The Theater of the Absurd

[2008 presidential election]

by A K Gupta, December 8, 2007

The presidential race is about many things: money, branding, celebrity, the media and theatrics. The one thing it's not about is politics.

Going into 2008, there are six major issues confronting the United States: the Iraq War and the "war on terror," global warming, healthcare, immigration, the deteriorating economy, and the expanding police state. Not one of them will be substantively addressed during the next year of presidential campaigning.

There will be a lot of screeching about immigration and terrorism when the general election gets underway and the Republicans play the fear and terror cards, but no intelligent discussion.

Don't look to the mainstream media for this. It will obsessively deconstruct the semiotics of hairdos and outfits, facial expressions and body language, but will skimp on discussing real policies that might address the numerous crises.

It's a theater of the absurd. Even as political issues increasingly become a question of life and death, the national stage-managed debate shrinks from them equally fast.

Look at the presidential campaign, which has turned into a two-year-long death march that began after the November 2006 elections. First was speculation over who would run. Then the contest was to secure high-profile consultants, pollsters, campaign managers, spokespeople, and bloggers, followed by jockeying for celebrity endorsements - Oprah for Obama, Chuck Norris for Mike Huckabee, the Osmonds for Mitt Romney, Bonnie Raitt for John Edwards and about half of Hollywood for Clinton.

The most ludicrous stage, a media creation, was the "money primary:" the race to connect with wealthy donors to generate the heftiest quarterly fundraising totals. In this second Gilded Age of America, a candidate must have the golden seal of the moneyed elite to be considered "serious."

Thus before voters cast a single ballot in any primary, the presidential field has been winnowed to those who could pass these hurdles. The serious Democratic candidates, as the mainstream media define it, are Clinton, Edwards and Obama.

There is a not dime's worth of difference between them. None promise a full withdrawal from Iraq by 2013. None endorse single-payer healthcare, the only real solution. All three favor unproven and corruption-prone "cap-and-trade" mechanisms to combat global warming, rather than strictly regulating pollutants at the source. All are largely quiet on immigration, trying to quadrangulate between corporate need for cheap labor, a populist storm of jingoism and the power of the Hispanic vote.

On the Republican side, the field is more open, but all the candidates are lunatics. Almost without exception they compete to show who hates immigrants the most, who will ban abortion the fastest, who will bomb Iran the fiercest, who will waterboard the most terrorists and who will stay the course in Iraq the longest.

For candidates on both sides, vision is about branding. Obama is brand hope; Clinton is brand leadership; Giuliani is brand 9/11; Huckabee is brand Christian Right; and Romney is brand whatever-red-meat-conservatives-are-feeding-on-at-the-moment.

Politics are only for damaging an opponent's brand identity. Clinton's adversaries seized on her wavering response over whether she supported driver's licenses for illegal immigrants to remind voters she has no beliefs other than what the latest polls or her biggest donors tell her. Not that the other Democrats, except perhaps Kucinich, have a coherent plan beyond cobbling together buzzwords like "enforcement" "secure borders," "guest workers" and "path to citizenship."

Edwards has turned the head of many progressive because he actually talks policy, but he's starring in a well-known role. Lacking the party machine backing Clinton, and the media hagiography illuminating Obama, Edwards packages himself as an issues man, which is the role Jerry Brown filled in the 1992 race and Howard Dean in 2004.

Among Democrats, talking politics means having to address how corporations and the upper class - the ones who fund presidential campaigns -plunder the government. In one television ad, Edwards says, "We don't have universal health care because of drug companies, insurance companies and their lobbyists in Washington, D.C." In another, he states, "Do you really believe if we replace a crowd of corporate Republicans with a crowd of corporate Democrats that anything meaningful is going to change?"

Those are strong words, but if Edwards somehow does manage to get the nomination - mainly because the party bosses quake at the thought of either a woman or Black man heading up the ticket - he will start singing the virtues of the free market. So far, issues candidates have not been nominated in the post-Watergate era. They can contend because they generate a groundswell of support, but eventually they fade as they are unable to shake enough money from the corporate tree to buy huge blocks of television advertising needed to compete.__So most candidates choose to avoid politics and concentrate on branding to create a product that fulfills emotional needs of a public that looks to shopping as the palliative for any social, emotional or spiritual ill. (Political branding is also bolstered by Hollywood and educational narratives that reduce history to the deeds of great individuals.)__The corporate media reinforce these tendencies. The rise of television has meant the triumph of advertising in presidential campaigns, as first detailed by Joe McGinniss in The Selling of the President, which analyzed the marketing of Nixon in his 1968 campaign. __The television networks, which still dominate the process, value glib sound bites over in-depth issues coverage. Analysis, for the most part, is of messaging, stage management and organizational discipline, which then become the issues.__By constantly running away from real issues, the candidates are unable to build mass support for policies that could actually make a huge difference to average Americans but which threaten vested interests. __For instance, the looming issue of 2008 is a potential recession. It's a byproduct of the subprime mortgage crisis that brokerage houses profited from handsomely but which is now dragging them down and resulting in record home foreclosures. The Federal Reserve's solution is to bail out Wall Street by sacrificing Main Street, lowering interest rates, which is cheapening the dollar, thereby sending oil prices sky high and fueling inflation.__Since the late seventies, Fed policy and most domestic legislation has been designed to keep the owning class happy. The only substantial legislation is that which increases upper crust wealth or government power.

In a head-to-head match-up, the Fortune 500 wields far more power than the 535 members of Congress. For instance, the oil industry helped kill an energy bill in the Senate that would have increased average fuel efficiency standards to 35 miles per gallon (taking until 2020 to do so, however) and rolled back $13 billion in tax cuts given to oil companies in recent years. Meanwhile, corporate America is pushing ahead with its roll-back-the-20th-Century agenda. It supposedly fears a Democratic administration would not allow everything on its wish list, so it's looking to blunt regulations on toxic agricultural waste, relax pollution controls on power plants, restrict unpaid leave for employees on family and medical emergencies, continue with devastating mountaintop mining removal, lengthen hours for commercial truckers and weaken standards for improved car roofs that lessen vehicle rollover deaths.

To hedge their bets, lobby firms are loading up on Democrats, knowing that playing both sides of the aisle is the best way to work the system. This dependence upon corporate rulers means no national politician or media outlet will admit the government is a plutocracy.

Without this admission, there can be no open political debate. Without open debate that can spur mass movements, there will be no meaningful healthcare solution because the insurance industry will block it, as it did in the first Clinton administration. There will be no action on global warming because the coal, oil and auto industries will stymie it. The only immigration "reform" will combine punitive measures with methods to ensure the flow of cheap, compliant guest workers. The police state will continue to accrue power, though perhaps slower under a Democrat than a Republican. __There is an important lesson for progressive movements. Despite the fading of the antiwar movement, the 2006 election turned on the Iraq War. But without a vocal national movement to hold their feet to the fire, the Democrats will revert to their true form, which is a pillar of the imperial state. They continue to fund the war, and many have signed on to a new war against Iran.

In 2004, many on the left muted their criticisms of the Democrats in favor of the "Anybody But Bush" movement. We can see how far that got us. Unless there is constant pressure on the Democrats and candidates are forced to discuss real issues, they will have neither the political capital nor impetus to do more than manage the foundering ship of state for the benefit of the wealthy.

A.K. Gupta is an editor of The Indypendent, a biweekly newspaper based in New York City. He is currently writing a book on the history of the Iraq War to be published by Haymarket Press. He can be reached at

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