P. Sainath

Pro-Obama television channels run dictionary definitions of ‘socialism’ to establish that nothing Barack Obama has proposed falls into that dreaded territory.

A spectre is haunting America — the spectre of socialism. (Well, at least, it’s haunting the election campaigns of the two main presidential candidates). All the powers of the Right have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Radio Show hosts and evangelicals. John McCain and Sarah Palin. Bloggers and Burghers. Bill O’Reilly and Joe the Plumber. Fox News and assorted conspirators.

Barack Obama, a wimpish centrist Democrat, now defends himself against charges that he is “socialist.” His supporters respond to it by “hurling back the branded reproach” — did not Mr. McCain support many of these self-same ‘socialist’ policies? (Like pouring hundreds of billions of dollars from taxpayers’ wallets down Wall Street’s bottomless pit?)

Pro-Obama television channels are running dictionary definitions of ‘socialism.’ These aim to clear the air by establishing that nothing he has proposed falls into that dreaded territory. In no other electoral democracy in the world is this kind of response possible. Certainly not in Europe where so many of Washington’s allies wear the labels — if not the legacy — of ‘socialism’ and ‘labour.’ To those from most other countries, this ‘debate’ must seem whacko. In the United States, it still has adherents, even if they are confounded by the scarier spectre of economic crisis. Two million families could lose their homes in the mortgage avalanche. But the buzzword, for the Republicans at least, is ‘socialism.’ “Obama says he wants to spread the wealth around,” Mr. McCain now protests. “That’s a basic tenet of socialism. If I were President, I would never do that.”

This could be the last charge of the Right Brigade prior to November 4. Into the Valley of Vote ride the Noble 600. Wall Street to the right of them, Foreclosures to the left of them, Meltdown in front of them have volleyed and thundered. But those issues are not their focus. Maybe, this time, too, somebody blundered. It isn’t all over yet, though. Weapons washed away by the tsunami of the super-rich, Mr. McCain’s campaign has fallen back on the good old Pavlovian signals of socialism and race. (The latter continues to be a major, if less, overt factor.) From their point of view, they have few options.

The disclosure that the Republicans have spent $150,000 on “campaign accessories” (read designer clothing) for Ms Palin has damaged their vice-presidential candidate perhaps more than the political scandals attached to her name in Alaska. This was extremely bad handling of a powerful rabble-rouser by her own party. For, such decisions are not taken by the candidate. In the U.S. elections, the tiniest thing a contender does is scripted and choreographed by campaign handlers. (Sometimes, even fake “errors” on stage are carefully rehearsed.) For someone bonding with the “working class” voter, this could be messy. Hockey moms do not spend $150,000 on clothing. It makes it harder to brand your opponent ‘elitist’ as the McCain-Palin wagon has done with Mr. Obama. The Republicans have undermined a hard-hitting campaigner of their own. (Though it must be said few estimates exist of the “campaign accessories” costs of a male candidate.)

The much-derided Ms Palin has, in fact, drawn far bigger crowds than Mr. McCain has at any time during his campaign. She is pretty much of the Reagan school: folksy talk, rustic one-liners, playing the outsider struggling to clean out a corrupt Washington. Like with Reagan (and later Bush Jr.) there’s a lot of fiction, falsehood, fear-mongering and off-the-wall claims in her speeches. She was never brought in to add intellectual gravitas to the sagging McCain campaign. She was brought in to consolidate a conservative evangelical Christian base highly suspicious of Mr. McCain. She did that. She was not there to win over Democrats but to fire up the demoralised faithful. She did that too, to an extent where the campaign rallies and speeches can now spark violence. She was to go after Mr. Obama, while Mr. McCain looked lofty and presidential. Mr. McCain failed to do that, Ms Palin succeeded.

She has attacked Mr. Obama with a ferocity that mainline candidates rarely dare attempt. The flow of lava has been so heavy that the latter’s campaign, which — rightly — evaded saying a negative word about her, now feels compelled to respond to some of the more outrageous charges she comes up with. It was Ms Palin (after Hillary Clinton), not Mr. McCain, who succeeded in spreading the “palled-around-with-terrorists” canard about Mr. Obama. It is she who now leads the “Obama-is-a-socialist” chorus.

This is a genuine Right-wing populist. The Left of that species went extinct a long time ago in the U.S. And while a defeat would mean the end of Mr. McCain, it may not mean that at all for Ms Palin. She could well be in the race for office in 2012. Unless, of course, her campaign handlers destroy her before that. They’ve just made a great start worth $150,000.

The McCain campaign feels it has no choice but to hit Mr. Obama in savage, personal terms. The economy is not helping — though even there, the Republicans made a spirited effort to distance Mr. McCain from George Bush (seen as the Curse of the Oval Office). It didn’t work. The McCain camp rightly feels it was the economic meltdown that pushed Mr. Obama ahead. It believes that had the crisis not happened, Mr. McCain would have been ahead in the polls right now. That too, is very plausible. So the economy does not provide the best plank for the Republicans in this campaign. What’s worse, the Democrats are raising more money. The despair is evident when the champions of corporate wealth and the super-rich start hitting out at the “unprecedented money power we’re seeing in this election.”

The Obama campaign raised a record-breaking $150 million in September, (after having touched $65 million in August, his previous best). In all, the Democratic candidate’s total fundraising has crossed $600 million. That’s unprecedented even in a country with the world’s most expensive election campaigns. And so, even in a nation accustomed to being drowned in TV ads, the scale of the national and targeted video advertising has been without parallel. And Mr. Obama is outspending Mr. McCain massively.

Mr. McCain has grumbled darkly about history’s lesson that “where unlimited amounts of money are in political campaigns, it leads to scandal.” Certainly true but hardly a remark he would have made had the roles been reversed. Mr. Obama’s records are a new high (or new low) but still occur in an electoral system that was already the most obscenely expensive one in the world. Out-gunned, outspent, out-advertised, and with less than two weeks to go, Mr. McCain’s outfit has to go for broke on the fear-mongering front. If nothing else, it has revived the word ‘socialism’ and a degree of curiosity about it. There is just one member of the United States Senate — Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who calls himself a “democratic socialist.” But he has voted with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time. (“The remaining two per cent of the time, he’s probably voted with the Republicans,” mocks Counterpunch Co-editor Alexander Cockburn.)

One happy outcome of the past few months, though, is the frequency with which the phrase “socialism for the rich” is being heard in public discourse. (That and ‘Crony Capitalism.’) This comes not from leftists (such as there are) but from those of impeccable conservative and wealthy credentials. Even from a few big investors like Jim Rogers of Rogers Holdings. One of his throwaway lines: “America is more Communist than China is right now. You can see that this is welfare of the rich, it is socialism for the rich … it’s just bailing out financial institutions.” Earlier this year, he asserted that with investment banks “going bankrupt since the beginning of time … if you bail out every investment bank that gets into trouble, that’s not capitalism. That’s socialism for the rich.”

But while the attack on ‘socialism’ of the kind the McCain camp tags to Mr. Obama’s name is explicit and unapologetic, a much less overt — and should it work — far more potent lever, is race. Pollsters seem convinced that the “Bradley effect” (where people say they are voting for a black candidate but don’t) will work in reverse this time. They believe a lot of white voters who won’t tell their neighbours they’re voting for Mr. Obama, will. They also believe that several Republicans won’t tell their neighbours they’re voting for a Democrat, but might. Yet quite a few also agree that Mr. Obama should have been many more points ahead at this stage given the advantages of the meltdown. (And the McCain camp’s own, relative ‘financial crisis.’) All in all, no one seems too comfortable with the opinion polls.

However, the niceties of present-day debate in an America far more diverse than it was decades ago make overt racism a bit more complex. Like the situation at a Republican rally where one McCain supporter was indulging in anti-Muslim, anti-Obama rhetoric. Intervening between him and angry “Muslims for McCain” was a black campaign marshal — also a Muslim. So that approach can help consolidate one front while hurting another, unless you handle it with sophistication — and quietly.

On the other hand, it’s open season for going after socialism. The American variant of that spectre being as confused, curious and befuddled as those it haunts.