Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

The differences between the parties are greatly exaggerated

Posted by Kevin on March 4, 2009

During the last election season many people talked about a supposed vast chasm of difference between Barack Obama and John McCain. This framing of national politics is ubiquitous in political commentary, and true in a number of areas, but also greatly exaggerated.

The media plays a large role in the creation of the frame, magnifying the contrast between the candidates to make the election more exciting so you’ll tune into their coverage, and also to distract attention from the issues that aren’t discussed because there’s no substantive difference between the candidates. Israel/Palestine, the Wall Street bailout, the drug war, American imperialism, etc. It also helps justify their exclusion of third-party and independent candidates from election coverage – who needs them when we’ve already got such a vigorous debate going with just the two main ones?

The two establishment parties, of course, have every incentive to make the other look like the Antichrist. People wouldn’t be very motivated to vote if they thought the election was just a choice between the right- and left-hand sock puppets, or they might consider supporting a third-party or independent candidate, and we wouldn’t want that.

In addition, progressive Obama supporters often justified their support for the candidate on these grounds – “Sure, he’s far from perfect, but there’s soooo much difference between him and McPain!” They could get borderline apocalyptic talking about the consequences of a McCain victory. The same argument is used by conservatives talking about Obama, both then and now (how many times have we heard Obama referred to as a socialist?).

All too typical in this regard from the progressive side is this statement from Greta Christina (in a post I’ve quoted previously):

This isn’t a “There’s no difference between the two candidates” situation. There is a massive difference between the candidates. On the war. On the regulation of the financial industry. On abortion. On gay rights. On health care. On the environment. On virtually every issue that matters to most progressives.

While that’s undoubtedly true on many (but not all, in my opinion) of the issues she cites, there were other issues where you practically needed a microscope to tell the candidates apart, where the disagreements are more rhetorical than substantive. Given Obama’s stacking of his administration with neoliberal economists and his backsliding on civil liberties, a more honest slogan for his campaign might have been “Continuity We Can Believe In.”

A good example of this is the occupation of Iraq. Admittedly, even I believed during the campaign that, while Obama’s position wasn’t nearly good enough, it was certainly an improvement over that of John “100 Years” McCain. And yet, according to the Huffington Post, McCain has now embraced Obama’s Iraq plan and says he would’ve done roughly the same thing. I guess the sky wouldn’t be falling after all if McCain had won, at least in regard to the Iraq issue.

Likewise, the rosy picture painted of Obama’s position, both then and now, by his supporters, including much of the “antiwar” movement – “He’s going to end the war!” – is a huge exaggeration. At least, depending on how you define “ending the war.” The latest reports indicate that Obama wants to leave as many as 50,000 troops in Iraq, he’s just not going to call them “combat troops.” This is what the Washington establishment calls “ending the war.”

This isn’t exactly a surprise; Obama was pretty clear during the campaign that he wanted to leave a “residual force” in the country and had enormous “conditions on the ground” caveats even for his meager plan. So we’re still dealing with a large indefinite American presence in the country. And the troops that he does withdraw will likely just end up in a ramped-up war in Afghanistan. I’d really like to know what progressives think they’ve gained on this issue by electing Obama, and why they let him run as the “antiwar” candidate.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying there are no meaningful differences between the establishment parties. Just that on may issues the contrast is not as huge as some would like you to believe. My position is that, as Glenn Greenwald argued, “Critical political debates are at least as often driven not by the GOP/Democrat dichotomy, but by the split between the Beltway political establishment and the rest of the country.” Or, as David Sirota memorably put it, the real division isn’t between red and blue but between the Money Party and the People Party, with all too many Democrats winding up in the former.

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