Why I’m Not Voting for Barack Obama

“Terrorist!” “Kill him!” “He’s an Arab.” “Obama Bucks.” John McCain has let the dogs loose. Apparently, he’s decided that if winning the White House means whipping the right wing into a racist frenzy, he’ll lead the charge.

The good news is that a majority of American voters are walking away from the John McCain-Sarah Palin freak show. Even David Letterman is grilling McCain.

In recent days, McCain even added the word “socialist” to Barack Obama’s supposed list of sins. “You see, [Obama] believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that help us all make more of it,” said McCain. “At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives. They use real numbers and honest language. And we should demand equal candor from Senator Obama.”

Just this once, I find myself wishing that something McCain says were true. Yet any serious look at Obama’s record and platform signal that he intends to govern well within the mainstream of American politics.

To begin with, there are his stated policies. He wants to keep at least 50,000 troops in Iraq to “fight terrorism” indefinitely, and he wants to send those who are withdrawn from Iraq to fight in Afghanistan. He agrees with John McCain that the size and budget of the American military must be increased, he stridently supports Israel’s suppression of the Palestinian people, and he has said “me too” to reasserting American military might in Latin America, being especially hostile to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

Obama would be the first to repudiate the idea that he is any sort of anti-militarist or anti-imperialist–and we should take him at his word.

Domestically, Obama recognizes, unlike McCain, that the era of reckless deregulation and neoliberal supremacy has run its course. His policies will aim to re-establish order between the “hostile band of brothers,” as Marx called competing capitalists.

Yet no serious look at Obama’s policies indicates a plan to fundamentally reshape the American class system. As Malcolm X once said, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches, and say you’re making progress.”

Obama may support some modest economic band-aids–extending unemployment benefits, for example. He’ll most likely make some reasonable policy shifts, undoing the craziest of the Republican excesses–especially those that don’t cost much. For instance, he’ll appoint centrists to the Supreme Court if he gets the chance (although the justices most likely to retire are liberals or centrists anyway).

Obama will also end George Bush’s ban on stem cell research, and he’ll take modest steps to deal with global warming. He might even reduce the number of anti-immigrant raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But even if Obama has his way at every point, by the end of his first term in 2012, the schools will remain underfunded, the prisons overcrowded, and the gap between the rich and the working class more or less unchanged.

Compared to the last eight years of Bush, any change will be seen as a good thing. Obama’s modest reforms will most likely earn him a honeymoon for a longer or shorter period of time. He also has the advantage that the Republican Party finds itself deeply divided, and those divisions will only increase if McCain loses badly.

But the modest changes Obama has promised fall far short of what is needed. Ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and economic crisis will form the backdrop to Obama’s first term. This calls for far more radical measures than Obama has contemplated, even in the most generous reading of his intentions.

This reality requires a serious political discussion about how to build a working-class movement that can change the rules of the game–and it’s in this context that the question of whether those who want to work for social change should vote for Obama must be discussed.

First, some historical perspective is needed. If the opinion poll trends hold up, McCain’s racist strategy will lose, and Obama will be elected the first African American president. In a nation built on slavery, this will be an historic accomplishment and a cause to celebrate for every genuine opponent of racism and bigotry of all kinds.

This point deserves emphasis. America’s economic wealth was literally extracted from the backs and minds of more than 10 generations of Black slaves. This wealth wasn’t incidental to the nation’s fortunes. Without slavery, there would have been no riches for Northern merchants and bankers, and no boom in Northern industry. It took a ferocious Civil War to abolish slavery–a conflict that demonstrated the tenacity of the slave owner’s defense of the system.

The freed slaves achieved a 10-year period of partial democracy and reform in the South during Reconstruction. Defended by heavily armed troops, they elected hundreds of African Americans to state legislatures and Congress.

This Southern revolution was drowned in blood, as the KKK lynched its way into power, leading to 80 years of apartheid-like legal segregation. The heroic and bloody struggles of the civil rights movement finally broke Jim Crow’s back, paving the way to voting rights, affirmative action in education and jobs, the creation of a Black middle class, and the possibility of Barak Obama’s campaign.

All this is often dismissed as ancient history. Yet it is worth remembering that when Barak Obama was born in 1961, millions of African Americans were still legally barred from voting in the South.

Even when the history is acknowledged, it is often asserted that the wrongs have been righted, and Black people should stop “complaining.” As if the racist taunts shouted out at McCain rallies aren’t buttressed by a powerful system of institutional racism which guarantees that African Americans disproportionately go to the poorest schools, suffer the highest unemployment rate and account for 50 percent of the nation’s 2 million prisoners, although they constitute just 13 percent of the population.

Obama’s election will raise the hopes of millions of Black workers across the country. Those who have suffered the brunt of American capitalism–and its most important tool, racism–will have a justifiable sense of pride at Obama’s rise.

And for those who believe that the white working class can be won over to the fight against racism in the interest of class-based solidarity, Election Day will show that, even when offered the chance to vote along racial lines (first by Hillary Clinton and then by John McCain), tens of millions of white workers from all parts of the country will vote for Barack Obama instead.

None of this ends racism, but it certainly demonstrates the potential for interracial unity in the working class.

Historically, the American left has faced this dilemma: try to transform the Democratic Party or try to build an alternative to its left. During the last Great Depression, this choice was posed in particularly stark terms–and although history never repeats itself, there are some important lessons to be learned from what happened then.

The stock market crash in October 1929 led to bank failures, factory closures and skyrocketing unemployment, as well as a rising level of working-class anger–and, eventually, strikes, protests, union drives and all kinds of social protests.

The 1932 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt has important parallels to Obama’s campaign. He won in a landslide, replacing an unpopular and out-of-touch Republican administration, by promising a New Deal.

However, like Obama’s call for “change,” the content of that New Deal was meager when Roosevelt promised it on the campaign trail. It was mostly designed to shore up the banks and business, while offering small reforms for workers and the poor.

Yet the combination of anger and hope proved electric. Between 1934 and 1937, millions of workers went on strike and created the most powerful unions in U.S. history. In that struggle, the American Communist Party grew from 7,000 members in 1929 to 80,000 by 1938.

At first, it seemed like the working-class movement and Roosevelt were headed in the same direction. As workers got more radical and organized, Roosevelt was forced to deliver more reforms (Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Works Progress Administration jobs program, unemployment insurance, etc.).

In fact, it seemed so obvious to many political radicals that Roosevelt and the working class were headed in the same direction that when the Communist Party dropped its opposition to the Democratic Party (on orders from Moscow) and became Roosevelt’s biggest champion in 1935-36, very few complained.

But as the unions and Communist Party came to see defending Roosevelt from the Republicans as the central priority, they began to oppose the kinds of strikes and street actions necessary to continue the process of winning ever-more radical reforms for fear of “scaring the center.”

Once this dynamic became dominant, the movement began to fall apart. The abandonment of this independence destroyed the possibilities of building an independent labor party, one that could stand for workers’ rights, consistently fight racism and oppose U.S. wars abroad.

And when Roosevelt, the Democratic Party and big funders who really ran the party felt threatened by the demands of the unions, Roosevelt pre-emptively turned against the movement. On Memorial Day 1937–just months after Roosevelt won re-election with the overwhelming support of organized labor–police shot and killed 10 striking steelworkers in Chicago. It was then that FDR issued his infamous “a plague on both your houses” remark about the strike, which gave the green light to the bosses to use violence against the union movement.

By 1938, the New Deal economic policies had utterly failed to end the Depression. Instead, there was a dramatic worsening of the economy. At this point, Roosevelt turned towards building a massive war machine to fight the Second World War. This would include developing and dropping the atomic bomb in the interest of spreading the American empire to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The Democrats, having sidetracked the possibility of breaking the two-party cycle in the 1930s, then helped launch the anticommunist McCarthyite crusade, a war in Korea, the Cold War with the USSR and, eventually, the war in Vietnam.

No one has a crystal ball, but it appears that global capitalism is entering a historic period of crisis. The question of how to use the opportunities this will open up so that we don’t repeat the mistakes the left made in the 1930s will be crucial if we want a different outcome this time.

I believe that voting and giving political support to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party will weaken the fight for a fundamentally different kind of world, a socialist world.

Arguing against a vote for Obama and the Democrats is not political abstention, however. It is part of a larger strategy that argues positively to continue building a socialist movement, based on the independence of the working class from the two mainstream parties.

There are many dedicated activists who will disagree with this point of view. They look forward, above all, to seeing the Republicans defeated after eight long years of George Bush. But can they make a positive case that Obama and the Democrats will take us closer to breaking the domination of the rich over the working class in this country?

The fact that millions of American workers look set to elect the first Black president is a good barometer of what could be. But it’s no substitute for systematic political debate and the patient building of social movements, socialist organization and practical action.

Todd Chretien writes for the Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Todd, or visit Todd's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 25th, 2008 at 9:35am #

    right, don’t vote for america numero uno, vote for the planet, america numero tre, qautro, fuenf, sex, devet. don’t vote even for america duve
    vote only for nader and save life on earth or maybe even on another planet.thnx, spasibo, grazie, grazias mucho, fala

  2. Max Shields said on October 25th, 2008 at 10:01am #

    This is more sentiment than meaningful analysis. This is not 1929. The world is entirely different. First, the economic crisis of 1929 did not have the massive dependency of energy. Energy is the life blood of an economy. World consumption – energy – has grown expotentially, with it’s greatest upswings in the 70s and re-ignited in the 80s.

    This dependency is on oil and coal fossil. It is not simply a question of transitioning to other forms of energy (which of course we must), but the fact that the dependency is so broad and deep that we cannot fathom the demand. As I said it is expotential over time it has gone from relative flat to a perpendicular line upwards.

    Plus unlike 1929, the US was not at its apex of power nor was it tied to a global market of financial speculation, nor were we involved in two wars.

    History can teach, but it can distort our reality as well. The latter is very dangerous. If you truly believe that history is simply the repeating over and again, then we are lost in a predetermined universe that makes all discussions trite. But if you think that we live in a self-organized emergence through co-creation than there is much which totally unchartered.

    As far as the history of slavery, I agree slavery was an economic engine replaced by the industrial revolution which was forged by…you guessed it oil. Oil replaced slavery not the empancipation proclaimation (which arguably did little to nothing to free black slaves).

    That said, the logic of an African American president as making a meaningful statement is dubious at best. Human instinct is sometimes more correct than our “intellect”. Americans realize we are in a long emergency. So, far the churches have yet to fill to capacity, but instead the voting booths may. It is not Obama, it is “the economy stupid”.

  3. Brittanicus said on October 25th, 2008 at 10:30am #

    Just speaking for myself and my family circle. Neither party or potential President has me standing up to cheer. Neither Obama or McCain has convinced me, who I should vote for? Yet I’m voting for Obama. I’m terrified that he will give ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS a path to citizenship, even the they violated our laws. However, he will have a nasty battle trying to get it past the House, Senate and 80 percent of the American people.

    However I will compromise for Health care for my sick family, members, building up our U.S.infrastructure which is falling apart, stopping job outsourcing and selling America to foreign governments. Taking our economy back from China, India and other cheap labor lands. Fighting for Americans, instead of the International globalists who have no loyalty to this nation. I am a small business owner, but I believe that Obama can change the direction of our nation. I just hope over a period of time he doesn’t become corrupted like Speaker pelosi or Harry Reid. Most party members never delve into the deeper recesses of the Internet, to extract information other than the national newspapers.

    I guess my main annoyance with both parties is the bickering amongst themselves? Every time it’s about the issue of taxation, which we all know we must pay. It’s to keep our fire departments fully manned and other mandatory services. What I don’t like is my tax money being waylaid and going to anti-sovereignty entities like the ACLU, Maldef, Mecha and La Raza. These groups are against our society and the freedoms our constitution offers and promotes hate in many way.

    I am and always will be any form of AMNESTY for illegal aliens. The truth of actual costs to the American taxpayer is astronomical and our corrupt Governors, Mayors or elected official lie to us. The future disaster of unceasing illegal immigration and it’s menace of OVERPOPULATION and it’s consequences.

    1. The number of illegal aliens already here – an estimated 37 million according to the Tucson sector Border Patrol union local 2544 (with an additional half-million coming every year) a massive financial impact on our economy by importing the worlds poor.

    2. The Americans who are losing jobs to cheap immigrant labor. In a 1996 study, a Rice University economist estimated that illegal aliens were then displacing 730,000 American workers a year.

    3. The costs to taxpayer for welfare, emergency medical services, education, law enforcement and incarceration for “illegal immigrants” and their dependents -and thousands of State, county welfare is pegged at more than a Trillion dollars.

    4. The opportunities for terrorists to spend some time in Mexico, learn Spanish and infiltrate our borders.

    The border fence has never built to original planned because the Democrats in a secret session, gutted funding.

    US taxpayers are supporting parasite businesses that hire illegal aliens. The middle class already overburdened with war appropriation funds, is still force to pay for the education, free health-care and Federal, state welfare handouts for illegal criminals.

    SIGN UP FOR THE SAVE ACT(H.R.4088) at http://www.numbersusa.com.

    SIGN JUDICIAL WATCH, A LEGAL ORGANIZATIONS PETITION, http://www.sanctuarybusters.org/?source

  4. Jonathan said on October 25th, 2008 at 11:17am #

    “I will compromise for Health care for my sick family, members, building up our U.S.infrastructure which is falling apart, stopping job outsourcing and selling America to foreign governments. Taking our economy back from China, India and other cheap labor lands. Fighting for Americans, instead of the International globalists who have no loyalty to this nation.”

    Brittanicus, do you actually think Obama will do all this? Who do you think funds Obama? The very International globalists that are outsourcing all your jobs to China etc. You may resent China’s success but I am also sure that you love the cheap products they produce.
    Also re your xenophobic anti immigration rant – isn’t America a country of immigrants? Gawsh I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if the Native Americans had had stricter immigration policies. (tasteless attempt at humor aside if the US didn’t actively contribute to such dreadful conditions in developing countries perhaps so many people would not be economically forced to try to make it in Amerika).

  5. Ron Horn said on October 25th, 2008 at 11:33am #

    I liked the review of history after the “29 crash from a working class point of view. At that time the labor movement put its faith in Roosevelt like people are doing to today with Obama. Because the movement allowed itself to be manipulated by outside non-working class interests (due to the very active participation of the American Communist Party in the labor movement, its obedience to Moscow, and Stalin’s obsession with maintaining his empire against the hostile capitalist nations and thus appeasing one segment in order to split them), the movement subordinated itself to the Democratic party and was no longer at threat to US capitalists who then went on the offensive to destroy the movement especially after the war was over.

    The lesson that this historical review teaches us is that the working class must not be co-opted by the chimera of a populist-sounding, black faced Democratic politician who “will deliver us from evil.”

    Instead of paying attention to these election circuses, we must organize a grass roots movement to take back what we have created–the wealth of this country and the world, and face the challenges of living sustainably on a planet devastated by capitalist, mindless, greed-filled exploitation.

  6. krs said on October 25th, 2008 at 7:43pm #

    Todd is right, but on this site he’s preaching to the choir.

    Right wing populists seem to popping up more in more in society these days; yelling __”ethic group x” is talking over the world. It’s troubling, yet predictable.

    Right wing populism always rears its ugly head during an economic downturn; society encourages scapegoatism, anything to detract from the fact that the problems are systemic. Absent of any kind of analysis it’s instinctive to blame those “other” people, who ever they may be (the Chinese in the late 19th century, Jews in early 20th century Germany, Mexicans in the great depression). Sadly, things really don’t change. Face it, the capitalist society needs “boogeymen” to maintain credibility. Divide and conquer strategies are constructed to deny the fact that most people have common class interests and would benefits from uniting and getting rid of the “globalists” once and for all. Yet most people are stuck on something called “nationalism” which globalists ditched and pissed on in the 70′s.

    And the ghost of Thomas Malthus helps too. If people think the world is “overpopulated” i’d like to drop them off in Kansas, or Iowa, or Oklahoma, or Missouri so they can re-evaluate their theory.

  7. Deadbeat said on October 26th, 2008 at 10:03pm #

    Todd’s article is entirely more cogent and nuanced than Mickey Z’s hyperbolic rant.

    Now Mr. Shields implies that the Civil War was a “War for Oil”. Oil didn’t become a mainstay of industry until late in the 1800′s (~1880). Until then it was the steam engine that was the primary energy driver of the U.S. industry.

  8. Max Shields said on October 27th, 2008 at 4:38am #

    Deadbeat,

    Afraid my point was a little too nuanced for your taste.

    I never said all wars are fought over “oil”. I said wars are about resources – let me spell that out – water, land, air/space control, resources extracted from the earth. Study the American Civil War. Understand the imposed Tariffs on the South, understand the economies of North and South and that all economies are based on natural resources (oil being one).

    I don’t think the Civil War was fought over slavery, per se. In other words, the Union Army did not declare war on the Confederates to free slaves. That should be elementary. Slavery was an economic factor which was no more central than the right of Southern’s to purchase cheap manufactured goods from England.

    But, I would postulate, for cogency’s sake DB, that the Civil War was about retaining a growing and expanding empire in North America. The desire for one area of the nation to separate from the other was economically, politically, and imperialistically intolerable. (Monroe was turning in his grave!)

    So, again, I did not say the Civil War was about oil. I’m saying that the need for slavery – purely from an economic perspective – was removed with the advant of the industrial revolution and ultimately through sources of energy such as coal, oil, and gas (over time – to be clear) which ultimately made manual labor of the extent used in the South less viable.

  9. ron ridenour said on October 27th, 2008 at 11:54am #

    Todd and commentators,

    I found your thinking sound, Todd, your analysis well founded. We have needed a leftist unity with a thrust for a working class socialist party for a long time, at least since after the second world war. The tragic capitulation of most of the world’s communist parties, including the US’s, to the narrow interests of Soviet Union state nationalism threw revolutionary potential out the window. It was mainly in a few Latin American countries where home grown revolutionaries defied this chauvinism and fought for liberation and socialism. Unfortunately most ended in defeats, partially due to Communist parties complicity and overbearing brutal US imperialism’s warfare.

    There were a few exceptions: Cuba being the main one, but also in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Communist parties of Cuba and Nicaragua remained on the sidelines in those revolutions.

    In the US, during the spirited 60s–when I was privileged to be an activist–most of the drive against wars and racism, against the inhuman system of capitalism-imperialism and for socialism occurred DESPITE the capitualtion of the Communist party, in which I was a member for four years. This happened because of righteous grass roots anger and by survival necessity.

    As Todd has outlined, had it not been for the freedom struggles Obama would not be the next president of the White Man’s Empire. But we can not deny that, despite the fact that he must be an Uncle Tom for that structure, this, in and of itself, is a victory. It is a victory over the abject slavery, indentured slavery, wage slavery, eternal racism that has characterized the Untied States of Amerikkka since day one. Millions of blacks have fought and suffered for survival and for a future in which, among other things, one of them could be a president. Hundred of thousands of them have been slaugthered, lynched, murdered and tortured in all manners for this very possibility. And beside them many whites have also marched and fought in many other ways during two centuries. This is not for naught.

    OK. Obama is not going to change anything fundamentally. No president has such power. He has already capitulated as any other pawn. We radicals-revolutionaries and even progressives should not be surprised. We should not allow ourselves the luxuries of illusions and delusions. Nevertheless, we should also rise above the subjective emotion of disappointment to approximate the understanding of a Marx, who could tell us that even capitalism itself was progressive in an historical context. It was a step forward from feudalism. We cannot possibly shape a socialist society, not to even speak of communism or anarchism, without having the precedents of capitalism.

    So, in brief, I am saying two things: Obama as a black president is progress in a humanitarian, multi-cultural embracing sense; and yet does not solve our fundamental problem of class antagonism, of rich vs. poor, of war vs. peace. To achieve the resolution of the latter requires a dedicated class oriented movement willing to take all measures in hand, a lá 1917 Russia, a lá 1956-9 Cuba….

    So, once the world’s first black person becomes the president of the world and forthwith fails to fulfill the illusionary hopes of so many hundreds of millions of oppressed-exploited, and victims of racism, then let us roll up our sleeves and get down to the real business of creating a true revolution of and by the multi-colored working classes.

    In revolutionary solidarity,
    Ron Ridenour

  10. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 27th, 2008 at 1:15pm #

    is following observation the most, or one of the most important, ever espied: the teaching by nobles/clergy that s’mhow we the humans are not OK; not fit to live our lives w.o. clerical/totalitarian guidance/supervision/commandments.
    and is this theory or strategem the most divisive, insidious (entrapping), and invidious, honest and good people had to struggle for millenia?
    yet it takes but eyeblink time to espy that it weren’t clergy nor patricians who have made us.
    no, no, a priest had not made me and he will not tell me i am not advequate.
    the greater the lie, people said long time ago, from authority, the greater its believability.
    oh, had we killed the first bastard who uttered the idea that we are a fake, we wldn’t go thru this now.
    but it’s never too late to start. kill the bastard who teaches either tacitly or explicitly this ‘dogma’. thnx