The Dailykos bloggers have been hammering Obama’s recent rightward shift.  One blogger, interestingly enough, even used a deep analysis of my book Education and the Cold War (regarding the differences between good and bad pragmatism) to frame his argument towards Obama’s stance on FISA.  See the article here.  This blogger (Cassiodorus) argued–again, using my book–that pragmatism is bad if it is only an attempt to achieve power within given constraints, as opposed to a good pragmatism tied to utopian visions about how society can be better.


What are your thoughts on Obama’s rightward shifts, such as his recent takes on the Supreme Court decisions or his statement that he would continue Bush’s faith-based initiatives?  To me, the faith-based thing is consistent with Obama’s long stated efforts to appeal to Evangelical moderates, which will probably blow up in his face. 

In general, I’m not too angry about Obama’s all-too-predictable rightward shift since being guaranteed the nomination, probably because I’ve grown so used to it by now (think Clinton, Gore, Kerry, etc.)  But Obama correctly feels he has the left end of the Democratic spectrum locked up, Dailykos notwithstanding, to the degree that he has a lot of latitude to move right.  I honestly don’t care much about his positions on the recent Supreme Court decisions–that’s just pandering (although the DC gun decision is rife with ironies, since conservatives who supported the decision also blow caskets when judicial activism trumps local rule on issues that favor liberals).  

That said, any move to the right by Obama on the war and foreign policy will anger me because it’s not only wrong, it’s unnecessary.  The country wants out of Iraq.  I also wish he’d frame his economic message in more populist tones.  But Obama’s no populist, so when he talks of always being a fan of free trade, he’s not lying.  If he’s looking to pander–if it’s all about votes, and, let’s face it, it’s all about votes–he should go populist.  I think it would “sell” really well right now.  Of course, Obama cares just as much about Wall Street money as he does about votes, since, rhetoric about his grassroots support aside, 55% of his funds have been donated by Wall St big wigs, including hedge fund monsters, er, I mean managers, much more than McCain.
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Obama, Niebuhr, Zizek?

April 20, 2008

On the blog that I co-edit with a number of other US intellectual historians, a compelling discussion has developed in response to a piece I posted.  It includes references to Obama’s “bitter” comments, Niebuhr’s Christian realism, and Slavoj Zizek’s interpretation of fundamentalism.  Check it out:

USIH as a Lens to Understanding the Election

Today is Super Tuesday and we are all supposed to vote for the candidate who will bring “change” to Washington.  But what kind of change is actually possible?  Democrats wistfully long for an alternative universe in which Gore or Kerry had beaten Bush, but let’s seriously consider how our world would be different:

If a Democrat had been President for the past eight years….

1. No occupation of Iraq (although they all voted for it, Democrats would probably not have taken the initiative to falsify so much intelligence) .  Some of our contributors disagree, and have claimed that 

Secretary of State Holbrooke would not even have had Colin Powell’s minimal qualms about such a war.  And think about the pressure Gore would have received from the right, who still controlled Congress (not to mention the AM radio waves).  Gore would have been forced to show his toughness, his mettle.  I think our tendency to imagine Gore would have acted differently is a superimposition of the new and improved Nobel Laureate Gore on the old politician Gore.  Also, let’s not forget that Lieberman, who is a clone of Dick Cheney on issues of foreign policy, would have been vice president.

2. Serious action on global warming
3. A more forward thinking and lucid foreign policy which better preserves American hegemony
4. Marginally increased foreign aid to the world’s poor
5. No torture of detainees or spying on Americans

How it would be the same

1. Absurd wealth concentration: 2% of the world’s population controls 50% of the wealth and 50% of the world’s population controls less than 1% of the wealth
2. Well over 1.5 billion people living on less than 1 dollar a day.
3. Occupation of Afghanistan
4. Unconditional support for Israel
5. No serious attempt to deal with the consumerism and commodification which create the industrial conditions responsible for global warming.
5. All foreign aid is given out through the same, horrible USAID.
6. We continue to pursue free trade policies that manufacture poverty

This is just a short list.  There are obviously many more items for both.  I hope these lists can illustrate that when we say this election is a nonevent, it is not to suggest that there is literally no difference between parties or candidates.  The question is one of emphasis.  Most Americans believe the differences listed above are VERY important.  Indeed, they are all that matters, as to address problems on the bottom list is “unrealistic.”

The disagreement on the Left about whether or not to vote then comes down to a question of what voting means, what it entails as a personal statement and as a moral action.  Such a discussion is beyond me right now.  I am toying with some Marxist/utilitarian/deontological comparisons, but none are wholly coherent.

Rather than a philosophical analysis, how about some feedback: Are you choosing to vote or to “sit this one out?”  Why?

By Andrew Hartman

The trade issue is central to the 2008 election.  I think some Democrats have improved their outlook on trade, namely John Edwards.  However, we could all benefit from a more historical and international perspective.  

I am not against trade in its crude sense.  You have apples, I have oranges, let’s trade.  But this is not the issue.  The common claim that free trade leads to more peace and prosperity is patently false. This argument, most famously known as Thomas Friedman’s “golden arches” theory, goes like this: countries that have McDonalds, McDonalds being symbolic of a country committed to free trade, don’t bomb each other.  Of course, Friedman’s cutesy formulation—part of his sloppy apologetics for corporate globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree—was blown to bits when US-led NATO bombed the crap out of Belgrade, golden arches and all (it should be noted that US planes also bombed the Chinese Embassy and Serbian television during that war).  But regardless of the Belgrade bombings, Friedman is easily unmasked as a charlatan with no concept of international economic history, which would be fine if he wasn’t so damn influential.

Let’s momentarily ignore the domestic consequences of free trade—NAFTA—and instead look at its international history, focusing on the nineteenth century.  In this larger historical context, free trade should be thought of as a euphemism for unfettered capitalistic expansion, which has also been called imperialism, or globalization (pick your poison).
 
Historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, in a famous essay “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” argue that a distinction between free trade and imperialism is made by those who only conceptualize empire as something formal—people who study “those colonies colored red on the map, [which] is rather like judging the size and character of icebergs solely from the parts above the water line.”  Take Britain in the 19th century, which the US now models itself after in many ways.  Throughout the nineteenth century, Britain maintained its hegemony in a vast array of regions by either informal, indirect means, or by formal, military means, which included annexations—a means usually associated with the later stages of the nineteenth century, which included the “scramble for Africa.”  As Gallagher and Robinson point out, “refusal to annex are no proof of reluctance to control.”  We need to think about US trade policy in this context, in the context of the US as an imperialist power.  This will allow us to get over the false assertion that “free” trade brings peace and prosperity, which is one of the central counters to those who critique NAFTA-like legislation for destroying the wages of American workers.

Karl Polanyi, in his epic The Great Transformation, best refutes the standard argument that a free market unleashes the forces of progress and innovation.  For him, human innovation is at its best when it is organizing new forms of protection against the intrusiveness of capitalism, when it is raising barriers against the unstoppable beast—innovative barriers like unions!   The worst element of the nineteenth century, which is now the worst element of the twenty-first century, was its crude utilitarianism—in Polanyi’s words, “the self-healing virtues of unconscious growth.”  This was the thinking behind the gold standard—the international monetary system created according to the (il)logic of a self-regulating market.  This (il)logic worked something like this: the Gold Standard was a way for each country’s accounts to balance without the heavy hand of government; a system that regulated according to the “market” rather than according to democratic processes, which, the theory went, disrupted the efficiency of the system.  But the Gold Standard system, although considered the heyday of global capitalism (until the 1990s), was inherently unstable, and is, according to Polanyi, what led to the world wars.  The shock of contracting economies led to new protective barriers, which led to imperialist expansion (overseas barriers), which in turn led to war.  Some peace and prosperity. 
 
I would suggest reading Eric Hobsbawm’s four-volume history of the modern world.  The titles alone refute the argument that “free” trade brings peace and prosperity.  1) The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (which details how the bourgeoisie came to rule European society, and eventually the world, which meant “free” trade was about to be globalized). 2) The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (this was the first heyday of global capital, the age of the Gold Standard).  3) The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (when informal empire—“free” trade—failed to take hold everywhere, formal empire stepped in).  4) The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991 (the cost of globalized capitalism… a century of war like none other). 
 
Let’s hope the 21st century proves to be more peaceful than the last.  But… no justice, no peace. 

 

By Andrew Hartman

 Every four years, those on the left debate tactics regarding the presidential election.  This year is no exception, despite the singularly poor Bush administration, which would seemingly make any Democratic administration an important reprieve.  However, not everyone is inclined to agree.  Take, for instance, Penn political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr, who recently argued in the pages of The Progressive that we on the left should “Sit Out the 2008 Election.”

Reed’s article, which argues that the Democrats as currently constituted don’t deserve our support, sparked a heated debate on a listserv I edit.  Some argued that Reed was too pessimistic in disavowing the current Democratic candidates.  I argued that Reed was essentially correct.  Here is how I framed my argument.

 

I made four basic points:

 

1)     In response to those who think Reed is too pessimistic, it should be pointed out that Reed is NOT arguing that we should expect more out of the Democratic Party.  In fact, he’s making quite the opposite point, that we should quit dedicating so much of our time, energy, and money to national election cycles, precisely because we can’t expect the Democratic Party and its candidates to pay attention to our desires.  Instead, we should focus on building a strong movement that will compel the Democrats to take our demands more seriously.  This is the only method for success, indeed, the only instances of effective social reform in US history have been the products of such movements: the Populists compelled some regulation of the new corporate behemoths at the turn of the 19th century; the CIO and other working-class organizations forced the hand of FDR, and we got the New Deal; and the vast civil rights movement shut down de jure Jim Crow.  As Reed writes in the article:” Electoral politics is an arena for consolidating majorities that have been created on the plane of social movement organizing. It’s not an alternative or a shortcut to building those movements, and building them takes time and concerted effort… [T]hat process cannot be compressed to fit the election cycle.”

It must be remembered that Reed’s audience is the left, progressives, radicals. He’s writing to those that struggle over whether it makes more sense to support the Democrats on the basis of them being superior to the alternative, the Republicans—which they undoubtedly are—or more sense to opt out of the two-party “duopoly,” as Ralph Nader has long referred to it.  It’s a question of tactics.  In the context of tactics, Reed might be wrong.  The United States is a deeply conservative country, and there is currently no real possibility for structural changes along the lines of the New Deal or Great Society minus a serious crisis.  And there’s no guarantee such a crisis would result in a leftward shift.  I think a rightward shift (democratic fascism!) is more likely.  In this context, perhaps we’re better off swallowing our pride and voting for the Democrats.  And by “our” I mean the left, what’s left of us. 

2)    This leads to my second point.  Despite the fact that Reed might be wrong tactically, this does not detract from how correct he is in terms of historical and political analysis.  If some Democratic partisans seem viscerally offended by Reed’s analysis, that’s probably because it’s spot-on.  I would suggest that partisan attachment to the Democratic Party has limited the ability of some to see the forest for the trees, to ignore the historical arc of US political history. 

The Democrats have shifted to the right since 1976, at least on issues of substance, like economic and social policy.  Now, you might argue, this makes sense since the nation itself has shifted to the right.  The Democrats have interpreted Clinton-style triangulation—tacking to the center, which has been moving to the right—as the only means to electoral success.  This is shortsighted and just plain wrong. The Democrats are locked into an electoral approach that is doomed to fail.  They’ve been cutting the rug out from under those who traditionally guaranteed them a majority, namely, unions. The triangulation approach that the party has pursued since Carter has never produced an electoral majority.  In fact, Gore and Kerry got higher percentages of the vote as the 2000 and 2004 losers than Clinton got as the 1992 winner and were very close in 1996. Minus Ross Perot, we would not have had a Democratic President since Carter (who, it must be said, was a conservative Democrat).  

3)    What is the evidence that the Democrats have shifted to the right?  Let’s examine the Clinton administration’s record in terms of economic and social policy.  Clinton is as much to blame as Reagan for the intense polarization of wealth that has grown larger than any such gap since the 1920s.  This is due largely to the fact that politicians have rewritten economic policy at the behest of corporations, who serve only one master: shareholders.  Let’s take NAFTA (1994).  This terrible piece of legislation benefited nobody other than powerful corporations, which were no longer restrained by pesky local and national laws.  NAFTA, among other neoliberal trade policies, decimated the industrial working class in the United States.  And yet, Democrats continue to ask themselves why the struggle to win in states like Ohio and even, sometimes, Michigan.  DUH!  And NAFTA has not exactly helped most Mexicans, either, made evident by the huge number of them, driven off their land, who come to the US to work in the service industry.  Wow—Lou Dobbs might have a point regarding the close connection between trade policies that benefit the filthy rich and “illegal” immigration.

After the Clinton administration oversaw trade legislation that gashed living wages, it then proceeded to sponsor the Welfare Reform Act (1996), which ripped apart the already-limited safety net for the poor.  The new safety net became the prison system.  As Reed asks us to remember, the Clinton administration was responsible for “two repressive and racist crime bills that flooded the prisons” and “the privatizing of Sallie Mae, which set the stage for the student debt crisis” and “ending the federal government’s commitment to direct provision of housing for the poor.”  Fallout from Clinton-era policy continues, including in New Orleans, as 4,500 units of low-income public housing were recently razed, to the dismay of protesters–this, in a city with the worst housing crisis in the country.

Of course, if Democratic partisans ceded me (and Reed) these arguments—which I doubt they would—they would then argue that the current crop of Democratic candidates should not be judged by the Clinton administration.  I suppose this is a decent point.  However, for the most part, nothing the front-running Democratic candidates are saying indicates they will work to reverse the horrible economic and social polices of the Reagan-Clinton-Bush era.  (John Edwards sounds pretty good on economic policy, sometimes, which has led the media to lampoon his populist message.)  Yes, all of the candidates have a plan for universal healthcare.  But none of the “big 3” remove the insurance and pharmaceutical industries from the equation, which is not much of a plan as far as I’m concerned.  On this issue, Michael Moore is on the money.

4)    For me, foreign policy is the single most important issue in US politics, the issue that everything else branches out from.  And on this issue I consider the majority of the Democrats cowardly, especially those who committed the original sin of twenty-first century politics by voting for the war in 2002.  This is unforgivable in my eyes, no matter how hard any of them now try to explain it away.  The argument that everyone was working with bad intelligence does not fly.  Not only were plenty of people (such as Joseph Wilson, Hans Blix, and Scott Ritter) showing evidence that Iraq did not have WMD, the WMD issue is a true non sequitur.  It was completely and utterly beside the point.  Iraq was not responsible for 9-11, as everyone should have understood, and did not represent a threat to the US.  Even if the Hussein government had WMD, he was not a threat to the US because his one goal was to stay in power at any cost and the quickest way to achieve the opposite would have been for him to use WMDs against the US or its allies.

 

This is the central reason why I am unequivocally against the Clinton campaign.  Also, because she is so closely tied to the foreign policy establishment that has been such a poor steward of the nation for the past 60 years, the unbreakable chain from Truman to Bush.  (The legacy of Truman is the creation of this consensus.)  The fact that Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright and Wesley Clark, among others, support Clinton’s campaign is a huge strike against her.  The so-called war on terror reads to me like the past sixty years, when the US involved itself in a number of catastrophic wars and interventions, from Korea to Vietnam to Serbia, all based on objectionable rationales.  The US needs to wake from its dreams of delusion.  It cannot and will not control what other people do at the point of a cruise missile.  This is the lesson of the twentieth century.  The other lesson is that wars have unimaginable, unintended consequences that will haunt us for decades to come.  For instance, this current war will undoubtedly contribute to a huge wave of homelessness in the next forty or fifty years, platitudes about taking care of our veterans notwithstanding.

I will only actively support a presidential candidate who unmasks the war on terror for the sham that it is.  So-called wars on amorphous entities achieve one thing: fear… which then allow the powerful to run roughshod over the rest of us, which is what the Bush administration has done, predictably.  That the Democrats feign shock and indignation over Bush administration unseemliness is laughable.  It’s as if none of them have ever picked up a history book, as if none of them had ever heard of Joseph McCarthy or Richard Nixon (not to mention Truman, who was a clever scaremonger himself).

On foreign policy, Obama has a few advantages.  Most importantly he was publicly against the war before it began.  Of course, had he been in the Senate in 2002, he might have voted alongside Clinton and Edwards, we’ll never know.  Second, Anthony Lake is Obama’s main foreign policy advisor, and he seems better than the Clinton crowd, more chastened by past US failures in Vietnam, Somalia, and Iraq.  That being said, I intend to vote for Kucinich in the primaries, when the pick-your-poison mentality of the general election does not yet apply.  In the debates, Kucinich is the only candidate (other than Ron Paul) who makes any sense on foreign policy issues.

 

In the context of presidential elections, it is important to remember the bipartisan consensus on US foreign policy.  I am one of the few people who thinks a Gore-Lieberman administration would have invaded Iraq.  Secretary of State Holbrooke would have not even have had Colin Powell’s minimal qualms about such a war.  And think about the pressure Gore would have received from the right, who still controlled Congress (not to mention the ever pervasive AM radio waves).  Gore would have been forced to show his toughness, his mettle.  I think our tendency to imagine Gore would have acted differently is us superimposing the new and improved Nobel Laureate Gore on the old politician Gore.  Also, let’s not forget that Lieberman, who is a clone of Dick Cheney on issues of substance, would have been vice president.  On a broader scale, let’s remember that the Democratic Party’s record of getting the US into stupid wars is abysmal: WWI (Wilson); Korea (Truman); Vietnam (Kennedy and Johnson); Yugoslavia (Clinton).  In other words, my counter-factual about Gore and Iraq highlights the problems with the current state of the Democratic Party, and goes to the core of our discussion. 

 

Andrew Hartman

I’m thinking of putting together a panel for the HISTORIANS AGAINST THE WAR NATIONAL CONFERENCE to be held in Atlanta, Georgia, April 11-13, 2008. The title of the conference is, “WAR AND ITS DISCONTENTS: UNDERSTANDING IRAQ AND THE U.S. EMPIRE.” Anyone interested in joining me?

I think my talk would be on the development of the “stab in the back” theory in the aftermath of Vietnam, or, how conservatives came to understand that the loss in Vietnam was the fault of the antiwar movement and the Democratic Party of George McGovern. I would also discuss the implications of the “stab in the back” theory for Iraq and the current antiwar movement, such as it is.

If you would like to join me, we’d have to tie our topics together in some sort of logical fashion. The conference stresses that this is not just for academics. So, if there are any high school history teachers out there who would like to present on how to teach Vietnam from an anti-war perspective, or how to teach Vietnam while comparing and contrasting Iraq, that would be a good topic. Let me know.

Andrew Hartman
ahartma@ilstu.edu

Gravel makes some good, honest points in this interview.  It is somewhat silly, but Gravel manages to interject stinging, humorous critiques of money in American politics and the war in Iraq.  Also, Gravel does something in this interview I haven’t seen any other presidential candidate  accomplish:  he talks comfortably about homosexuality.