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In Defence of Ideology – Postscript to the US Election

November 9, 2012

So we have just had the US Presidential election. As I and most people on the left (both the real left and the US ‘liberal’ left) were predicting, President Obama won handily, and any glance at Nate Silver’s polling at all would have easily told you that. I mention this simply because we have just found out that Romney’s campaign team were so confident of winning that they actually did not write a concession speech. Such profound arrogance is hard to contemplate, particularly when even under favourable polling Romney had many less paths to the presidency than Obama had – having to win both Ohio and Florida, alongside Virginia, North Carolina and a state like Colorado or Wisconsin. Ultimately the joke is on Romney: he only won one of those states, North Carolina, and his much-delayed concession speech simply was a result of him not having one written. I have a degree of sympathy for the defeated man, as it must be crippling to one’s ego, but how is anybody so irresponsible? A fitting end to what has been an utterly terrible campaign by the Romney team.

Like most world events, what is more revealing is not the event itself but the commentary afterwards. Many pundits have come out and claimed that Obama really has no mandate, after all he only won 332 electoral votes and the popular vote (a margin of victory alien to Bush), and that if anything this was a rebuke of Obama. How anybody concludes that I am unsure. Elsewhere, on the left, there is vain hope that this actually a ringing endorsement of Obama, and that he now has the real mandate to implement his progressive agenda. Why a president wouldn’t implement as much as he can as soon as could I am unsure, but evidently Obama has his reasons (here’s one: he’s just not really a progressive).

What the 2012 election has been has been a ringing endorsement of progressives. Elizabeth Warren’s election alone is hugely important: she has been a strong advocate of the middle class family, and has written greatly about the squeezing of wealth out of American citizens, mainly by higher indirect and regressive taxes, higher property prices and lower wages. Her election is not only symbolic but demonstrative: Massachusetts elected a senator likely more progressive than Russ Feingold or perhaps even socialist Bernie Sanders (yes, the US actually has a senator who identifies as a socialist). Colorado and Washington legalised marijuana for god’s sake. People who insist America is a conservative country really do not understand how America works.

Because once one understands how America actually works, the whole system makes a lot more sense. America may be perhaps more individualistic than Western Europe, but its population by and large strongly support its many successful public programs: medicaire, medicaid, social security, planned parenthood, NPR and for a long time, before they were deliberately defunded; their universities – California in particular was once a shining beacon of university education in America; now unfortunately the system is virtually privatised. What has happened in America is that its ruling class has been particularly effective at institutionalising certain key principles friendly to business, effectively taking them off the table for political discussion. This can be perhaps attributed to the fact that, despite its widespread labour support and genuine victories for the working class, the New Deal was largely a corporate-based policy agenda, directed at resuscitating American financial power, and redirecting it into more stable and domestically productive forms.

Regardless, it was not unusual in the 1950s to regard both American parties as two factions of the “business party”, as Noam Chomsky does now. Yes, there has been genuine competition between Republicans and Democrats, but there has always been direct competition between elites; see Yeltsin vs Zyuganov. In fact, just see Russia. One lesson I make sure to repeat to myself daily is that how we judge Russia says a lot about how we should judge ourselves. Carrying on, American political parties have never particularly been about ideology in the first place. The Democratic party certainly has taken certain trends here and there, and particularly it became the party of social liberalism since the 1960s, but its particular commitment to championing the poor has been variable, to say the least. Undoubtedly, LBJ’s “Great Society” programs helped many Americans out of poverty, particularly in the South, but this didn’t exactly reflect a challenge to the business establishment; at least nowhere near the extent that popular culture, the hippie movement and developments within Europe, and particularly France did. Helping the poor isn’t exactly incongruous with championing corporate power: remember that corporations for a good 40-50 years agreed to paying factory workers’ healthcare and pensions because it was a profitable long-term mode of accumulation for them. The shift of the Democratic and particularly Republican party to the right in the late 1970s represented a new evolution in current trends, rather than a new trend in and of itself; the state once again was facilitating capitalist accumulation (read: economic growth), just in a different way, what we now regard as ‘neoliberalism’.

Simply, parties have never particularly been a vehicle of ideology. Politicians are not mere appendages of business: they have their own will and act accordingly, but within these political confines of the American system, whether by choice, natural agreement or accommodation, being part of one of the two major parties in America means defending the status quo. What precious ‘ideology’ is rare. What pundits on cable television make the mistake of is equating irrational outbursts of supposed passion with a well-developed ideology. This is evident in the media’s treatment of Paul Ryan as a right-wing ideologue (albeit ‘ideologue’ being a pejorative in the US discourse, they often describe him as the ‘brains’ or ‘soul’ of the Republican party), as if he is an economist concerned about the deficit and promoting some anachronistic ‘historical levels of government spending’ (as if the 1800s were good years for America), rather than simply a corporate hack who wishes to cut corporate and higher-income taxes and to close loopholes benefit the poor. How nobody brings up the fact that Ryan’s budget explodes the deficit, I will never completely understand.

Of course, it is not just the right who gets the ideologue treatment – when Obama isn’t busy being dubbed a Marxist, him and the Democrats are regarded as ‘far-left’ or ‘liberals’ who must compromise with Republicans, because of course the answer lies in the middle. It being so ingrained within the US political mindset, it does bear mentioning to ask Americans “what if neither the Republicans or Democrats have an answer?” The delicious irony is that one does not go far to hear complaints about Congress or Washington D. C., but it is never considered if the two parties are wrong or at least not in keeping with the American public on a great majority of the issues. Regardless, if a party, candidate, or pundit is not in keeping with the American establishment, then they are deemed an ‘ideologue’, and therefore not in keeping with the supposed ‘centre’ of the country. Unlike of course, the establishment, who are non-ideological, and therefore one must conclude, do not actually think.

So while we will continue to hear warnings about Obama’s evil liberal agenda, we will soon see the President ‘compromise’ with Republicans, by delivering them most of what they and lots of what the rich wanted; corporate tax cuts, cuts to medicare/medicaid, and a few genuine increases in taxes in higher tax brackets, but which will ultimately leave the poor much worse off and the rich better off. The American people in Colorado and Washington voted to legalise marijuana, and their governors are at least in principle defending their decision even though they disagree, but we will soon see the federal government involved to override their democratic decision. Anybody who stands up in opposition will be regarded as a loony ideologue, who is so ‘blinded by ideology’ as to not be a serious person. I must say, I’d rather be blinded by the light than shut my eyes to the problems of this world.

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