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Report From Iowa


What a difference four years makes. Around this time in 2007 the race for Iowa’s pivotal Democratic Party presidential caucus was in full swing. The big national money and media focus was on the corporate-sponsored candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but John Edwards was electrifying town hall crowds across the state with populist jeremiads against the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small economic elite.  “Real progressive change” could never be achieved without “an epic fight” with the wealthy Few, he said. Edwards mocked Obama’s desire to make peace with Republicans and the business elite as “singing Kumbaya.” He criticized the future president’s promise to win such change by “sitting down at a big negotiating table” with Republicans and corporate leaders as a childish fantasy. “They’ll eat everything served,” Edwards observed.

At a debate in Des Moines, Obama responded with the language of Harvard, Wall Street and the Council of Foreign Relations. “We don’t need more heat,” he told Edwards and the world: “we need more light.” It was a warning of conservative, power-friendly policy to come in deceptive fake-progressive guise.

We know what happened. Obama triumphed in Iowa and later in the general election. Edwards’ career collapsed in personal scandal. And Obama went on to validate the disgraced politician’s forewarnings to a degree that has shocked even some of his early radical critics. With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds, its undermining of serious global carbon emission reduction at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors) too  numerous to list here, the “change” and “hope” presidency of Barack Obama has brilliantly demonstrated the power of what the radical critics Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.”

As the liberal author Bill Greider noted in a March 2009 Washington Post column titled “Obama Asked Us to Speak but is He Listening?”:  “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.  They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe.  They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” There’s lots of protection and money for the top 1 percent that owns more than a third of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of the nation’s elected officials. The “right people” do not include the record-setting 46 million Americans stuck below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty measure or the 25 million struggling with unemployment.

If ever a sitting Democratic president deserved a challenge from the left of his party in the primary elections preceding his nomination for a second term, it is Barack Obama. But there’s nothing remotely close to that in the works in Iowa– nothing except a mild effort on the part of a few Iowa progressive Democrats to elect “uncommitted delegates” to the Democratic convention. All the excited Caucus anger and energy in Iowa this time around is with the super-regressive Republicans, with their bizarre claims that corporate Democrats are totalitarian socialists and with their revolting drive to roll back American history to the McKinley administration.

Obama staffers are in the coffee shops of Iowa City and Des Moines, trying to get good numbers for a party re-coronation of Obama on the first Tuesday of January 2012. Semi-depressed volunteers trickle in and sit down across from young centrist staffers. You can hear some of the volunteers expressing “disappointment” in their president and how he is “too willing to make deals” with the GOP and business. Clinging to the fantastic notion (which they share with many on the right) that the deeply conservative chief executive is really left leaning, they seem to think these deals are contrary to the president’s supposed inner progressive essence. Some complain about how Obama’s alleged noble aims are blocked by Republicans, ignoring the fact that Obama governed towards the corporate and imperial right when he had strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

The main theme in their comments is fear – fear of the terrible Tea Party, of Rick Perry, Herman Cain and the GOP. Such is the lesser-evilist denouement of nearly three years of cringing, business-friendly right-centrist policy on the part of the politician who swept Iowa with dreamy hopes of “real [progressive] change” in the summer and fall of 2007. As usual, “the left” fears and the right hates.

At the same time, something new and exciting is afoot on the ground, sparked by the activism of grassroots activists in distant New York City’s financial district. Edwards may be political history but his last core campaign issue – the obscene wealth and power of the very rich amidst mass poverty and unemployment (it is for me an open if moot question whether or not Edwards actually cared about this problem)  – is in the national spotlight like no time in recent memory thanks to a remarkable new protest movement that targets the fortunes, greed, and influence of “the 1 percent.” It has come to the fore courtesy not of any politician, political party or public figure but of a remarkable new social protest movement that denounces the deadly wealth and power of “the 1 percent.” A recent CBS New York Times survey shows that substantially more Americans agree (43 percent) than disagree (27 percent) with the Occupy Wall Street movement’s goals.  Nearly two-thirds say American wealth should be distributed more equally. As the Democrats struggle to rally their diminished and demobilized base against literally nobody in the Iowa Caucus and the national media chases the Republican Party’s arch-plutocratic contenders across the state, the occupation movement has brought new populist energy to Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Falls, and other Iowa locations.

Numerous mainstream commentators have tried to portray the OWS as “the Tea Party of the left.” Beneath surface parallels, the analogy misses the mark on numerous key levels.  One critical difference is that OWS is truly independent of partisan and candidate-centered major-party politics.  The Tea Party phenomenon at the end of the day was all about giving the Republican Party a fake-populist makeover for the 2010 mid-term elections and (Tea Partiers hoped) 2012.  It was a re-branding exercise for the G.O.P. By contrast, OWSers are not going to be easily sucked into Democratic Party politics this year or next. The OWS “kids” get it that American “democracy” is no less crippled by the dark cloud of big money and corporate rule when Democrats hold nominal power than when Republicans do. They are taking the fight beneath parties and candidates to  the economic root of social, environmental, and political decay. They know in their bones that (to quote Howard Zinn) “it’s not about who’s sitting in the White House” (or the governors’ mansion or the congressional or state-legislative or city council office) at the end of the day. It’s about “who’s sitting in,” marching, demonstrating, occupying, and (last but not least) organizing on a day-to-day basis beneath and beyond the “personalized electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky’s term) that big money and big media stage for us every 2 and 4 years, telling us “that’s politics” – the only politics that matters. They speak for and as citizens, not politicians, who (with very rare exceptions) surrender their integrity in the name of “realism.”

I doubt that even a scandal-free Edwards on steroids could bring them back into the major party and electoral fold. Things have changed.

Paul Street (, an Iowa City resident,  is the author or numerous books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010) and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio)  Crashing the Tea Party
(Paradigm, 2011).  Street can be reached at

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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