Dan McKee

General Election 2010 –
How Ignoring Minor Differences Can Lead to Major Disappointments

As “election fever” begins to spread here in the UK – ok, more like an election case of the sniffles – I thought it worth writing this month’s column about the impending political battle between the incumbent Labour party (headed, at least for the moment, by the unfortunate Gordon Brown) and the Lazarus-like zombie party, the Conservatives (led by nauseating media vapour, David Cameron).  The Tories are back from the dead after twelve long years in exile and, from all the relevant polling data, appear dangerously likely to shamble their way back into government come election day.
The UK election comes, of course, just over a year after the citizens of the United States of America (including myself) rejected, at long last, the neo-conservative policies of one George. W. Bush and brought about the unprecedented election victory of Barack Obama.
I use the word “unprecedented” very loosely these days.  Whilst it is true that Barack Obama, as the first African-American man in history to hold that particular office, is, in that respect, without precedent, in his actual role as President of the United States he has proven himself thus far to be, sadly, far from exceptional.
The sense of betrayal many of Obama’s previous supporters feel about his actions this first year in the Whitehouse is something that inexorably shapes my feelings about the upcoming British election.  Not only because it is a very similar sensation to that sense of betrayal felt by supporters of the Labour Party over the last twelve years, as they have watched the party that they thought would put things right after eighteen years of the Tories do nothing more than continue pursuing the exact same Conservative policies they thought they were voting against, but because, for me, the betrayal of Barack Obama was kind of my last straw with electoral politics.
To explain: as long-time readers will know – as an avowed anarchist, it has long been clear to me that all mainstream political parties are essentially the same.  Though their party colours may be different, their leaders may have different hair-cuts and faces, and the wording of their policies may differ slightly along a shared spectrum of acceptable thought, at bottom, the major political parties of the UK, and the USA are all inherently beholden to the elite interests of business and power and not the true political interests of their citizens.  This has been a historically demonstrable truism since at least the end of the Second World War, and has certainly been my own experience after seeing New Labour sweep into power in 1997. 
Only being recently politicized at the time of the election – by that I mean, I’d started listening to DEAD KENNEDYS and SUBHUMANS albums a year or so before, had began reading the newspaper semi-regularly and had bought a few Chomsky books – I wasn’t fully aware of the huge cultural significance of that ’97 victory.  At that stage in my life, I was learning most of my politics from the liner notes of Punk Rock records and fanzines, and knew only that no government was to be trusted.  Although most of the targets of Punk Rock hate in the music that I listened to were figures from the right, the election of Bill Clinton in the United States had not seemed to quell the rage and anger of American Punk Rock.  If anything, under Clinton, the Punks were even more angry than they had been under Reagan and Bush: the pro-wealthy, pro-business, pro-religious fundamentalism bullshit was to be expected from motherfuckers like that, but when Clinton came in, promising to help the working class, overhaul health-care, and generally undo all the crap of the Reagan/Bush years, for him to continue doing so many of the same things that he was meant to be stopping was like a massive slap in the face.  The daily bombing of Iraq didn’t let up under Clinton, the UN sanctions that were killing so many in the region had not ceased, welfare had been gutted, NAFTA became law…  Whilst free-market capitalism remained on a rampage despite the changing of the guard in Washington, the nation – and the world – continued to suffer under the Democrats in much the same as they had under the Republicans.
So despite all the celebration that I saw on the news, and in the streets around my old house, and despite D:REAM’s repeated mantra that “things can only get better”, when the Labour Party won the UK General Election in ’97, and finally ousted the Conservative Party after eighteen years of Tory rule, I didn’t get all that excited.  All politicians were bastards – didn’t people realize that?  Just because we’d changed the tenants now living at Number 10 didn’t mean we’d changed the whole shitty system…
When George. W. Bush stole the U.S. election in 2000, I was three years wiser than I had been in 1997.  I now understood the historical and cultural context of what was going on a lot better, and was genuinely angry by the election “results”.  At the same time though, I had not wavered in my belief that, whoever wins, we lose.  Al Gore did not appeal to me any more than George Bush did, and I was much more interested in seeing how Ralph Nader fared than in a victory for the Democrats.  No fan of JELLO BIAFRA’s spoken word work throughout the eighties and nineties could ever truly throw their support behind the husband of the dreaded Tipper Gore, and, having been Vice-President to the traitorous, Bill Clinton (and thus equally complicit in things like Kosovo, sanctions and bombing in Iraq, NAFTA, deregulation, etc), it was hard to get excited about four more years of an extended Clinton Administration.  (Considering the words and actions of Gore’s running mate, Joe Lieberman, in recent years, in fact, it sometimes seems like a very good thing we never got to see what a Gore/Lieberman Whitehouse would have looked like.) 
Yes, I was angry at the injustice of the way that Bush took the Presidency, but not that he had won it.  He stole it.  Pure and simple.  The Supreme Court gave it to him on a silver platter, his staff fucked with voting machines, and the whole thing left an already tenuous façade of representative democracy even more tarnished.  But I didn’t for a minute think that a Bush Presidency would be any better or worse than a Gore Presidency.  As far as I was concerned, they were all just different agents for the same overriding Corporate Party that really ran America.  If anything, I thought, a Bush Presidency might even be cool: my Punk Rock instincts couldn’t help but think of all the great music such an obvious shit-bag might inspire.
That opinion changed somewhat after 9/11.
It’s not that I think the war on terror wouldn’t have happened had Al Gore been President in September, 2001.  Indeed, as I was writing at the time – including back in the old print version of SCANNER – it was my opinion that, ever since the end of the Cold War, the United States had been looking for a new foreign policy narrative with which to wrap up their essentially unchanged international objectives, and 9/11 was the perfect fit.  First they had tried the war on drugs, but that had failed because it turned out people liked their drugs, and didn’t like the idea of their own government going to war against them.  Then they had tried humanitarian intervention – a whole new epoch in foreign affairs where wars would be fought under the auspices of peace instead of aggression and America would police the globe.  That too, however, had failed, as even an idiot could see the Orwellian contradictions.  9/11, however, whichever side your political bread was buttered, was a perfect opportunity to unleash a brand new all-encompassing replacement narrative that would allow America the same flexibility to pursue its economic and geo-political interests on the world stage as the Cold War had done previously: simply replace the word “communist” with “terrorist” and all those messy problems of justification that so plagued the nineties became moot.
So I don’t, for a minute, think that a Gore government would have been any less eager to parlay the tragedy of 9/11 into an excuse for enduring war.  Enduring war is the desired state for any imperialist nation looking to exert its power all around the world without fear of scrutiny and, since World War II at least, American Presidents of all political persuasions have been highly adept at capitalizing on tragic world events to pursue imperialistic goals.  But as the Bush years went on – as Afghanistan became Iraq, as extraordinary rendition gave way to water-boarding, as the USA PATRIOT ACT begat Guantanamo and Abu-Ghraib, as military invasion turned into Blackwater and no-bid contracts became the biggest war-profiteering money laundering scam of the twenty-first century – I began to question my earlier assumptions.  Yes, Gore would have still very likely brought us into a ridiculous “war on terror” as a response to 9/11, but would it have had the same horrific tone of hubris and abandon that specifically characterized George.W. Bush’s war on terror?  I began to think not.
Greg Ginn was once quoted as saying that, after Henry Rollins joined BLACK FLAG, they had to stop doing songs with a sense of humour – what had once worked well with Keith Morris on vocals, or Dez Cadena, no longer seemed so funny when it was now Rollins stood, wild-eyed and be-shorted, screaming out those same satirical lyrics with his trademark psychotic intensity.  And just as Rollins might sing the exact same song as Morris or Cadena, but make it dark and ugly where once it was tongue-in-cheek, I started wondering if the unarguable inevitability of the “war on terror” under Bush or Gore was the same thing as saying that the exact same war on terror would have been waged? 
The more I thought about it, the more I began to see some the cracks in the old “all politicians are the same” hypothesis.
On the central issues of the day, yes – all politicians are most definitely the same.  They all believe in the free-market, they all believe in using the military to protect business interests and further their geo-political control, they all believe in trickle-down instead of bottom up, they all believe in sacrificing innocent people to achieve their nefarious goals…the choice of Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Labour really is, to paraphrase the late, great, Bill Hicks, a choice of two superficially different puppets all controlled by the same puppet-master. 
But at the same time, the perception of there being genuine difference is essential for the continuing success of the illusion of democracy, and that being the case, there are some very subtle ways in which these superficial differences can become quite important. 
If people really thought that it didn’t matter which party they voted for, then they might start demanding some actual change, so it is crucial to maintain the façade in order to keep the masses well behaved.  Because the balancing act of pushing through a non-democratic agenda under the veneer of democracy means that the perception we citizens have of our politicians must, therefore, be maintained at all times, sometimes our politicians become unavoidably restrained in what they can and can’t get away with because of the threat of public backlash.
Would Al Gore have launched a war on terror had 9/11 happened on his watch?  Almost definitely.  But would he have been able to get away so brazenly with torture, domestic repression and the invasion of Iraq as did George. W. Bush?  Possibly not.
There still remain certain assumptions about politicians on the left, and politicians on the right, that inherently affect the public’s acceptance of what they can, or can’t, do.  A politician on the right, for example, does not have to mince words about why they want to go to war.  They will have long campaigned on the promise of tighter national security, a strong military, and an open endorsement of opening up foreign markets.  If they can make a compelling case for military action, therefore, they can wrap their war in a flag and fight, by any means necessary, to achieve their desired goals. 
A politician on the left, however, cannot do this so easily.  Mainly, because they have people like me to answer to. 
A politician on the left tells their political base that they want to go to war and, far from rallying round the flag and offering unwavering support for the troops, we lefties demand an explanation.  We want evidence, we want proof that diplomacy has failed, we want to know that there are no alternatives and we want to know that innocent soldiers aren’t simply giving their lives up for oil.  In short: we hold politicians on the left to account much more than we do our politicians on the right.
The worst excesses of imperial capitalism lie perfectly in tandem with the ideology of the right, but the political philosophy of the left is intrinsically in conflict with many of the desired actions inherent to the corporate state.  It becomes much harder, therefore, for politicians on the left to pursue their elite agenda in the same unfettered fashion that politicians on the right are free to do.  They are judged by different standards – and on different core assumptions – and have to be much more careful about how they proceed.
Gore would have definitely gone into Afghanistan.  Of that I have no doubt.  But extending the fight into Iraq would have been a much bigger challenge with a Democrat sitting in the Whitehouse than it was under Bush.  Torture, private contractors, wire-tapping, Abu-Ghraib…the arrogance with which the Bush administration shrugged off – and intensified – their disregard for the constitution, human rights, Iraqi sovereignty, and habeas corpus would have all been vastly harder to sell for a politician on the left.
Which brings me to Obama, and why I finally felt inspired enough to register for a postal vote in the historic 2008 election.
I have been a dual U.S. and UK citizen all my life, but never until now had I taken advantage of my American citizenship and voted in a U.S. election.  Like I said before, in 2000 (the first election for which I was old enough) I didn’t feel strongly enough about either of the candidates to make it worth the hassle (and even then wasn’t stupid enough to think Ralph Nader might actually win).  By the time the 2004 elections came around, as dumb as this may now sound, I simply thought my vote wouldn’t be needed.  It seemed so obvious to me at the time that Bush would be defeated – after everything he had done to the country in his disastrous first term, how could anybody choose to vote for him?
It turns out: there were a lot more idiots in America than I thought.
In 2008, not only had I learned my lesson from last time about the perils of leaving democracy up to others, but for the first time in my life, in either the U.S. or the UK, there was a candidate I actually believed in!  Barack Obama – a guy who really seemed to be a little different than all the rest.  Sure, I’d read his books and been disappointed.  “Obama,” I said to anybody who asked “sounds like a bit of a deal-maker to me.”  And during the pre-election debates I was as vocal as anyone in warning that the supposed candidate for “peace” seemed pretty gung-ho about intensifying the war in Afghanistan and expanding the fight further into Pakistan.  But at the same time, after eight long years of Bush, it just seemed so nice to see someone articulate and intelligent standing up there and making thoughtful and rational arguments instead of attributing his most dangerous policies to God.  And next to John McCain, Obama seemed like the nearest thing the country had to salvation.
So I voted for him.
If there was ever going to be a perfect mainstream political candidate for me within the current system, I decided, Barack Obama was it.  He was far from ideal, but he was as good as I’d seen in my lifetime.  This was capitalist representative democracy’s best chance to show me that I was wrong – that maybe all politicians weren’t the same; that there were still some legitimate avenues of change within the current system and that alternatives to anarchism were still viable.  I didn’t agree with everything Barack Obama said, nor every policy that he proposed, but I was, for the first time in my life, excited about conventional politics – specifically about the huge ground-swelling of support that came out for Obama and showed me that all was not lost within America: that there were still people out there who wanted things to change. 
I applied for my postal vote, ticked the box that said Obama, and sent the ballot off – my own small role in making U.S. history: the election of the first African-American President.
I knew that Obama’s election would change nothing, however, when the story of his skin-colour became the central story of his success.
I, personally, hadn’t voted for Barack Obama because he was black; I had voted for him because he was speaking sensibly about healthcare, about taxes, about regulating the banks, about pursuing diplomacy instead of war, about helping the working class.  Indeed, this was why the majority of Americans I had spoken to had voted for him – because his policies and positions were superior to John McCain’s.  His skin colour was incidental – an added bonus, if you will – and just as I wouldn’t have voted for the politically repugnant Sarah Palin just because she was a woman, I wouldn’t have voted for the African-American candidate – first black President of not – if he didn’t have the policies I believed in.  Yet all the media could talk about come the Inauguration, was Barack Obama’s blackness.  He was the first black President, they told us, and this was why so many people had voted for him.  This, and this alone. 
Suddenly all talk of universal healthcare, of troop withdrawal in Iraq, of regulating the banks, of raising the taxes of those who earn $250,000 a year…all of that had gone, and the only mandate it appeared Obama was left with, was the mandate to be an inspiring African-American story – the unlikely candidate with the funny name and the Kenyan father who somehow managed to go all the way to the Whitehouse. 
That was where the movie should end, the credits would roll, and we all would live happily ever after.
Except we didn’t.
Because real life went on.
And suddenly every single one of Barack Obama’s election promises evaporated into the grimly familiar murk of “business as usual”:  Guantanamo Bay remained open; free, universal healthcare is no longer on the agenda; reform has been sold out to the highest bidder; the bankers got billions whilst we got nothing; the war on terror is already expanding into Pakistan; taxes on emissions have been axed; taxes on the rich have still not been raised…
The list goes on.
Barack Obama has been a huge disappointment – as I always feared he would be – and capitalist representative democracy blew its one big chance to convert me, so I now face the impending UK election with a renewed sense of antipathy towards the pseudo-democratic process.  At least in the U.S. election I had that ever-so-rare experience of genuinely liking a candidate and getting to see them win; here in the UK, with the choice between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, I don’t even have that.
Obama’s frustratingly familiar record in office just confirmed to me that you can’t solve a systemic problem with a simple change of personnel, yet despite all that I still do believe that something holds true about my theory regarding the tone with which leaders from the left or right are forced to pursue their shared policy goals. 
Whilst Obama is still, without a doubt, killing soldiers and civilians in two illegal wars he could have stopped immediately but hasn’t, he is, at the same time, now making noises about withdrawal.  Such talk may well be superficial (only pulling troops out of Iraq so that they can fight in Afghanistan, and troops out of Afghanistan so they can fight in Pakistan, etc) but it is certainly a breath of fresh air from the gung-ho rhetoric of the Bush years, and as depressing as it might seem: if your only two immediate choices are the guy who sends troops off to kill and die without a care in the world, and the guy who is a little more thoughtful and restrained about where he sends his soldiers, and worries a bit more about what people think at home, then the latter is still the best you can get. 
If a touch more restraint – if only even for appearances – helps to stop just one needless death in Iraq or Afghanistan, then it seems foolish to say that the difference is insignificant. 
Similarly, though it seems ludicrous to me, as a man who has lived in the UK and enjoyed the benefits of the NHS all my life, that a country as wealthy as the United States can’t afford decent universal healthcare for its people, if Obama’s flawed and heavily compromised healthcare reform gives a handful of people access to medical services that they wouldn’t have otherwise had, is it really fair to say that “all politicians are the same”?  Certainly the ongoing healthcare bill is far from perfect, and there’s absolutely no legitimate reason in the twenty-first century why free universal healthcare shouldn’t be possible in America, but when your only two choices, for better or worse, are John McCain (who opposed any notion of government-run health insurance) or Barack Obama, then again, it is not such an insignificant thing to opt for the guy who offers the best chance of getting better healthcare to at least some people, over the guy who you know definitely will not.
It is for this reason that, though I find myself still ambivalent about the options presented to me in the impending UK election, I still live in dread at the prospect of an expected Conservative victory. 
Although I have no fondness for the Labour Party after watching them do so many terrible things for the past twelve years, and Gordon Brown, as the money-man for the entire illegal and unjustified war on terror here in the UK, should be tried as a war-criminal along with Tony Blair, in my opinion, I still wholeheartedly believe that a Conservative government would be worse.
For all the Tory-esque policies the Labour government have pursued since 1997, and for all the hundreds of thousands of people they have wilfully murdered, mutilated and displaced in their sickening and unjustified wars in Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan – there remains within Labour that crucial sense of accountability that is historically missing from a Conservative government.  Indeed, for all Labour’s faults – and there are many – there are still several good things they have done domestically – the odd tax credit here, or social programme there – that have greatly affected a large number of people’s lives for the better.  It’s not great, but it’s something, and it’s something that is specifically prohibited under a Conservative government by the guiding right-wing ideology that informs the Tory Party.   
For some reason, the idea that there are ideologies that guide these political parties appears to have been forgotten here in Britain as the General Election draws near.  Instead of the battle being seen as one of opposing manifestos and positions, our pantomime democracy has reduced the two main candidates, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, into 2D caricatures to be booed or cheered for as directed. 
Gordon Brown, it has been decided, is boring and undynamic.  People don’t like him – he was never elected in the first place, and he does that funny thing with his mouth.  David Cameron, however, is young and exciting.  He sounds tough, talks about change, and, most importantly, isn’t Gordon Brown.
Sadly, that really does seem to be the extent of the argument for and against both candidates at the moment: the country is so disillusioned after twelve disappointing years of New Labour that they’ll pretty much vote for anyone.  They’re angry about the expenses scandals of last year, about fake weapons of mass destruction, about soldiers dying in Afghanistan and Iraq, and about an economy that has tanked (which, as the former Chancellor of ten years, is seen as primarily Gordon Brown’s fault).  They’re angry and so they want a change. 
The fact that the expenses scandal was a cross-party scam, implemented by Conservative Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, to circumvent a public sector pay-freeze in the eighties, or that the Tory Party are ideologically more pre-disposed to go to war than Labour – and, importantly, did not at any point oppose the invasion of Iraq or attack on Afghanistan at the time – and that the financial crisis is a direct result of the exact kind of deregulated, free-market über-alles, philosophy that permeates the right far more than it does the left…all of that appears to be lost.  
Also forgotten in the national consciousness appears to be the eighteen years of Thatcher and Major that made us want to vote Labour in the first place.  Eighteen terrible years that were guided by an underlying party ideology that still, twelve years later, has not fundamentally changed.
Yes, the Labour Party is a hollow and treacherous organization that has abandoned its core principles and spat in the face of its supporters, but it is still important to note that even the most right-wing member of the Labour Party is still only ever as bad as the least right-wing member of the Tories. 
By the same token, at the extremist ends of each party, whilst the radical end of Labour consists of harmless socialists, communists and anarchists, the radical end of the Conservative Party, it must be remembered, consists of racists, homophobes, bigots and Nazis.
If we consider political progress as a form of evolution, then the lesser of two evils presented to us in an election – though very far from perfect – is still a welcome and necessary step forwards in the process of development when compared to the alternative of going backwards, and so we ignore these subtle differences at our peril.  At the end of the day, when what we have is a billion miles away from the kind of democracy and everyday politics that we should have, these are the only types of change that we appear to have. 
Barack Obama has been a huge disappointment, but I’d rather be disappointed and able to hold the President to account for his betrayals, than watch someone like John McCain commit the same crimes without censure.  The same is true of the Labour Party – Blair and Brown have been atrocious, but I have no doubt in my mind that David Cameron will be even worse.  And when he is, and we have no one to complain to but ourselves, I shall think of the eight terrible years America suffered under the conservative grip of George. W. Bush, and think of nearly two decades spent crushed under Thatcher and Major here in the UK, and ask myself once again: is it really fair to say that all politicians are the same?

DaN McKee, February 2010 


If you enjoyed this – long! – article, and want to be kept up to date with some much shorter, as-it-happens, political stuff, then check out my ongoing politics blog:  http://thetoneofouroppression.blogspot.com.  If you’re strangely interested in me as a person, and randomly want to know about my life, check out my online journal at: http://profitganda.blogspot.com.  If you remember me from way-back-when, and like the bands I was in (ACADEMY MORTICIANS and BULLET OF DIPLOMACY) back in the day, then check out http://www.myspace.com/danmckee to hear what I’m up to now.  If you like pop-punk, check out: http://www.myspace.com/thewhiningmaggots.  If you like pop-punk, live in Birmingham, UK, and play guitar or drums, then maybe you want to join me in the new pop-punk band I’m trying desperately to start up?  Either way, whokilledculture@yahoo.co.uk is the place where all my junk mail goes.

Previous Articles:-
Column Three - The Science of Politics

Column Two - Green Day, Birmingham LG Arena, 28 October 2009
Column One