Interview with Paul Street on the “Obama Phenomena”

October 19, 2008 at 11:11 am Leave a comment

Iowa City author Paul Street’s latest book, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, is a critical report on the phenomenal rise of the junior senator from Illinois. Street is a historian and former Chicagoan who worked for the Chicago Urban League as a policy researcher.

Obama fanatics will read this book at their own devotional peril, but this is no slimy hatchet-job like Jerome Corsi’s Obama Nation. Street’s book (from Paradigm Publishing) is thoroughly researched and contains acute analysis of the political games people play.

Z Magazine on-line has a long version of this interview (below the fold) and a shorter version appeared earlier in the Little Village Magazine.

In his book, Street examines the money horse that all politicians must ride. He also looks at the “anti-war” candidate and the conditions of Obama’s rise to the top of national politics.

This was an email interview.

Q: Many people will close their minds to the possibility that Senator Obama is not everything they imagine. How should people view a politician like Obama?

PS: They should see him as just that – a politician, not some kind of transformational, quasi-millennial savior or other such nonsense. This guy has wanted to be president since a young age. He came up through the world of Chicago and Illinois politics. He hired David Axlerod to put him over the top. The Dr. Martin Luther King analogies should stop. This doesn’t mean don’t vote for him. It just means “buyer beware” and get ready to fight and protest, guilt-free, once we remove the Republicans (if we can) from the White House.

Q: You describe yourself as a reformer and a revolutionary. How do you negotiate those sometimes opposing perspectives?

PS: Reforms are necessary but insufficient. They will not do the job of creating a viably sustainable and decent democratic future in the long-term. We either transcend the corporate-managed profits system or we descend ever further into barbarism, totalitarianism, and ecological ruin over the long haul. Still, we very much need reforms to improve immediate experience and to build towards truly transformative change. The problem isn’t reform, it’s reformism.

Q: Is Barack Obama an incrementalist? Is he an incremental reformer?

PS: Quite explicitly. He’s been careful, conservative, cautious and conciliatory from the word go. Larrissa MacFarquahar and Ryan Lizza have written careful pieces that find this about Obama in The New Yorker (hardly a left magazine). Here’s a quote from Lizza last July: “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” Lizza writes, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than replace them.” Later in the same essay Lizza notes that Obama is “an incrementalist,” something that MacFarquahar found last year.


Q: Your book is both an indictment of Obama’s neoliberal centrism and is a critique of the national corporate-managed political system. “Our” system is sick and it may be that Obama’s words of change and hope are just that- words. How does a voter stay engaged without becoming cynical, overwhelmed or discouraged?

PS: Keep a healthy distinction between the “quadrennial extravaganza” and the “main task” that Chomsky talked about. The last chapter of my book is titled “Beyond the Narrow Spectrum” and it includes a 10-point plan for “what is to be done” by left progressives in the immediate sense in regard to the Obama phenomenon. The afterword of my book is titled “Imagining a Progressive Future” and it includes a nine-point outline, an imagined “Real ‘Change’ Presidency.” Words matter.

Read the full version of this interview at Z Magazine on-line.

Entry filed under: 1, Iowa, national, visitors to Iowa, world. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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