Obama, Democracy and the “Drum Major Instinct”: Interview With Author Paul Street

Obama, Democracy and the "Drum Major Instinct": Interview With Author Paul Street

You might know independent policy researcher, historian, journalist, activist, political commentator and speaker Paul Street because you’ve read one (or more) of his five books:

Perhaps you’ve read his work in any of the following: The New York Times, CNN, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, Z Magazine, Black Commentator, ZNet, AlterNet and Monthly Review.

If you live in Iowa City, Iowa, you might know Paul personally.

There’s also an excellent chance you’re not at all familiar with Paul Street or his work … and that’s kinda the point of his work. You see, contrary to all the free press talk and the delusions of equal access and all, only a tiny spectrum of opinion is widely heard in this country. If Street has any say in the matter, that will change.

Street recently took time out from a book tour and from writing a book (with Anthony Dimaggio) on the right-wing Tea Party phenomenon to talk with me.

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Mickey Z.: So much of the American experience is based on myths like the two-party system, “land of opportunity,” and more. How do you offer a more nuanced view of US history in your work?

Paul Street: I agree on the power of those great American myths and would add some other and related ones: the notion that the United States is a benevolent force for democracy and good in the world; the idea that that the profits system is a form of freedom and democracy; the myth that we can achieve significant democratic change simply by voting in quadrennial corporate-crafted and candidate-centered elections; the notion that we live in a “post-racial” era wherein racism has been mostly defeated; the myth of an independent and objective media. What I try to do to explode these and other key national legends is fairly similar to what you and other American dissidents like Bill Blum and Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn do. I try to rescue from what E.P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity” (and from what George Orwell termed “the memory hole”) some of the many inconvenient facts that do not fit the official narrative imposed by the dominant fables. And I try to fit the doctrinally inappropriate alternative facts into a compelling, accurate counter-narrative that links past to present and vice versa. I used to do a lot of this in the field of history, dealing with the fixed, in-place and “dead” (though ever-contested, re-discovered and revised) past itself.

MZ: What led to a shift in focus?

PS: Starting in the late 1990s, my focus shifted to the moving object of the historical present. And for better or worse, my last two books have tried to do this demystification work in relation to the Obama phenomenon (July 2004 to ?) and presidency (January 2009 to ?). These books deconstruct the supposedly left and progressive Obama from the actual Left by showing in detailed ways that he is beholden to Wall Street and the corporate elite; that he is an “American exceptionalist” man of military empire – a re-brander and agent of an immoral Superpower; that he continues key aspects of the post-9/11 Bush police and terror state; that he repackages sexism and homophobia and the war on immigrants.

MZ: So, it’s much deeper than just the Obama hype, right?

PS: At the end of the day, these counter-narratives are not really about “Obama” per se. I’d likely have written something very similar to my “Obama books” if the winner of 2008 presidential extravaganza was someone else. It’s systemic and it’s nothing new. Every four years, many Americans invest their hopes in an electoral process that does not deserve their trust. These voters hope that a savior can be installed in the White House – someone who will raise wages, roll back war and militarism, provide universal and adequate health care, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, produce high-paying jobs, fix the environmental crisis, reduce inequality, guarantee economic security and generally make daily life more livable. But the dreams are regularly drowned in the icy waters of historical and political “reality.”

MZ: Such “icy waters” doesn’t just appear on their own, right?

PS: In the actuality of American politics and policy, the officially “electable” candidates are vetted in advance by what Laurence Shoup calls “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” By prior Establishment selection, all of the “viable” presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways. They run safely within the narrow ideological and policy parameters set by those who rule behind the scenes to make sure that the rich and privileged continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system. In its presidential as in its other elections, U.S. “democracy” is “at best” a “guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion,” Shoup claims – correctly in my opinion – “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate.” This is especially true in the corporate-neoliberal era, perhaps, when the Democratic Party has moved ever farther away from its declared mission of representing workers, the poor and minorities – the disadvantaged – in their continuing struggles with plutocracy, inequality, empire, racism, and indifference.

MZ: Please elaborate.

PS: The deeper and darker truth is that American democracy has always been significantly constrained and compromised by the privileged and the propertied and power elite. Sixty years ago, the historian Richard Hofstader, in his widely read book “The American Political Tradition,” scrutinized the United States’ most significant national leaders, from Jefferson, Hamilton and Jackson to Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Herbert Hoover and the two Roosevelts – liberals and Democrats as well as conservatives and Republicans. Hofstader found that “the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise … They have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man … That culture has been intensely nationalistic.” We might add that American political culture has also long observed narrow parameters of permissible debate and action surrounding skin color and sex-type – barriers that have generally prevented leading politicians and officeholders from seriously attacking underlying structures and patterns of racial and gender disparity. Through the century in which Hofstader wrote and into the present one, Howard Zinn has noted, “we have seen exactly the same limited vision Hofstader talked about – a capitalist encouragement of enormous fortunes alongside desperate poverty, a nationalistic acceptance of war and preparation for war. Government power swung from Republicans to Democrats and back again, but neither party showed itself capable of going beyond that vision.” Contrary to the hopes and dreams of many nominally “progressive” U.S. voters and activists and others in 2007 and early 2008, my last two books show among other things simply that Obama is not some sort of special, magical exception to the cold truths that Shoup, Zinn, Chomsky, Blum, Edward S. Herman and other left demystifers tell about the American politics past and present.

MZ: How does your new book, “The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power,” aim toward such demystification?

PS: My recent book’s main moral and political criticism is not directed primarily at Obama himself. My ultimate critical targets are the corporate-dominated and militaristic U.S. elections system and political culture. That system and culture make it next to impossible for Obama or anyone else to become president without steering to the business-friendly, racially neutral and imperial center and without distancing themselves from elementary truths about U.S. history, society and policy. I do not shrink from making critical judgments about the moral cost inherent in Obama’s decision to join rather than to fight “the establishment” – to seek to climb rather than undermine the American System. But I am more concerned with the historical system and forces that compromise Barack Obama – along with countless other Democratic politicians and policymakers past, present and future – than with the individual compromised. The most critical focus here is not on the candidate-in-question’s personal characteristics or moral constitution but rather on the restrictive institutional and societal framework within which his candidacy and celebrity have emerged. Following the counsel of Martin Luther King, Jr., I do not condemn Obama for acting on what King called “the Drum Major Instinct” – the desire to “be important,” “the best,” and recognized for personal achievement. I criticize rather the captivity of that natural human instinct by the interrelated and mutually reinforcing logics of empire and inequality.

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