“The essence of oligarchic rule is not father-to-son inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life ... A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate its successors... Who wields power is not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remains always the same.” George Orwell, 1984
So millions of us gave our money and energy to the Obama campaign, basked in the euphoria of his victory, then cursed in the cold shower of his appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, fearing that the remaining appointments might constitute a Council on Foreign Relations who’s who list, replete with old Clinton figures happy to step aside as Israel bombs its neighbors with artillery provided by the United States; fearing that Obama might represent the moneyed elite - the banks, the corporate oligarchy – instead of the people. Rahm Emanuel is best known among progressives as the man who denied Democratic Party funds to anti-war candidates in 2006, a key figure in the triangulating, centrist DLC wing of the Democratic Party, and an Israeli citizen who lobbies fiercely for Israeli interests in the White House and in Congress.
Out of the cold shower, we are now questioning just who Barack Obama is, whether we have assumed principles that were not in the man, whether we have been duped into four more years of the status quo costumed in liberal and populist garb and whether progressives will ever be permitted past the Amazon at the door in the person of Rahm Emanuel. Yes, it is possible that Obama was “allowed to run” by the moneyed powers that be, and it is possible that he signed off to those same powers on some unsavory pledges in order to sustain support for his nomination. But he may also be susceptible to public pressure, especially on issues he has supported in his legislative career. The pressure would need to be grass-roots, nationwide, and loud.
Speaking to the Illinois AFL-CIO in June 2003, Obama stated that a single-payer healthcare plan was what he wanted to see enacted. Although he now believes that throwing the legacy healthcare infrastructure overboard would be too disruptive in the short term, he hinted as recently as last August that he is open to getting there eventually. “…let’s build up the system we got,” he said at a Town Hall meeting in New Mexico. “Let’s make it more efficient, we maybe over time—as we make the system more efficient and everybody’s covered—decide that there are other ways for us to provide care more effectively.”
Obama is facing enormous pressure from the healthcare industry. Americans who want a single-payer system will need to muster equal forces. With his oft-repeated message, “I can’t do it alone- I need your help.” perhaps he has been signaling that given the powers that be in Washington, he can only help us if we are ready to organize for what we want. Do we really think that LBJ came to power singing “we shall overcome”? How did this Texas good ol’ boy get to that point? He got there because of the scale and volume of the Civil Rights movement. FDR, silver-spoon elitist who wanted to balance the budget - how did he end up promoting a juggernaut of New Deal programs? He did it in response to the shouts of Americans who joined labor unions and Socialist and Communist Party movements and marched in the streets for government to meet their needs. Obama is a student of history, and he is smart. Surely he has noted these historic changes of heart, made possible by overwhelming popular will. If we want to see changes now more potent than a return to Democratic Party centrism, we will need to create the popular will to support them.
There are few issues that could rally the support of the majority of the electorate and simultaneously restore America to the democratic Republic it once was. Here are four that qualify:
1)Public financing of all US elections - If there is a single change that can on its face restore the republic, it is this. Remove all money, personal and donated, from the electoral system. Unless and until we have public financing of elections, and bar any and all private donations to campaigns, corporations will control government utterly, and America will remain an oligarchy, not a democracy. Corporate and banking interest power will remain unchecked regardless of what person or which party occupies the White House, or which party has the majority in Congress. Part and parcel of this must be the inclusion in the debates of all third party candidates who are able to muster a minimum level of support. Under such a system, the provocative platforms of Ralph Nader, Robert Barr and Ron Paul would have been given full, public hearings.
Is corporate control of government flimsy enough to be eradicated by publicly funded elections alone? Possibly. Absent the lure of campaign money, what influence would Viacom and Goldman Sachs have over our representatives? Answer: Not much. Absent donations, what power would the health insurance industry have to silence the demand for an economical, single-payer healthcare system? Answer: Very little. With money out of the political system, not only would representatives reclaim all of that time in their days lost to fundraising, but they would have time to listen to constituents – for the first time in almost 30 years. From that vantage point, all other constituent issues could be addressed.
2) Verifiable mail-in ballots nationwide counted by hand in the presence of representatives of all candidates. - The Oregon mail-in system should be the model, and all votes could be linked to Social Security numbers to ensure accuracy and prevent fraud. All computerized systems, monitored in total secrecy by private corporations, not by the American people, have been proven failures, and most Americans rightly believe that they exist at all for the purpose of stealing elections. The Help America Vote Act was developed at the Crawford ranch in the summer of 2002 where Diebold CEO, Walden O’Dell, a major Bush fundraiser, was a frequent guest. O’Dell was given multi-million dollar government contracts in exchange for creating a voting system, unverifiable and linked to central computers, that in the end proved capable of changing vote tallies and erasing and/or flipping votes. Such a system had the potential to give Karl Rove his “permanent Republican majority”.
3) Trust-bust Big Media - Over the last 8 years, in just a few instances did Americans stand up en masse and besiege Congress with letters, emails and phone calls demanding to be heard on an issue: The vote to authorize the war on Iraq, the vote to authorize the bank bailout, and the vote to allow further consolidation of media corporations. In each case, thanks to corporate influence, the people’s wishes were ultimately defeated. The new law raised television station ownership levels to 39% from 35% in a committee compromise that accommodated Viacom’s and Newscorp’s expanded television empires. Only a strong, trust-busting policy legislated by Congress can reverse ownership rules. Currently 500 cable television channels are owned and operated by only five corporations. New legislation could and should mandate for multiple owners. Clear Channel Communications, the 1200-station medusa that has nationwide replaced vitally important local radio, needs to be broken up entirely and local radio stations restored to their rightful place. Obama was a co-sponsor of the Media Ownership Act of 2008 that sought to roll back cross-ownership of television and newspapers in a single market. Where Bush vowed to veto the bill, Obama would support it.
In the 2008 election, corporate-owned network and cable news programs devoted hundreds of hours to the Clinton and Obama campaigns, overtly neglecting other Democratic candidates. The only two presidential candidates who were not members of the Council on Foreign Relations, Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, remained invisible to mass media. The centerpiece of Ron Paul’s campaign was the abolition of the Federal Reserve, while Kucinich advocated universal, single-payer healthcare, an idea lethal to the health insurance industry. Voters heard little about John Edwards’ platform, even though he placed second in the Iowa caucuses. His pledge to clean up K Street lobbying practices clearly ran counter to the interests of the Big Five media corporations. Notably the PBS public service programs, NOW and Bill Moyers’ Journal alone addressed the effect of media consolidation on democracy.
4) Demand the restoration of Habeas Corpus, the closing of Guantanamo prison, a ban on the wiretapping of American citizens and the use of torture in any circumstance, the nullification of the Patriot Act, the Defense Authorization Act of 2007 and the Military Commissions Act and the repeal of Bush’s unconstitutional signing statements and executive orders.
During the Democratic primary race, I heard at least two speeches delivered by Obama, now archived at c-span, in which he pledged to review all of Bush’s executive orders and signing statements in his first week in office, and to nullify any that were unconstitutional. While Obama is currently planning to roll back orders affecting environmental regulation and stem cell research, those that have restricted civil liberties are not yet on the table. Giving away power is not something presidents do readily, and whether or not Obama honors his pledge, a pledge he literally signed in the form of Naomi Wolf’s American Freedom Pledge, will tell us something about his character and intentions. Once inaugurated, President Obama may arguably detain any person as an “enemy combatant” without cause; assume control of National Guard troops without consulting with state governors, and order military forces to act against American citizens. It will be up to Congress to amend or repeal the legislation responsible for those powers, and getting there will still require many petitions and many outraged phone calls.
Election integrity, access to our elected representatives, real choices in media and news outlets and constitutionally mandated civil liberties are all issues that the majority of American citizens support. If we can achieve these goals, we can clear the way for a progressive agenda without needing to tiptoe past corporate lobbyists. Rahm Emanuel may bar the door to the oval office, distancing Obama from progressive voices. But this one backward-thinking man cannot silence all of us - provided we are loud enough. .Ellen Olenska is a choreographer and political activist