Sunday, September 26, 2010

Primary Urges in the US & UK


Will everything stop for the Tea Party?
by Ian Williams
Friday, September 24th, 2010

The United States is in a perennial state of election, but it is hardly tumescent. The primary turnouts are soft, even lower than the customarily abysmal showing in general elections. In Britain, several Labour constituency parties are in the process of emulating this road to disaster by holding primaries. In some ways, I can’t help but compare American elections with the spuriously open Labour Party leadership election. It comes down to the one point. Money talks. Political commentary is not about winning hearts and minds so much as filling war chests: which candidate has raised the most money.

In that context, if one thing should evoke some sympathy for Barack Obama’s flailing administration it is the news that Wall Street money is now going preponderantly towards the Republicans, following the passage of the Financial Reform Act and the apparent refusal of the White House to extend billionaire tax breaks when they expire next year. The situation was worsened when the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that corporations were citizens – people – whose election spending was a form of free speech that could not be restricted by law.

We saw some of the latest consequences of this trend in the US last week. The most reactionary and racist candidates will now represent the Republican Party in contests for the Senate in Delaware and Alaska and for the governorship of New York. The good news is this might cost the Republicans the election. The Republican candidate for Delaware has surfaced in an amusingly wacky video she made declaring that masturbation was the same as adultery and forbidden by the Bible. After all, she engagingly explained, if her putative husband was accustomed to masturbating: “Why am I in the picture?” It is a question many mainstream voters in the state might be asking themselves in November.

So what is the secret of their success? In primary elections with a small turnout, Fox TV and alleged grassroots organisations funded with untold millions of private and corporate money, inflamed and motivated those who Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff has called “the Wackoes”. This cynical game plan works. The relentless campaign of innuendo has persuaded a third of Republican supporters to think Obama is a Muslim and even more to blame him for the financial crisis he inherited. Campaigns funded by big business are getting deranged Tea Party supporters out to vote against the Democrats because, they say, Obama is in the hands of Wall Street.

You do not have to be a party “member” to vote in a primary. In many states, when you register to vote, you simply declare which party you support. In a frightening number of states, you do not even have to do that.

You simply turn up at the booth and vote to choose any party’s candidate in the forthcoming election. The very concept of party membership, in the sense of subscribing to the ideology of an organisation and paying dues in return for a say in its management and policymaking, has effectively disappeared in the US – the consummation that Tony Blair and New Labour wished for in Britain.

Those diminishing membership rolls and roles and political prostitution for corporate donations did not come from thin air. They were a conscious emulation of Bill Clinton, the triangulator-in-chief, who saw unions, poor people and minorities as “special interests” to be scorned.

The most powerful union in the US is actually the Business Roundtable, representing fewer than 200 chief executives of the biggest corporations. It has successfully achieved the greatest transfer of wealth from workers to senior management in the history of the world, but which lobbies furiously to prevent shareholders, the theoretical owners of companies, having any effective say in choosing the boards of directors.

Primary elections for choosing candidates throw the whole contest open to the media moguls to manipulate support for those they want. It is true that the electorate can ignore that manipulation. But in the US, the legislative ranks are filled with lawyers. In Britain, one gets the impression that Labour’s parliamentary ranks are now filled with aides and apparatchiks who owe more to patrons than constituents.

And so to the Labour leadership campaign. Voting by all party members is a good idea. However, from the beginning, I’ve invoked the American example and suggested some control and transparency for funding – unless we want the sort of situation where the Democratic chair of the Senate Finance Committee almost sabotaged his own party’s financial reform act, because he was the biggest recipient of bank and credit card company donations.

Tony Blair’s campaign for the Labour leadership was supported by Lord Levy, as he later became, with a view to influencing government policy on the Middle East. It was a stupendously successful investment. In contrast, as I remember, poor John Prescott was scratching round for cash to pay off his bills for a long time after.

Despite the levelling influence of the internet, there is a disturbing disproportion even now in the funding for candidates. Is it too much to expect that all candidates for party elections be compelled to list publicly all their donors who go much above the proverbial widow’s mite?

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