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Interview with Paul Street, author of “The Empire’s New Clothes” (Part II)

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[Read Part I]

Vastleft: Has the experience of watching “the Obama phenomenon” changed your sense of the American left? Is the real left, however you’d define it, smaller or otherwise different from what you had thought it was?

Paul Street: No, it really hasn't. I thought Obama had more capacity to shut down what was left of "The Left" (how that phrase is thrown around irresponsibly and without specificity by the political class, both Republican and Democrat) than any of the other viable presidential candidates -- this was one of my big reasons for me (pretty far left of the Democratic Party on the whole) helping Edwards in Iowa and for thinking that Hillary was "the lesser evil" as Democratic presidential nominee. But God knows independent left-progressive movements and oppositional working class politics have been pretty damn muted for quite a long time in the U.S. -- since well before the fake-progressive Obama phenomenon went nationwide at the Fleet Center in Boston in late July of 2004. The antiwar movement was quite weak and stood down during the second George W. Bush term. Maybe we will get some movement revival as time goes on. One reason I wanted Obama to win the election was that I thought it would help citizens -- younger ones, especially -- understand that elections are not our salvation and that American Empire and Inequality, Inc., "the unelected dictatorship of money" (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson's wonderful phrase), is a richly bipartisan phenomenon. That lesson is being taken by many for the first time, and I have not given up that it could yield some radical-democratic potential and activism.

Vastleft: Do you think “the Obama phenomenon” may be a harbinger of (or prototype for) future misuse and misdirection of left-of-center energies?

IMHO, we’ve already seen a repeat, apropos of a topic discussed in your book: healthcare reform. If the Obama campaign was “fool me once” for much of the American left, “public option” was, I’d warrant, “fool me twice.”

As Bruce Dixon so aptly put it: “Like the Obama campaign itself, the public option was never more than a brand. It was a container designed to fit our hopes and dreams just well enough and just long enough to close the deal, an empty wrapper, with little or no candy inside.” And as William Grieder said, “Public Option... doesn't mean anything. The vagueness allowed anyone to fill in the blanks...."

Paul Street: Oh yes, the public option was nothing. It was a joke. The way they used it to fool the base -- and even some very smart left minds -- was quite impressive in a sinister way. A totally false and pathetic substitute for real, actual progressive health care reform on the simple single-payer model: Improved Medicare for All.

I see a lot of replay of the Bill Clinton presidency here: fake-progressive triangulation, superficial counter-cultural (he used cocaine) and insurgent imagery cloaking deeply conservative pro-business, neo-liberal policy and abandonment of the poor and working class and poor minorities... all with the dominant media idiotically portraying the president as a "man of the left" and lecturing him on the need to "steer to the center" and be careful about deficits and "big government." Where I think the Obama phenomenon went beyond Clinton was in terms of race and ethnocultural nomenclature: the way his skin color and technically Muslim name were used to cloak his standard service to the same old corporate, financial, military-imperial and (by the way) predominantly white and masculinist powers that be.

Also, Team Obama and the media were very good at making The One seem antiwar even (as I show in great detail in both of my "Obama books") he was no such thing. As you know, I use the brand metaphor more than once in the book. It’s all about advertising with these guys in charge of our political culture now; it's been this way for a long time in fact. They sell candidates and parties and "movements" (like "the Tea Party") like they sell cars and toothpaste. And the science of advertising is all about inducing us to make irrational, poorly informed choices.

Vastleft: I guess it’s not for nothing that Obama got guidance from Dan Ariely, an expert on how people can be led to make “predictably irrational” choices.

Paul Street: Oh, I saw the Obama machine at work out here in Iowa, and it was something to behold. They took the market-based micro-targeting to a new level. Their advertising operation to sell Brand Obama was historically unmatched -- quite extraordinary. Different appeals crafted for different market/electorate sectors with scary precision: they sold Obama as antiwar to campus town hippies, as a trade unionist concerned about NAFTA to labor union members, as a green to environmentalists, as an intellectual and man of deep thought to university professors, as a man of empire to militarists, as a religious centrist to independent evangelicals, etc. Edwards was out here rallying the traditional progressive troops with fighting economic populist rhetoric; Hillary was out here with huge $ squandered on catering and largesse; but Obama was out here with the Wall Street money invested in the latest and best techniques of blank-sheet image creation and niche-marketing.

As Chris Hedges has said, "Brand Obama" was designed to make us "feel good" about "our president" and the federal government even as our Treasury is looted to pay off financial uber-parasites and wreckers, even as the Pentagon budget is increased (against popular wishes), even as imperial wars expand. It's really quite horrifying when you think about it. Modern political public relations is all about the science of what Alex Carey called "Taking the Risk Out of Democracy."

I noticed that nobody out here in Iowa could really make any sense of Obama's "health reform." All these people who were gaga for brand Obama were scratching their heads and saying "what the hell is this thing about?"

Vastleft: And career liberals were precisely as inhospitable to single-payer activists as they had been to Obama skeptics during the primaries. If you questioned the “public option” agenda on the big “progressive” blogs, you were in for a world of hurt. “Public option” and candidate Obama were fundraising magnets for the top blogs and advocacy groups, and going against the grain was unthinkable and unforgivable.

Paul Street: Many fellow leftists told me that liberal friends and associates absurdly called them "racists" and "teabaggers" for having principled left criticism of the public option and/or numerous other squishy, stupid, corporate, imperial and center-right Obama policies. I think you rightly bring up financial and organizational incentives behind such unfortunate identity-politicized invective.

Vastleft: Is this sort of squandering and/or exploitation of progressive energies by putative “movement” lefties (and not just the Democratic Party itself) something new, or does it have a history?

Paul Street: It’s quite old. Nothing new. On the Democratic side, I highly recommend Lance Selfa's book, The Democrats: A Critical History (Haymarket, 2008). Selfa is a Marxist with the International Socialist Organization, and that may not some of your readers' cup of tea or coffee, but this book is very good on precisely that issue: the squandering of progressive popular movement energies by narrow electoralism. Another book I would strongly recommend, perhaps recommend more for your audience is Charles Derber, Hidden Power: What We Need to Know to Save Our Democracy (San Francisco, 2005); Derber has some excellent reflections on what he calls "The Election Trap." It’s not that we should refuse to participate in "their elections." No, make decent choices from what little (often enough) is offered but don't fall into the trap of defining full-on victory -- the goal -- just as getting or keeping your favorite of the two business parties in office and the trap of subordinating autonomous bottom-up movement integrity to top-down party calculations. The pressure must intensify, not recede, after the elections!

Vastleft: Our readership includes lefties of every self-description, including socialists and social democrats. Most of us (it’s a group blog with an open posting policy, so one size never fits all) are leaning toward emerging parties (such as the Greens) and/or writing in “None of the Above” (“NOTA”) at the polls.

Paul Street: Not sure I would call the Greens "emerging." They've been around for quite a while, with minimal consequence thanks to the winner-take-all nature of the U.S. elections system. I support a Democracy Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to fundamentally overhaul American elections in ways that would permit third and fourth parties to become relevant political and policy players. Election reforms required include proportional representation, full public financing (all private money out of public elections), a significantly shortened election season, the end of paid campaign ads, a totally different debate structure, etc. The whole elections-media-campaign and candidate set up right now is massively tilted against independent left chances at the polls. Having said that, I routinely voted (without illusion as to relevance) Green whenever I can -- as a protest vote -- and I voted for Nader in 2008. I can't personally bring myself to actually vote for Democrats, though I did decide to help out my son for Edwards (to block Obama from the left) in the Iowa Caucus season for 2007-2008. My advice of "do the voting thing for the two minutes it takes and then do the serious grassroots politics of social movement building and action" applies whether you are voting third party (as I do) or you are still holding your nose to block Republicans with Democrats.

Vastleft: So, how do we help our brothers and sisters on the left keep from getting fooled again, keep from losing the narrative on real and important policy matters and electoral decisions? In short, where do we go from here?

Paul Street: Well, I'm out of gas and you ask the most important question! I do think it is important to make sensible choices in the voting booth... I mean what sane person wants Sarah freaking Palin an old man's heartbeat away from the Doomsday Machine! But how long do those sensible choices take -- two minutes? Vote for two minutes or whatever it takes and then go do hard work -- struggle -- every day (or every day you can) on social justice, peace, and ecological salvation beneath and beyond big marches and the quadrennial election extravaganzas!

In my new book as in my previous one, I advocate (with ample supporting quotes from Zinn and Chomsky and Charles Derber and Adolph Reed Jr.) moving off investing in candidate-centered politics and more into progressive rank-and-file social movement building beneath and beyond the corporate-crafted big money big media narrow spectrum and "highly personalized electoral extravaganzas" (Chomsky) that the masters stage for us every four years, telling us "that's politics" -- the only politics that matter.

As the great radical historian Howard Zinn used to say, “the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in -- in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating -- those are the things that determine what happens.”

“We who protest the war,” Zinn wrote in the spring of 2007, “are not politicians. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable… Except for the rare few, our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ We are not politicians, but citizens.”

Vastleft: Isn’t continuing to vote for what we call “the legacy parties” in the name of “pragmatism” perpetuating the problem? Is a suave Democrat in the pocket of the military-industrial complex — one who can neutralize the left into laughable apologists for everything they’re putatively against — really such an upgrade over the Scary Republicans? Bush was unable to ravage Social Security, but in an “only Nixon can go to China” way, Obama seems well on his way to accomplishing this.

A lot of us see the Palin bogeywoman thing as an appeal to fear that empowers the Democrats to keep selling us out, presenting them — to quote Arthur Silber (paraphrasing a popular blogger) — as "2% less shitty than Pure Evil," as if that’s something we should continue to abet.

Paul Street: Well, I can't pretend I don't find the thought of Sarah Palin in the White House pretty freaking Halloween-like, but I get that argument and in fact I've made it myself more than once. It’s happening with the Tea Party obsession of MSNBC and Frank Rich, et al. the last couple of years. The liberal elites use the scary Tea Party (and Palin and Beck) to guilt us into cowering under the umbrella of Obama and the Democrats. And of course Obama, the Democrats and the whole sorry not-so-left liberal faux-progressive infrastructure are critical agents in the creation of the popular anger and activism vacuum that "the Tea Party" (I love the way that term is thrown around in the reigning media-politics culture) exploits in ugly ways.

I doubt that I could have voted Democrat in Iowa even if McCain had had a chance here in 2008 (the polling data showed he didn't and so my Nader vote was "safe"). My position on this endless left debate -- what I have in the past called "THE GREAT QUADRENNIAL INTRA-LEFTIST BLOODLETTING ON HOW TO RESPOND TO THE ABSURDLY NARROW 'CHOICES' OFFERED BY THE U.S. ELECTIONS SYSTEM" -- is to back away from the invective a bit.

I don't think it’s easy to know exactly how to respond to the corporate- and military-dominated U.S. elections system. I decided not to demonize fellow progressive folks for how they choose to respond. I don't rip the leftists who make the tactical voting choice to "block the GOP"; I get why they do that in contested states. I myself can't do it anywhere and so I vote "left" (protest) no matter what, even if the races are contested and close.

When Dems yell at me about this, I always ask them if they support significant elections reform that would permit the emergence of truly viable and vibrant political parties to the left of their party... if they would like to see a broader party spectrum that more accurately reflected the actual spectrum of opinion (overall quite left-leaning on numerous core issues, domestic and foreign). And guess what? The Dems rarely if ever support such changes, which would take away their power over "the left." So I tell them: "too bad for you and your party in contested races. If making a left/protest vote that, yes, indirectly helps the GOP is the only way I can register dissent in the voting booth under the current system and if you can't work with me and others on fundamentally overhauling this rotten election system, then... too damn bad!"

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Valley Girl's picture
Submitted by Valley Girl on

And thanks Paul Street. Excellent interview. Will be emailed to a few "lefty" friends with "I told you so". I am no political expert, but my first reaction to watching Obama was that he was arrogant and too much in love with himself. So, I found Paul's comments re: that and the Chicago machine in the first part interesting.

After I had my gut reaction, I poked around on the internet and read a lot- esp. at BAR and saw what an awful choice Obama would be. Nothing like hard evidence to back up a gut reaction!

The interview is rich and thought provoking, but just this short note for now.

okanogen's picture
Submitted by okanogen on

Excellent interview. Much to chew on. Especially "where do we go from here" which is of course the most important question. Also the Niebhur (sp?) conversation was illumninating, especially when applied to the context of what we can/should do just as citizens, not as politicians. I especially like his formulations about the 2-minute decision in the voting booth. It's true that invective should be lessened from both sides (which is not to say that criticality should be lessened), as the formulation of the 2-corporate-party system is designed by the MOTU to be as much of a lose-lose as possible for the left (as opposed to the "Left"). Short of another Paul Wellstone (so, "good" choices are possible)....

Submitted by libbyliberal on

one of money quotes for me:

Paul Street: Well, I'm out of gas and you ask the most important question! I do think it is important to make sensible choices in the voting booth... I mean what sane person wants Sarah freaking Palin an old man's heartbeat away from the Doomsday Machine! But how long do those sensible choices take -- two minutes? Vote for two minutes or whatever it takes and then go do hard work -- struggle -- every day (or every day you can) on social justice, peace, and ecological salvation beneath and beyond big marches and the quadrennial election extravaganzas!

About to go to a demonstration in NYC at Fed Plaza. Reading this helped me make up my mind. Later!

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

Thank you both for taking the time to do this. There's so much information here, may have to read it again.

btw, the last sentence, directed at Democrats who don't want to help change the system, sums so much so well:

If making a left/protest vote that, yes, indirectly helps the GOP is the only way I can register dissent in the voting booth under the current system and if you can't work with me and others on fundamentally overhauling this rotten election system, then ...too damn bad!

Submitted by racetoinfinity on

I support a Democracy Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to fundamentally overhaul American elections in ways that would permit third and fourth parties to become relevant political and policy players. Election reforms required include proportional representation, full public financing (all private money out of public elections), a significantly shortened election season, the end of paid campaign ads, a totally different debate structure, etc.

A good and rather thorough description of the democratic reforms needed. I will quote you (saying I second your views) (Paul Street), since it sums up mine very nicely. Thanks.