns on an anti-war, anti-corporate, and pro-worker platform. His main strength is that he implacably opposes the domination of the Democratic-Republican duopoly, rejecting the ‘lesser evil’ argument for voting for the Democrats. He attracts a significant layer of radicalised young people and workers who are looking for a real alternative.
Nader’s weakness, however, is his unwillingness to use his campaigns (in 2000 he won 2.8 million votes – 2.7%) as the launch-pad for building a political alternative. This time, Nader’s vote may well be squeezed by enthusiasm for Obama.
Mass party on the left
Nevertheless, his campaign points in the direction of what is urgently required, a mass party on the left, based on unions, community organisations, minority campaigns, etc, that would give a political voice to the disenfranchised working class. For these reasons, our sister party in the US, Socialist Alternative, advocates a vote for Nader.
November’s elections for president, Congress, and state assemblies will most likely take place before any generalised movement of the US working class. But the 44th president will face stormy times. The organic crisis of US and world capitalism will produce volcanic workers’ movements that will shatter the Dem-Rep duopoly and transform US politics. Through one route or another, the US working class will emerge as a key political force.
In the last few years there have been some important precursors of the struggles to come: the organising strikes of janitors and other low-paid service workers; the New York transit strike (2005); the explosive immigrant rights movement (May 2006); and the massive anti-racist rally (September 2007) at Jena, Louisiana. On May Day this year, moreover, all 29 of the US’s West Coast ports were totally shut down by a strike of the International Longshore Workers’ Union in protest against the Iraq war – music of the future.