After Hope

By David Swanson

John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, has a new book out called “You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.” Sort of an odd topic at the very moment that we’re expecting to elect the first African-American president. But this is probably going to be a very valuable book for a lot of people to read on November 5th, if McCain wins, if McCain steals it, and — especially — if Obama wins the White House.

While I spend most of my life complaining about eternal election seasons, this really is an appropriate election season right now, and there really is a need not to elect anyone as crazy as McCain or Palin, and it really does make sense to obsess over electoral work and election protection work during the coming weeks. But when that’s over and we can all think straight again, we will have to build a movement to compel our government to do what we want. When, for the first time in years, we defeated the forces of money, party, and media in the first House vote on Paulson’s Plunder, our victory lasted a week. We have to be stronger, better informed, better organized, and more serious about our most important roles as citizens, which begin after elections, regardless of who wins them.

If we are going to have any influence on a President Obama, we are going to have to understand what he intends to do if left to his own devices. Debating Senator McCain, Obama declares that he will end the occupation of Iraq, which he calls a “war.” But here’s an interesting passage from MacArthur’s book:

“Obama’s campaign had attracted great numbers of antiwar Democrats with his proposal to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of his inauguration as president. But there were signs that Obama’s utterly conventional foreign-policy entourage — led by Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake — didn’t really believe their candidate’s declarations on Iraq. A former Latin American foreign minister who knows Lake told me privately, ‘If Obama is elected you’re not leaving Iraq. He’ll draw big crowds in the Third World, like Kennedy in Berlin, which will be good for America’s image abroad. But you’re not getting out of Iraq.”

Plenty of other comments from the candidate and his staff confirm this prediction. At best, Obama plans to decrease the U.S. presence in Iraq while increasing it in Afghanistan and elsewhere, enlarging the overall imperial forces with which to pursue such occupations. While that is not — let me stress v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y — a reason to vote for McCain, it is a reason not to take the last three weeks of November or the month of December off. This will be the most important time ever for the peace movement to be organized and active.

“You Can’t Be President” is an unusual book. The opening chapters suggest the same theme maintained in the title and the table of contents. I expected a list of legal or cultural barriers to entry in politics, followed perhaps by a set of recommendations to remove those barriers. The recommendations never materialize at all, and the middle chapters of the book wander off into accounts of local battles against big-box stores, and essays on the Horatio Alger myth, our segregated education system, corporate chain stores, corporate media, and militarism. They’re all good topics very well handled, but I recommend more highly the opening and concluding chapters of the book.

Where MacArthur distinguishes himself is in his analysis of the damage done to democracy by parties. If the very topic offends you, please try setting this aside and reading it on November 5th. MacArthur is not interested in criticizing any particular party, much less promoting some “third party.” His critique is simply of the power and influence now held by parties. This includes an account of the recent Democratic Party presidential primaries as a competition between the established party power of the Clintons and Obama’s power in the Daley machine and in his ability to poach powerful Clintonites. These forces are apparently still battling. The Secretary of State of Nevada who ordered a recent raid on an ACORN office to challenge the registration of new voters there is not a Republican, but a Democrat apparently representing the concerns of resentful Clinton backers.

While MacArthur offers no prescriptions for limiting the power of parties, or money, or lobbyists, or the corporate media, or any other corrupting influences, he does manage to suggest some things as an essayist and a historian that may inspire action. There is a section of his fourth chapter that I would label “The Positive Shock Doctrine.” MacArthur manages to point out a number of instances in our history when moments of crisis have allowed popular campaigns for progressive legislation and positive changes in government to succeed, notably including the Homestead Act and the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862 passed during the Civil War, during a burst of activity by Radical Republicans that saw legislation freeing slaves, prohibiting the return of slaves, abolishing slavery in Washington D.C. and territories, and passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which had their full impact during a later positive shock: the Civil Rights Movement.

“It’s fair to say,” MacArthur says, “that most of the other outstandingly popular congressional legislation in American history took place during times of national upheaval, when the normal political order could not resist change.”

There’s that word: change. This may be the time for it. It’s going to take a lot more than hope.

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