|The Winter Of Liberal Discontent
by Louis Proyect
(Swans - December 14, 2009) When Obama took office last January, liberal voices in the United States greeted him as the second coming of FDR even if it was acknowledged that it might take a push from below to bring a new New Deal into fruition. The thought that Obama had more in common with Herbert Hoover never entered their minds, needless to say. In less than one year since inauguration day, the bloom seems to have faded from the rose.
On December 2nd, Politico.com reported that "Jane Hamsher leads left away from White House," a reference to the fact that the liberal Firedoglake blogger has organized her supporters to challenge centrist Democrats willing to compromise with the Republicans over health care. As a 50-year-old survivor of three bouts with breast cancer, the issue is intensely personal as well as political. She told Politico that "I don't know how you live through that" without money, having spent some $60,000 out-of-pocket despite being fully insured.
If you've seen Michael Moore's Capitalism: a Love Story, you'll surely remember how the documentary treated Obama's election. Despite acknowledging that he had been the beneficiary of massive contributions from Goldman Sachs, the movie's primary villain, he was seen as the possible coming of FDR.
Despite being a slavish backer of whichever candidate the Democrats dredged up in the last two elections, including mass murderer General Wesley Clark, Moore has shown signs that the honeymoon is over. He composed an open letter to the president on the eve of his speech calling for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan:
When we elected you we didn't expect miracles. We didn't even expect much change. But we expected some. We thought you would stop the madness. Stop the killing. Stop the insane idea that men with guns can reorganize a nation that doesn't even function as a nation and never, ever has.
Stop, stop, stop! For the sake of the lives of young Americans and Afghan civilians, stop. For the sake of your presidency, hope, and the future of our nation, stop. For God's sake, stop.
Considering the fact that Obama ignored the filmmaker's advice, one wonders if he will now regard him as continuing "the madness," "the killing," and "the insane idea" that the U.S. can do any good in Afghanistan.
Former student radical in the 1960s and long-time Democratic Party politician Tom Hayden has taken a course of action that would be de rigueur for Moore at this point:
It's time to strip the Obama sticker off my car.
Obama's escalation in Afghanistan is the last in a string of disappointments. His flip-flopping acceptance of the military coup in Honduras has squandered the trust of Latin America. His Wall Street bailout leaves the poor, the unemployed, minorities and college students on their own. And now comes the Afghanistan-Pakistan decision to escalate the stalemate, which risks his domestic agenda, his Democratic base, and possibly even his presidency. (Nation Magazine, December 1, 2009 "Obama Announces Afghanistan Escalation.")
Also joining the ranks of the disillusioned is Garry Wills, who blogs at The New York Review of Books, a standard bearer of conventional liberal thought dressed in academic cant. Wills, an author of dozens of books on American politics, feels like he has been cheated:
If we had wanted Bush's wars, and contractors, and corruption, we could have voted for John McCain. At least we would have seen our foe facing us, not felt him at our back, as now we do. The Republicans are given a great boon by this new war. They can use its cost to say that domestic needs are too expensive to be met -- health care, education, infrastructure. They can say that military recruitments from the poor make job creation unnecessary. They can call it Obama's war when it is really theirs. They can attack it and support it at the same time, with equal advantage.
I cannot vote for any Republican. But Obama will not get another penny from me, or another word of praise, after this betrayal. And in all this I know that my disappointment does not matter. What really matters are the lives of the young men and women he is sending off to senseless deaths. (NYRBlog, "Afghanistan: The Betrayal.")
But perhaps the most important defection has come from African Americans, who initially hoped that having the country's first black president might put their problems on the front burner. Charles Blow, an African American op-ed columnist for The New York Times, considered what it meant to be "Black in the Age of Obama" and found it lacking. If anything, blacks have been put on the back burner if not down the kitchen drain entirely:
According to a Gallup report published on Nov. 24, Obama's approval rating among whites has dropped to 39 percent, but among blacks it remains above 90 percent...
This means that Obama can get away with doing almost nothing to specifically address issues important to African-Americans and instead focus on the white voters he's losing in droves. This has not gone unnoticed. In the November 9 Gallup poll, the number of blacks who felt that Obama would not go far enough in promoting efforts to aid the black community jumped 60 percent from last summer to now.
This has indubitably caught the attention of elected black officials. An article titled "Black Caucus tells Obama you've done too little for African-Americans" appeared in the December 2, 2009 edition of thehill.com. It began:
Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members on Wednesday criticized the Obama administration for not doing enough to help African-Americans through the bleak economy.
Soon after withholding their votes on a wide-ranging financial services bill, 10 CBC members said they are pressuring the White House to do more.
The House Financial Services Committee voted 31-27 in favor of the bill, but the lawmakers' boycott came on a major financial measure the administration wants to see Congress pass this month.
"We have not been forceful enough in our efforts to protect the most vulnerable of our population," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who represents one of the nation's poorest districts. "We can no longer afford for our public policy to be defined by the worldview of Wall Street."
Given the high level of expectation that Obama would break not only with George W. Bush's policies but also with the Democratic Party's most recent stints in the White House (an illusion created partially by Obama's dismissal of Hillary Clinton as a kind of relic of failed policies), it was inevitable that liberals would feel cheated. Since there were ample signs that Obama would be another Bill Clinton despite rhetoric to the contrary, you can say that people like Garry Wills only had themselves to blame.
The chorus of disapproval is louder than any I have heard from liberal quarters since 1967 when another very popular Democrat did an about-face once he was in office. When LBJ ran as a peace candidate, very few people -- except unrepentant Marxists -- would have anticipated a massive escalation in Vietnam. It was well understood a year ago that Obama was committed to escalating the war in Afghanistan, but the liberal base of the Democratic Party was too mesmerized by the mantras of "hope" and "change" to believe that their candidate would actually carry out his promise.
There is a tendency to regard right-wing Republican presidents being replaced by idealistic-appearing Democrats who betray their supporters, thus enabling a new Republican candidate to take over the White House, as a kind of Western version of karma. We are compelled by universal law in some way to undergo an endless cycle of suffering without hope of redemption short of Enlightenment.
This, however, gives the two-party system a permanence that it ill deserves. In reality, the Republican Party was a response to the very same sense of disillusionment that we are seeing now among liberal politicians and pundits. A debate about slavery had been going on for decades, but the two main parties -- Whig and Democrat -- found ways to maintain the system, just as the two main parties agree on imperialism and wage slavery. Discontent was at first expressed in minor parties that did not last very long -- like the Free Soil Party -- but when a critical mass had been reached, history gave birth to the Republican Party.
There is a propensity on the left to flagellate itself for not crafting arguments that are convincing enough to persuade the masses to vote for Nader or to take even more radical measures. In reality it is the capitalist system itself that will open people up to alternative ways of thinking and acting, not some particularly ingenious leaflet.
Increasingly, there are signs that the ruling class -- to use a quaint term associated with the fringe politics of Marxism -- is being forced to deepen its attack on the safety net that has been in place since the New Deal. It was such reforms that served to prop up the system in a turbulent era when the capitalist class's back was against the wall. FDR calculated that Social Security, the right to organize trade unions, and a firm hand on Wall Street would strengthen the system, despite the objection of individual plutocrats who resented a loss of control. In lurching to the left, FDR was acting on behalf of his entire class. The fact that ordinary people voted for these measures was almost superfluous.
Ever since the Carter presidency, the ruling class has been united around the need to dump the New Deal safety net. While this attack has been associated primarily with the Reaganites, it was initiated under the Carter administration that had embarked on deregulation policies amounting to a dagger aimed at the heart of the New Deal. Deregulation was not something that was cooked up after a Carter administration official reacted favorably to an Ayn Rand novel. It was instead driven by the exigencies of capitalist competition. With a revived Germany and Japan, the U.S. needed to evolve toward a leaner and hungrier socioeconomic model to compete effectively. This continues unabated under Obama.
Eventually, the government will be forced to increase the level of pain suffered by ordinary Americans. This was alluded to in a Huffington Post article titled "America Without a Middle Class." Author Elizabeth Warren, who chairs the TARP Congressional Oversight Panel, states:
Can you imagine an America without a strong middle class? If you can, would it still be America as we know it?
Today, one in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can't make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans is on food stamps. More than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month. The economic crisis has wiped more than $5 trillion from pensions and savings, has left family balance sheets upside down, and threatens to put ten million homeowners out on the street.
As a rule of thumb, consciousness tends to lag behind historical events. Most people, including those on the left, are reacting to today's crisis through the lenses of the 1980s when American capitalism still had a lot more leeway. In the past 20 years or so, the structural contradictions of the system have grown more pronounced while its ability to bottle up discontent through concessions has decreased. This is a function of the system's inability to provide well-paying jobs in a manufacturing-based economy, the hallmark of FDR's New Deal.
Eventually we will see explosive reactions to the inexorable rise of class divisions such as the kind seen in student protests in California against tuition hikes. Attacks on Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits, and other "entitlements" will create the kind of antagonisms that made the New Deal or more radical alternatives inevitable. This time we must find a way to create a viable radical alternative in order to move to a more just and rational system on a permanent basis. There is no karma that condemns us to repeat the past, thank goodness.