2012 Election Will Hinge on Emphasizing Differences Between Parties, But Key Similarities Are What Disgust the People
For weeks, I've been having a hard time whipping up any interest or enthusiasm in this coming primary election season, normally a political junkie's nirvana. Matt Taibbi does a good job of articulating why. As amusing in a black comedy kind of way as the Republican freak circus has been, the sideshows will one by one drop out soon enough, going back to their inevitable sinecures on Fox News and the book-selling and wingnut welfare circuits. What we'll be left with is Obama v. Romney, exactly the matchup one would have expected a year ago, as though nothing else has been going on since and this is the best our political system of representation can cough up. And the Romney coronation seems inevitable, before a single Republican primary voter has cast a ballot, for one single reason: money.
Mind you, the 2012 election is still hugely important. There are major, critical differences between how Obama would govern over the next four years and how Romney would govern. The buzz around their campaigns is also an important influence on downticket races, from Congress and governorships to local offices, that also have a big impact on people's lives. But the biggest challenge facing either campaign will be to emphasize those differences when it's the similarities that ordinary people across the political spectrum are so disgusted with.
Both Obama and Romney are millionaires representing billionaires, and while their policies diverge on, say, social issues that Wall Street doesn't much care about, on core economic issues both are captive to their patrons. Their electoral success is directly tied to how much money they can raise, and only the wealthy presently have much of any money, let alone oceans of it, to invest in a political campaign. Whether Obama is a stymied progressive or a dedicated corporate centrist is immaterial; the system is what it is, and only certain behaviors are allowed and expected.
The dysfunctional rot at the heart of American democracy is the frustration that has animated both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement and has also pissed off millions of Americans affiliated with neither. On issue after issue - banking and financial reforms, permanent war, universal publicly funded health care, trade policy, the War on Drugs, climate change and energy policy, ad nauseam - the polled preferences of supermajorities of Americans are not going to be advanced in any serious way by either Obama or Romney, or by most of their national-level political colleagues. The single thing every such issue has in common is that the status quo is making somebody, somewhere a whole lot of money, and their ability to continue making even more money takes precedence in our political system over not just the will of most of the people, but doing anything to ameliorate or even acknowledge the massive harm such policies are generating. What Obama, or any other politician, wants in his heart of hearts is one thing; what he or she can produce is quite another. And presidential races are very good at even weeding out those (like Ron Paul) whose hearts aren't aligned with the status quo.
It's not that there's no difference between political parties. It's that right now, in 2012, there's no meaningful prospect that the will of the people will be represented at our highest levels of power - if anything, the risk, as with a Romney Supreme Court nomination, is that we could take more massive steps backwards in the interests of the 99% that would take a generation or more to undo. In 2008, Obama sold his candidacy on "hope," as did Bill Clinton in 1992. Neither has had much of that to offer in their reelection runs; Obama, too, will likely win simply because his opponent doesn't excite anyone, but he isn't likely to be able to accomplish much on these issues in his second term even if he wanted to.
Election 2012 is a rearguard action, designed to stem further indignities to our body public. Moving things forward requires far more organization and intentionality than we've seen so far from, say, the Occupy Movement.
Incremental positive change is possible in our political system - for example, while 2010's health care reform was hopelessly inadequate for all the reasons of entrenched money mentioned above, the impact on real lives represented by ObamaCare is still significant and laudable. But real structural change - the kind that would make it possible for our political system to actually represent the will of the public, not that of a tiny sliver of the public - isn't going to happen in this year's election. It's not going to happen at all unless we put a lot of resources and energy into organizing and media work that has little to do with any particular election cycle. And that's why, while I'll follow it and write about it, and it certainly is important, I'm having a hard time getting excited about Obama v. Romney. It sucks a huge amount of oxygen away from the real debates we need to be having.