WHY I WILL NOT VOTE FOR BARACK OBAMA,
and who will get my vote on ‘Super Tuesday’
Last night, over a wonderful dinner at a local Colombian eatery, I engaged in a spirited political discussion with two friends.* The relevant point of the conversation was that my friend N., who is currently an Obama supporter, is comfortable with Obama’s talk of conciliation and cooperation. (Of course, this means she had an entirely different take on our junior senator’s carefully worded praise of Ronald Reagan.) I struggled to find a metaphor to illustrate my point, and I eventually settled upon the schoolyard bully: if you are being attacked by such a bully, there’s no point in extending a hand of peace while he’s swinging for your face. You may find that you have to knock him on his ass before you can talk peace.
N.’s position was that responding to violence only begets more violence. I’m simplifying, of course, but there is some validity to N’s position, if in a general sense. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King led peace movements that used primarily non-violent means to achieve political and social victories over sociopolitical systems that didn’t hesitate to use brutal violence to perpetuate themselves. It is important to point out that these movements were largely successful because they instigated even more brutal violence from the oppressors. The idea was that witnesses of good conscience– people who had influence over the oppressors– would see the upsurge in violence and be so outraged (or at least sufficiently discomfited) that they would oppose (or withdraw support from) the mechanisms of oppression. These nonviolent campaigns chose their moments of confrontation for maximum publicity and maximum symbolic effect, and they enjoyed massive success.
There is insufficient analogy between these examples and our current political situation. First of all, let’s not forget the depth and breadth of the opposition the U.S. civil rights movement faced. The movement’s activism didn’t begin in the 60s, nor did the brutal violence and segregation that it opposed. The people who supported the oppression didn’t always do so with white sheets or shaking fists and public displays of hostility. The support for the oppression was not limited to Southern states, either, and it often took a quiet and matter-of-fact form (which could erupt into violence, as Dr. King and his supporters discovered when they brought their activism to Chicago).
Also, there is no denying that the civil rights movement’s lasting benefits to the overall psyche of the African-American community (as such) are dubious. Though many leaps and bounds were made as a result of the civil rights movement’s efforts, centuries of oppression and degradation could not be ameliorated by a few decades of very intense and wide-ranging activism. They were only the beginning phase of a multi-phase therapy for a nation, or should have been regarded as such. However, the civil rights movement– in spite of its phenomenal gains– was horribly crippled in its youth when King was assassinated. Other organizations dedicated to black self-healing and national reconciliation– such as the Black Panther Party– were also crippled or destroyed by various combinations of covert government activism and overt popular antipathy.
But let us return to the point of my metaphor versus N.’s position. Specifically, let’s examine how this point relates to Barack Obama’s campaign. The best place to proceed is from Obama’s own words. Take a look at what he said about Reagan:
I don’t want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what’s different are the times…I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.
I can see N.’s point about Obama not praising the substance of what the Reagan administration actually did. It could be that Obama is merely demonstrating respect for how Reagan sold what he actually wanted to do. If that is true, then why does Obama not make that distinction? Obama is a very effective speaker and, by all accounts, a highly intelligent person; it is doubtful that these words about Reagan were chosen carelessly. There are three basic possibilities, and there is considerable potential for overlap among them:
1. Obama really believes that Reagan’s exploits are to be admired, and he is expressing that admiration. He knows that progressives, liberals, and other people of conscience know how horrible the Reagan Revolution has been for the U.S. and the world (a small percentage of wealthy and conscience-free individuals excepted), however, and he is tailoring his words to give his potential supporters wiggle room to forgive the Reagan suck-up.
2. Obama is not enamored of Reagan’s legacy, but is savvy enough to know that Reagan has been elevated by the Right Wing Noise Machine and the corporate media into a political demigod. Obama is therefore extending an olive branch to Reagan worshippers as part of his “unity” strategy.
3. Obama really is only focusing on the method of Reagan’s message delivery.
None of these possibilities is acceptable. The obstinate, destructive, anti-democratic behavior of the GOP– especially in those few years when they held control of all three branches of the federal government– is a direct progression from the Reagan Revolution. In today’s political climate, the only reason for one to heap such praise upon anything “Reagan”– if one is also carefully avoiding criticism– is to reach out to those who still support what Reagan represented. In today’s political climate, this is akin to extending the hand of conciliation to the swinging schoolyard bully. Again, what the Bush administration has done for the past seven years is directly related to the policies and atmosphere fostered by the Reaganites. The gains of the Democrats in both houses of Congress in 2006 were primarily the result of public discontent with Republican behavior. Do we really want to put a president in office based on his promises to make peace with those who are still throwing punches at our Republic?
Now let us consider the depth of the schoolyard bully metaphor’s currency. We can begin by listening to Obama’s own words again:
As response to those words, I give you Rick Perlstein from the Washington Post:
(excerpts; read the whole thing)
The fact is, the ’60s are still with us, and will remain so for the imaginable future. We are all like Zhou Enlai, who, asked what he thought about the French Revolution, answered, “It is too early to tell.” When and how will the cultural and political battle lines the baby boomers bequeathed us dissolve? It is, well and truly, still too early to tell. We can’t yet “overcome” the ’60s because we still don’t even know what the ’60s were — not even close.
And in our archives as much as in our mind’s eye, we still record the ’60s in hazy cliches — in the stereotype of the idealistic youngster who came through the counterculture and protest movements, then settled down to comfortable bourgeois domesticity.
What’s missing? The other side in that civil war. The right-wing populist rage of 1968 third-party presidential candidate George Wallace, who, referring to an idealistic protester who had lain down in front of Johnson’s limousine, promised that if he were elected, “the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it’ll be the last one they’ll ever lay down in front of because their day is over!” That kind of quip helped him rise to as much as 20 percent in the polls.
It’s easy to find hundreds of pictures of the national student strike that followed Nixon’s announcement of the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. Plenty of pictures of the riots at Kent State that ended with four students shot dead by National Guardsmen. None I could find, however, of the counter-demonstrations by Kent, Ohio, townies — and even Kent State parents. Flashing four fingers and chanting “The score is four/And next time more,” they argued that the kids had it coming.
A President Obama could no more magically transcend America’s ’60s-born divisions than McCarthy, Kennedy, Nixon or McGovern could, for the simple reason that our society is defined as much by its arguments as by its agreements. Over the meaning of “family,” on sexual morality, on questions of race and gender and war and peace and order and disorder and North and South and a dozen other areas, we remain divided in ways that first arose after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. What Andrew Sullivan dismisses as “the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation” do not separate us from our “actual problems”; they define us, as much as the Great War defined France in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and beyond. Pretending otherwise simply isn’t healthy. It’s repression — the kind of thing that shrinks say causes neurosis.
Barack Obama claims he wants to rise above divisive politics. If he really believes he can do this in one or two terms, and without slugging the schoolyard bully, then he is too naive to sit in the Oval Office. Divisive politics didn’t come upon us out of the blue, and they have not stayed with us by accident. The GOP has spent four decades playing the politics of fear and loathing, and they show no signs of relaxing their grip on those politics. The Democratic Party, not willing to cut themselves off from their share of the corporate gravy train, exist as a nominal opposition party. They have done little more than offer tepid platitudes to a segment of the electorate that wants better but is afraid of reaching for it. Obama’s stance is not surprising, nor is its tentative effectiveness.
However, talk of hope and conciliation is not going to get us out of the hole we’re in. At risk of wielding another metaphor, we need first to stop digging. Given that the corporate and wealthy class that has enthusiastically sponsored our democracy’s decline is the same class that has approved and sponsored Obama as a candidate, my confidence in Obama’s potential as a progressive president is not very high. Worse yet, Obama (like fellow corporate-approved and media-pushed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton) has staffed his campaign with D.C. insiders whose hands are drenched in innocent blood.
That’s why I won’t be voting for Barack Obama this Tuesday. In fact, I won’t be voting for any Democrat or Republican. I’ll be picking up a Green Party ballot and voting for Cynthia McKinney. Run, Cynthia, run.
*R. was there, but she was busy entertaining and feeding Isabel, who was very tired and out at her usual bedtime, which tends to make the little one quite volatile. R. did a wonderful job with her, of course, but her contribution to the discussion was an occasional (and very helpful, under the circumstances) comic interjection.
ADDENDUM (2023 hrs): I forgot the h/t to Jonathan Schwarz for the link to the Rick Perlstein article.