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Broken Promises: The Structural Legacy of Capitalist Democracies

January 4th, 2017

James Petras

In recent times, and probably since the establishment of universal voting, presidents- elect have systematically violated or broken their promises to their supporters.

This essay begins with the campaign promises of the outgoing President Barack Obama and the President-Elect Donald Trump. We will then examine the reasons why rhetorical populist, peaceful and democratic promises always accompany campaigns and are immediately followed by the victor appointing cabinet members who are committed to elite-driven, militarist and authoritarian policies – so far from the expectations of the voters.

Obama: Style and Substance

Barack Obama, like all demagogues, promised American voters that he would end the US military occupation of Iraq, close the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp, end torture and secrecy, defend civil liberties, protect mortgage holders swindled by Wall Street bankers, introduce a real health care reform and develop a path to citizenship for undocumented migrant workers and their families.

Above all, Obama promoted the notion that he was ‘the historic African-American President’ tasked with fulfilling the promises of the civil rights revolution. Obama spoke to civil and human rights activists, promising an end to racial violence and inequality. He promised to end state intrusion and violation of individual freedoms.


The ‘Historic Black President’: Unprecedented Number of Broken Promises

All Presidents, to a greater or lesser degree, have broken electoral pledges. But, far and away, President Barack Obama broke more and bigger promises over his two terms than any of his predecessors. His administration was one of making and then immediately revising and reversing promises to his supporters. Every one of his promises for social reform, health care and foreign policy based on diplomacy and respect merely served as a prelude to imposing new and more regressive policies and launching more wars.

The record is clear: Over the eight years of his presidency, Obama degraded the expectations of every popular constituency that he courted and won during the campaigns. Black Americans voted for Obama 10 to 1 during both campaigns! Despite the overwhelming support form African Americans, income inequalities between white and black workers increased, deadly police violence against Afro-Americans increased, and white vigilante assaults, including the torching of Afro-American churches, multiplied. Non-violent African-American drug offenders (dealers and users) were incarcerated at a rate far exceeding their white counterparts, while the giant pharmaceutical corporate elites and the doctors prescribing highly addictive narcotics and fueling the opioid addiction epidemic counted their mushrooming profits with total impunity.

Obama pursued seven wars and scores of violent covert operations, exceeding his predecessor, President George Bush, Jr. His wars led to the greatest combined numbers of dispossessed, wounded and murdered Africans, Arabs, South Asians and Eastern Europeans in world history.

Obama transferred $2 trillion dollars from the US Treasury to bail two dozen Wall Street banks, which then continued to foreclose on the homes of 3 million working class households – contrary to his campaign rhetoric.

Leading multi-national corporations successfully hid over $2 trillion dollars of profits in overseas tax havens. The President occasionally mouthed some ‘lollipop rhetorical criticism’ against the big corporate tax evaders while continuing to tax the over-worked working people – whose living standards steadily declined.

Militarists infected the entire Obama administration to an extent not seen since the warmongers Harry Truman and Winston Churchill cynically launched the Cold War.

Obama pursued a policy of encircling Russia with US and NATO military bases stationed from the new US’ Baltic satellites to the Balkans, from the Mediterranean to the Caucuses.

The Obama regime financed the violent putsches and bloody attempts at ‘regime change’ in Ukraine, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Honduras and Yemen – with devastating result to millions of displaced and destitute people. No other warlord, past or present, can match the Obama regime in sowing misery and mayhem.

Obama: Speaks in Tongues

Obama, ever the chameleon, spoke in different accents and cadences to different audiences: To the young, he jived with rappers, hoopsters, baseball stars and stage and screen celebrities. To black church ladies, this Honolulu-born and bred graduate of the elite Punahou academy and Harvard Law School, would adopt a southern Baptist drawl – completely foreign to the speech of his mother and grandmother. When he turned to his sophisticated white Chicago groomers and supporters in the finance sector, he reverted to speaking with a deep well-modulated gravitas.

His language was full of euphemisms: the famous ‘pivot to Asia’ meant an aggressive and dangerous maritime and aerial encirclement of China, with the aim of crippling Asia’s greatest economy.

While he spoke of ‘environmental protections and workers’ rights’, he pushed for a Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement giving multi-national corporations the power to gut labor rights and environmental regulations.

The Obama regime had loudly promised to protect Native-American access to their traditional water and land, as well as cultural, community and religious sites. In practice, he protected the big oil and gas pipelines projects infringing on native lands with brutal militarized police and private mercenary guards, beating and jailing social justice activists and threatening journalists.

Obama has strengthened the enforcement of existing police state surveillance operations despite their violations of constitutional freedoms and he imposed an extension of police state rule, especially against ‘whistle-blowers’. With one of the most secretive administrations in history, Obama has prosecuted, destroyed and imprisoned more heroic public servants – for the ‘crime’ of exposing state crimes to the citizenry. He actively flaunted Federal laws guaranteeing the protection of ‘whistle-blowers’ and has sent a chill throughout the public sector – demoralizing the best of our public servants.

Donald Trump: Electoral Promises and Post-Election Betrayals

Intent on surpassing the broken promises of President Obama, President-Elect Trump quickly reversed his rhetorical campaign promise to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington and embraced his ‘sworn enemies’ with the fervor of a veteran courtesan. Traditional Republican politicians, business people and Wall Streeters, initially opposed to ‘The Donald’, have all jumped on the bandwagon and into Trump’s open arms.

Trump broke his main campaign promises to the electorate. Announcing he would not ‘jail’ Hillary Clinton for her activities concerning the Clinton Foundation while in office, Trump instead praised her courage and integrity. Upon his election, Trump even pandered to the former President Bill ‘Oval Office sex scandal’ Clinton. While Trump may have a change of heart regarding the sleaze and crimes of the Clintons, his mass supporters have not.

Trump openly praised Hillary Clinton in exchange for her initial decision not to challenge his election victory and ‘transition’. However her use of surrogate Green Party candidate Jill Stein to challenge the election count and the CIA/Democratic Party’s accusations of Russian-Trump-FBI collusion in influencing the campaign may force him to review his decision as the makings of a palace coup-d’etat seem to emerge from ‘the swamp’.

His ongoing private business dealings, which he promised to renounce, have continued - to the consternation of his loyal activist base.

Trump has sent mixed signals with his choices for senior cabinet officials: He broke his promises on economic, diplomatic and foreign policy by appointing or considering several mainstream Republicans for major positions, including a vocal critic for UN Representative. Mainstream Republicans were contemptuous of Trumps mass electoral support base. Nevertheless, Trump has appointed business CEO’s who were more market-oriented and less militaristic than the typical Republican and Democratic establishment politicians.

He also kept his his campaign promise to protect US commerce and industry, by favoring a trade-oriented policy with Russia. He wants to negotiate more advantageous trade agreements with the Chinese president. He has announced his appointment of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, a very concrete move toward ending the sanctions against Russia, which have shut American businesses and energy giants out of that huge market.

Trump has appealed directly to the ‘Israel-Firster’ crowd, vowing to ‘tear up’ the nuclear agreement with Iran, which was so unpopular with militant American and Israeli Jews. Despite calling it the ‘worst agreement in US history’, he appears to have given ‘the nod’ to the big oil and gas interests who are happily signing multi-billion dollar deals with Teheran and to the aerospace giant Boeing to sell a new fleet of passenger jets to Iran.

Electoral demagoguery is not just an Obama affliction. Broken promises are ‘stock and trade’ for all Democratic and Republican Presidents. Deceit and phony populist language are standard fare because these are what capitalist democracy demands of its political representatives.

The Structural Basis of Capitalist Democracy

Under capitalist democracies, Presidents put on the appearance of ‘talking to real folks’ while skillfully working for the biggest capitalists and bankers.

When ‘capitalist democracy’ is under threat and discredited, the search for populist demagogues kicks in. While activists for peace and social justice were organizing huge masses of demonstrators against the banks during the ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement’, the Wall Streeters trotted out America’s “First Black President” to divert the anger of bankrupted mortgage holders, con the white students, fool Latino voters, charm the Black church-ladies and lead them all into the corrupt embrace of the Democratic Party.

When the economy forced millions of people into low-paying dead-end jobs and declining living standards, when globalization impoverished local small and middle business people and shop keepers, a loud mouth billionaire casino king appears on the scene to bark phony populist rhetoric denouncing Madame Secretary Hillary Clinton for her most carnal ties with Wall Street. And he gets elected President of the United States!.

In other words, when capitalism is in crisis the demagogues ‘come out of the woodwork’.

Flamboyant capitalist demagogues replace the normal deceitful standard bearers of corrupt electoral politics. Obama and Trump’s demagoguery won-out over Hillary Clintons and Mitt Romneys’ boring speech-makers. No matter how outlandish their lies, Hillary and Mitt could not grab the voters’ imagination.

Capitalist democracies have become more fragile as economic crises become entrenched and recoveries are brief and weak. The frequent rise of presidential demagogues, from Obama to Trump, reflects the capitalist elites’ refusal to share any productivity gains with the workers or to pay taxes on overseas/imperial profits and thus lessen the tax burden on wage-earners, or to invest in a productive economy employing well-paid workers rather than engaging in speculation.

‘Capitalist democracy’ can no long deceive the voters. Half of eligible voters abstain from a process that does not reflect their interests. And half of the actual voters reject traditional politicians. To retain any veneer of electoral legitimacy and enable the capitalists to continue their rule, demagogues have to replace the ‘damaged goods’ politicians who have prostituted themselves too openly and too often.

Over eighty percent of voters know that their votes have no impact on political decisions regarding war and peace, domestic inequalities and income distribution – real issues.

Capitalism can no longer reproduce itself through a faux electoral machine. Were it not for the predictable emergence of novelties, like ‘America’s First Black’ Obama or the ‘Shock-Jock’ celebrity Trump to occupy the White House on waves of mass protest votes, tens of millions of absentee and discontented voters might fill the streets, boot out the phony union bosses who ‘speak for’ only 7% of wage earners, and reject the two political parties united ‘at the hip’ in their service to the elite one percent.


Conclusion

Let us imagine that the capitalist demagogues finally lose their mass appeal in the face of repeated broken promises. Let us assume there will be a temporary return to bland, reliable, everyday political hucksters, as this so-called cycle of ‘outsiders’ gets played out. The mass discontent will not go away. As the economic crisis and inequalities grow, extra-parliamentary public outbursts will are inevitable. With them, fear and uncertainty among bankers, speculators and billionaire electronic gadget makers will set in. The much ballyhooed ‘silicon architecture’ will crumble like sandcastles. The capitalist class may have to turn from ballots to bullets. At that point, can they entrust their wealth and status in the hands of thousands of soldiers and police ordered to gun down and round up millions of their fellow American workers? Or are they dreaming of robots…?

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James Petras is the author of over 62 books published in 29 languages, and over 600 articles in professional journals, including the American Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology, Social Research, and Journal of Peasant Studies. He has published over 2000 articles in nonprofessional journals such as the New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, New Left Review, Partisan Review, TempsModerne, Le Monde Diplomatique, and his commentary is widely carried out in the Internet. James Petras is a former professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, has a 50-year membership in the class struggle, the author is an advisor to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina and is co - of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books) and Zionism, Militarism and the Decline of U.S. Power (Clarity Press, 2008). James Petras latest book is War Crimes in Gaza and the Zionist Fifth Column in America (Atlanta:Clarity Pres 2010) He can be reached at: jpetras@binghamton.edu. | Read other articles by James Petras, or visit his website: http://petras.lahaine.org/index.php

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