Getting Obama’d, or, how we fool ourselves into thinking politicians are on our side

This is the latest in an ongoing series on the question of whether voting is a worthwhile exercise. If you’re interested, you can read parts one, two, three, and four.

This week’s entry is going to be the ultimate in “dog bites man” journalism, but it’s also a point well worth making loudly and repeatedly: politicians lie.

Politicians lie, and they mislead, and they inculcate false impressions. Politicians demonize their opponents and exalt their own parties, regardless of whether this demonization or exaltation is deserved. Politicians promise something for everybody, they promise prosperity, they promise responsibility, they promise that they will stand up for you. And then they proceed to help out the wealthy and ignore their promises.

This has been the pattern since time immemorial. That it isn’t always true isn’t ultimately that relevant. It’s true often enough that politicians have a well-deserved reputation as untrustworthy. A poll conducted by the Gandalf Group last year found that only 13% of Canadians “trusted politicians to behave ethically in fulfilling their duties.” The findings shocked the polling company’s director, David Herle, who had just months before successfully managed Kathleen Wynne’s campaign for premier of Ontario.

“After over 20 years in opinion research, it comes as no surprise that politics is not the most respected profession, but the findings of this survey with respect to the extent of the cynicism is shocking,” said Herle.

“The gap between politicians and others in public life, the extent to which our politics is believed to be inherently corrupting, and the frequency with which private interests are assumed to trump the public interest are all corrosive to democracy.”

Of course, Wynne’s premiership is a prime example of why most Canadians are cynical about politicians. As I wrote in an earlier post in this series, “Strategic voting and how it helps the capitalists win“:

And so, in election after election, people who would much rather be voting for a party and platform they could wholeheartedly endorse (assuming they can find one!) find themselves reluctantly voting Liberal. We saw it as recently as last fall here in Ontario, when the cretinous (and possibly creationist) Tim Hudak scared the socialist shit out of enough Dippers to give Kathleen Wynne a completely undeserved majority…

The party of last resort for those who would stop a greater evil must offer something to everybody – at least during campaign season. Wynne made a strong case that she was the best available progressive alternative to Hudak, and talked enough of a good game on social issues that some NDP voters felt comfortable voting for her party, while at the same time making enough reassuring noises to her Bay Street backers that they knew the fix was in. Now we’re facing an unnecessary sell-off of our public hydro utility, a continuation of damaging austerity policies, crackdowns on striking teachers’ unions – in short, exactly the type of stuff we might have expected from a PC win.

And that doesn’t even get into the whole sordid mess of the OPP bribery probe into a Sudbury byelection, a probe which led to Wynne being questioned, or lingering questions about her role in the cancellation of billions of dollars worth of contracts for unpopular gas plants in precariously Liberal ridings.

This is not to pick on Wynne – she’s just the first example who came to mind. Name any politician who’s been in any position of power for any length of time, and I guarantee that there’s some evidence of impropriety or abuse of power floating around out there.

That this stuff is relatively routine is both obvious and odious. But I don’t just want to dwell on run-of-the-mill political duplicity, graft, and corruption. Today I’d like to focus on a special kind of electoral betrayal. I call it the Obama.

Now, Barack Obama was not the first politician to pull this one off – but he did such a masterful job that I feel like he deserves to have the technique named after him, if only we can get more people associating his name with duplicity.

What Obama did was convince large numbers of people that he would be the agent of systemic change. He talked of Hope, and he talked of Change We Can Believe In. He talked about being a transformative president. He spoke in front of massive Greek columns.

Obama was incredibly vague on the details of this Change We Could Believe In, but he made one quite revealing comment on the matter of the astounding enthusiasm of his supporters:

I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.

And if you weren’t paying attention during the 2008 campaign, you won’t really get it, but that dynamic was so friggin’ real. I bought into it – and I was already a bitter old man by that point, disillusioned and convinced that politics was for crooks and liars. I thought that for sure this guy Obama was going to at least be not terrible. I thought that just maybe he’d be the president I’d always dreamed of. And so did a lot of people. It was easy to imagine him as being the guy we wanted him to be.

And then we were subjected to the last seven years.

Many times I’ve debated with myself over whether I think Obama or Bush was the worse president. There’s a strong case to be made for both, but I tend to come down on the side of Obama. After all, he normalized (and made bipartisan) many of the abuses and excesses of the Bush years, including large-scale warrantless domestic surveillance; he declined to prosecute anybody for the widespread torture of the Bush years, thus establishing a strong precedent of presidential immunity for war crimes; he embarked on a massive campaign of global warrantless execution from the sky; he didn’t put one single person in jail for the rampant illegality on Wall Street which led to the eviction of millions and the impoverishment of tens of millions; he worked with Congressional Republicans to promulgate the myth that Social Security is insolvent and that the social safety net needs to be drastically cut back; he squandered Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress (and a once-in-a-generation opportunity) and pushed through a Richard Nixon-designed health care “reform” package which pretty much only benefits pharmaceutical and insurance companies; he accomplished so many things that Republican presidents could only dream of doing.

Of course, stacked against the crimes of the Bush years, it’s hard to say who is the greater evil. But as Black Agenda Report executive editor Glen Ford aptly put it in 2012, there’s no question that Obama is the more effective evil:

He has been more effective in Evil-Doing than Bush in terms of protecting the citadels of corporate power, and advancing the imperial agenda. He has put both Wall Street and U.S. imperial power on new and more aggressive tracks – just as he hired himself out to do.

That was always Wall Street’s expectation of Obama, and his promise to them. That’s why they gave him far more money in 2008 than they gave John McCain. They were buying Obama futures on the electoral political market – and they made out like bandits.

They invested in Obama to protect them from harm, as a hedge against the risk of systemic disaster caused by their own predations. And, it was a good bet, a good deal. It paid out in the tens of trillions of dollars.

If you believe that what Wall Street does is Evil, then Obama’s service to Wall Street is Evil, and there is nothing lesser about it.

In effect, Obama pulled a massive bait-and-switch on the American people. He convinced many of them that he intended to help create a more fair, just, and equitable America. For most, Change They Could Believe In was, unsurprisingly, change for the better. That change never came. Inequality has increased exponentially. Poverty rates and incarceration rates and unemployment rates, particularly for people of colour, are still on the rise. The only class which has pretty uniformly benefitted from two terms of Obama’s rule is the super-wealthy.

The thing is, a lot of this was predictable, and was predicted by people who had been closely following Obama’s career and public pronouncements.But the Obamamania just kinda took on a life of its own. People were hungry for real change, for a better politics, for a reversal of the atrocious Bush II years. People wanted to believe in somebody. And Obama gained that trust, and he abused it.

The relevance for our situation here, in Canada, is in the context of this political moment. After nine years of languishing under Stephen Harper, a lot of people are desperate for change. A lot of people are quite rightly outraged with the direction our country has taken, from its atrocious record on the climate, to its involvement in illegal and ineffective wars, to its muzzling of government scientists, to the iron control the PMO has on every action and statement our government makes, to our completely uncritical support of the rogue regime in Israel, to our participation in sovereignty-destroying international “trade” agreements.

I’m one of those people. I would love to see Harper voted out of power this fall.

But the danger here is that it would be easy to project onto Harper’s opponents the kinds of qualities we would like them to have. This is particularly true of the still-leading-the-polls NDP, which is after all uncharted territory when it comes to federal politics. We don’t really know what an NDP government would look like – but we can imagine it, using their decades of principled opposition as a template.

The issue with that is that the closer the NDP get to power, the more they veer towards the putative “centre”. And the policies that we might like them to espouse are not necessarily the policies they actually advocate.

See for instance Alberta premier Rachel Notley’s wholehearted defence of pipelines earlier this week. A lot of Canadians feel that continued exploitation of the tar sands is a terrible idea, and because the NDP doesn’t often make a lot of noise about this issue, they may find it easy to imagine that the Dippers share their views. This is manifestly not so.

Or take something like the NAFTA-on-steroids-cross-bred-with-a-velociraptor deal which is the TPP. The deal would expose Canada to lawsuits from tens of thousands of international corporations which would aim to weaken our regulatory regime and drag us down to the level of our competitors in terms of labour and consumer safety laws. This intuitively sounds like the kind of thing that the NDP would oppose, and so many people may just assume (projecting onto the blank orange screen, so to speak) that the party is strongly against it.

But again, this isn’t so; Mulcair has carefully hedged his bets and made vague open-ended statements on the deal, when it should merit nothing but scornful condemnation from the leader of a party with such strong roots in the labour movement. Instead, all of Mulcair’s criticisms have focussed on one narrow aspect of the deal, which would end government subsidies to dairy and poultry farmers in swing ridings where the NDP hopes to be competitive.

The point here is that people who are getting Obama’d are active participants in the process. They (gullibly, credulously) buy into the vague aspirational messaging of Hope and Change, blindly believe that the party they support will do the opposite of the party they oppose. And so for anybody who has been advocating that we elect anyone but Harper, I urge you to take a look at what positions his opponents actually endorse.

I’m not saying that the NDP is going to try to pull an Obama – but the potential certainly does exist. I don’t think they’re half as progressive as a lot of leftists like to think they are, and I do firmly believe that they will serve the interests of capital nearly as faithfully as any Conservative ever did. There’s no other way to interpret their behaviour, which ultimately is the only metric by which politicians should be judged.

And so for instance last week we see that “senior NDP strategists” are anonymously leaking to the Globe and Mail that they’re actively seeking a prominent Bay Street financial-type figure to run for them, with the idea being that they need a “credible” finance minister if they win this fall. Lawrence Martin, a faithful servant of capital if ever there was one, decided to give their campaign a signal boost:

Wanted: A candidate with a strong background in economics, preferably Bay Street experience. Apply to the New Democratic Party immediately. You could be Canada’s next Minister of Finance…

The NDP is more of a natural habitat for blue-collar grunts than the Bay Street set. But given its new stature, organizers are still hopeful someone of high reputation will come forward. Former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge recently signed on as an adviser to help the new NDP government in Alberta. Though a background in high finance is not absolutely mandatory for the finance position, the NDP’s stock would shoot up with someone of similar stature.

The party’s current finance critic is Nathan Cullen, a sharp-witted retail politician with some experience in economic community development projects but not a strong financial pedigree. In that post before him was Peggy Nash. Her heavy leftist lean and labour-union background do not make her a good fit for finance. A Quebec MP, Guy Caron, has credentials as an economist but his experience as such is with a labour union. A rising star in the party is Victoria MP and Harvard law graduate Murray Rankin. He has served as national revenue critic and as a member of the standing committee on finance, but his specialty is environmental law.

If Martin’s analysis reflects his conversations with these “senior NDP strategists” – and there’s no reason to think that they don’t – then this reveals a startling insight into contemporary Dipper thinking on economics: principled leftism and support for labour are all well and good for a perennial opposition party, but if they want to be a contender, then they need somebody with extensive experience in the financial sector. The idea of a real leftist as finance minister is, apparently, laughable.

That would be, by the way, the same financial sector which has seen ballooning growth which Canadians’ incomes stagnate, which has encouraged the inflation of a massive real estate bubble in Toronto and Vancouver, which needed to be bailed out in 2008 after it overindulged in high-risk loans.

The same financial sector which has so heavily supported the Harper government, as it did the governments of Martin, Chretien, and Mulroney before him. A Mulcair government with Bay Street backing could hardly diverge from that lineage in any major way.

Or take a look at Mulcair’s speech on Bay Street extolling the NDP’s supposedly strong record of fiscal responsibility.

As Michael Laxer over at Rabble pointed out at the time, the speech was a repudiation of the economic thinking that has defined the NDP for decades:

As part of Tom Mulcair’s bid to eschew any hint of anti-capitalist radicalism on the part of his no-longer-socialist-even-in-theory New Democratic Party, he made a pilgrimage, the other day, into the heart of the Bay St. beast, Toronto’s Economic Club, to attempt to allay any remaining fears that the titans of capital may have that he might do anything at all that would meaningfully threaten their power or profits.

After touting his deeply reactionary and totally unnecessary so-called “small business tax cut” (which is not really much of a tax cut for small business at all) and prattling on about the “middle class,” promoting growth and helping the manufacturing sector, he also took what seems an almost de rigueurswipe at Ontario’s first (and so far only) NDP Premier Bob Rae for having failed to balance the books while in office — in contrast, allegedly, to all those other fiscally responsible NDP provincial governments historically…

The problem is that, while there are a great many things that lefties can and should be critical of Rae’s capitulationist regime, the fact that it chose to place services and jobs ahead of balancing the budget during the economic downturn of the early 90s is absolutely not one of them.

Rae’s choice on this front was completely correct both from an economic and human point-of-view. It was a decision identical in its thinking to the demands for greater stimulus spending that led to the ill-fated coalition agreement between Jack Layton and Stephane Dion…

It is a basic part of Keynesian, progressive or social democratic economic thinking that tries to not fight recessions on the backs of the people and to stimulate recovery through spending and it stands in stark contrast to neo-liberal ideas around austerity.

Look, I want the NDP to be a good party, a party that will stand up to banker billionaires and entrenched oil interests, a party that will fight for the rights of workers and eschew corporate-friendly trade deals.

But they’re not that party.

They’re most likely gonna try to hype everybody up into believing they’re will be – because a lot of people are desperate for change these days.

But they’re not the change I can believe in. I got Obama’d once, and shame on him – but I won’t be fooled again.

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