Don't count on the candidates--take to the streets.
By Michael I. Niman ArtVoice 3/6/08
This primary season we’re seeing civic engagement on a level we haven’t witnessed for a generation. My 16-year-old niece and her friends are phone-banking for Barack Obama. People who have never participated in the electoral process are getting stoked. Primary turnout is at blockbuster levels. After two decades of post-Reagan apathy and civic disengagement, this distraction from consumerism might well save our struggling democracy.
We owe a debt of gratitude to two men for pulling this off. First, there’s George W. Bush, who, despite having his image massaged for years by a compliant media, just disgusted the hell out of a whole, otherwise oblivious, generation. He puts meaning into the word “change.” Like change direction, change the flat tire, change the diapers and change your destiny. Then there’s Obama, who complements the word “change” with the word “hope.”
There’s a danger, however, in all of this excitement and hope. People need to take heed of historian Howard Zinn’s warning and not get too wrapped up in electoral politics. Historically, electoral politics in this country, with its narrow, bought-and-paid-for field of approved candidates, has never really delivered fundamental change. Whatever change we’ve credited to elections, upon closer examination, was usually won in the streets and on the factory floors. Politicians subsequently were left with the choice to either get on board or get out of the way.
Take Franklin Delano Roosevelt for example. FDR didn’t bring socialism to Washington, as high school history texts suggest. To the contrary, he was the status quo’s best tool to prevent real socialism from taking root. By the time FDR came around, the Depression was in full swing and the mob was massing at the gates of privilege with torches in hand. FDR offered crumbs of appeasement, and capitalism and privilege were saved by the bell.
Zinn’s point is that whatever progressive battles Americans have won, were won by people taking to the streets, demanding change and leaving no option for anything but progressive change. Likewise, whatever constitutional liberties we’ve preserved, were protected not by politicians, who would gladly sell us out for a few campaign dollars or the promise of a cushy corporate retirement, but by activists who exercised their rights just when they were imperiled.
Let’s look at the upcoming election and see what can change, and what simply is not on the table. No matter if we have a President McCain or a President Obama, both promise to end the quarter-century moratorium on nuclear plant construction. Just for a refresher—we almost lost Detroit to a nuclear meltdown in 1966. The Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 almost took out a chunk of the East Coast. The 1986 Chernobyl meltdown blanketed the Ukraine and Belarus with radiation, causing over 4,000 immediate deaths; according to a recent study of medical data, Chernobyl will ultimately result in another 140,000 cancer-related deaths in those two countries alone, with an extended impact felt across the globe. No matter who wins the election, we’ll have to be back in the streets fighting for our great-great-great grandkids’ rights to live on a non-irradiated planet.
Healthcare is another one of those issues where it doesn’t matter who wins. No candidate in the race, and this includes Clinton, supports universal, single-payer health coverage or comprehensive cost controls for the pharmaceutical industry. That means we have to continue the struggle, taking the fight right to President Obama or President McCain. And our voice has to be so damn loud that all they can do is get out of the way and give the American people what people in every other developed country already have.
Our healthcare system is also imperiled by the lack of a surge capacity. This means that there aren’t enough empty hospital beds at any given time to accommodate any sort of major health emergency—such as a major pandemic or a nuclear power plant accident. Our model maximizes profits rather than safeguarding public health. And it won’t change no matter who takes office.
No matter who wins, we’ll also continue to overfund the military while starving public education on every level. Currently over half of all tax dollars support the military or military-related expenditures while children sell candy bars to fund school trips.
And despite campaign rhetoric to the contrary, no matter who wins, we’re still stuck with international trade pacts such as NAFTA, CAFTA, the FTAA and membership in the WTO, which are friendly to corporate profits and unfriendly to labor and the environment. So we’ll have to keep the pressure up here in the streets as well. And no matter who Diebold declares as the winner, corporations will continue to plunder our natural resources and destroy our forests, wetlands and oceans—unless we hold them accountable. No matter how the horse race ends in November, we won’t see an end to corporate welfare and tax breaks, nor will we see a return to a progressive tax system that properly taxes those who benefit most from our government-enforced wealth disparity.
And speaking of the income disparity that continues to undermine our ability to restore our democracy, get used to it. Poor people will continue to sacrifice their lives on low-wage jobs so that wealthy shareholders can see their profit margins grow. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, exploited Wal-Mart and McDonald’s workers will continue to be the real philanthropists in our society, with their undervalued labor underwriting cheap fast food and discount prices. This won’t end until we see a repeat of the violent labor struggles that originally won the eight-hour day and many other labor rights that are now disappearing.
Don’t expect our new president to take on corporate crime, reign in our Israeli client state, demand radically more fuel-efficient vehicles (like the ones everyone else in the world can walk into a store and buy today) or demand human rights in China. We’ll have to remain active on these issues as well.
This isn’t to say there is no difference between McCain and Obama. A President Obama might be less likely than “Bomb bomb bomb—bomb bomb Iran” McCain to foolishly and psychotically start new wars. And he’d be more likely to raise the minimum wage—which doesn’t sound like much, unless you’re working for it. And a President Obama means no more appointments of agenda-driven activist judges such as the ones appointed by the Bush dynasty. Likewise, Obama is less likely than McCain to appoint corporate shills to high cabinet posts. He’d probably do something to protect voters’ rights and the integrity of the voting system since this would be in the interest of his party. And with a President Obama, we’d probably see a return to the rule of law, with civil rights and environmental laws once again enforced on the federal level.
There is a lot on the table in this election. It’s still important to vote—especially if the system is gamed, since it will take an overwhelming vote to overwhelm electoral fraud.
Quite frankly, I don’t believe our already compromised democracy can survive another eight years under the criminal rule of the Republican Party. Obama does offer some modicum of change. And I applaud the efforts of patriots who have awoken to the threat of corporate fascism and believe that we’d do better with an Obama than with a Republican.
The problem is that the struggle doesn’t end when Obama wins. Ultimately what we win with an Obama victory is the right to continue to struggle, and the hope that we can persevere. That is the hope that Obama offers—the hope that we’ll be free enough to resist the government of a President Obama and force it to follow the lead of a newly engaged population.
Dr. Michael I Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His articles are available online at artvoice.com, archived at mediastudy.com and available globally through syndication.
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