The Theater of the Absurd
[2008 presidential election]
by A K Gupta
www.zmag.org, 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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.