"Over the last many weeks we have all been subjected to endless news stories about Senator Obama's campaign "Move to the Center". Leaving aside the political illiteracy which underlines this phrase, the use of it reveals important clues about the rhetoric of electoral campaigns, whom they target and what they are trying to communicate.
Put simply, what "Moving to the Center," means is: moving towards power and money.
"Moving to the Center" is not a move to where the center of public opinion is, but it is a move to the center of where elite consensus is. Once the boundaries of that elite consensus are understood, then we can comprehend the limits of our public choices and more importantly what will be allowed within the confines of our electoral system.
It is important to understand that elite consensus itself is not static and can shift in moderate degrees, but it has definitive boundaries of which you can not cross and still be a viable player within the electoral system. These boundaries exist to the left and right within that consensus, but the institutional bias of the system is much harsher towards any moves to the left. This is because in its essence elite opinion is anti-populist and primarily concerned with protecting the fundamentals of the established economic order.
Every national campaign is in fact a dual conversation, one targeting voters while the other is directed towards the political, media, and economic elites. The purpose of the message targeting the first group is to win votes. The messages to the latter group is designed to form elite consensus, first for it not to correlate against you and secondly to have it help you win and eventually govern.
Surviving the contradictions of these dual dialogues is the primary element that makes a successful national campaign.
Let's examine the primary public policy issues and areas of discussion, and examine what the boundaries of elite opinion are on how they contradict or mirror public opinion.
Economics Trade and Globalization
The elite consensus on these issues is solidly to the right of public opinion. This is especially the case on the issues of trade and globalization. Support for supposed free markets, free trade and globalization are almost universal and unquestioned within elite circles.
This is the establishment issue, all else can be argued and debated but to question the system of privatized profit and socialized cost is the fastest road to political oblivion for any candidate for national office.
Within the confines of elite consensus no cost is ever too exorbitant in "reassuring" Wall Street and "calming the financial markets". No better example of this than the prompt and generous response of the Federal Reserve and the Congress to the recent financial crisis in the housing markets. With hardly any opposition the United States Government nationalized the losses which resulted from the bursting of the housing bubble. There where no calls of prosecution, lectures on personal responsibility, fears of creeping socialism or demands for conditional structural adjustments from bankers and investment houses. The scandal in fact is not the crime in this case, which is to be expected, but in the silence of the public and the political class to this public thievery.
It is precisely because of the iron grip of this consensus, that even if we have a new Democratic President and an enhanced Democratic majorities in the Congress, there will be no legislation signed into law to make it easier to organize workers, provide universal health care or deal with our ever widening class and income divide in the United States.
Elite consensus on the issues of race, sex and role of faith in public life are to the left of public opinion, the only area in which this is the case. Elite opinion is overwhelmingly secular, pro-choice, supportive of gay rights and hostile to overt displays of racism.
Tolerance and liberalism on this front is a very useful tool, since it buys political space to be more conservative on the more important money issues. It also enjoys the advantage of making the right enemies, after all who wants to be on Pat Robertson's side during weekend dinner parties at the Hamptons.
When social conservative complain about the "Liberal Media" they are not wrong, but only in regard to their issues. The contempt of the American elite for the religious right is quite real. What social conservatives misunderstand is that the hostility against them is not because the threat their ideas represent but only a display of the traditional contempt that the merciless strong have for people they consider to be the feeble minded weak.
The significance of the religious right in our politics is only in the wonderful diversions their issues create. Issues that feed a war between urban educated middle classes against the more numerous, the ever more frustrated lower income fundamentalists on issues that are unsolvable in nature.
Elite consensus on this issue is center to right, discussion are allowed on the mechanics of running the empire and the management of the military industrial complex, but never regarding the reality of its existence, its necessity or usefulness to most Americans.
Within this narrow context there are always code words and phrases used to differentiate one candidate from another. Words and phrases like "all options are on the table", "realism", "toughness" and "experience" are simply a sliding scale on the willingness to kill in order to defend the interests of our ownership and governing class. This is an especially critical issue for Senator Obama, considering that most victims of our killing are non-whites. His vulnerability to the charges of dual loyalty on this issue, almost certainly means no end to wars, expansions of foreign military bases and occupations of third world countries under his watch.
The made up charges of having a radical minister, or being a Muslim, a Palestinian sympathizer or being married to a black nationalist was meant to limit his room to maneuver on these issues even if there was never any indication he was ever serious about moving in a bold progressive direction.
With his "weakness" defined as his associations with progressive movements, ideas or individuals, he can do nothing but run to the other direction for the next four years if he ascends to the office of President. This is the genius of McCarthyism at work, fifty years after its namesake split hell wide open.
The politics of Personal Responsibility
Personal responsibility is a legitimate issue when discussed in the context of family and personal lives. When dragged into the political arena it is an issue that is entirely an elite construct. The actual positions of the elite are not particularly relevant. What is important is that the issues get discussed not what results from that discussion. The relevance of this issue is not in what it illuminates but in what it hides.
The recent enthusiastic embrace of Senator Obama of the call for "responsibility" from inner city black fathers is a prime example of this issue. What he is really saying is, "I will never blame the owners of the country for the social problems caused by their economic policies." Senator Obama knows better than anyone that you can eliminate most of the problems of inner city fathers in a generation with a decent educational system and living wage jobs.
But all systems of power need a convincing and unlikable enemy, which can bury the contradictions of the system. In our case incoherent, undereducated black urban males fit the bill perfectly. They are being attacked not because they are a threat to the power structure, but precisely because they are not.
What voters are expected to believe is that after a 30-year class war against the bottom 90% of income earners, the source of their troubles are black rappers and inner city fathers and not criminality on Wall Street or a corrupt political system. The road to the White House over the past 30 years has been paved by pretending to believe the absurdity that the individuals who pull the levers of power over people's lives are named Willie Horton, Sister Souljah and Ludicrous, and not Robert Rubin, Phil Gramm and Hank Paulson.
If as a society we are prepared to believe this, then we have lost the stuff that makes free men."