Obama’s Democrats: as Conventional as ever

Guy Rundle reports from Denver on why the party is ignoring the working class: anything else would mean backing up the rhetoric with real change.

‘We didn’t know what we were going to do – Barack Obama really helped us to see…’

Mike and Cheryl Fisher came on about three hours into the opening day of the Democratic National Convention. A big, beefy Indiana couple, they’d been one of hundreds of thousands of people to lose well-paid industrial jobs in the continuing slow decline of the US industrial north-east. If you had a mind to order up a ‘plain spoken working-class couple’ from central casting, they were it: tentative, understated and a little nervous addressing thousands of delegates in the cavernous auditorium of Denver’s Pepsi Centre.

Notable for being the first of the afternoon’s 40-or-so speakers not to have a polished three-minute spiel, they stood out for another reason. From the opening moment, we had heard from representatives of just about every social movement and minority group that make up the Democratic Party’s big rainbow coloured tent; the Fishers were the first people speaking as representatives of the working class, the base of tens of millions of voters who continue to make up the bulk of the party’s support.

Even more tellingly, they were speaking not of workplace struggles, of community organisation and resistance in the shifting context of American life – they were there to affirm their own helplessness prior to the intervention of Barack Obama, and how he understood their problems. They were followed by a high-level leader from the huge Service Employees International Union (SEIU) - and that was it for the working class. Next came a musician from New Orleans who spoke of ‘gathering her tribe of friends together’ when the levees broke, and making a documentary about it.

Denver is famous as the ‘mile high city’, with up to 20 per cent less oxygen reaching the blood, causing light-headedness, and the need to take regular deep breaths. You couldn’t think of a more apt place, really, for the Democratic Party in its current state to hold a Convention. With the polls continuing to show a deep hatred for the Republicans – fully two thirds of the country would like to see them gone – the Democrats have seen their lead shrink, week by week, over the past month-and-a-half as the energetic and assertive campaign that had been deployed by Barack Obama in the primaries, segues into a vague, diffident and half-hearted campaign proper, one which allowed John McCain to land a number of telling blows to bring the race to near equal.

Early thoughts that this was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Obama team – a risky but nevertheless consistent idea of running as the president presumptive, and allowing McCain to discredit himself with an increasingly desperate low politics – were corrected when the Obama campaign issued a series of half-hearted attack ads in response to the McCain team’s jaunty approach. When the McCain team released the now famous ‘celebrity’ ad comparing Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, the Democrats followed up a week later with a series of clips from John McCain’s impressive credit list of TV and movie cameos – the equivalent of yelling ‘so are you!’. When McCain, during an interview with New Age evangelist pastor Rick Warren defined ‘rich’ as anyone earning more than $5million, the Obama campaign took days to do what they should have been doing all along – accurately portraying McCain as a very rich establishment figure, with policies that would continue the squeeze on anyone earning a bit less than $100,000 a year.

Most telling was the change in Obama himself. Gone was the soaring rhetoric, the energising, if light-on-content speeches, the canny, prophetic speaking to the sense of spiritual mission which lies at the heart of American political self-conception. The candidate who reappeared was the community-activist-turned-lawyer, speaking of sensible solutions, policy wonkery, and getting boxed in on by the Republicans’ push on the resumption of offshore coastal drilling. To the dismay of many sympathetic observers, the Obama campaign was being revealed before their eyes, less as a smooth low-key process of rolling to victory by energising a base – its much-vaunted ‘new politics’ – than as the old Democrats at their worst.

Despite repeated losses in exactly the same manner – Kerry ‘04, Gore ‘00, Dukakis ‘88 – the party was repeating the same smug, elitist, unassertive strategy of old, assuming that the Republican vision was simply too stupid for people to adopt, so long as the Democrats did not scare them into the arms of the right with talk of real change. Nothing symbolised this better than Obama’s casual mention that inflating one’s tyres can save up to five per cent on gas costs – and his mocking of the Republicans ‘pride in their own ignorance’ when McCain made fun of the suggestion as a hot-air energy policy.

Had Obama not noticed how offshore drilling – an utterly ineffectual response to the US’s energy problem – had been parlayed by McCain into a symbol of American promethean determination to make the earth yield bounty (even while McCain opposed drilling in the Alaskan wilderness reserve, the only worthwhile oil field left)? Had he not forethought how wimpy and lame the tyre inflation thing would sound? After a decade as a professional candidate in a polity now utterly dominated by questions of symbolism and identity, why was Obama now running so dead?

The easy answer would be that it is simply a failure of tactical judgement, but that does not explain why Democrats keep doing it. This continued failure, this terrible paralysing diffidence, is because the party traded away its core political identity that had driven the New Deal and the domestic politics of LBJ – to create irreversible social change on behalf of the vast majority of Americans.

That this occurred so effectively is because it was the one thing on which different fractions of the party could agree for different reasons. The right of the party wanted the Democrats to become, effectively, the new Republicans, championing free trade, the creative destruction of markets, with a very partial welfare net (much of it outsourced). The centre was convinced that whatever policies were adopted, the old language of class, equality and social change could not be employed with any success. And the left had become caught up in campaigns of social liberalism – around gay marriage, affirmative action, and a whole range of other causes.

Put simply, there was so much the party didn’t want to say, didn’t want to talk about, that once the contest moved from the intra-party politics of the primaries, to the direct contestation of the other party, the whole campaign appeared to fall apart. God knows it should have been easy enough to clobber the Republicans, and accurately portray them as not only caught up in a fairly unabashed crony-capitalism, but, because of that very fact, also terrible at the general business of government. From Iraq to Katrina, and most recently its paralysed non-response to the Russian invasion of Georgia – everything suggests that the Bush administration has been less a powerful conspiracy than an alliance of various fantasies and cronyisms that found common cause – the Halliburton crowd happy to throw their lot in with the fantasies of the New American Century neocons, and so on.

For the Democrats to nail this, they would have to tell a different story, and to tell that story, they would have to talk about class and power and equality in a way that contradicts both many of their current policies, but also a now deeply ingrained political conventional wisdom that says that such talk opens them to attack. Obama, for all that he is portrayed as an ‘ultra-leftist’ is very much part of that mindset.

Indeed, it is very hard to find people at the Convention who aren’t part of that mindset. Over the past three days, as dozens of speakers have lined up to give their five-minute spiel, effectively the same speech has been repeated endlessly. It begins with a reference to the speakers’ parents – or grandparents’ – struggle on low-paid manual labour, segues into an assertion that the current speaker’s presence here today is a validation of the American dream, goes into a story about a constituent’s ghastly experience of healthcare/job loss/sub-prime failure, and ends with an endorsement of Obama as an answer to all this.

So we heard from and about the victims, and from the leaders and officers – but nothing from the missing middle, people fighting day-by-day union struggles, community struggles, and the like. But nor have we heard from the leaders an account of what has happened, and a clear alternative programme. Interestingly, one of the few who tried was Ted Kennedy, dying from cancer, who managed to roar out a bracing assertion of what the party should stand for, with references to a more inclusive citizenship and to the sort of determination which got the country to the moon. It wasn’t exactly Lenin’s arrival at the Finland station in 1917, but it was exceptional in this context for setting out a broader idea of what the party should be for, unmitigated by personal anecdote or child-like concrete illustrations.

Left presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich was another speaker who bucked the trend. Viewed by many as a nuisance – given his insistence on running an impeachment campaign against George W Bush in the most recent congressional session – he nevertheless got the Convention crowd to their feet with a ‘wake up America’ refrain. You didn’t need to agree with some of the assertions – ‘wake up America – we went into Iraq for oil, wake up America – the pharmaceutical companies took over drug pricing’ – to feel that at least an argument was being made, an argument about what had happened to the country. And when his three minutes were up, we lapsed again to the parade of anecdote and identity.

But is the Kucinich approach to politics waiting to be reborn – or the dying shout of an older politics which cannot flourish in the postmodern hall-of-mirrors? Looking around the wider spectacle of Convention Denver, it was difficult not to feel that the political carnivale was becoming a bit of a freakshow pantomime. The coalition of protest groups – or coalitions, following several splits – had promised up to 25,000 people at their protest and Denver had budgeted $50million for policing. In the end, barely a thousand protesters showed.

While some of the protests – on Guantanamo, wiretapping and the American prison system – have been focused, others have been dominated by political fantasy, such as a march by the manically energetic ultra-Maoist parties, calling for ‘communism immediately’ or, passing by the window of this Starbucks an hour ago, a several hundred-strong procession of 9/11 truthers. Faced with the need to justify their huge expenditure, the Denver police have started assigning phalanxes of dozens of cops – many on Segways – to follow marches of two dozen. ‘This is what a police state looks like’ the anarchists chant. Really? On Segways? This is what a Jacques Tati film looks like.

Much of the protest is really the dying embers of the late-Nineties anti-globalisation movement, hamstrung by its internal contradictions. The ‘behaviour guide’ for the protest convergence centre, detailed a bewildering list of self-administered regulations from the sensible – no videoing in the centre – to the self-managing stalinoid – ‘no rumours – if you have news report it through appropriate channels – no group-based arguments’ and so on.

Bizarrely, the anarchists had succeeded in creating a space that felt uniquely unfree. Where, on the street, one wondered, were the unions and the workers? Where were the Hispanics? Where were the blacks? Why were these groups so willing to invest all their political will in a party that was displaying very little of such? How have they been persuaded to subordinate themselves to a process trying to draw a politics out of such thin air?

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and is covering the US election campaign for the independent online media service Crikey.

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