The Politics of Wishful Thinking from the Liberal Establishment

In this issue of The Nation, an open letter appears in which the signatories position themselves as abject supplicants to Obama, begging him to revert to his earlier stances in his primary campaign.

Thus the letter states: “Since your historic victory in the primary, there have been troubling signs that you are moving away from the core commitments shared by many who have supported your campaign, toward a more cautious and centrist stance…” Several paragraphs later, the letter finally gets around to mentioning “withdrawal from Iraq on a fixed timetable” as one of the positions that Obama “embraced” during the primary.

When others have raised such criticisms, Obama has responded that they have not been listening to him. On this one, I am with Obama. How can one take this guy seriously as an “antiwar” candidate when he has voted for hundreds of billions of dollars to fund the Iraq war and to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis? Neither Ron Paul nor Dennis Kucinich, both presidential candidates, nor Barbara Lee voted for these funds for a “war of aggression,” as Ralph Nader has properly called it. On this score Obama’s voting record is no different from McCain’s or Hillary Clinton’s.

And Obama made it clear long ago in one of his few clear statements on the war that he does not oppose all wars and in fact supports “smart” ones. Iraq is thus not a criminal war, a war of aggression, but merely a “dumb” war. Presumably the war in Afghanistan that Obama so loves is to be a “smart” war. When you come right down to it, how different is Obama’s position that the war is not “smart” from McCain’s that, until the surge, the war was not “smartly” waged? I would say that the difference is less than a dime.

The letter is also frankly dishonest when it says that Obama is simply moving to a more “centrist stance” In what sense “centrist”? The war is wildly unpopular and close to 70% of Americans want the U.S. out of Iraq asap. What is “centrist” about moving away from a landslide majoritarian position? And what is the “peace”candidate doing when he calls for 100,000 more active duty army and marines, when he calls for more military spending, when he calls for stepping up the war on Afghanistan, when he talks belligerently about Iran, and when he equivocates on how many tens of thousands of troops are to be left in Iraq? All these are positions that the “peace” candidate took during the primary. They are not new.

The “open letter” also pretends that Obama took a position for universal health care during the primary. That is true only in words. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, Obama’s health care plan is even worse than was Hillary Clinton’s — a mighty low bar.

The worst part of the supplicants’ letter is that it is all based on wishful thinking. The idea that Obama is an “antiwar” or progressive candidate is a fantasy, never supported by the facts. And there is no way to change Obama by begging as the letter does. There is plenty of carrot, in fact downright ass kissing, in the letter — but no stick.

Ambitious pols understand sticks.

What is awfully irritating is that Katrina Vanden Heuval and the rest of the “liberal” elite criticize supporters of McKinney/Clemente and Nader/Gonzalez for “wishful thinking.” Compared to the sentiments and views of the supplicants’ letter, supporters of third party candidates are hard core realists. And it is very sad to see some of the signatories of this letter who in better times would have been men and women who put principle over “lesser evil” politics. Read the letter carefully. Look at the signatories. It may bring tears.

John V. Walsh, @JohnWal97469920, until recently a Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, has written on issues of peace and health care for several independent media. Read other articles by John V..

22 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Honest John said on August 14th, 2008 at 9:59am #

    A good article about a very bad letter. The Nation letter evoked no tears from me, but continuing disappointment and disillusion (albeit anticipated) in those signers whose judgement I used to respect but now suspect as I watch the sad spectacle (also anticipated) of their feeble attempts to cling to influence, prestige, insider status, and money, as they perceive the power shifting to Obama neoliberal imperialist “realist” Democrats — to which I react by moving farther Left. And I do mean *Left*.

  2. Max Shields said on August 14th, 2008 at 10:29am #

    “And it is very sad to see some of the signatories of this letter who in better times would have been men and women who put principle over “lesser evil” politics. Read the letter carefully. Look at the signatories. It may bring tears.”

    White “liberal” blinding guilt runs deep John; and to paraphrase Nietzsche, “makes fools of us all”.

    And it is important to make the distinction between “progressives” and “liberals” if only to begin to note the telling differences between those who vote their needs, wants and principles rather than the delusional overlay of fantacy.

    The duopoly provides us with the usual “dimes worth of difference”. We must look elsewhere for the critical change we want and desparately need. Nader or McKinney are a start…local and deep living community economies is also essential.

  3. Deadbeat said on August 14th, 2008 at 10:32am #

    The idea that Obama is an “antiwar” or progressive candidate is a fantasyWhat is awfully irritating is that Katrina Vanden Heuval and the rest of the “liberal” elite criticize supporters of McKinney/Clemente and Nader/Gonzalez for “wishful thinking.”

    I agree with the author regarding the “liberal” elites who encourage the abandonment of Ralph Nader in 2004. We know where liberal stand. The problem is that the Left went along with the “liberal” elite as well and diffused the anti-war movement creating the void that enables Obama.

    And while the author puts “antiwar” in quote regarding Obama he doesn’t do the same for Cynthia McKinney who VOTED for the War on Afghanistan. Thus duplicity on the Left is a much greater problem than the “liberal” elites.

  4. bozhidar balkas said on August 14th, 2008 at 10:51am #

    world’s plutos want to forever to maintain payer/master-payee/serf relationship.
    obama, like solzhenitsin, also approbates master-serf relatioship.
    else, he wouldn’t have gotten this far.
    whether it is obama or clinton, mccain, bush, kennedy, nixon, the enslavement of the working class everywhere remains.
    this basic relationship hadn’t changed since it was instituted by mad priests and some psychopats at the latest 20,000 yrs ago.
    once the enslavement takes place, cannon fodder and obedience to master people is easily obtained.
    if you do not own work/work place, you are a dependancy, slave.
    in communist lands workers have owned work and work place.
    world plutos stood united like never before to destroy this novelty of fundmental significance.
    unless working class is not freed, all other changes wld amount to just tinkering/deceiving. thank u

  5. Thomas Mc said on August 14th, 2008 at 11:17am #

    The best defense against being disillusioned is not to have illusions in the first place.

    Now they are stuck defending someone who was never on their side in the first place.

  6. zeldon said on August 14th, 2008 at 4:12pm #

    after reading this, i went to the Nation and signed the letter.

    i expect little from Obama and so far he has not disappointed.

  7. Max Shields said on August 14th, 2008 at 5:14pm #

    Zeldon, I think signing the letter is exactly what liberals do because they DO expect something from Obama.

    Isn’t that the issue John Walsh is raising?

  8. Robert B. Livingston said on August 14th, 2008 at 5:41pm #

    Wouldn’t it have helped to provide a link to the Open Letter?

    For the curious or morbid, here it is:

    Reminds me of Robert W. McChesney’s program on the media, Media Matters, where nontrivial talk about 9/11 and Third Parties is taboo (where pre-recorded-no calls-“let-us-do-the-yakking” of “A-List” progressive icons like Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky is de rigueur.)
    Media Matters:

    Programs like Media Matters, and Magazines like the Nation and The Progressive are disinfo agents for the corporate elites and their duopoly– interesting because they attract the most gifted stooges and quislings in the country– occasionally mixing in a few clueless idealists to establish their bona fides.

    Read Eric Larsen’s A Nation Gone Blind.

    Next week on Media Matters– Eric Larsen? Or Joshua Frank?

    Or Ralph Nader?

    I am afraid to find out.

  9. Deadbeat said on August 14th, 2008 at 5:44pm #

    Thomas Mc says…

    The best defense against being disillusioned is not to have illusions in the first place.

    That is absolutely correct and the best approach to dealing with this election cycle. There were a lot of expectation especially from the Left with the emergence of the anti-war movement. Unfortunately the Left proved to be its worst enemy. Now they rail against Obama for filling the void the Left themselves created and “support” someone who voted for war to boot.

    Obama role this year is to avert the McCain madness from winning and occupying the White House. The Left weakened itself for destroying any kind of institutional framework from four years ago with their abandonment of Nader and failing to build upon his run in 2000.

    McKinney’s run is hopeful as well as duplicitous in that her ticket would appear to help attract African American into the Green Party. However that won’t happen this year. It’ll be more interesting to see what happens with the Green Party after the election. They still have structural problems that do not reflect the will of the majority of the party’s members. At the same time McKinney is vote for the War in Afghanistan makes the Left duplicitous attacking Obama for his less than “anti-war” stance.

    The Left would be more honest if they just admit that their support for McKinney is merely a protest vote at best or brinkmanship at worst.

    Nader on the other hand is more consistent in his position, policies, and values but unfortunately lacks any kind of institutional framework to work from after the election.

    The Left argument against the “Liberals” falls flat when the Left itself help to created the environment that permits Obama to run in the first place.

  10. Giorgio said on August 15th, 2008 at 4:15am #

    The central ambition of Obama is to go down in history as the first ever Black American president. In order to achieve this objecive he will be “more popish than the pope” ie. he will be more whitie than a Klu Kluxman….and be such a “smart” warmonger that will make the neocons gape in wonderment…

    As for the Liberals/Leftists they don’t know their arses from their elbows and hence have no clear objective other than endless ranting…
    There is a Portuguese saying “numa casa sem pão, todos ralham e ninguem tem razão” which literally means ” In a home without food, everyone rants for no reason”.

    Instead of creating a front or movement Nader/McKinney/Paul to seriously challenge the status quo they squabble over minor issues that A, B or C does not meet all the requirements. Meantime the “status quo” just cackles delighted that by creating divisions their absolute rule is guaranteed.

    So Liberals/Leftists keep on kissing Obama’s arse if that make you happy!

  11. Max Shields said on August 15th, 2008 at 6:24am #

    The best “we” can do is vote for Nader or McKinney (I don’t know what Paul’s ballot for POTUS is). Btw, like the Portuguese pearls – take it you’re Portuguese?

    Deadbeat makes a point about structural difficiencies for any of the alternative candidates. Not one of those candidates is expecting to achieve more than single digit total votes, so governance is not the issue here.

    Parties have been essential but always problematical because they become institutions with a legacy to defend. A party built without a movement is worthless. It must be framed with values and willing to concede imperfections while sticking to its core governing principles. The Party structure can (and I would submit should) emerge from such a movement. It’s a kind of biomimocry approach.

    Anti-war is not a sustainable movement. That’s because war has become more and more isolated from people’s lives in Amerika. I do think the Green Party has articulated the values of a progressive 21st Century movement. What it lacks is the congealing of a movement which will make that party a reality which cannot be denied.

    Structure without a supporting movement is hollow and, frankly, I’m not sure it will be resolved until the focus is returned back to the process of creating a movement. The GP values cannot be an attractor unless it is joined to a movement BASED on those values.

    I’ve yet to hear or read that the prerequisite for real change is not movement oriented. Why do we keep kicking the “can” with this “left” this and that, and the structure of a party?

  12. bozhidar balkas said on August 15th, 2008 at 12:07pm #

    the words “left”, and “right” are meaningless uless one coordinates it with an actual event.
    we have horrornaga events. now we can ask whether a person who wld have never used atomic bombs is left of truman.
    or better yet, wasn’t that human much wiser and much more comassionate that truman and US gov’t?
    is US (uncle sam) a tad left/right of hitler?
    let’s stop personalizing events/policies. who the hell cares what any indivdual says.
    pay attention what the funni uncle did for 2 centuries and is doing now.
    and only then adduce conclusions, predictions, wishes, etc.
    yes, i too am tired of reading about the ‘stars’.
    if i am going to read anything about the ‘stars’ , i’ll pick paris anytime over the ‘stars’

  13. Robert B. Livingston said on August 15th, 2008 at 12:55pm #

    When I see these ridiculous petitions that likely only gather a subscriber base for the Nation– how often or far have politicians budged from their prejudices, or fears (?) lately?– I just want to lash out.

    Were my words too harsh above? Probably– but I’m glad after about a day of moderation they were added to this conversation. Doubtless my choice of the words “stooge” and “quisling” were influenced by late reading about Saakashvili in Georgia or Musharraf in Pakistan.

    Many is the time I wished people like Frank or Peter Camejo were invited to speak at Media Matters– when instead it provided a forum for an insiders-group of Democratic Party apologists and abettors (better choice of words?) who make the media rounds with their nebulous mantra “to organize”– but for who? or for what?

    Anyone who can manage to read between my lines– congratulation! You have read that I am ENORMOUSLY frustrated.

    Where is the support for activists and individuals who are REAL? Who is real– amidst all the obfuscation and spin (propaganda)?

    I consider Cindy Sheehan real– and a threat to the system. Why can’t all those on the Nation list sign a ringing letter of support on behalf of her campaign against Pelosi?

    Doing so of course would highlight their rationalizations for not supporting Nader, or McKinney in a substantive way.

    I hear Nader complementing McKinney on the campaign trail– I wish he had allied with her– but clearly to me– the corrupted Green Party used McKinney (I think) before she became well aware of its agenda. She has been doing a phenomenal job on the issues that matter regardless– and I think she has been smart enough to use the Green Party in turn as a base to begin something new in the future.

    Better educated African Americans know about her and respect her– but most can taste a victory of sorts with Obama’s campaign.

  14. Deadbeat said on August 15th, 2008 at 10:47pm #

    Robert B. Livingston writes…

    Better educated African Americans know about her and respect [Cynthia McKinney]– but most can taste a victory of sorts with Obama’s campaign.

    You are right that “better educated” (whatever that means) are aware of Cynthia McKinney and respect her. However the support in the African American community for Obama is not merely because he his Black which is the inference of your comaments. Blacks overwhelmingly support the Democratic candidate and even while McKinney runs as a Green if the Democratic candidate was white that Democratic candidate would still receive the overwhelming majority of the Black vote.

    What your analysis is missing is WHY African American vote in overwhelming numbers for Democrats. Actually is was very shrewd of the Greens to place McKinney in nomination and I do agree with you that I think a Nader/McKinney run would have been a much stronger strategy for the Left. However it misses the fundamental reason why African American support the Democrats.

    Blacks are not going to waste their votes for the Left’s brinkmanship. PERIOD. Blacks has to be pragmatic because they have to deal with problem and issues today. Unlike the Left primarily the white Left who do not suffer and has access to greater resource, Blacks cannot take the practical route and hope for the best. Especially when they see that the Left is disorganize and duplicitous. The Black vote is about the pragmatism of keeping the Republican from winning and taking control of the reigns of power.

    Not only is this aspect missing from the Left analysis regarding Obama but the Obama “movement” has gotten new people especially the young and African American involved in the electoral process that has altered the composition of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately these are people had the Left been organized could have attracted into its ranks. But the Left displayed its true agenda in 2004 opening the opportunity for an Obama campaign.

    Until the Left decide to truly stand for something hoping for Obama to fuck-up is a losing strategy.

  15. bozhidar balkas said on August 16th, 2008 at 10:33am #

    deadbeat, may i -regarding the fact that most blacks vote for the democratic party- offer these questions?
    do they vote for democratic party because they evaluate:
    that there is a democracy in US?
    that US has a two-party system?
    that they can influnce government to, let’s say to 1-10C, on a scale of 1-100C?
    do they think they can influence a government to the degree that thay can prevent a war? etcetc.
    but if de facto in US you have a one-party system, what’s is the use of voting?
    an enorm number of facts point out to an oneparty rule in US,?consisting of, let’s say, 3-5mn people.
    many facts clearly prove (not show, but prove) that in overwhelming number of countries we have classes of people; and in US, broadly, ruling, middle, working, black, latino, indigenous, captive, hobo, housewife, immigrant classes.
    now, with such deep divisions among, let’s say, 95% of people, isn’t it a child’s task to govern them with well established/known strategems?
    thank u

  16. Keesha said on August 16th, 2008 at 11:18am #

    Another great article from John Walsh who is not invited to the Soros funded ‘alternative’ media party. I think it’s past time that articles here started noting those realities and how FAIR, The Nation, et al are their only little conglomerate (didn’t The Nation absorb In These Times?) as they rail against “Who Owns Big Media?” over and over. They are the most incestuous claptrap in the world and I want to see real articles calling them out. Walsh always calls it like it is so that’s not addressed to him but I, for one, don’t need to ever read a column by Obama-delegate Norman Solomon or his running buddy Jeff Cohen here. It’s not just George W. Bush that we have to fight, it’s the sell outs on the left. Nader or McKinney would make a great president. So why can’t we get coverage of them from our alleged friends in alleged ‘alternative’ media? CounterSpin is nothing but Barack’s Babe Squad as it spends every week lying for that corporate candidate. And I really do think that outlets taking Soros money, which FAIR is doing, need to be held accountable. The Soros money goes a long way towards explaining how the left is so silenced. Robert Livingston makes some excellent points but in terms of The Nation and Cindy Sheehan, Katha Pollitt (with the blessings of her master Katrina Vanden Heuvel) already penned the “Don’t Run Cindy” column. “Bozhider,” I have no comment to you and won’t rush to ever. If you don’t know that “housewife” is an insulting term, you’re apparently 70 years old and living in a bubble.

  17. bozhidar balkas said on August 16th, 2008 at 1:15pm #

    “housewife”, label is indeed a dysphemistic label to many americans.
    the reason is that the middle class and rich people imbue it with a derogatory meaning.
    but i do not. i am a laborer. not a bit superiror to any housewife. thus, labels such as “ditch digger” , “tree faller” , “farmer”, “worker”, etcetc., are to me legit/proper.
    i do not use those labels as you think but as i think.
    remember, meanings are not in the words but in speaker of those words.
    next time, try please not to identify your meaning of words i write with the meaning you extracted from my (actually our) words.
    to simplify it: i call a spade a spade; i don’t call it an instrument.
    bear in mind that it is the (mis)educators who have over centuries imbued some callings with negativity.
    not only that, but in US women generally are worst educated. deliberately so.
    not far behind are men.
    that’s why i put a housewife in a special class; being especially abused by men and government.
    i fight for the underdogs:hobos, indigenes, housewifes. no, i do not want to call a redman “injun”. thank u

  18. Max Shields said on August 16th, 2008 at 6:42pm #

    “Blacks are not going to waste their votes for the Left’s brinkmanship. PERIOD. Blacks has to be pragmatic because they have to deal with problem and issues today. ”

    This is a totally unsubstantiated statement which speaks to the writers poor use of logic. During the Clinton administration – what was the pragmaticism which embued the African Americans with a better condition than they had prior to that 8 years?

    The writer hides behind a kind of pseudo analysis while making some “left” group the basis of Amerika’s problems when there is no left movement or left power base to begin with. It is a faux argument and all that follows is built on a foundation of sand.

  19. Rich Griffin said on August 16th, 2008 at 11:28pm #

    Reading these comments is so depressing! Nitpicking about Cynthia McKinney rather than organizing an all-out boycott of ALL mainstream media sources is a waste of time! Frustrations with the lack of traction of the Green party without acknowledging the vicous hold of the Dems and Repubs through incumbency and an undemocratic process of unfree and unfair elections is just plain wrong. Why not just say it like it is: blacks (and everyone else) are just plain stupid to vote for Obama. “Structural deficiencies” is really just a lack of $$$ and that is all. The anti-war movement’s mistake was alienating it’s own people by having flaky people run all of the marches and having terrible speakers waste our time at rallies. Our unwillingness to get rid of our newspapers, to turn off all mainstream medias, and esp. to create our own and to financially back our own, too (it still rankles that everybody didn’t RUN to see “Body Of War” earlier this year). I’m fed up with all the prissy intellectualism and nitpicking! It’s time to do the actual WORK without all the intellect that destroys us time and time again.

  20. Doug Tarnopol said on August 17th, 2008 at 10:43am #

    I’m a Nader/Gonzalez supporter this year, but I should point out that this letter is not really kiss-ass. It’s a shot across the bow. Remember, when a politician says, “If there’s anything I can do to help…” he or she is about to plunge the knife in. These signatories, or at least some of them, are not fools: they’re saying, “Look, pal, you need us, so tack left or we bail.” An empty threat, maybe; or a full threat that he’ll ignore, and maybe can afford to. But it’s not an ass-kissing, I don’t think.

    Anyway, I’m voting for N/G, so I have no dog in this hunt.

  21. Max Shields said on August 17th, 2008 at 5:47pm #

    Doug Tarnopol,

    It is an empty threat. All of this has been filmed many many many times before. The argument by the Nation and other Obama “liberals” is clear, they are not deserting Obama because they fear McCain. The differences I find nil, they find significant enough because they really think Gore or Kerry would have not had us in one war or another. Purely delusional given the track record of Dems, but that’s what we’re dealing with.

    I think Robert Jenson has it right. In so many words he says most of the progressive anti-war crowd are late middle-aged baby boomers who will speak their mind to a point but are completely averse to risk. So, the right has them by the short-hairs and Obama follows.

  22. Martha said on August 18th, 2008 at 8:59am #

    bozhidar balkas, “Housewife” implies ownership. You define yourself as a “laborer.” Define yourself however you wish but I don’t see any sense that you are owned or a belonging in your definition. Keesha is exactly right. Max, as an African American, I agree with your point that there’s no evidence of any such thing happening. As you say, “It is a faux argument and all that follows is built on a foundation of sand.” Rich, I agree it sounds like nitpicking to me re: Cynthia. But maybe that’s just us. In terms of your other points, it’s not just the mainstream media. WBAI is pathetic and wasn’t it cute to hear Bernard White declare, on air, that if Barack wasn’t elected we’d know all about America. If that’s not an endorsement, what is?
    It’s not just the MSM. It’s the ‘alternative’ media. Max, your final comments re: risk-averse. I don’t think it’s an age thing. I think it’s a funding thing. And I think that’s why ‘alternative’ media is so lame. They take money from ‘billionaires’ who then control the shots. Yep, I mean Soros. And they’re so in-bred. I miss Clamor.
    By the way, great article by Walsh. Katrina is The Peace Resister.