I am posting this Guest Blog by a dear long-time friend, Judi Mirkinson. Her essay speaks to our general concerns that I would like folks to consider. It’s lengthy but poignant, and I hope it raises discussion towards the question of leadership and forging a true “People’s National Agenda.”
Jalil A. Muntaqim
Yes, it’s election time again: time to elect the president. Every four years Americans are told this is the pinnacle of our democracy. NO! The pinnacle of world democracy! The pundits will be pontificating, the billions will be flowing and the candidates will be slogging it out, drowning us with style over substance.
The US presidential elections are now endless affairs and handled almost like the World Cup or a baseball championship. The economy’s down; that means Romney is up. Romney refuses to release his tax returns: now Obama is up. Every little quote is analyzed, every stupid mistake made bigger. Sound bites abound—it doesn’t matter whether what a candidate says is actually true—people just have to listen. And after a while people begin to believe what they hear, no matter where the real truth lies.
People have a stake in believing it all and believing that voting every four years for one of the two major parties can make a difference. It’s essential that the electorate think they have a choice and a real voice in what kind of government we will have.
The New York Times, always attempting to bring more gravitas to the charade, laments: “The real issues will not be talked about, no solutions are being offered.” But the show goes on.
It’s not what one has to offer, it’s about how bad the other person is,
As the Republican speaker of the house John Boehner put it recently:
The American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney. I’ll tell you this: 95 percent of the people that show up to vote in November are going to show up in that voting booth, and they are going to vote for or against Barack Obama.
The pols and polls keep saying it’s going to be a close race. It seems rather unbelievable, given the incredible excitement generated by Barack Obama only four years ago. One would think that Obama would continue to be the most ideal choice for the corporate ruling class. In reality, he’s a right to middle of the road Democrat who’s presided over a war and militarized security state. At the same time, he’s young, he’s charismatic and he speaks of the future and an America that cares for all the people. As the first African American president, he presents an America that has overcome its history—one that is perfect for the U.S. in this new, more complex world we live in.
It’s another “demonstration election”—a concept perfected in America and now exported all over the world. Choosing among a limited range of options creates the illusion of democracy, and the illusion of real choice. No longer can the U.S. support dictatorships—even if our interests coincide with theirs. Instead it applauds people’s power, which did away with Ferdinand Marcos, replacing him with someone with the exact same class interests and relationship to the United States. Arab Spring? It’s OK as long as generals decide who will be the next government
The truth is that people, whether in the US or anywhere else, want to vote and have a voice. But what kind of choice is it when both parties represent the elite?
These elections come in the midst of economic crisis and recession. Only a year ago, the occupy movement resonated among millions of people as it highlighted the inequities of capitalism. The politician (and advertisers—always looking to sell new products) cheerfully picked up on castigating the one percent. But in reality not much has changed. The rich are getting richer: Wall Street is making bigger and bigger profits. The Democrats can conveniently blame the Republicans for not cutting taxes on the rich, but their own tax plan leaves the rich with lower taxes than any time in the past 50 years.
WHAT ABOUT THE OPPOSITION?
Practically every four years or so most of the left—what there is of it—goes into hibernation and joins the campaign of the Democratic Party. Unions devote millions of dollars to see that the Democratic candidate gets elected. During the 2008 election, thousands of progressives—ranging from liberals to those who would consider themselves anti-imperialists went to swing states to register voters and get out the vote on Election Day. If you worked for a union you were made a Democratic Party worker de facto. Leftist and even Marxist-Leninist parties were split on the need to vote for Obama. Yes, he was still running to be the head of an imperial empire, but he sounded progressive and he wasn’t McCain. And the reality of the first Black president in a nation built on slavery and racial oppression was too big a deal to overlook.
Four years later, Obama has built up a record of outrageous attacks on civil liberties, expansion of drone warfare, and the continued killings of civilians in the name of fighting foreign terrorism—all things that could not and would not be tolerated under George Bush. Yet they are all but explained away, tolerated, or just ignored under Barack Obama.
What about the third party alternative? In 2000 Ralph Nader ran on the Green Party ticket. Millions voted for him because they were disgusted with the war mongering/austerity measures enacted by the Clinton administration. The Democratic Candidate, Vice President Al Gore, won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote when the right wing Supreme Court effectively disenfranchised thousands of voters in Florida and gave the state to George W. Bush. Progressives declared: “Gore lost because of the Green Party and Ralph Nader. Never Again.” If you even think of voting for a candidate other than the Democrat, you’re told you’re throwing away your vote. And not voting—because there’s no one you want to vote for? You’re told—well then, you have no right to criticize in the future.
The truth was that Obama excited the populace in general and the left in particular. And although that excitement has dissipated to a large degree and many speak of “disenchantment,” most will still vote for Barack Obama. It’s a combination of two things. One, people still believe in his “good intentions”—they feel he’s been given a bum deal, inherited an impossible economy and was completely blocked from carrying out his more liberal agenda by an impossible and partisan Congress. Two: the specter of the Republican Party is just too much to bear.
There’s a mythology, particularly suited to American ideology, that the personality and philosophy of each candidate and subsequent office holder make the difference. For instance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is always credited with being the man who put in the new deal and ushered in the entire concept of the safety net because he was such a liberal and good guy responding to the depression. The fact that the country was on the brink of complete upheaval and that it was a period of great left wing success is completely ignored.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE? IS THERE ANY?
Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice, like Painkiller X and Painkiller Y. But they’re both just aspirin. Gore Vidal
It’s easy to say that there is virtually no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. The Republicrats, as people like to call them, serve the same interests and answer to basically the same forces. Make no mistake. We’re living in a war-mongering militaristic society, which will pursue its agenda at all costs. And both parties are firm believers in and practitioners of this agenda,
Still there are differences; they’re just not as big as they’re made out to be.
The Republicans like to paint themselves as the party of good old-fashioned values and the glory of America. They say Obama doesn’t believe in America and is willing to sell out both the middle class and the rich because he’s a socialist: “Look at his health care plan.” Their subtext: Obama isn’t even an American. (Implied in all this: whisper, whisper—he’s Black). Their bottom line? We’re for the middle class! (The real bottom line—we’re for the rich)
The message of the Democrats is that they’re the party of the future: Forward looking, diverse and for the middle class (in America, no politician talks about the working class). They point to Obama’s support for abortion and gay marriage and his stands on immigration and health care. The bottom line? We’re for the middle class! (The real bottom line—we’re for the rich but we pretend we’re not)
THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS?
On foreign policy:
No difference. Obama has fulfilled his campaign promise of intensifying the war in Afghanistan and killing Osama Bin Laden. He has also unleashed drone warfare. This use of unmanned drone warfare has far-reaching implications. The U.S. no longer speaks of collateral damage. Rather, if you happen to be unlucky and killed by a drone, you must have been a terrorist, because otherwise you would have gotten out of the way. According to the White House. President Obama personally signs off on the target list. In May, this list included a 17-year-old girl. In a speech to the nation Obama declared: “The people who are on this list are active terrorists.” So now one country can kill at will, while another has no recourse. Contrary to the mythology being put forth by the military and its apologists, countless civilians are being killed, not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Yemen and Somalia. From 2004-2011, 312 drones were deployed. 260 of those were under the Obama administration.
Despite all the death and destruction, the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. In fact, the U.S. is once again actively courting the Taliban in peace talks. Although the troops have left Iraq, tens of thousands of contractors (read mercenaries) remain and Iraq continues to be unstable.
Obama supported the military incursion into Libya and is now threatening military action in Syria. He continues to threaten the government of Iran and completely supports the regime in Israel and its continued occupation of Palestine.
The sad reality is that, like in so many Empires before, few people in the U.S. care what happens to people around the world—as long as large numbers of Americans are not being killed. So, when it comes to foreign policy, whoever is the president now has carte blanche.
On the security state: No difference.
After 9/11 the Patriot Act authorized warrantless search and seizure as well as warrantless wiretaps—if it were deemed that terrorism was involved. Lists were compiled of thousands of potential “enemies of the state,” with emphasis placed on those of Muslim descent. This resulted in the creation of huge secret database—all in the name of national security.
Under Obama the security state has expanded exponentially. Rulings and practices that might have been denounced under Bush are now accepted and often lauded as evidence of a strong executive.
Obama has not closed Guantánamo. There are still 169 detainees being held there, with 46 of them to be held indefinitely, without judicial review. And any person suspected of being a member of a terrorist organization or associated with one can be detained indefinitely as well.
The President now has the power to order the killing of anyone—including American citizens—with an executive order if he considers them a terrorist or terrorist affiliated. In September 2011 this resulted in the killing of American citizen Anwar al Awlaki. This unprecedented targeting and subsequent assassination by predator drone of Mr. Awlaki took place without trial and on foreign soil in Yemen.
Sure, the government will allow some opposition—it’s good for the image of democracy and allows people to think there is more freedom than actually exists. There are the “good demonstrators”—who stay within the lines, do lobbying work and develop more and more non-profits. But the minute things get slightly out of hand—with big rowdy street demonstrators—the state damps down with a combination of arrests, grand juries and its ever-present corporate media machine.
On taxes: no, fundamental difference. Obama talks a good game, but in reality the rich now pay fewer taxes than at any time in the last 50 years. He says he wants to end special tax cuts for those who make more than $250,000. Even if this were implemented, the over-$250,000 crowd would still have far lower tax rates than they did 10 years ago. Romney paints this as embracing socialism and vows to extend all tax cuts.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are actually paying higher taxes. This comes in the form of higher fees for everything from registering your car to transportation to sales taxes. And we get less for our buck as services are slashed, tuition goes up and up and the entire infrastructure falls apart.
There are still more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. Without them, the country’s economy would not function.
There has been a growing movement by Latinos—both documented and undocumented—for immigration reform. Latino members of Congress, such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez, have risked Obama’s wrath by consistently fighting him on the issue. Responding to this pressure and the need for Latino voters, Obama issued an executive order in June that young undocumented immigrants would no longer be deported if they had come here before age 18, had been here five years and were working or in school. This ruling could affect more than a million Latinos. At the same time Obama still supports a militarized southern border and has pursued a draconian deportation policy. The Obama administration has deported more than 400,000 people, 30% more than were deported under Bush.
Mr. Romney does not support the Dream Act (which would pave a way for undocumented young people to become citizens). He also supports English-only laws. His campaign is focusing on the issue of employment and jobs for “legal” immigrants, contending that this is the way to solve the problem. Obviously, Romney will have trouble with the Latino vote—the fastest-growing bloc of voters in the U.S.
Abortion, Gay Marriage, Women’s Health and Health Care
The Democrats support the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortions. Obama has pushed through the Affordable Care Act, which is his version of health care reform. It allows children to stay on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26, outlaws the use of preexisting conditions to deny coverage (although it does nothing to curtail the raise in rates if you do have a pre-existing condition) and allows some poor people without insurance to get lower cost insurance from insurance companies. There are at least 30 million uninsured—many of them children—so this new law will cut into that number.
Although the new health care law does expand some coverage, it does so at the expense of a single payer health care policy. Instead the Democrats opted for a plan that maintains the power of insurance companies—who of course are making huge profits off of people being sick. Most people—even those with insurance—are paying more for fewer services every year.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) continues to fund some women’s health clinics and the Affordable Care Act mandates that all employed women with health insurance must be given free access to contraception through their insurers. The AHCA does mandate that insurers cover women’s screenings including those for diabetes, HIV, and counseling about violence. Yet the Obama Administration has caved into Republican pressure on women’s health. Earlier this year HSS issued a ruling mandating that girls under 16 must get a prescription from a doctor before they can get the so-called morning after pill (previously, this pill, sometimes known as Plan B, could be bought over the counter). Obama and Katherine Sibelius, the Secretary for Health and Human Services, routinely voice their continued support for the ban on federal funds for abortions.
The Democrats now solidly support gay marriage, making it part of their 2012 platform.
The Republicans are completely against gay marriage and support the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as only between one man and one woman. But polls show that even Republicans are changing their views. Interestingly, a recent questionnaire sent by the Republican Platform committee did not even mention the subject.
The Republicans are voracious in their fight against abortion—the Pope has nothing on them. They want to roll back Roe v. Wade and leave abortion laws to the states where Republican controlled legislatures are trying (and often succeeding) in making abortion illegal and women’s health inaccessible. This despite the fact that poll after poll says that the majority of Americans support abortion and overwhelmingly support contraception. But remember. Romney has to answer to a very vocal core sector of his party made up of evangelical Christians and exemplified by the Tea Party.
The Republicans have painted the Affordable Care Act as one step on the road to totalitarian socialism. Such is the level of debate during this election.
“It’s the economy, stupid.”
The famous phrase, uttered by Clinton strategist James Carville in the 1992 election predicting a Clinton win, still dominates political thinking, and the economy is not going well. The latest news in July show that unemployment remains the same at an official 8.2 percent This probably means it is at least 12% and in some communities (youth, people of color) as high as 25%.
For the first time since the depression, real income for the middle class has declined for the past decade. 1/10,000 of families (people who make more than 7 million per year) now control over 5% of the economy, up from 1% 40 years ago.
Traditionally, a bad economy has meant disaster for the incumbent. Whether this will hold true this year is questionable. But, it’s still too soon to tell.
MONEY MONEY MONEY
It’s now predicted that the total 2012 election will cost more than 12 billion dollars (and this is a conservative estimate). More than half of that will go to the presidential race, the bulk going to negative TV and online ads. This is compared with the 5 billion spent in 2008 (over a billion for the presidential race) and is much more than Bush and Kerry spent combined for the 2004 election.
It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before. Money has always run elections. The U.S. likes to point its finger at other countries’ corruption—but it’s as corrupt here as anywhere else. In fact, the amount of money now “required” to run a campaign is at an all-time high.
Two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case called Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission. In this decision “a bitterly divided court” declared that corporations had the same rights as individuals and could not be curtailed from giving money in elections. Two months later, the Court ruled in Speechnow.org v. FEC that PACS (Political Action Committees) that did not contribute to specific candidates, parties or campaigns, could accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions and corporations.
These decisions led to the creation of what’s known as Super PACS, unleashing unprecedented waves of money. Just this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than 61 million dollars to Super PACS. In July 2012, super billionaire Sheldon Adelsan (who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s failed bid), said he was willing to give at least $100 million to defeat Obama. The right wing Koch brothers (who have contributed millions to anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage campaigns) have said they are willing to spend aver 400 million (yup, you’ve read that correctly) on the 2012 election.
As of August 1, super PACS have spent: $109,041.529—and that’s just the PACS.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, speaking before a Congressional committee in July, put it this way:
“What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: ‘you own and control the economy; you own Wall Street; you own the coal companies; you own the oil companies. Now, for a very mall percentage of your wealth, we’re going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government.’ ”
Although many cities and states are now passing law and resolutions condemning the decision, just this June the court refused to hear a challenge to their ruling
Just to give some perspective:
In April the U.S. Congress cut $38.5 billion in government spending on so-called poverty programs: housing, healthcare and the like. Yet there are no limits to what they will spend to get elected. Half of those in Congress are certified mil1ionaires: 42% of the House and 67% of the Senate. The average House freshman of 2010 had a median income of $570,000. Compare this to the $45,000 median income of all those in the U.S.
You can’t run for President if you don’t have money. And once you are the president you make even more. Obama is now a millionaire, albeit a small one. Romney is worth over $200 million dollars. If elected he will be one of the richest men ever to hold office. In fact, he’s worth more than the past eight presidents combined!
WHO FUNDS WHOM?
In 2008 the majority of Wall Street money went to Obama. They were dissatisfied with Bush, and Obama’s opponent, John McCain, was clearly not going to win. Now, it’s four years later. Obama has basically done everything they would possibly want—from the appointments of economic advisors Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geitner to the bailing out of big banks. But Romney is a rich Wall Streeter himself and favors completely unbridled capitalism and the free market. Obama? He wants a “slight” tax on corporate spending—which in the eyes of Wall Street is a slight too much. It’s also not clear at this point who’s going to win. So, the donors hedge their bets: Bank of America, one of Romney biggest supporters, gives 75% of its contributions to Romney, but at the same time is giving some of the rest of the money to Obama.
So far the money raising breaks dawn this way: A majority of Wall Street and the finance sector (outside of Goldman Sachs) to Romney. Big Oil and Energy (Exxon and GE for instance): Romney. Agribusiness and the Health Insurance Industry: Romney.
Obama is getting his money from the Tech industry and Silicon Valley, which includes Microsoft and Google, women’s groups and some media (Comcast) (although not as much as last time), Hollywood—a huge source of funds; producer Jeffrey Katzenberg just gave 2 million himself; lawyers and lobbyists, and the big labor unions. A ton of money is also being raised by gay “bundlers” (people who are the largest money gatherers). One million was raised within 90 minutes of his announcement supporting gay marriage and the money keeps coming in.
WHO VOTED? WHO VOTES AND ATTACKS ON VOTING RIGHTS
It’s hard to get a proper read on exactly what percentage of eligible voters actually voted in the 2008 election. The reigning view is that about 62% voted. So if these numbers hold and this election is split almost 50/50, that means that the president would be elected by less than 1/3 of eligible voters.
In 2008 more than one quarter of the eligible electorate was people of color. For the first time the percentage of African Americans (64.7%) and whites (66.1%) who actually voted was nearly equal. African American women had the highest voter turnout rate (68.8%).
The number of African-Americans who voted in 2008 was 15% higher than those who voted in 2004. The number of Latino voters was 28% higher.
In 2012 the Census bureau also released data that said that for the first time in U.S. history “minority’“ births outnumber white or “majority births” (Time to change the nomenclature?)
Traditionally African Americans, Latinos, and women vote Democratic. This was certainly true in 2008. Young voters also went for Obama. In fact, the only demographic group that consistently votes Republican is older white men. With these numbers, Obama’s re-election should be a foregone conclusion. So the Republican-controlled legislatures came up with a solution. Curtail voting rights once again.
A little history: The right to vote is considered one of the basic rights of citizenship and it has been one of the cornerstones of the struggle for civil rights. After the Civil War, the 15th amendment to the Constitution extended the right to vote to Black males. The backlash against this was vicious: There were decades of violence and discriminatory voting laws which included poll taxes, literacy tests, the gerrymandering of districts and the disqualification of those who had been in prison—all to prevent Black people and other people of color from voting. The fight for enfranchisement involved hundreds of thousands of people and cost hundreds of lives. It was one of the cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. The culmination of this effort came in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, which both guaranteed the right to vote and also put in place certain legal procedures to oversee individual state voting laws.
However, now there are moves to undo the VRA and once more institute fetters on voting.
In a report issued this year, the Brennan Center on Justice speculated that recent voting restrictions could affect more than 5 million voters. This in turn is more than the margin of difference in winning or losing the election. The restrictions are particularly stark in so-called swing states. In fact, 5 of 12 states considered swing states have already enacted legislation curtailing voting rights. The 19 states that have enacted laws controlling voting hold 171 (63%) of the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
Perhaps the most egregious restrictions are those that require increased documentary proof of citizenship and residency, In many places in the U.S., this is not as easy to come by as you might think, For instance, many African Americana who were born during the days of segregation did not have access to hospitals and were never issued birth certificates. Replacing lost documents can also be a bureaucratic nightmare, especially if you are poor. And the “fear factor” of being investigated as you go to vote will have an inordinate impact on Black and Latino voters.
Add to this the denial of voting privileges to anyone who has been convicted of a felony. This will affect hundreds of thousands of people, particularly Black and Latino men who are disproportionately convicted. In some states as many as 1/3 of all eligible Black men will not be allowed to vote.
How interesting that many of the states in question have experienced the highest percentages of “minority growth” in the last period of time.
When people look at this period, we’re reminded of what is known in the U.S. as the Gilded Age, the age of the Robber Barons like Carnegie and Rockefeller: the era from the late 19th century to the beginning of WW I. High unemployment, the slashing of all government services and increasing poverty exist in the midst of unbelievable wealth. The love of consumption and money is being promulgated at every turn. But the Gilded Age had socialism brewing underneath. We don’t have that yet and we don’t know exactly what a new wave will look like. The Occupy Movement has given us hope that there are stirrings once again. When the next wave of powerful mass movement hits—and it will—then elections in the U.S. will look very different indeed.
San Francisco, California