26 October 2008
After the Debates, the Mandate of Heaven has Fallen
David McReynolds was on the staff of the War Resisters League for many years, and, as the Socialist Party candidate in 1980 and 2000, the first openly gay person to run for the U.S. presidency. He lives with two cats on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
On the eve of the election, let me post a socialist view of this race. I watched the final debate with a friend, and it was clear to both of us that Obama had won, if only because McCain had so clearly lost. Obama was calm, while McCain was an old and angry man.
Barring some remarkable shift in the polls, Obama has won the campaign, very possibly by a landslide. I've been chided with an email from a fellow radical because I don't view McCain as a war criminal, and that is an interesting part of the McCain campaign that is worth a look. War is a crime, no matter who, when, or where. It was Sherman who said, of his march through Georgia in our Civil War, "war is hell". General Omar Bradley said, after World War II, "Aggressive war is a crime. But defensive war is also a crime. The problem is sometimes we don't know what else to do".
Warriors like McCain take great risks on behalf of their nation - and in doing so they are no different from the Soviet and Nazi troops in World War II. I'm all for having a war crimes trial for those who organized the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, as we tried the Nazis at Nuremberg - but I view the men and women who fight these wars as victims of the system.
I was surprised McCain made such heavy use his time as a POW in Hanoi. There was nothing heroic about his bombing Vietnam. There was nothing heroic about his being held by the Vietnamese - it was simply McCain's bad luck that his plane was shot down. I do not question his patriotism (though one should not forget Samuel Johnson's line that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel") but I have never understood why his time in a prison in Hanoi qualified him for being President.
The sad thing about McCain is that, much as the left may hate him now, he is not a hateful man. But his campaign has profoundly diminished him, particularly the effort to paint Obama as a terrorist by his limited association with Bill Ayers, and his strange effort to portray Obama as a socialist. McCain will lose more than the election - he will lose it as a man embittered by what he has done in his effort to win.
Nor is McCain a maverick. That term - "maverick" - comes from the Maverick's of Texas, a family with a proud history of dissident left politics. The late Maury Maverick Jr., who died in 2003, a Texas politician and attorney, carried on the family tradition by defending civil rights protestors, communists, Vietnam war resisters. The Maverick family is reported to be unhappy that McCain and Palin has sought to abuse the family name.
What defines McCain is that he is a man who, in real life, knows few "Joe the plumbers" (except as he or Cindy hired them to repair plumbing in one of their many homes). McCain is a man who is part of our military caste, whose ancestry is military, and who, until he became a politician, was protected from the insecurities of working Americans who had to worry about medical care or housing. Since marrying Cindy, he has also been a man of considerable wealth. A man of many homes and cars, at ease among the very rich, rarely in contact with the middle class - or the working poor.
How out of touch McCain is with the American people has been highlighted by his repeated talk about "the American dream" being that of small business. Very few Americans have the dream of running a small business. America is a special nation, born free of the caste system of Europe, so that Americans can dream (if they are in a dreaming mood) of becoming anything, from a dentist or a lawyer, to opening a restaurant, to being President, or, for most of us, hoping for a job that has some meaning, can provide the money for a home, medical care, the chance to get kids through college, and permit a decent retirement.
It isn't that small business is bad - as a socialist I think small business is good, a kind of spice in the corporatized American nightmare. The irony is that socialists aren't the enemy of small business - capitalism is. Starbucks isn't a small business, it is a corporate monolith which has driven neighborhood coffee shops to the wall. The friendly neigbhorhood drug store has long since yielded to the corporate networks of the chain stores. The local hamburger joint has been replaced by MacDonalds or Wendys.
This was just one of the remarkable "disconnects" between the McCain campaign and the American reality. It is easy for a socialist to see that when McCain warns the broad public that Obama will increase taxes, he is really warning the very rich that the tax breaks they didn't need in the first place will be taken away and that those making less than $250,000 may get a tax break.
Watching the last debate I was fascinated with the way McCain dealt with the Colombian trade deal. When Obama noted that trade unionists are being murdered in Colombia, McCain dismissed that without a rebuttal - after all, the murder of trade unionists is, for a supporter of corporations, one of the sad costs of doing business. Where McCain lamented Obama's "ties to terrorists" I wondered not only about his association with G. Gordon Liddy, who comes close to being a certifiable nut, but his whole range of casual associations with networks of right wing guys who clearly had a hand in terror in Central America.
Terrorism is, like other things, a matter of class. Palin was hesitant to label as terrorists those who bombed abortion clinics. (And of course, it was McCain's choice of Palin for the VP spot which most dramatically and fundamentally ruled him out as a serious candidate for President - if a 72 year old man with a history of cancer would choose Palin to be next in line . . . ).
I did understand the anger, the barely repressed fury, of McCain during the debate. There is, on his part, a visceral dislike of Obama. And you or I might feel this also, if we were being outspent ten to one, if the tide of money had moved from the GOP to Obama. (And that shift is part of the "Mandate of Heaven" having fallen - big money has made a choice both as to who will win, and who they want to win). And you or I might feel a certain bitterness over the bias of the media. McCain, who once counted on the media for good stories, put up curtains on the Straight Talk Express.
What worried me most about McCain's campaign was the ease with which he substituted blind patriotism for a coherent political program. The chants of the crowd of "USA, USA, USA" were too much like Germany in the early 1930's. Oddly, I didn't see a flag pin on McCain in the final debate, but the relentless "Country First" signs waving everywhere in the crowd had, as with the chants, an alarming echo of earlier times and other countries.
John Lewis had no reason to apologize when he warned that Palin was stirring the crowds in such a way they could become a mob, and violence might easily be the result. Did Palin understand this? I think McCain did, and tried too late to edge back. (It is to McCain's credit that, at least as of this writing, he has not revisited Rev. Wright).
McCain feels, as Hillary Clinton felt before him, that Obama is an empty suit, a man who speaks well but has a thin record. But the nation is angry, and disillusioned long before the financial crisis. The America of George Bush, which McCain supported uncritically until the last ten days, shamed us before the world, with torture, with the abuse of the constitution, with an unnecessary war which has cost thousands of Americans lives and tens upon tens of thousands of Iraqi lives. Bush's America is summed up with a single word - "Katrina". And now, of course, recession.
It has been an interesting time, this contradiction between an administration which has ignored the restraints of the constitution and democracy, and a media which has used the very limits of free speech to mock Bush. "We" - the opponents of Bush - have the Jon Steward show. We have the comic strips. We have the late night TV hosts. Bush has no defenders beyond talk radio and Fox News. We certainly had our share of mass demonstrations opposing the war (not that they did any good!) - Bush and Cheney could not muster a single good demonstration in support of it.
McCain plays heavily on his support from veterans - ignoring the reality of how many veterans from Iraq, from Vietnam, support Obama. As the campaign winds down we see the small crowds for McCain, and the large rallies for Palin, almost entirely white - and almost entirely working class. That fact - the support McCain still has among many white workers - is a dismal reminder of how easily the realities of class conflict can be ignored in an America which has never confronted the issue of class, and where working people can be mobilized behind flags and patriotic slogans to vote against their own interests. (It is interesting, as we watch the Palin phenomena, to realize this is the first election in memory where the head of the ticket is less popular with his own party than the candidate for Vice President).
As the Chinese used to say, when an Emperor fell, "the mandate of heaven has fallen". Surely the mandate of heaven has fallen on Bush, and taken McCain down with him. It was not simply that Colin Powell endorsed Obama, but that he went into detail about such matters as the choice of Palin, and the fear of Muslims. Nor was Powell alone (though Rush Limbaugh insisted it was all a matter of race), since a stream of conservative intellectuals has come forward to break with McCain and endorse Obama - including the son of the late William F. Buckley Jr. And of course Obama has even gotten the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune!
Night has fallen on one of the shoddier campaigns in our history. We will have to wait until day has broken to see what Obama will do, and I have serious doubts about him, which I will take up in another column. (After all, what does one expect from a member of the Socialist Party). But for now, we wait for November 4th and I suspect I am not alone in laying in a bottle of champagne.
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