It has long been a principle of "realistic" US politics that the Democratic presidential candidate must reassure voters of his basic adherence to a reasonably pro-corporate/"patriotic" agenda on key issues to stand a chance of winning. This cautious strategy of "tacking to the center" is understandable in view of recent history, the domination of US press and airwaves by corporate media that marginalize alternative views, and the fact that half the American electorate — disproportionately the poorer, potentially more progressive half — is so alienated they don't vote.
The move to what the media define as the "center" (wherever their managements are) is a strategic decision by Democrats understandably desperate for victory. But while considered pragmatic and supposedly designed to win (though it rarely does), the strategy has had severe self-defeating effects on egalitarian politics in America.
This approach reinforces by acquiescence the corporate agenda while strengthening the false perception of many non-voters that there isn't "a dime's worth of difference" between the parties. Most crucially, it creates a dynamic inevitably benefiting the Republican candidate as the more "genuine article" in supporting the apparently generally held belief system.
The Republicans claim Obama will raise taxes. They argue private spending is the engine of all economic growth — therefore lowering taxes is the way to growth and prosperity. Obama equivocates, claiming he will raise taxes only on a few rich people, but lower them on many others.
Obama started the campaign with a clear plan to erase the income "cap" on Social Security tax, finally stabilizing this vital program while improving tax progressivity. A truly modest proposal: The payroll tax would apply to income above $100,000 as well as below it.
Under painful pressure from Clinton, though, he backed down to a complex and ambiguous "doughnut hole" plan. The new tax would now only apply to income over $250,000. Social Security tax would still not be due on income over $100,000 but under $250,000 a year.
Obama's equivocation is understandable. Democrats have lost in the past admitting they would raise taxes. But surveys consistently show most Americans value health insurance, college access, and environmental protection above tax cuts.
Most importantly, Obama's reluctance to openly advocate raising taxes for good causes communicates — rightly or not — a basic acceptance of the Republican position that keeping taxes down is the right thing to do, the road to economic well-being. Since McCain is the unambiguous advocate of this apparently commonly held position while Obama wants to have it both ways, this dynamic is likely to strengthen the sense of McCain as the "real thing" over the course of the campaign.
In fact, public spending on health and education and just giving poor people money (as through Earned Income Tax Credit and extended unemployment benefits) stimulates the economy as well and often better than spending by those whose taxes are cut.
Obama might argue, with excellent evidence, that public spending contributes at least as much to economic growth as private spending, and that countries achieve both economic success and stagnation with widely different mixes of public-private consumption. Scandinavian countries like Sweden have achieved generally solid prosperity with levels of average income often exceeding ours (and with much greater equality) at tax and social spending levels double those here.
The idea that only private spending boosts economic growth is a self-serving corporate canard that should be frankly labeled as such. By catering to it rather than refuting it, Democrats let the misconceptions Republicans live on slide unchallenged into the future, undermining Democrats' chances of success in winning office and doing anything that matters once they're there.
A similar ideological problem emerges with "national security" as Obama increasingly embraces the "War on Terror." It's understandable, again, that Obama wants to reassure the American public he will "keep us safe" in "wartime" and that he understands the use of force in a dangerous world.
But, as he tries to reassure the "center" with his strength, claiming he will "get" Bin Laden, go after al-Qaeda in Pakistan, fight terrorists "smarter," and refuse to speak to Hamas, for example, he seems to reinforce with a lighter touch the Republican division of the world into good and evil and the idea that America, which does most of the world's military spending, needs first and foremost to "keep itself strong" against "our enemies." In so doing, he subtly undermines support for the humane foreign policy he advocated forcefully when less well known.
Seeming to accept too much of the Republican agenda risks weakening Obama's own appeal by Election Day. If all sides agree that those who fight America are "evil men," if we are meaningfully "at war," if the paradigm of the world emanating from the White House since 2001 makes any sense, should uncertain people vote for an exemplar of these views like McCain, or someone whose outlook is more "nuanced" like Obama?
Voting is a complex psychological decision. Swing voters and chronic non-voters tend to be the least informed about political details. But as humans, they naturally respect resolve and coherence, apparent or real. The mass of uncommitted voters are more prone to "smell" candidate integrity versus expediency than analyze policy proposals.
When Democrats cater to the perceived conservatism of the likely-to-vote American public, supposedly moving "toward the center," they risk reinforcing the false assumptions that let the corporate view of the world control American politics.
By failing to challenge the tenets of the corporate/Republican/faux-patriotic agenda, Democrats risk again disarming ideologically, undermining their chances of success — and our own as a national community with better priorities than world domination and endlessly stimulating consumption by those who have plenty.
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