If we needed more evidence that President Obama is firmly committed to climbing down from the moral high ground before the 2012 election, we got a strong inkling of it when administration aides stepped down to set up the kind of Super PAC that progressives (genuinely, I hope) and Obama (very disingenuously) have been attacking as a serious threat to the rights of citizens in a democracy.
This week Obama confirmed his willingness to join the Republican Party in trashing democracy (the Grandest amongst the GOP’s many retrograde traditions) by endorsing what I would call a progressive Super PAC if that were not a contradiction in terms (former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold accused Obama of "dancing with the devil"). In 2012 Obama’s fundraising prowess was read as indicative of his grassroots appeal, and indeed, his campaign mobilised a formidable army of volunteers in addition to donors. Californians proved to be some of Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters, opening their wallets and putting shoe-leather to the pavement on his behalf.
Since then, Obama has been taking the ‘Golden State’ moniker a little too literally, and California is being treated as the Democrats’ piggy-bank as they snuffle sordidly around for cash with which to beat the Republicans, painfully aware that they need to run backed by a formidable war chest in the absence of the serious progressive principles one would expect them to arm themselves with in advance of an election. The President swoops into Silicon Valley, Marin, and Los Angeles with impressive regularity (always careful to avoid meeting anyone worth fewer than seven or eight figures), but has proved remarkably reluctant to take on progressive Californians’ priorities with the same eagerness he takes our elites’ cash.
We all remember how Obama invoked States Rights to defend discrimination against gay and lesbian couples before he at last buckled under concerted pressure (all though in fairness, our own state’s voters did bigotry a singular favour by endorsing Prop 8 in 2008). And in a rejection of California’s approach—the state has some of the nation’s toughest environmental regulations relating to pollution and emissions, and current Governor Jerry Brown, at the time Attorney General, and then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had to sue the Bush administration to put these laws into effect—Obama decided that the health of consumers and citizens (at least those of us who like our air clean, our water drinkable, our food safe and our rivers, forests and fields protected) was entirely secondary to the bottom line of corporations who fear any scrutiny that might cut into their profits. Californians, it should be remembered, rejected attempts to roll back our regulations in 2010 when Texan oil companies funded a nakedly self-interested initiative designed to neuter California’s regulations.
Time and again, Californians have rejected the creation of a parallel school system through the use of school vouchers which not too many years ago Republican interest groups put almost annually on the ballot in the hopes that we’d change our mind. While he hasn’t embraced vouchers, Obama does support the two tier system that emerges from a reliance on charter schools, and persists in his dedication to re-inventing the wheel where education is concerned instead of focussing on improving existing schools, giving teachers the support they need, and relieving students from the testing regime that substitutes rote learning for the (harder to measure) critical thinking that would do our country so much good today.
And where California’s universities have often been at the forefront of divestment from kleptocratic dictatorships, Obama has allowed record arms deals with the Saudis (who helped their authoritarian neighbours put down reform movements during 2011), refrained for an unconscionable period of time from criticising Egypt’s dictatorship as it strenuously resisted the efforts of its citizens to forge a democratic path, and has demonstrated a disturbing willingness to abuse and expand executive authority with regard to the waging of war and the detention of U.S. citizens.
And of course he had nary a word for the Occupy Wall Street movement—our country’s home-grown reform movement—which (moribund as it looks at the moment) has done more good for the cause of equality than all the President’s Speeches and all the President’s Men.
It is the perversity of our Presidential primary system, together with the Electoral College (one of the more inadequate ideas to emerge from our eighteenth century founders, and a reminder of their own distrust of democracy), which allows both the President and his would-be Republican challengers to ignore California so completely. We are the most populous state in the union, amongst the most progressive, and yet the extended primary cycle virtually disenfranchises our voters in favour of the pygmy states like Iowa and New Hampshire that are signally unrepresentative of our country in the twenty-first century.
Our prehistoric political structure allows the Republicans to wallow nostalgia for a mythical small-town America (where father, like the corporations, knows best and mother, like all good citizens, knows her place; where you can heap bigoted abuse on immigrants without worrying that any of them might be in the audience; where nobody questions the inherent goodness and patriotism of sending sons and daughters to die for liars and profiteers), and the Democrats to take California (indeed, progressives in all states) for granted in primaries and general elections alike.
Obama’s imagination and moral framework are clearly inadequate to the task of taking on the Republicans without stealing their methods—a theft which ensures that any victory for Obama will be purely pyrrhic. It is disturbing that behind the fine rhetoric which promised the reinvigoration of democracy in our country is a man of such little progressive conviction and of such small moral stature that he is not willing to trust to democracy, and is instead choosing to rely on the twisted logic of a Supreme Court that hands out favours to economic gangsters the way Newt Gingrich accuses Obama of handing out food stamps to the poor.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which obscenely equated corporations with people and money with free speech, was a serious blow to democracy and to the idea of citizenship in the United States. The silver lining then was that we had a President and a party who promised to oppose it vociferously. Obama has reneged on that promise, betrayed progressive politics in our country, and is dealing another blow to democracy.