Monday, September 26, 2011
I have been reading The Last Campaign: Robert F Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America by Thurston Clarke and it has proved a good antidote to the despair in US politics that has revisited us since the tea party got going and Obama seemed to lose his voice and his willingness to fight. With the Arab Spring in danger of winding down and losing its nerve, and the double dip recession long feared poised to overtake Europe and the US, these are trying times for progressives. This is particularly the case for those who feel that part of the despair comes from losing faith with the current occupant in the White House.
Clarke's book reminds you that what we lost in 1968 when RFK was assassinated, was not just the death of a charismatic politician but the end of the a good deal of faith that the system is fixable. Here was a politician prepared to take political risks. RFK presented in his last campaign a stark contrast to our present era of poll driven politicians. That is why Obama's credentials were so appealing to many of us who wanted to actually believe in the slogan hope and change--here was a politician at last who was not beholden to the corporate interests who had the capability to lead rather than follow public opinion. Accordingly, you have to be sympathetic to those calling for a third party--Matt Miller, Tom Friedman and an assorted number of left leaning moderate and highly intelligent pundits have joined the cause. The democrats seem no longer able to express the views of either the middle class or the working class. Instead they seem like their Republican colleagues way too anxious to appease the monied interests. Matt Miller for instance calls out Obama for his latest feeble gestures in the light of a deeper recession than anyone predicted:
"Our president calls himself “a warrior for the middle class” because he’s campaigning for a plan that might add 2 million new jobs next year at a time when 25 million Americans who want full-time work can’t find it."
He is right. What Miller does not acknowledge is that just that pathetic effort will face a very uphill battle in Congress by Republicans intent on giving Obama zero legislative victories before the 2012 elections. Why Miller asks do we now have a politics where mutually assured destruction seems to be the aim with the casualities are us? Career politicians eager to spring board from a career in politics to somewhere else in the culture where non corporate viewpoints don't belong? Possibly. Miller offers "three reasons"
"First, both parties’ chief aim is to win elections, not solve problems. Second, both parties are prisoner to interest groups and ideological litmus tests that prevent them from blending the best of liberal and conservative thinking. Finally, neither party trusts us enough to lay out the facts and explain the steps we need to take to truly fix things."
All these are correct but the third one to me is the most salient. No one wants to tell the truth. Truth is such an over valued concept I can hear one of the pollsters saying those who are routinely trusted nowadays with "the messaging." Truth is dangerous--besides the politicians will argue--no one believes us anyway or trusts us to tell them-- so why even bother. Instead both parties spend millions of donated dollars on PR campaigns of the poll tested kind, to massage or in some cases hide the truth. If the message is too difficult, (usually difficulty means could not be translated into an easy to read bumper sticker) it gets dropped. This is hardly news to political observers with any degree of common sense but we have reached a stage in this country where the problems can no longer be so cleverly massaged by the media spin doctors or swept under the cliched carpet. They are serious and real and they have got that way precisely because the inability to even have a discussion about them. They are not that difficult--one percent of the population has become super rich at the expense of around 90 percent of Americans. The role politicians interested in truth telling have to play is to let people know that this is the economy that third world countries have--an elite untouchable upper class with an insignificant middle and the rest of us who beg for bread crumbs from the rich. Such societies are fundamentally unstable, prone to violence and even revolution and seriously tragic places. A third party--is unlikely to change this because the underestimate the staying power of interests that are interested in creating a banana republic have played the game too long to give up to defectors from the white liberal elites who think they are especially gifted communicators. This is not about honing a message--it is about who has raw power and who can use it. It is also about having a leaders who can lead. One of the great disappointments with regard to Obama is that he had the power from those of us who gave him money so we would precisely avoid the spot he seems to have placed himself in the sense that he "owes something" to special(monied) interests. Instead of being busy forming third parties which takes a ridiculous amount of effort and time and has made more mischief for democratic progressives (think Nader) than it has helped. You need another hint--if Nader had not been on the ballot Gore would have been rightfully elected without a question and we would have avoided Iraq and the fiscal meltdown. Our focus should be on asking Obama to live up to his promises of not playing politics as usual, not playing a different role in government than when he was outside its walls. For the model he should turn to RFK 's last campaign. Constantly people questioned RFK's sincerity but Clarke's book shows that the passion for change was genuine and the evidence that he meant what he said was real. If you watch any of the footage from the campaign --including the above-- you can see there is a deep recognition that the world of 1968 needed to change from feeding a military industrial complex to one that served the poor and the marginalized. Reading Clarke's book you have a pretty good sense of the man's real desire for the country to change course and his willingness to take huge personal risks to make that happen. It was RFK's willingness to take risks that made the difference in 1968--his willingness to say things others seemed incapable of saying and his ability to empathize and analyze.
If RFK's memory means anything it should shame the mainstream media to stop playing into the sound bite culture that allows politicians to wiggle off the hook as they spout a phrase or two and do not receive follow up questions. More than anything RFK should re-inspire the play it safe democrats to stand up and lead rather than follow and that includes the pundits calling for a third party.