I notice that I’ve already been somewhat beaten to the punch on this one by Harry’s Place, however I thought I’d add a few thoughts of my own for the sake of the debate. In the last Independent on Sunday, Alexander Cockburn, he of Counterpunch, The Nation and The First Post fame/notoriety, has an article about Barack Obama. Or rather, his is the latest in a string of articles across various publications from “celebrity” left wing journalists about why you shouldn’t support Obama in the US Presidential Election next Tuesday. This is an argument that has been had in the UK, with most of the trotskyite groups opposing Obama for various reasons (some good, some bad), and most of the social democratic/reformist left offering him one or another degree of support, with some exceptions.
Entitled “Obama, the First Rate Republican”, Cockburn’s article claims to be examining Obama on his own terms, namely that a vote for him is not merely a “stop McCain & Palin” gesture, but rather a positive vote for a political change of direction. Cockburn disputes this heavily, and he does make some worthwhile points, particularly concerning Obama’s muscular utterances around foreign policy in Pakistan and elsewhere. This looks very much like a continuance of the Bush administration’s aggressive stances towards various other nations in recent years. However, even here Cockburn chooses to ignore the fact that many of these utterances have been about hypothetical situations, such as what would happen if a government were found to have been aiding and abetting Al-Qaeda, or similar situations. Furthermore he ignores the sapping away of public will to support another war of aggression, not to mention the vitriolic hositility to such a venture that a future President Obama would encounter from within his own political party.
Cockburn then goes on to point out Obama’s wobbliness in terms of his at least partially having supported the Bush administration’s legislative moves to restrict civil liberties at home (for instance he voted in favour of warrantless wiretapping in spite of having said on a previous occasion that he opposed it). However he goes into no great detail about anything else, merely saying that Obama’s “relatively decent” stances on immigration and labour-law reform are merely there because he “has not had occasion to adjust” them as yet. He ignores the areas of health care, social security and education (on all of which the gulf between Obama and McCain is very noticeable) altogether.
But let us take one of Cockburn’s own points as our example. When he scoffs about Obama’s “relatively decent” stance on labour-law reform, what he is actually referring to is the candidate’s (and the Democratic Party’s) support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which as Eric Lee has pointed out is one of the most crucial pieces of labour rights legislation in recent US history. Certainly in terms of the private sector it could quite literally mean the difference between the rebirth of organised labour in the USA and its death, in as much as (if passed) it would bar employers from victimising workers merely for joining a union. Such protection is largely already contained within statute law in the UK, but in the US this simple reform is considered so controversial that the Democrats will have great difficulty passing it if they do not achieve their optimum target (possible) of a filibuster-proof 60 seat majority in the Senate. “Obama, McCain, Just The Same”? I don’t think so. Every major trade union in the USA supports Obama and is working for a Democratic majority in Congress, and certainly this time it isn’t just because they have nothing better to do.
On another level, Cockburn offers no thoughts about the movement of social forces underlying the election, relative to which individual policies are almost incidental. Obama’s election would, more than almost any other Democratic candidate, represent the long-overdue crushing of the barely-disguised racist “Southern Strategy” pursued by the GOP since the time of Richard Nixon. In doing so it would also represent the effective end of the Christian Right as a driving force in US governmental politics. Further, in strengthening the labour movement and doubtless emboldening other progressive forces, it would almost certainly open up political space to the left of the current Democratic Party in a way that could not feasibly happen here and now under a Republican presidency. A McCain victory on the other hand would put a Goldwater-esque figure in the White House, and one who would be beholden to the reactionary theo-politicians on the right of the GOP. Again, it is hard not to see positive reasons for backing Obama here.
Yet I think the really shocking point comes in Cockburn’s final paragraph, where he says (my emphasis):
If you want a memento of what could be exciting, go to the website of the Nader-Gonzalez campaign and read its platform on popular participation and initiative. Or read the portions of Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr’s platform on foreign policy and constitutional rights.
We will ignore Cockburn’s direction of people towards Nader, in my opinion a “little guy populist” candidate who is not actually a left-winger, and his VP candidate Matt Gonzalez, a genuine progressive who will be of little consequence due to his second-on-the-ticket position and lack of popular profile. And we will note that at least he has had the decency not to mention Green candidate and ex-Democratic congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who probably wins the prize for being the weirdest national candidate to stand on a “progressive” ticket in recent elections. Instead, let us look at “Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr”.
Prior to his (very) recent defection, Libertarian nominee Bob Barr was a Republican congressman from Georgia. He would have stood no chance of making the GOP national platform in any country-wide election, not just because of his lack of personal charisma but because his politics were so conservative as to be a vote loser in vast swathes of the country. A cultural conservative and drug warrior, his acceptance of the Libertarian Party’s platform on anything other than economic issues looks decidedly suspect. In the August/September issue of libertarian magazine Reason, David Wiegel recounts this year’s Libertarian Party convention. Barr was elected as the party’s candidate, on the sixth ballot, in the teeth of opposition from the “radical” wing, whilst leaflets circulated suggesting that the Libertarian Party should be renamed the “New Republican Party”. So quite what could possibly be so “inspiring” about this candidate who stands well to the right of McCain, I certainly have no idea.
All of this leads me to question where exactly Cockburn was going with the article. He exhibits no actual understanding of Obama’s platform, no understanding of the underlying social politics behind the election, nor indeed much comprehension of what the alternatives are. Having read his article I remain convinced that the best result for progressive politics next week would be an emphatic Obama victory and a large Democratic majority in Congress, and not just for progressives in the USA either. As for Cockburn, I just wonder whether he really knows what he’s talking about.