Cockburn Gets it all Wrong on Obama

October 28, 2008 at 10:37 pm (Democratic Party, elections, libertarianism, McCain, Obama, politics, Republican Party, unions, United States, voltairespriest)

Barack ObamaI 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.


  1. modernityblog said,

    good post,

    looking up Barr, you get a flavor of his views:

    “During his tenure, Barr was regarded as one of the most conservative members of Congress.[31] In 2002, he was described as “the idol of the gun-toting, abortion-fighting, IRS-hating hard right wing of American politics”.[26] ”

    “Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, who touched off the brouhaha by delivering a keynote speech at the CCC’s national convention in June 1998, said he had “no idea” what the organization stood for.

    Those explanations wouldn’t suffice for long. An Intelligence Report investigation (see Sharks in the Mainstream, Issue 93), picked up by several network newscasts and major newspapers, made it crystal clear what the CCC was: a hate group that routinely denigrated blacks as “genetically inferior,” complained about “Jewish power brokers,” called homosexuals “perverted sodomites,” accused immigrants of turning America into a “slimy brown mass of glop,” and named Lester Maddox, the baseball bat-wielding, arch-segregationist former governor of Georgia, “Patriot of the Century.” ”

    just shows you the state of Counterpunch and Cockburn eh?

  2. Cockburn Gets it all Wrong at Republicans On Best Political Blogs said,

    […] Cockburn Gets it all Wrong 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 … […]

  3. Andrew Coates said,

    Actually it hardly matters what Cockburn says on this.

    I have barely an interest in US politics at all.

    But there is an *immense hope* growing in the world’s progressives, particularly amongst the popular masses, that Obama will get elected.

  4. Naadir Jeewa said,

    I lost respect for Cockburn around the time he started delving into climate denialism, though he has carved himself a niche in becoming an idiot-contrarian whilst maintaining a semblance of being left-wing, something that Hitchens will never be able to regain.

  5. Voltaire's Priest said,

    “Semblance” is the right word though, Naadir 😉

    Andrew – I think it does matter what the likes of Cockburn say – they’re US based “left wingers” with a profile, and as such should be called to account for their statements. It’s similar to calling out the likes of people closer to home such as John Pilger (who has also said some really out-of-order things about Obama).

  6. modernityblog said,

    I think that after Obama is elected that we’ll see barely concealed racism all around, expect plenty of nasty references to “uncle Tom”, “House boy” and “puppet of Israel” etc

  7. Voltaire's Priest said,

    It’s amazing how often you see it – and not just from the usual suspects either. I’ve been amazed by the number of friends and colleagues of mine (all of them whiteand fairly liberal) who I’ve seen in conversation making remarks like “he’s not really black”. Quite disturbing really.

  8. Starchild said,

    Bush has definitely, and disastrously, been for big government, lock, stock, and barrel, both at the expense of economic freedom and civil liberties. Obama and McCain offer more of the same, notwithstanding McCain’s suggestion in one of the debates of freezing spending on the overwhelming majority of the federal budget (would be great, if you could believe him), or Obama’s promise not to use Justice Department resources in contravention of state laws on medical cannabis (far too little, and again if you can believe him). If you’re a statist, once again the establishment party tickets offer plenty to cheer about.

  9. Extremism in defence of Capitalism - but it does make you chuckle « Shiraz Socialist said,

    […] libertarianism, voltairespriest, wankers) In my last post about the upcoming US elections, I noted Alexander Cockburn’s complimentary comment about the platform of Libertarian Party candidate for President, Bob Barr. So fascinated was I by […]

  10. Around the left this week « transform! ELPN blog said,

    […] info By Andrew Categories: Events * RIP Studs Terkel. * At least someone on the left doesn’t indulge the reverence usually afforded to Alexander Cockburn. * Ken Livingstone is […]

  11. johng said,

    Ah. So whats going on here is an attempt to prevent and stigmatise left wing criticism of Obama…in advance. Not a surprise on this site. It is true that there is a significant debate to be had about how to relate to the undoubted radicalism around the election campaign (as opposed to the campaign itself). It is true that there is significant debate to be had about the significance of the likely election result (in my view important largely because it co-incides with a crisis of capitalism). But complaining about John Pilger’s “out of order” remarks about Obama: what is this? Modernity of course is busily trying to concoct a load of rubbish about the left being racist. Have you thought of getting a job with the next administration Voltaire?

  12. modernity said,


    do you agree with Cockburn’s views?

    are you too a fan of Bob Barr (and please don’t plead ignorance, whilst it is very believable from any SWPer, I have provided links which show Barr’s views)

    is it “anti-imperialist” to support old right wing cranks like Barr cos they spout the nonsense that you like to hear?

    PS: taking of racism, what is your view of Atzmon’s open racism? were you surprised?

  13. modernityblog said,

    seems that it has started, according to HP,

    sadly, Nader and Greenstein lack any introspection to see why using racist language such as “Uncle Tom” is wrong.

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