The Sit-Down with Paul Street

Iowa City author Paul Street’s latest book, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, is a critical report on the phenomenal rise of the junior senator from Illinois. Street is a historian and former Chicagoan who worked for the Chicago Urban League as a policy researcher.

Obama fanatics will read this book at their own devotional peril, but this is no slimy hatchet-job like Jerome Corsi’s Obama Nation. Street’s book (from Paradigm Publishing) is thoroughly researched and contains acute analysis of the political games people play.

He examines the money horse that all politicians must ride and gives a pitch-perfect analysis of race and U.S. politics in a chapter titled, “How ‘Black’ is Obama?” Street also looks at the “anti-war” candidate and the conditions of Obama’s rise to the top of national politics.

He answered questions by email last week.

Question: Your book is heavily researched and footnoted; you quote from a wide range of sources; and you’ve been a critic of Obama since his 2004 DNC keynote address. What drew you to this subject?

Paul Street: I figured Obama was a leading future candidate after the keynote address – a pretty conservative speech, by the way. Once Kerry lost, I figured Obama would be irresistible in 2008 to certain sections of the U.S. power elite and to much of the “liberal” electorate. For various reasons, I was well-positioned to write about something that was clearly going to be a major historical development: the Obama phenomenon.

Your preferred caucus candidate was Dennis Kucinich but some might accuse you of drinking Edwards Kool-Aid (TM) before the caucuses. Does every voter put blinders on and drink candidate Kool-Aid (TM) to some degree?

PS: I’m personally left of Kucinich. I published pieces critical of Edwards on foreign policy prior to the Caucus. I agreed with Noam Chomsky that Edwards was “the least objectionable” of the “viable” contenders. If Kucinich had made any considerable effort in Iowa, I would have worked for him. Edwards ran a semi-progressive, heavily issue-based campaign that said more about labor rights and class inequality (and against “corporate Democrats”) than anything I’ve seen from a “mainstream” candidate. But candidate-centered politics is a problem: you live and die by the candidate’s image and “qualities,” not by the issues that should matter most. We can all see what would have happened with an Edwards nomination.

Q: Many people will close their minds to the possibility that this candidate is not everything they imagine. How should people view a politician like Obama?

PS: They should see him as just that – a politician, not some kind of transformational, quasi-millennial savior or other such nonsense. This guy has wanted to be president since a young age. He came up through the world of Chicago and Illinois politics. He hired David Axlerod to put him over the top. The Dr. Martin Luther King analogies should stop. This doesn’t mean don’t vote for him. It just means “buyer beware” and get ready to fight and protest, guilt-free, once we remove the Republicans (if we can) from the White House.

Q: You describe yourself as a reformer and a revolutionary. How do you negotiate those sometimes opposing perspectives?

PS: Reforms are necessary but insufficient. They will not do the job of creating a viably sustainable and decent democratic future in the long-term. We either transcend the corporate-managed profits system or we descend ever further into barbarism, totalitarianism, and ecological ruin over the long haul. Still, we very much need reforms to improve immediate experience and to build towards truly transformative change. The problem isn’t reform, it’s reformism.

Q: Is Barack Obama an incrementalist? Is he an incremental reformer?

PS: Quite explicitly. He’s been careful, conservative, cautious and conciliatory from the word go. Larrissa MacFarquahar and Ryan Lizza have written careful pieces that find this about Obama in The New Yorker (hardly a left magazine). Here’s a quote from Lizza last July: “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” Lizza writes, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than replace them.” Later in the same essay Lizza notes that Obama is “an incrementalist,” something that MacFarquahar found last year.

Q: Iowa City’s first African-American mayor Ross Wilburn was an early Obama supporter and, like Obama, a community organizer. I once heard Wilburn talk about how people in Iowa City tended to make assumptions about him based on his skin color, specifically, that there was a false perception that he was an extreme leftist progressive.

PS: Wilburn was on to something. There’s research showing that voters tend to assume a black candidate is more progressive than a white candidate even when there are no real policy differences between them. I saw this in Iowa: a lot of liberal voters could not process that Edwards was running to Obama’s left. Obama ran to Hillary’s right on domestic policy (especially on health care) and had few meaningful ideological differences with her on foreign policy but voters still tended to assume that he was left of her. Part of the “progressive Obama” illusion is and was also about age and novelty and his claims to be an antiwar candidate.

Q: Do you feel Obama has become a vessel for people to pour their own ideologies into, and if so, how has he done this?

PS: Sure. It’s what presidential candidates do in a big-money “winner-take-all” system that leaves no room for the full diversity of the real ideological spectrum, where most people are actually to the left (on basic policy issues) of both dominant political parties and of the business sector that tends to control the action behind the scenes. They do it with market research, advertising, micro-targeting, and image-building, emphasizing each candidate as a “man for all seasons.” McCain is doing it. Bill Clinton did it. It’s nothing new. American presidential politics has involved mass-marketing candidate imagery and cross-ideological voter-cooptation since the 1830s. Astute commentators since the Progressive Age have noted that campaigns market U.S. candidates like cars, candy, and toothpaste.

Q: How is “presidentialism” dangerous to the United States? How do we escape/transcend the cult of the presidency?

PS: I don’t really do the imperial presidency. My main issue is our quadrennial corporate-crafted and candidate-centered presidential election extravaganza. In writing this book, I drew a lot of inspiration from something Noam Chomsky wrote on the eve of the 2004 elections. “The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria,” Chomsky wrote, “hardly represents healthy democratic impulses. Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t, it’s only a small part of politics.”

“In the election,” Chomsky argued, “sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive political culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas….The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in a progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that they can’t be ignored by centers of power.” Like the civil rights, women’s and labor movements.

Here we are on the eve of another quadrennial personality-centered, mass-marketed election spectacle and again we have two candidates representing establishment parties both of which stand to the right of majority opinion. Neither of the two candidates is in the ballpark when it comes to meeting real human needs at home and abroad. One of them (McCain) is probably too terrible (messianic-militarist among other things) not to block, but the deeper point remains.

Your book is both an indictment of Obama’s neoliberal centrism and is a critique of the national corporate-managed political system. “Our” system is sick and it may be that Obama’s words of change and hope are just that- words. How does a voter stay engaged without becoming cynical, overwhelmed or discouraged?

PS: Keep a healthy distinction between the “quadrennial extravaganza” and the “main task” that Chomsky talked about. The last chapter of my book is titled “Beyond the Narrow Spectrum” and it includes a 10-point plan for “what is to be done” by left progressives in the immediate sense in regard to the Obama phenomenon. The afterword of my book is titled “Imagining a Progressive Future” and it includes a nine-point outline, an imagined “Real ‘Change’ Presidency.” Words matter.

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