It’s official: Barack Obama will run for President in 2012. Now he can start raising a billion dollars for the campaign, 25% more than in 2008. This time it is looking like there won’t even be the pretense of getting the lion’s share from small donors hoping for “change.” Not enough of them are still gullible; and, in any case, as Obama well knows, you go where the money is. In other words, you sell yourself to plutocrats and corporate “persons.” Thanks to decades of bipartisan support for the status quo and flawed constitutional jurisprudence, culminating in the 2010 Citizens’ United case, there is, as our politicians tell us (about almost everything), no alternative.
The most pernicious part of this profoundly anti-democratic notion is the view that buying elections is a form of free speech. This misunderstanding is easy enough to dismiss from a philosophical or public policy point of view. But to dispatch the idea from our political scene, it is also necessary to contend with the claim that the right to buy political influence is protected under the First Amendment. If only we could ask the pre-2008 Barack Obama, part-time professor of constitutional law, he would surely show on a dime how flawed that position is. Anybody to the left of the Federalist Society could.
Obama’s gift for beseeching plutocrats was evident from the moment he entered national politics, and since assuming office, he has given the plutocrats their money’s worth. Toadying up to Wall Street and to profiteers in the health care, energy, and warfare industries is only part of the story. Just by being there, Obama has kept at bay what would otherwise be a tide of liberal opposition to corporate predation; and, though doing nothing of consequence for their benefit – indeed, quite the contrary — he has helped keep African Americans and other peoples of color quiescent.
In spite of everything, those constituencies are loyal to a fault, and are likely to remain so until too late for the 2012 elections. If blundering into yet another quagmire doesn’t shake their faith, what will? Maybe a “bipartisan’ move against “entitlements,” but don’t count on even that. And don’t count on the working class and its allies doing for Obama and the national Democratic Party what they did for Wisconsin Democrats; not yet, anyway. Expect instead that trade union bureaucrats will channel working class rage into support for Obama and his ilk. As in the past, organized labor will do yeoman’s work for the Democrats, getting in return just what they demand – nothing!
This is why the drama this time is unlikely to register within the bowels of the Lesser Evil party. Under Obama’s aegis, Democrats will be too busy divvying up the free speech, and the Democratic base will let them do it.
Republicans will get their share of free speech too. How much depends on the extent to which that bizarre coalition of capitalist patroons, libertarians, “values voters,” and the usual fodder of right-wing political movements hang together. The prospect is not hopeless: thanks to the deep incoherence that licenses a degree of overlap among these fundamentally incompatible categories. Think, for example, of those irksome Koch brothers straddling all the camps.
Even so, it remains a mystery how that party survives; how those for whose benefit it exists coexist with the quacks and riff raff they rally to their cause. What is clear is that it would not be possible but for the unseemly greed of the ruling class.
With some exceptions, more often Democratic than Republican, the pillars of American capitalism were never much on noblesse oblige. Their forte was bourgeois pretension. Now even that has lapsed. Our plutocrats hardly care where their free speech lands, so long as the consequence is that their greed is fed. This is a bipartisan sentiment, but it is a particular danger for the GOP inasmuch as that party’s establishment is on the verge of losing control of the vehicle through which it has from time immemorial promoted the power and privilege of the titans of America’s capitalist system.
Enter the Tea Party – an out of control Frankenstein striking fear in the hearts of Republicans smart enough not to believe the more disabling parts of their “limited government” ideology. If they know how to subdue the monster they created or to keep on wielding it for their purposes, there is no sign of it to date.
This is why there is still no plausible GOP alternative to Obama on the horizon. The eventual nominee will probably be someone acceptable to the party’s patroons. But that only makes a full-fledged rebellion within Republican ranks more likely, and a Democratic victory more certain. It might even spark the long overdue end of the Republican Party, and the fulfillment of the Clintonian dream of the Democrats becoming the unchallenged party of the ruling class.
That might seem like a pipe dream today but, only two or three months ago, the popular revolt that suddenly broke out in the (formerly) industrial Midwest and elsewhere seemed far more unlikely. Republican efforts to repeal the twentieth century brought on that remarkable turn of events. The same overreaching could also lead their party to self-destruct.
It was the imminent prospect of Civil War that brought the GOP into being a century and a half ago. Since then, it has looked like the only prospect for becoming free from the duopoly system that ensued would be an impending catastrophe of comparable proportions. As Obama et. al. play Russian roulette with nuclear power, deep-sea drilling and a host of other precarious energy policies, and with the empire in decline and lashing out, there are, alas, ample prospects for impending catastrophes.
But no matter how awful the status quo is, we can only hope that we somehow stave catastrophe off. We can hope too, not unreasonably, that a non-catastrophic road to a better politics soon comes into being. This will happen if capitalist greed finally does push the Republican Party, a house divided, into a comparatively painless implosion.
That would allow Obama to complete Bill Clinton’s dream of turning the party of FDR, now besotted with corporate free speech, into the party of the class whose enmity FDR embraced. It’s a chilling thought. But at least it would put perceptions more in line with reality. It might even break the lesser evilist spell that has, for decades, stifled all semblance of progressive change.
But whatever happens on the Republican side, remember that it isn’t just money that talks. Workers and their allies can also put free speech to use — not the Kennedy-Scalia-Thomas-Alito-Roberts kind, which is in increasingly short supply for the bottom 98% plus of the population, but the genuine article. With or without an imploded GOP, bottom up democracy, not bought and paid for government, is our last, best and only hope – not just against Tea Party idiocy, but also against Obama’s paymasters and the politicians, Obama included, whom they own.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.