“He decreed, too, that blind men were forbidden to sing ballads about miracles, unless they had reliable evidence that such things had indeed happened, because it seemed to him that the miracles most blind men sing about were imaginary, and this was harmful to those which were in fact true.”
—Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote
A famous epigram of disputed origin holds that democracy gives the people the government they deserve. We have previously criticized Barack Obama for displaying the tendencies of a consultant. But here, perhaps feeling charitable in the aftermath of Mr. Obama’s successful beating back of a pernicious challenge from the right, it is well to allow that he might be the consultant the nation deserves.
It is perhaps intricately ironic—or simply confirmation of the observation that consultant has supplanted CEO as the figure now having his day on the national political scene—that Mr. Obama should have defeated Mitt Romney, an individual who was at once CEO and consultant (indeed, CEO of the very consulting firm he founded—and so also another celebrated American type: entrepreneur). But where we had faulted Mr. Obama for combining political naiveté with technocratic arrogance by assuming office equipped only with an ethos that said, “it’s time for the consultant to roll up his sleeves and help the enterprise known as America find the answers to its operational woes,” it was precisely the marketing of this latter data-driven technocratic mentalité that was Mr. Romney’s strongest asset as a candidate (whereas his CEO background was widely perceived as a liability, or at best a mixed bag).
And while Mr. Romney’s 2012 campaign was distasteful (as a matter of ideology and aesthetics) in its arrant, ham-fisted cynicism and dishonesty, there were formal parallels with Mr. Obama’s celebrated 2008 campaign. Both essentially merged an aspirational abstraction with an argument about skills. But whereas Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign sold the fusing of apparent full-throated liberal idealism with imputed innate technical competence, Mr. Romney’s campaign (which garnered a not insignificant 48% of the popular vote in spite of its frequent errors) married the nostalgic appeal of an American restoration to the know-how of the “turnaround specialist.”
The latter bit was in the end partially undermined by doubts creeping around the edges of precisely what “turnaround” meant, as for Mr. Romney it seemed to pertain mainly to his intimate knowledge of financial engineering, lucrative inconsistencies in tax codes, maneuvering in Congressional appropriations, and the commercially questionable allocation of unprecedented amounts of corporate resources to executive compensation. The vague appeal to a return to the “real America,” on the other hand, lived to fight another day. Spoken half outright, and half in easily decipherable code words during the campaign, its philosophical underpinnings provide a way to understand the constellation of constitutive truths on the American right.
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Much has been made on the left of the antipathy towards Mr. Obama that is rooted in racial animosity, and certainly the right has much to answer for in the modern history of American racism. But it is useful to remember, too, that Mr. Obama’s race only adds fuel to a fire that has been burning for many years, and that takes as its kindling two intertwined articles of faith: a belief that any visible exertion of power by the government only gets the United States closer to becoming a totalitarian state, and a belief that “the free market” is synonymous with freedom itself.
That there are those on the American right whose economic interests are closely aligned with the continued perception of the world as such—in seeing, that is, the American way of life under constant threat—is undoubtedly true. But it is less they with whom we here concern ourselves than those for whom such an outlook is firmly imprinted on their American sense of self. These are the people who fill the Tea Party’s ranks, who form a reliable audience for Fox News, and whose irrational anger towards Mr. Obama, though it often incorporates racism, is directed at something larger than race.
After all, the white southerner Bill Clinton’s presidency was filled with attacks that were in some ways just as bizarre as those that have been launched against Mr. Obama. Mr. Clinton raised taxes modestly and tried and failed to push through a relatively business-friendly program of universal health care—but he also supported a number of investor-friendly free-trade agreements; dismantled welfare programs; launched missiles with abandon; oversaw financial deregulation; was on board with the privatization of Social Security; and famously declared that “the era of big government is over.” In other words, he put a lip-biting face of the American left on many elements of Reaganism. That he was often unscrupulous and unprincipled was undoubtedly true (a fact, not incidentally, more justifiably lamented on the left than the right). But surely, as president, he did not have a member of his staff murdered, nor was he dealing cocaine out of the Oval Office, nor did he model his approach to domestic governance on plans first devised by Adolph Hitler and/or Joseph Stalin, nor was his wife a lesbian with communist sympathies. And yet these were claims actively advanced or tacitly encouraged by members of the right—and not just on the fringe.
In the summer of 1996, the authors of this review attended a Bob Dole campaign rally in the Bay Area suburb of Walnut Creek, California. As the ready-made is always more easily grasped than the new—and more immediately understood by the opposition—we arrived at the event with several other friends, all toting Clinton-Gore signs. No great fans of Bill Clinton, we certainly thought we preferred him to Bob Dole. Most of us held up the signs, occasionally chanting predictably provocative banalities like “four more years.” One of us was a more boisterous heckler, frequently conducting the more common knocks on Dole (too cozy with tobacco, too conservative on social issues, too aligned with the interests of corporations) towards the speaker’s platform. The setting, combined with our perfunctory opposition to the in-the-flesh candidate, had all of the makings of an afternoon of low-intensity mutual annoyance.
How then were we to understand the ferocity with which we were greeted by Dole’s supporters, who angrily told us on multiple occasions to “go back to Russia,” physically threatened us, called us communists, and at one point, in a desperate and feeble attempt to have the police kick us out, loudly accused one of us of assaulting a female senior citizen? And all of this—in a Democratic-leaning suburb for whom fervent crowds, if they existed at all, were more typically associated with retail events like Nordstrom’s semi-annual sales—because we were identified as Clinton supporters at a rally for Dole. Furthermore, that night, while watching the television coverage of the rally, we saw something we’d missed because we’d arrived a little late: at the direction of one of Dole’s introductory speakers, the entire crowd had turned towards the bank of media cameras at the edge of the park and begun chanting “Tell the truth!”
After Bill Clinton had been reelected and again inaugurated, a contributor to this review happened to be riding on a public bus in early 1997 along a placid coastal highway between Oceanside and La Jolla in California’s southland. Up front a passenger was having a conversation with the bus driver. Speaking in reasoned tones, he wondered aloud how Hillary Clinton would now seek to realize her communist agenda. That she was a communist was not altogether certain—but all signs pointed in that direction.
This ride came to mind fifteen years later when—about five weeks before the 2012 election—the same contributor had occasion to be sitting in a restaurant on Peak’s Island in Portland, Maine. At the next table a young man and his father were dining, and their conversation began to touch upon the subject of the Clintons. The father allowed that Hillary Clinton had performed well as Secretary of State. When the son offered that Bill Clinton (whose presidency would have ended no later than the twelfth year of his boyhood) was “pragmatic,” the father, after some hesitation, agreed—and then drew a stark contrast with Barack Obama. “Clinton was pragmatic to get things done; Obama is pragmatic in the service of a cause.” When the young man asked what cause Obama was serving, the father responded simply: “Power to the people. Socialism. Revolution.”
Thus, while Mr. Clinton has entered political history as a now-tolerable figure for the right (because both widely popular in his post-presidency and, in retrospect, not that dangerously left at all), many of the same attacks from the 1990s are recapitulated, mutatis mutandis and with a racial tinge, today. Mr. Obama as: fascist and/or communist; crypto-Islamist concealing his birthplace and seeking to implement Sharia law; poorly closeted angry black man; revolutionary bent on destroying America; comforter of domestic takers, fifth columnists, and illegal immigrants; non-American and thus un-American.
While it is true, as William O’Hara has documented on these pages, that perceiving conspiracy is a hobby (and indeed a business) with a proud history in America, it is also true that the right, when faced with an electorally successful (and ferociously moderate) left, seems to have a firmer grip on the more imaginative and pernicious application of its fruits for political gain.
More than this, the right can’t be expected to be rational when confronted with any empowered representative of the potential to weaken its last redoubt of liberty. One wouldn’t allow a wolf into a neonatal ward, even if it had been invited in by the head nurse herself. Similarly, any truck with an elected member of the left is nearly tantamount to suicidal treason. What part of one thousand years of darkness do you not understand? Unlike many European societies, which remain relatively homogenous and content with token displays of novel diversity, the U.S., as a pluralistic nation, still allows itself to scapegoat particular sectors of society as the root cause of social ills. This is conducive to the right’s view of legitimate and illegitimate elements of American society in general, and leads it to question electoral and, more importantly, political legitimacy when the outcome is not in its favor (the electoral choice always being between freedom and nonfreedom, with nonfreedom ipso facto an illegitimate option, no matter how “legitimately” selected).
There is therefore some justice, along with some injustice, in the deep rage and despair Mr. Obama engenders in so many of the right’s members. In choosing to demonize Mr. Obama for his incessant (and incessantly imaginary) rending of the republic’s fragile fabric, the right is at the very least confronted by the same stunned disbelief in Mr. Obama’s success that members of the left feel when confronted by the right’s chimeras.
The right’s agenda has been framing the bounds of permissible debate in America since the 1980s, and it would be a stretch to say that is anything more than slightly less true now. But, never satisfied so long as any elements of the New Deal and Great Society remain in place, it has a tendency to overreach to its (and the nation’s) detriment whenever it’s ginned up about any one thing in particular. Hence the Clinton impeachment, the extremism on social issues, the war in Iraq, the recent deficit-ceiling showdown, the Paul Ryan budget, and so on. This is partially a result of the fact that much of the right’s strength and power is drawn from its aux armes! and aux barricades! revanchism—a necessary constant state if your business is defending the country from an imagined point of weakness against multifarious and always multiplying indigenous and external threats to its existence.
It could be argued that in order for the right to truly get what it deserves, it ought to have to live in its own funhouse under one of its current champions. But the Bush administration has shown the undesirability of such an eventuality—both because the damage goes well beyond the right, and because the right appears incapable of meaningfully reconciling the misery it inflicts upon the world (and upon itself) with positions more suited to the world in which we all live. The more workable solution, therefore, is for the right to be confronted by someone who basically takes the argument on its (the right’s) terms while simultaneously representing an imagined mortal threat to these terms. Someone, for example, like Barack Obama.
By having as its bête noir a figure who accedes to the relatively less destructive items of its agenda while rejecting the wholly unworkable items, the right has its cake and eats it too. If the right didn’t have Mr. Obama, they’d have to invent him. As a matter of fact, they have to invent him even though they do have him (in the many senses of the term)—and that is both their victory (as their arguments form the point of departure for the formulation of many of his own policies: see military spending, the need to “reform” entitlements, debt reduction as issue number one, etc.) and their comeuppance.
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But what of the left? Doesn’t it deserve a better champion than the one it has gotten in Barack Obama?
In the current issue of this magazine, James Kenneth Galbraith foresees an imminent and fairly clear choice facing the country: whether or not the “the core institutions of the New Deal and the Great Society survive.” Rather than actually confronting this choice, however, a new de facto choice will likely be substituted:
[T]he basic choice will be between muddling through on the present model [i.e., through side payments]…or going in the direction of the Ayn Rand model, which is a radical attack on those core institutions… . And the danger of muddling along on the present model is that the more people become dissatisfied with it, the more willing they may be to take a risk on a total attack.
There has been much consternation and dissatisfaction on the American left over Mr. Obama’s failure to enact—or show any real interest in pursuing—an agenda to its liking. The disappointments are legion and perceived to be rooted in any number of personal failings or unforeseeable and unfortunate circumstances: Mr. Obama as political naif with a constitution given to conciliatory gestures towards madmen, a time-consuming and counterproductive preoccupation with the production of a transformational legacy, a lofty unwillingness to get his hands dirty in the demeaning world of politics, an inability to communicate a compelling vision to the American people; and/or Mr. Obama as well-meaning liberal champion frustrated and stymied at every step by a (somehow unforeseeably) zealous band of intransigent opponents (perhaps, it is hoped, for no real reason, the gloves will come off in the second term…).
These failings and obstacles have supposedly been behind the toothless financial reform bill, an inadequate fiscal stimulus package, a debt-ceiling disaster, the validation of the national debt as foremost among America’s ills (and not, for example, wasteful military spending, outrageous and always rising health care costs, and an inefficient and destructive financial sector), new doctrines on indefinite detention of U.S. citizens at home and their killing without due process abroad, the extension of the war in Afghanistan, the expansion of drone warfare, and on and on. Even his signature achievement, health care reform, while welcome, is looked at askance by members of the left because it is so clearly a boon to the very industries that make the American health care system so problematic in the first place (whereas, characteristically, it is looked at with fury on the right—where it was formulated in the first place—as another step on the road to totalitarianism).
And yet, might the left, writ large, not see in Mr. Obama its own reflection? That is, is there not, in Mr. Obama, a failure that mirrors the American left’s own inability to form anything like a compelling and sustained movement?
In some circles on the left it remains scandalous to refer back to the Ralph Nader campaign of 2000, which is largely remembered now for either being almost entirely, or merely partially, to blame for Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush that year (and thus for the eight particularly miserable years that followed). But it is important to remember the origins of that campaign: the Clinton years of “triangulation” in an era of relative moderation engendered a backlash among people who began to see a blurring of distinctions between the two parties as they converged on the road to a technocratic rightist ideology of wise-men neoliberal consensus somewhere between Robert Rubin and Colin Powell (with a score by Francis Fukuyama).
In response to these trends, the Nader campaign developed practical and plausible goals: gain five percent of the vote nationally to guarantee a place on the ballot for the Green Party the next time around (2004); if Gore wins, leverage ballot access to hold his feet to the fire; if Bush wins, leverage ballot access to ensure the Democrats nominate someone left of the Clinton-Gore mold; in the meantime, do the work of building a new party.
Needless to say, none of this happened. Nader received 2.7% of the vote; Bush won and the Democrats nominated John Kerry in 2004; and the Green Party joined the ranks of the perennially irrelevant, occupying a privileged position of sporadic novelty in stable orbit between the old-standby Libertarian Party and the consistently ridiculous Reform Party.
What happened to the work of building a new party? Its putative leader, a bona fide defender of the little guy, showed no interest in sticking around to assist in building a coherent national movement. Meanwhile, at the local level, it went nowhere. On the streets of Boston in early 2001, a contributor to this review encountered a friend returning from a local Green Party meeting. When asked how it had gone, the friend expressed frustration with the fetishized process of self-aware, time-consuming consensus-building that prevented anything from ever getting done.
Perhaps the Mr. Obama who emerged from nowhere with his dreamy appeals to what binds the nation as one, combined with his ability to channel the left’s hope that a fundamental break with past constraints was possible—indeed, had, with his election, occurred (“America, we have come so far!”)—only to be hamstrung by his compulsive large-netted chasing of the butterflies of bipartisan consensus was precisely who the left put in for, even if it didn’t realize it at the time.
Tragic though, that Obama’s supporters on the left continue to view the delusion that absolute consensus can be reached as but the flaw of the doomed, but unfailingly romantic, hero. Tragic, but not unprecedented: dramatic portrayals of Lyndon Johnson virtually always show a conflicted man of innate circumspection who somehow knew he would be remembered for his disastrously inept foreign policy rather than his formidable domestic achievements. But true circumspection of that kind requires the possession of a comparable penchant for understanding cause and effect, as well as an intrinsic sense of personal accountability, likely of the type that would disallow such inconsistencies from ever becoming as real as they did.
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Given the arrangement of forces in American political life, therefore, it is perhaps remarkable that we got someone as half-good as Mr. Obama in the first place. And if it ends up being true that, as Galbraith fears, we continue the practice of muddling through, oughtn’t we at least have a guide to help us navigate the uneven and unwelcoming road ahead—to suggest we move a few feet away from the edge of the escarpment when we get too close? And if we’re going to have a guide, who better than Barry—what with his motivational words of wisdom, unflappability, obvious intelligence, and seeming personal decency?
We—divided as a polity, but united by our continued taste for credit, cheap gasoline, industrial strength freezers in the garage (in case we need them one day), lights on in rooms we’ve left, palettes of gadgetry, and oceans of waste—who remain cautiously optimistic about the future, still believing our children will be better off than we are, still approaching climate change as either unreal or something that will eventually have to be faced—is Barry not the one we were expecting? If not, just who were we expecting?
Of course, one might always object that we deserve better by pointing to the wisdom and genius of the system itself. American democracy is a durable tool for the production of remarkable outcomes. The best system ever invented. We’ll get by if we just keep on trucking. And there are promising trends! The country is undergoing a gradual demographic shift, for example. The Constitution and the constantly venerated American people will eventually provide! If we keep singing about these false miracles maybe one day a real one will occur, just as so many did in years gone by. Hell, it’s nigh a real miracle that Barry himself was elected to the presidency—not once, but twice. Meanwhile, we’ll just have to live with the consequences of recent years without really addressing their causes. That this remarkably passive presumption of powerlessness in the present and near future flies in the face of the widely advertised, distinctly American abilities to adapt, innovate, change, and prosper in spite of the odds is somehow beside the point.
And if Barry is who we deserve, who better for Barry, frankly, than the nation he so badly misread, unwilling as it was—as he expected it to be—to bend to his will and allow it to make of him a transformational figure? Who better for Barry—who had already convened presidential historians in the first months of his presidency to help him determine just how he would go about becoming one of the nation’s greatest presidents, while also summoning Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner to the White House to help him determine how he would fix the US economy—to lead than the distracted and enervated America of 2012? And why couldn’t a man of such obvious greatness, surrounded by those best suited to judge that greatness, now possess the prescience usually reserved only for those playing him in a big-budget film biopic decades hence?
One can always hope, after all, that he’s learned something over the last few years that will lead to better outcomes in the second term. But whether or not he has—and whether or not he’s even inclined to put these lessons to work in the service of a more effective and sustainably humane agenda—one thing’s for certain: we, as a country, both as a whole and as constituent parts, don’t appear to have learned anything.