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Monday, August 30, 2010

Liberal Remorse: The Nation Forum

The August 30/September 6, 2010 issue of The Nation magazine features a forum entitled “Debating Obama,” keynoted by Eric Alterman, with responses by six other writers. The forum reflects a sense among The Nation editors - and no doubt most of the readers of the leading liberal/progressive publication - that matters did not go quite as expected after the inauguration of the youthful, well-spoken Democratic President, Barack Obama. In fact, Alterman puts it plainly: “Few progressives would take issue with the argument that, significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment.” Alterman goes on to say: “… if one examines the gamut of legislation passed and executive orders issued that relate to the promises made by candidate Obama, one can only wince at the slightly hyperbolic joke made by late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon, who quipped that the president’s goal appeared to be to ‘finally deliver on the campaign promises made by John McCain.’”

There is more than a little expression of betrayal in this statement.

But could it be that the disappointment and sense of betrayal is misplaced? Could it be that liberals and progressives misread the moment, misjudged the locus of power, and, indeed, totally misunderstood the mechanism of capitalist rule in the US? Could it be that the Obama election was little more than an adjustment to corporate rule, an adjustment from a failed regime that threatened to rip the fabric of contrived consensus to one more likely to strike a path offering the appearance of change and a new direction while preserving the interests of those holding power? Could it be that, in the clatter of the usual campaign rhetoric, most change-starved voters heard a message that they wanted to hear, ignoring the huge corporate funding and same cast of characters orchestrating the campaign?

This is not an understanding yet agreeable to the liberal and progressive establishment, though it was the conclusion that I, and too few others, drew during the presidential campaign. In response to a euphoric celebration of the Obama victory, I wrote the following shortly after the election:

At the top [of the Obama team] is a superstructure of solidly established, old-guard politicos who have yet to propose one idea that departs too far from the limited toolbox of neo-classical economics and imperial foreign policy. Yes, there is talk of green initiatives, a friendlier relationship with labor, support for social liberalism, and a vague, dangerously tame reform of health care. But this group has shown no new thinking on the catastrophic economic crisis. Moreover, their timidly progressive pronouncements differ little from the false hope promised by the Clinton and Carter Democratic Administrations that precede this one. .. Below this elite center of power is an electorate overcoming racism, demonstrating a decisive rejection of the Bush administration, and starved for real change.... Change will come from the efforts of those organized oppositionally to force new initiatives and not from those relying on the good will of ruling elites. To ignore this historical truth is to risk the disillusionment and alienation of all of those who have advocated change with their vote. (November 22, 2008)


And now, disillusionment is widely apparent.

A little over four months after the inauguration, I wrote again on this topic, comparing the euphoria and subsequent sourness of the venerable I. F. Stone on the Kennedy presidency. Stone, like today’s liberals, embraced JFK with star-struck infatuation. His return to reality was both bitter and filled with disappointment. My comments:

Typical of jilted lovers, many will turn against Obama with a bitter sense of betrayal. This is both naive and misplaced. Like Kennedy, Obama is neither an agent for change nor a closet reactionary. Like Kennedy, Obama is the executive of a vast structure welded to interests that have little in common with the interests of the majority of US citizens. Admirers of Kennedy will recall the enormous forces arrayed against change in his time: the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defense contractors, the CIA, Southern politicians, etc. Detractors will, with equal passion, note how little Kennedy did to challenge these forces. Likewise, those still taken with Obama fever will point with disgust at the obstructionist Republicans, the "Blue Dog" Democrats, the "disruptive" left, and other evil forces, as though they are not always a part of the two-party carnival.

It is not Obama, but this corrupted, broken two-party system of governance that betrays our aspirations. It is not designed for change, but to smother it. Never in the history of this undemocratic "democracy" have the wants and needs of the citizens been so distant from the intent of the ruling elites. This reality cannot be laid at Obama's feet.

The only antidote to the rot of this system is political independence within, but especially outside, of the existing two parties. There is simply no reason that activists engaged in Democratic Party circles cannot work outside - independently, uncompromisingly and vigorously - on progressive, advanced issues, with no concern for ruffled feathers. To fail to do so, betrays any commitment to real change. (May 30, 2009)


Indeed, the predictable disappointment has set in, witnessed by the Nation forum. It would appear from the “debate” that the fault lies not with Obama, not with liberal self-delusion, but with the system: “It doesn’t matter what Obama dreams of. The far more important fact is that the system is rigged, and it’s rigged against us,” to quote Eric Alterman.

Yes, it is – and it’s called “capitalism,” with its accompanying phony democracy, ownership of the media, and measurement of all things by profit.

Sadly, the wave of disappointment has not brought forth a deeper understanding and new resolve. The participants largely endorse Alterman’s sketch of the ills of the system: the influence of money, the Bush legacy, the dysfunction of political institutions, the power of finance, and the corruption of the media. All true, but hardly new or alien to the evolution of the system. One searches in vain for an over-arching theory that explains and connects these features of our present predicament. There is not even a modest indictment of capitalism in this debate – not to mention an advocacy of socialism.

Instead, we are offered a shallow and diverse set of remedies ranging from mandatory voting to reforming the Senate rules, including the predictable, but tragically complacent call to stay the course. To her great credit, Barbara Ehrenreich cuts through the fog of liberal hand wringing to serve up a moving indictment of government’s role as a “handmaid to corporate power.” Her palpable anger at the state of the nation leads her to announce that “these are revolutionary times.” One only wishes that her brief essay offered a course of action to match these “revolutionary times.” One hopes that we will hear more from her.

One can find little to inspire from the other discussants who serve up the following lame variations on “change that you can believe in” and resignation to Administration impotence:

●“One hopeful hypothesis… Obama is taking the best deal on the table today, but one expects that once he is re-elected in 2012… he will build on the foundations laid during his first term to bring about the fundamental “change” that is not possible in today’s environment.” (Eric Alterman)

●“From the legacy of Bush-era incompetence and corruption to the partisan discipline of the GOP and the Roberts Court to the influence of lobbyists, one marvels that the president has accomplished anything at all.” (Michael Kazin)

●“Operating in a dysfunctional environment dominated by a minority party that thinks its road back to power is to block everything and bring the president to his knees, Obama and his congressional allies have had remarkable success… far more than the bitter cauldron of partisan rancor and ideological fervor would ordinarily allow.” (Norman Ornstein)

●“…Obama may well be the most progressive alternative possible in our current reality.” (Salim Muwakkil)

●“President Obama and his unwieldy party have managed to enact major reforms… that are the most far-reaching and economically redistributive social accomplishments since the New Deal.” (Theda Skocpol)

●“Don’t give up… Don’t believe in silver bullets… Deal with fixing Senate rules first…” (Chris Bowers)

Unlike with Ehrenreich, the sentiments expressed in these comments show no sense of outrage or urgency about the problems facing millions of citizens. Instead, there is complacency, a distance from the everyday tragedy of unemployment, foreclosure, and an uncertain future faced by even more people today than in the Great Depression.

With their apology for the new Administration, the academics in the forum display an unpardonable distortion of the history of the New Deal era. They fail to acknowledge the similar forces holding back reform in that era: intransigent corporate and political opposition, a hostile Supreme Court, and demagogues and false prophets. The Roosevelt Administration overcame these obstacles thanks to pressure from a militant, revolutionary left and the determination and commitment of unswerving progressives. Where are the Perkins’s, Wallace’s, Wagner’s, Connery’s, and Hopkins’s in the Obama Administration? To hold the Obama Administration to a lower standard is to demean the dogged effort and sacrifice readily assumed by those courageous liberals. None succumbed to the seduction of lobbyists. None weighed their future careers before the task at hand. Perhaps these scholars think the KKK and the Liberty League and the other native fascists were less of a threat then than the tea-baggers of today.

One yearns in this forum for some call to action – perhaps an endorsement of the October 2 march in Washington supported by the NAACP and the AFL-CIO – or even a commitment to revitalize the too long dormant anti-war movement. One looks for alarm at the Obama stealth commission patiently waiting for the November electoral dust to clear before pillaging Medicare and Social Security. But we find none of these progressive initiatives.

The cure for the hangover from the Obama-high is honesty and action, not remorse or more hope. The realities of our political system are transparent and have been for over a generation: the two-party system is broken and lurching ever further from any credible vision of democracy. More importantly, we are facing an unprecedented social, political and economic crisis that is in many ways even more challenging than the Great Depression. We have to be honest enough to see that we have not measured up to these challenges. We have to be bold enough to risk radical solutions worthy of the moment.

Zoltan Zigedy
zoltanzigedy@gmail.com.

10 comments:

Randolph said...

What radical solutions should we risk?

mulligas said...

Heres a good article on progressives and Obama by nation contributer Gary Younge.http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/jan/17/barack-obama-one-year-on

He talks about the difference between the Obama campaign and an actual movement.

Arroyoribera said...

Zoltan, thanks for this article and your other writing. I have just forwarded this piece to a large list of "liberals", "progressives" and a few "radicals" here in the Spokane backwater in eastern Washington state. Your article includes prior comments you made about the fate we faced with Obama. This is what I wrote at Truthout on 8/19/08, well before the election:

Tue, 08/19/2008 - 05:20 — David Brookbank (not verified)
1) I will not vote for a representative of the two party ruling class consensus. If Obama is elected, tens of millions of naive Democrats will fall back to sleep as they did under the imperialist, conservative Clinton. They will take refuge in the illusion that "the nation's great national nightmare" is over and relax believing that the promised land of solutions to war, health care, social security, corporate corruption, a mythical land of peace and justice and the American way is only a couple years of hard Democratic work away. That is a pipe dream. 2) Under Bush, much severe damage has been done here at home and abroad. I don't need to enumerate the list here. But remember this, the U.S. populace is largely a non-player except in its role of confused electoral legitimizers of the global brute military power wielded by the US two party ruling class consensus regardless of which faction is in power. It is the people of the rest of the world who are every day less confused, from the millions marching in Europe (albeit unsuccessfully) against US war in Iraq and Afghanistan to the peoples of Latin America one after another successfully electing governments of the left, most overtly opposed to US imperialism. 3) I will not be shamed, brow-beaten, guilt-tripped or rhetorically manipulated into casting my vote before ruling class swine. I will once again vote for the alternative candidate of my choice. I invite each of you to do the same and bring as many others with you. The electoral field is not THE battlefield but it is a battlefield. Fight upon that battlefield and win on it. If not this year and if not in 2012 and if not in 2016 and if not in .... Don't give your vote to those who will then use the "legitimacy" of the system you voted for to carry out further dismantling of the social net at home and further imperial adventures abroad. 4) May courageous people around the world continue to show the people of the United States how to fight ruthless powers, how to act with courage in the face of illegitimate governance, and how to establish solidarity with other peoples. May they help us understand that nothing is obtained from the powerful and ruling class that is not obtained through hard work, sacrifice, and clarity. 5) Which every ruling class representative -- McCain or Obama -- is elected, get ready to continue fighting the system and the dead weight millions who still believe, in their never ending lack of analysis and lack of courage, that this system presents the hope of real change for the people of this country or the world. It does not.

Arroyoribera said...

Zoltan, thanks for this article and your other writing. I have just forwarded this piece to a large list of "liberals", "progressives" and a few "radicals" here in the Spokane backwater in eastern Washington state. Your article includes prior comments you made about the fate we faced with Obama. This is what I wrote at Truthout on 8/19/08, well before the election:

Tue, 08/19/2008 - 05:20 — David Brookbank (not verified)
1) I will not vote for a representative of the two party ruling class consensus. If Obama is elected, tens of millions of naive Democrats will fall back to sleep as they did under the imperialist, conservative Clinton. They will take refuge in the illusion that "the nation's great national nightmare" is over and relax believing that the promised land of solutions to war, health care, social security, corporate corruption, a mythical land of peace and justice and the American way is only a couple years of hard Democratic work away. That is a pipe dream. 2) Under Bush, much severe damage has been done here at home and abroad. I don't need to enumerate the list here. But remember this, the U.S. populace is largely a non-player except in its role of confused electoral legitimizers of the global brute military power wielded by the US two party ruling class consensus regardless of which faction is in power. It is the people of the rest of the world who are every day less confused, from the millions marching in Europe (albeit unsuccessfully) against US war in Iraq and Afghanistan to the peoples of Latin America one after another successfully electing governments of the left, most overtly opposed to US imperialism. 3) I will not be shamed, brow-beaten, guilt-tripped or rhetorically manipulated into casting my vote before ruling class swine. I will once again vote for the alternative candidate of my choice. I invite each of you to do the same and bring as many others with you. The electoral field is not THE battlefield but it is a battlefield. Fight upon that battlefield and win on it. If not this year and if not in 2012 and if not in 2016 and if not in .... Don't give your vote to those who will then use the "legitimacy" of the system you voted for to carry out further dismantling of the social net at home and further imperial adventures abroad. 4) May courageous people around the world continue to show the people of the United States how to fight ruthless powers, how to act with courage in the face of illegitimate governance, and how to establish solidarity with other peoples. May they help us understand that nothing is obtained from the powerful and ruling class that is not obtained through hard work, sacrifice, and clarity. 5) Which every ruling class representative -- McCain or Obama -- is elected, get ready to continue fighting the system and the dead weight millions who still believe, in their never ending lack of analysis and lack of courage, that this system presents the hope of real change for the people of this country or the world. It does not.

Arroyoribera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arroyoribera said...

Zoltan, thanks for this article and your other writing. I have just forwarded this piece to a large list of "liberals", "progressives" and a few "radicals" here in the Spokane backwater in eastern Washington state. Your article includes prior comments you made about the fate we faced with Obama. This is what I wrote at Truthout on 8/19/08, well before the election. The comment is too long so here is the link to it.
http://www.truth-out.org/article/progressives-and-obama-a-clash-narratives#comment-11988

Keep up the great work.

David Brookbank
"Hasta donde debemos practicar las verdades?"

zoltan zigedy said...

Randolph,

Radical? Reformist? Revolutionary? Call solutions what you like. I advocate here a sampling of actions that would move many honest liberals from their politically naive disillusionment and confusion produced by an entirely unrealistic understanding of the 2010 election. Disillusions flow from illusions. I would hope that disillusionment and despair might be replaced with a new understanding of the possibilities and urgent necessity of solutions backed by action worthy of the dire realities of unemployment, foreclosures, impoverishment, etc.
All indications are that those solutions will not come from the November elections. Will that spur further disillusionment?

The contrast between the collection of Nation commentators - excepting Barbara Ehrenreich - and their New Deal counterparts seems to me stark.

A good example of a radical solution in today's context would be to end US aggression in Afghanistan now. If you're satisfied with the solutions offered so far by our political elites, then the argument is with you as well. If you're not, then we have no disagreement.

David Biviano, Mill Creek, WA said...

I share the frustrations and the analysis of ZZ's blog. However, I don't find any plan of action from him, either, as he awaits more from Barbara Ehrenreich.

We don't have the New Deal luminaries, we have Summers and Geithner. Who will emerge as the advisors and leaders that make an Obama Team, not wider Obama shoulders?

The comment regarding ending the Afghan war is the first and most practical step toward real change. How can we address the economy and redistribution of wealth while we continue to borrow from China to wage war in SE Asia - oh, I mean Afghanistan? Imagine the change possible if we were to redirect our resources from that war to the flood disaster in Pakistan and radically alter the perception and reality of the US presence in the region.

Democracy did work - a Rovian Permanent GOP majority was short-lived as the impossible-to-think-of happened in the election of Obama. But as ZZ points out, it has been co-opted once again by the Permanent Capitalist Hegemony that really rules the US.

The co-opted media have made mince-meat of a progressive democratic/socialist agenda with the likes of Fox News (sic) and Glenn Beck. There were the Father Coughlins and Joe McCarthy's of the New Deal era and aftermath.

Perhaps Obama is abiding in the present moment, aware that these forces cannot be countered with continuous campaigning or bombast, but by letting them play out, burn out, implode, clearing the air for greater vision than mere hope.

In the meantime, I ask him to do everything in executive and legislative power to address the needs of the unemployed, the foreclosed and ever-present poor among us.

zoltan zigedy said...

A big thanks to David for his insightful and impassioned comments on my blog entry. I received other comments not intended for posting that demonstrate a shared frustration over where we are and where we're going.

My point in posting my thoughts was not so much to present a program of action - there are many good one's from many different left perspectives - but to attack an obstacle to going forward. And that obstacle is an irrational, misplaced trust that corporately sponsored political leaders will press a people's program without a demanding, agitating, and, yes, often hostile movement. That has been the lesson at least since the New Deal.

A large, growing, and popular anti-war movement harassed the Bush administration and influenced the 2010 election. That movement was demobilized after the election in deference to the "anti-war" candidate. So the wars continue and even escalate.

Health care reform was on the agenda. For many of us, the answer was "medicare for all", but we knew that without a movement the Administration and the Congress would deliver a variant of the "Massachusetts plan". We fought the good fight, but too many peeled off and drank the elixir of "we've got to accept what we can get". And so we got the corporate solution - a variant of the Massachusetts plan".

Future fight? The December recommendations of Obama's Commission on Reform and Fiscal Responsibility will attempt to eviscerate entitlement programs to address the phony deficit issue. There is no better time than in the election run up to extract pledges from candidates that they will not vote for any cuts. But we can't be afraid to ruffle feathers. We can't be afraid to threaten to hold out our vote from those who will argue that we should place our trust in their good will. That doesn't work.

In short, we need to demand and not ask our elected officials to act. It's not a shortage of good ideas that hold back change, but the will to challenge corporate power. Only the people can provide that...

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