The Democrats' deception and the need to build an alternative
The author is the vice-presidential candidate of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. To read more about the PSL's campaign, go to VotePSL.org.
Barack Obama has clinched the nomination of the Democratic Party. He is the first Black person to become the presidential candidate of a major party, and the first Black person to have a serious chance at becoming the President of the United States. Few thought such a day would ever come. Looking at the two last contenders for the candidacy, it is clear the Democratic Party leadership chose this year to promote a different face of their party.
It is worth reviewing the history of what is called the "Obama phenomenon." Neither a social movement, nor any record of leadership within the Black community initially catapulted Obama into the limelight.
Like Hillary Clinton, the ruling class groomed and handpicked Obama for political leadership in the recent period. Any candidate who makes it to the final stage in the selection process, from either the Democratic or Republican party, has to be completely acceptable to the chief sectors of the capitalist class and Wall Street. He first came to nationwide prominence 2004, when the Democratic National Committee tapped him to give the keynote address at that year’s convention. Displaying his message of “one America,” in which “all of us [pledge] allegiance to the stars and stripes,” he urged a vote for the Democratic ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards. Obama stole the show, and speculation immediately began that the Democrats would encourage the Illinois Senator to make a bid of his own in 2008.
Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses—an overwhelmingly white state in “middle America”—established him as a real contender. Around his campaign formed a coalition of Wall Street financiers and upper middle class liberals. As the campaign gained prominence and revealed its staying power, it absorbed most of the Black electorate. Obama’s abstract message of “change” and “hope” additionally attracted millions of young people of all nationalities, fed up with the war, the state of the economy, the neglect of the Gulf Coast, and a whole host of other policies generally associated with George W. Bush.
Although Obama’s campaign has successfully marketed his slogans to broad sectors of the population, he has routinely reaffirmed his support for the basic tenets of the capitalist establishment. In terms of his program, Obama represents politics as usual.
He has gone out of his way to support the overall foreign policies of imperialism. He promises to preserve a substantial military force in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has threatened to start a war with Iran, and pledged unconditional support to the Israeli apartheid state. He has pledged to continue the decades-old Washington policy of blockade and counterrevolution against Cuba. He has criticized Bush for being ineffective and counter-productive in stopping the leftist tide that took hold throughout Latin America during his years in office.
After a New York City court let Sean Bell’s killers go, Obama issued a statement that he “respected the verdict.” When over 50,000 Black people and their allies descended on Jena, Louisiana, to call for the freedom of six teenagers facing Jim Crow “justice,” Obama was at a fundraiser with big money backers. When his own pastor of 20 years had the temerity to point out the exploitative and racist history of this country, Obama ran as fast as he could in the other direction, and ultimately disowned him.
Obama has proven that a Black man can gain the support of the ruling class. They not only tolerate, but even encourage his campaign to take on the appearance of a social movement, as long as he consistently distances himself from actual social movements. The leading figures in the political and economic establishment have supported Obama precisely because of his appeal to Black people, youth, and large sectors of other parts of the population.
Why Obama emerged now
The Obama campaign has emerged at a moment when the U.S. ruling class is facing considerable difficulties abroad and at home. The Pentagon is immersed in two wars they appear to be unable to win, and the worsening economic situation automatically shines a light on the country’s despicable inequality. In such a moment—when huge numbers of people have become dissatisfied with the state of the country—discontent can quickly turn to protest, and protest to more militant expressions of resistance. Demonstrations, riots, and revolutions all start with fairly mundane social discontent.
The bourgeois elections have always played a critical role in channeling this discontent into acceptable avenues. In fact, the illusion of hope and change—through the peaceful and seemingly easy method of going to the ballot box—is the very purpose of the electoral cycle. It exists to create excitement, to give the appearance of debate, and to make working people feel like they have power to rid themselves of bad leaders. Without this power—say, perhaps, if Bush had proclaimed himself president for life—people would rebel immediately.
Democratic politicians like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Jimmy Carter have each played a similar role as Obama at different stages of U.S. history. They adopted certain forms and aesthetics of the left, and spoke to the genuine desires of the country’s working class. But they represented the continued rule of a social order based on imperialism and exploitation. The difference with Obama is that he is being used not to channel a vibrant left, but instead to preempt one. As such, he does not come with a package of concessions for workers or the oppressed communities.
Obama provides the best of both worlds to the ruling class. He is well within the political mainstream, but can give the impression of being the outsider. Indeed, this was his primary advantage against Hillary Clinton, who he painted as a Washington insider corrupted by years of working around lobbyists and “special interests.” This is pure demagogy. Despite all the rhetoric about making a campaign on 25-dollar donations, Obama’s campaign is financially supported by the same special interests as Clinton and even McCain.
Nevertheless, we can be sure Obama will retain a significant measure of support amongst the more progressive sectors of the population, precisely because he has a possibility of winning. This “practicality”—of winning a progressive change in the here and now—will attract those who believe that a systemic challenge is unrealistic at present.
For many Black people especially, the prospect of simply having a Black president—regardless of his politics—is enough to arouse excitement. This is perfectly justifiable. The fact that there have been so few Black elected officials in this country is a testament to the country’s deeply-rooted racism. Our campaign has absolutely no quarrel with those who have devoted their time to righting this historic wrong.
The PSL La Riva/Puryear campaign, however, is focused on exposing the systemic problems of racism and capitalism. Gentrification, rampant police brutality against Black and Latino people, the criminal neglect of the Gulf Coast, the disproportionate poverty and unemployment in oppressed communities: these phenomena are not caused by a few bad apples.
The President of the United States—regardless of who is elected—will be the manager of capitalist America. Every president in the modern era has waged some sort of war against someone, and has refused to guarantee the basic necessities of life for the majority of the population. This pattern will be repeated in this electoral cycle, regardless of the campaign promises.
Revolutionaries cannot be a tail on the kite of the Democrats. Nor can we simply criticize the available candidates and decide to do nothing. We must build an independent alternative inside the electoral process that uses every chance to intervene to bring the demands and voices from the people’s struggles. We have to speak for those locked out of the electoral system altogether. We have to engage in the electoral process in order to fight against it.
The idea of fundamental and deep change—revolution—is deeply felt by millions of working people throughout the United States. Ruling-class propaganda aims at convincing them that revolutionary change is “not possible.” The same ruling class wants the people to be involved in politics only so long as it is the harmless politics of the two-party system. Otherwise they want people to be politically apathetic, pessimistic and focus their energy on recreational activities.
Our role is to represent and reinvigorate from within the electoral arena, and in the streets, the mass movements against unemployment and for workers’ rights, for immigrant rights, against the war, and to strengthen all small community struggles being waged across the country. The aim of our campaign is to promote every victory—small and large—to analyze every setback, and above all to provide organization to our class. In short, we aim to spark the power and potential, tapped and untapped, into a united mass movement.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation is running its electoral campaign not for vanity’s sake, and not to carve out some particular niche. Our aim is to be in as many states as possible, to speak in every forum or debate we can attend, to help people see, through concrete experience, that real change is possible.
Gloria La Riva, PSL Presidential Candidate |
Eugene Puryear, PSL Vice Presidential Candidate |
Instead of a political process in which we choose the face of our oppression for the next four years, we can tear out the system root and branch. We can build a new society run by the majority of people who already do all the work. We can free all the wealth that has been hoarded by the tiny few that do nothing but sit back and get rich. This vision is what we call a revolution, and that society is what we call socialism.