The shell game, a scam with historical antecedents going back to the ancient Greeks, is familiar to anyone in cities like New York and Barcelona which attract throngs of gullible tourists.
It goes something like this:
A man shows shows you three empty cups on a table, and places a pea under one of them. The objective is to guess which one of the cups is hiding the pea; a correct guess means you win some amount of money. Of course, because this is a scam, the man behind the table also happens to be an expert at sleight of hand and constantly moves the pea around without you knowing it. At first, you win a few dollars, which only persuades you that you've figured out the game or that luck is on your side: such is the eternal spring of hope in the heart of every gambler.
By the end of a few minutes, and with the egging on of several enthusiastic passers-by who are in on the scam, you've lost considerably more than a little.
I was reminded of the shell game as I watched Barack Obama during the October 16 town hall debate.
If there is one thing Obama has always been good at, it's coming back after bruising defeats. After a first debate appearance that left many wondering if he was really there, his performance this time left his supporters enthused that he had "come out swinging." The boxing metaphor was apt for an event where both men were combative to the point that they physically circled each other and seemed ready to duke it out.
The next day, nearly every magazine and newspaper cover page proclaimed that Obama had won, and the tone of the discussion prompted everyone to dwell on the differences between the two men. Indeed, this was most likely Obama's strategy going in: to aggressively demonstrate that he is different from Romney.
But what were these differences? The drama of watching the two men strutting like fighting roosters erased the fact that there is little to differentiate them. Indeed, on an issue like immigration, Romney was at least the more honest of the two men.
Immigration came up tangentially in response to a question about how Romney was different from Bush, a question that actually came from an undecided voter who was none too happy with Obama either. Much has been made of Obama's supposedly brilliant response, especially his comment about Romney's bizarre idea of "self-deportation": "You know, there are some things where Governor Romney's different from George Bush....George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn't call for self-deportation."
He went on to point out Romney's support for Arizona's harsh immigration legislation:
I do want to make sure that we just understand something. Governor Romney says he wasn't referring to Arizona as a model for the nation. His top adviser on immigration is the guy who designed the Arizona law, the entirety of it--not E-Verify, the whole thing. That's his policy, and it's a bad policy. And it won't help us grow.
Obama supporters could not help but crow at how different he was from Romney, going on to contrast his use of the term "undocumented workers" with Romney's persistent use of the word "illegal," which supposedly indicates his rightward stance on immigration. Responding to a question on the topic, Romney said, "[W]e're going to have to stop illegal immigration. There are 4 million people who are waiting in line to get here legally. Those who've come here illegally take their place. So I will not grant amnesty to those who have come here illegally."
Romney's comments earned the ire of DREAM Activists, a group of undocumented students around the country who advocate for a pathway to citizenship for those who were brought here as minors. In a huffy press release sent out immediately after the town hall, they wrote, "Many DREAMers were watching tonight hoping to see whether Mitt Romney could restore sensibility to the immigration debate. But he demonstrated his lack of sensitivity towards us by calling us 'Illegals.' Indeed, our citizen family members were offended by the fact that a national candidate called us, their brothers and sisters, 'illegals'."*
Yet, what is lacking from this statement is any acknowledgement of the shell game that Obama had managed to stage: in picking on Romney's admittedly ludicrous idea of "self-deportation," Obama managed to distract from the part about his own role in deportations: he has deported more people in a single term than Bush did in both his terms. And while he managed to praise Bush's agenda for comprehensive immigration reform, his own attempt at the same has been miserably non-existent.
Obama's "prosecutorial discretion" relief for undocumented youth, also known as "deferred action" compels youth to reveal their undocumented status to authorities in order to determine whether they are eligible to have their deportations deferred. This has rightly been described as "bullshit" by the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign (MDC) which points out that "this campaign promises nothing more than a chance that maybe the government will postpone its efforts to deport you - while exposing you to extreme risks, including the risk of deportation simply for applying!" MDC goes on to state that, "[w]hile Deferred Action...may be a good option for people already in custody, it is incredibly cynical to bait young people who are not yet in custody and are therefore not subject to deportation in the first place."
It's not as if Obama is necessarily going to go out of his way to hide all this. In fact, it's quite likely that he will use his record on deportations to indicate his resolve on immigration, by highlighting the distinctions between the "legal" and the "illegal", the good and the bad immigrants. (It's also quite likely that he, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, will highlight his aggressive use of drone attacks on Pakistan.) In this, he is greatly aided by several segments of the immigration rights movement, such as the DREAM activists who constantly evoke distinctions between themselves and the"illegals."
In other words, the debates between Romney and Obama constitute nothing more than a Clash Between Neoliberals. Following Walter Benn Michaels' useful distinction between left neoliberals and right neoliberals, it's easy to see that both men hold the same principles with regard to immigration. They both refer to this as a nation of immigrants, ignoring the historical realities of genocide and slavery that have shaped this country's economy.
Even more crucially, they have no desire to think about immigration as a fundamental symptom of a global economic crisis, preferring instead to think in terms of good and bad immigrants and to cherry-pick only those who could move into and bolster a neoliberal economy. Or, as Obama put it:
Look, when we think about immigration, we have to understand there are folks all around the world who still see America as the land of promise. And they provide us energy, and they provide us innovation. And they start companies like Intel and Google, and we want to encourage that.
His rhetoric may be different but he is ideologically no different than Romney, who spoke plainly about whom he wanted in the country:
I also think that we should give visas to people - green cards, rather, to people who graduate with skills that we need, people around the world with accredited degrees in - in science and math get a green card stapled to their diploma, come to the US of A. We should make sure that our legal system works.
This is Obama's shell game, his sleight of hand on immigration. If we don't watch carefully, we fail to see that he has been moving the pea from under the cup. We watch intently, knowing fully well that we are being gulled but we are determined in our belief that, really, we know best and can beat this game.
In the case of Obama, this belief takes the form of some truly deluded ideas about how power and politics might work, especially in the oft-repeated claim that all the left has to do is "hold Obama's feet to the fire." The first time I came across this was some years ago at an AIDS conference where I found myself listening patiently to a man telling me earnestly that "we, on the left, need to put Obama's feet to the fire, and that's the only way we can get the change we want."
The left's logic seems to be that a Republican is what he is because he is an evil, horrible monster and therefore a force operating from some internal ideological fault that cannot be corrected, but that a Democrat has no such internal consistency and therefore must be guided by "our" principles.
This of course, actually assumes that a Democrat must automatically be a spineless president, fungible and malleable to the people's whims, and it fails to comprehend that Democrats emerge from structures of power as much as Republicans do.
Few on the left have interrogated these illusions but among those who do, Doug Henwood points out that the Democrat Party's "inveterate status is a symptom of the party's fundamental contradiction: it's a party of business that has to pretend for electoral reasons that it's not." For a historical analyis of Obama's particular rise to power, we need look no further than Robert Fitch's brilliant and classic piece, "The Change They Believe In":
Obama's political base comes primarily from Chicago FIRE - the finance, insurance, and real estate industry. And the wealthiest families - the Pritzkers, the Crowns and the Levins. But it's more than just Chicago FIRE. Also within Obama's inner core of support are allies from the non-profit sector: the liberal foundations, the elite universities, the non-profit community developers and the real estate reverends who produce market rate housing with tax breaks from the city and who have been known to shout from the pulpit "give us this day our Daley, Richard Daley, bread."
In the end, the public confrontations between the two men amount to little more than a Clash of Neoliberals. We are enthralled as two wealthy men, one white and one black - both of whom have emerged from and owe their allegiance to specific economic power blocs - argue over points which betray their almost exactly similar policies. Yet, like the most addicted gamblers, we still delude ourselves into thinking that we actually have a stake in this game.
We are persuaded that a gamble is actually a choice, and that may be the biggest shell game of all.
*The debate over what we call people without papers is a mostly meaningless exercise in media hype, sustained by segments of the immigration rights community for their own affective uses. I'll have more on the distinction between "undocumented" and "illegal" in next week's piece.