Alexander Cockburn: Obama, the first-rate Republican

Is there anything the front-runner will not say to become President? No progressive cause would have a chance with him in charge

Sunday, 26 October 2008

As a left-winger I might be expected to be supporting Barack Obama. And indeed, in these last days I’ve been scraping around, trying to muster a single positive reason to encourage a vote for Obama. Please note my accent on the positive, since the candidate himself has couched his appeal in this idiom. Why vote for Obama-Biden, as opposed to against the McCain-Palin ticket?


Obama invokes change. Yet never has the dead hand of the past had a “reform” candidate so firmly by the windpipe. Is it possible to confront America’s problems without talking about the arms budget? The Pentagon is spending more than at any point since the end of the Second World War. In “real dollars” – an optimistic concept these days – the $635bn (£400bn) appropriated in fiscal 2007 is 5 per cent above the previous all-time high, reached in 1952. Obama wants to enlarge the armed services by 90,000. He pledges to escalate the US war in Afghanistan; to attack Pakistan’s territory if it obstructs any unilateral US mission to kill Osama bin Laden; and to wage a war against terror in a hundred countries, creating a new international intelligence and law enforcement “infrastructure” to take down terrorist networks. A fresh start? Where does this differ from Bush’s commitment on 20 September 2001, to an ongoing “war on terror” against “every terrorist group of global reach” and “any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism”?

Obama’s liberal defenders comfort themselves with the thought that “he had to say that to get elected”. He didn’t. After eight years of Bush, Americans are receptive to reassessing America’s imperial role. Obama has shunned this opportunity. If elected, he will be a prisoner of his promise that on his watch Afghanistan will not be lost, nor the white man’s burden shirked.

Whatever drawdown of troops in Iraq that does take place in the event of Obama’s victory will be a brief hiccup amid the blare and thunder of fresh “resolve”. In the event of Obama’s victory, the most immediate consequence overseas will most likely be brusque imperial reassertion. Already, Joe Biden, the shopworn poster boy for Israeli intransigence and Cold War hysteria, is yelping stridently about the new administration’s “mettle” being tested in the first six months by the Russians and their surrogates. Obama is far more hawkish than McCain on Iran.

After eight years of unrelenting assault on constitutional liberties by Bush and Cheney, public and judicial enthusiasm for tyranny has waned. Obama has preferred to stand with Bush and Cheney. In February, seeking a liberal profile in the primaries, Obama stood against warrantless wiretapping. His support for liberty did not survive for long. Five months later, he voted in favour and declared that “the ability to monitor and track individuals who want to attack the United States is a vital counter-terrorism tool”.

Every politician, good or bad, is an ambitious opportunist. But beneath this topsoil, the ones who make a constructive dent on history have some bedrock of fidelity to some central idea. In Obama’s case, this “idea” is the ultimate distillation of identity politics: the idea of his blackness. Those who claim that if he were white he would be cantering effortlessly into the White House do not understand that without his most salient physical characteristic Obama would be seen as a second-tier senator with unimpressive credentials.

As a political organiser of his own advancement, Obama is a wonder. But I have yet to identify a single uplifting intention to which he has remained constant if it has presented any risk to his progress. We could say that he has not yet had occasion to adjust his relatively decent stances on immigration and labour-law reform. And what of public funding of his campaign? Another commitment made becomes a commitment betrayed. His campaign treasury is a vast hogswallow that, if it had been amassed by a Republican, would be the topic of thunderous liberal complaint.

Obama’s run has been the negation of almost every decent progressive principle, with scarcely a bleat of protest from the progressives seeking to hold him to account. The Michael Moores stay silent. Obama has crooked the knee to bankers and Wall Street, to the oil companies, the coal companies, the nuclear lobby, the big agricultural combines. He is more popular with Pentagon contractors than McCain, and has been the most popular of the candidates with Washington lobbyists. He has been fearless in offending progressives, constant in appeasing the powerful.

So no, this is not an exciting or liberating moment in America’s politics. If you want a memento of what could be exciting, go to the website of the Nader-Gonzalez campaign and read its platform on popular participation and initiative. Or read the portions of Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr’s platform on foreign policy and constitutional rights. The standard these days for what the left finds tolerable is awfully low. The more the left holds its tongue, the lower the standard will go.

Alexander Cockburn co-edits, the US left-wing website, and is a columnist for ‘The Nation’ and ‘The First Post’ (

16 Comments on “Alexander Cockburn: Obama, the first-rate Republican”

  1. Steven Mather says:


    Thank you for the link. Regardless of where one lives, it’s not easy being on the left while being a vocal opponent of Obama.

    This election season continues to be very divisive. What time or event will it take for a healing thaw to melt the enmity that currently resides between family members and neighbors?

  2. dakinikat says:

    This has been the most divisive political season that i have ever witnessed. I’m afraid to talk politics with any one. I even don’t bring it up in my classes because I fear anger, retribution, and name calling.

    I have no idea what is going to heal this rift.

  3. Steven Mather says:


    Thank you for your reply.

    Welcome to the panopticon of jackboot unity. People self-police themselves to avoid being accused of a socially profane act. Currently, we are the ten year old girl who was labelled a racist for wearing a McCain/Palin t-shirt? How many have learned to become silent or faux-assenting (which should mean a significant multiplier on the Bradley effect)?

    Even if we learn to self-police, we will continue to be proles. I suppose, for that reason, we cannot become Winston-like, but that might not prevent us from learning to love Big Brother.


    ps I heartily recommend reading Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.”

    pps Have you read Mark Anielski’s “The Economics of Happiness?”

  4. Steven Mather says:


    Perhaps people should conspire to run an ad about this chill. It could begin, “This election, why are so many people afraid to put up signs or talk politics with their family, friends, neighbors, or co-workers? [Video could cue on vandalized property and newspaper clippings on Oviolence such as the women attacked at the subway station.] Why are people behaving so uncivilly? [Video on photos of Sarah Palin is a C people, the Nailin’ Palin porn video, and the Sarah Palin blow up love doll.] Do you want to live in an America where people are afraid to speak their mind?

    I’m thinking out loud. What do you think?


  5. scoutt says:

    Very glad I stubbled upon this site – linked from Cannonfire.

    This is like an I’m-liberal-and-don’t-support-Obama Anonymous Club.

    I live in SF and it’s absolutely awful. Even with some big lesbian feminists friends. It’s ok to call Palin a cunt. The blind adoration and blanket description of all McCain supporters as “stupid racists rednecks” and the gleeful misogyny is unreal. I’m going through major culture shock.

    I was at a performance in my local church by a Pickle Family Circus member. The performer made jokes about McCain breaking his arms because he “fell out of a plane or something” got thunderous laughter from the audience. I now see how the right sees the left as antiamerican and antimilitary. It was truly disgusting.

    At my local video store a news program came on about California vietnamese being 20% higher for McCain. The clerk declared it was because they were “non english speaking people that didn’t understand their own history”.

    This is a nightmare. It really is. The race baiting. The misogyny. The adoration. And it’s all from the left.

    Is anyone here also from San Francisco by chance? I’m feeling crazy up here and would love to find someone else that I could talk to.

  6. Steven Mather says:


    Seeing your name reminds me of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Thankfully, it is part of my family’s canon.

    Dakinikat is a good host. The quality of her intellect and moral bearing, as well as the promise of hearing her jazz piano stylings 😉 , make me a regular, mostly silent visitor


  7. scoutt says:

    Hey Steven,
    That’s where I pulled the name from!
    I’ll be back!
    take care.

  8. dakinikat says:

    Steven: I think ads would be a wonderful idea … I don’t know if you’ve see Heidi Li’s site, she’s running ads for Democrats for Principles before Party and some of them are real scorchers! The latest one is called Would you buy a Used Car from this man? It’s up on the confluence right now.

    and welcome Scoutt! it’s not the biggest blog on the block but hopefully a worthwhile one! You might like the confluence… there’s a lot of action there …

  9. scoutt says:

    I visit there as well. You write the pieces on the economic situation.
    Enjoy those as well!

  10. Steven Mather says:


    I like Heidi’s work, but, as you know, only Obama allows foreign nationals to contribute to his campaign. Anything I do, has to be done independently of the political financing process and I think a general commentary on the toxicly divisive nature of this campaign might fit in that category. Otherwise, I’m stuck with trying to make something here and youtubing it, which isn’t a bad idea, apart from my technical incompetence.


  11. Martin says:

    Cockburn nails it here. The left has degenerated into a slavish personality cult. Obama has no obligations and is never challenged. He just smiles and waits for a landslide. This former Democrat has lost any connection to this party and its mediocrity.

  12. DancingOpossum says:

    Glad I found this site! I’m a proud member of the liberal-lefty-not-supporting-Obama club. And I agree, the environment is awful; I’m known as the go-to person for political discussions at my office and in my family, but I have forced myself to stay silent from the start of the primaries because the haranguing and abuse from Obama supporters is too much. Ironically, for the first time I’m delighted that I live in one of the few red counties of a very blue state; at least I can speak freely there!

    I, too, wonder if this rift will ever heal. I take some cold comfort from the certainty that, should Obama win, he will prove a huge and bitter disappointment to his liberal/progressive followers.

    And kudos to Cockburn, whose writing (especially on Israel) I have long enjoyed. This essay sums up my views perfectly.

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