Obama As The Lesser Evil

A Paradigm Case of Political Self Deception: Obama As New Deal Liberal

An example in neon of political self deception can be found in an article, “Obama: The Conservative in 2012,” in the Washington Post (Dec. 25, 2011) by E.J.Dionne, a prominent liberal columnist for Commonweal, The Washington Post, and formerly The New York Times. The title of the piece is meant to be ironic. We ordinarily think of a conservative as a right-winger, but Dionne wants to draw on the original meaning of the term: a conservative seeks to preserve a hallowed tradition under attack by radicals. What is astonishing is that the venerable tradition Dionne alleges Obama to be working to sustain is “the consensus that has governed American political life since the Progressive era… a tradition that sees government as an essential actor in the nation’s economy, a guarantor of fair rules of competition, a countervailing force against excessive private power, a check on the inequalities that capitalism can produce, and an instrument that can open opportunity for those born without great advantages.” Romney and the rest, we are told, would overturn the revered tradition of the New Deal and Great Society, which Obama is dedicated to nourish. Contrary to Obama’s own protestations to the contrary, we are to believe that he is a champion of Rooseveltian liberalism, a fierce oponent of “excessive private power,” and a staunch egalitarian.

Obama, writes Dionne, “is the candidate defending the modestly redistributive and regulatory government the country has relied on since the New Deal, and that neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush dismantled.”  But Obamanomics is not merely “modestly redistributive,” it is massively so, and in the opposite direction intended by Dionne. We’ve experienced the greatest transfer of income to the very rich from the rest in human history. Is Dionne unaware that Obama, in The Audacity of Hope and in multiple interviews, has described the liberalism of FDR and LBJ as “the old-time religion”? He’s averred that of all postwar presidents, his greatest admiration goes to Ronald Reagan, who understood that in a commercially globalized world economic policy must follow “a fundamentally different path.” He’s repeated the mantra that government may respond to severe unemployment only by offering bribes to companies (tax breaks) and banks (injections of liquidity) to hire and lend. Hiring and production are the business only of the private sector.

In the FDR/LBJ tradition, Social Security was refered to as “the third rail” of American politics. It was inconceivable that any Democrat would consider touching it. Your political career, be you Democrat or Republican, would be over were you to suggest either reducing benefits or extending the retirement age. Even the Tea Party seems to be in step with that. But Obama isn’t. Recall, it wasn’t the Republicans who “put Social Security on the table” during the silly debt ceiling controversy. How could Dionne and many other Democratic stalwarts think of Obama as a champion of the New Deal legacy? Whether Obama is a liberal in the post-Depression pre-Carter sense of the term is not  a matter of theory or ideology. It is a matter of fact that he is not. Dionne and others of his kidney must know this, in the cognitively attenuated sense of ‘know’ required by the self-deceptive psychodynamics described above. But paying attention to it would wipe out the framework they depend on to think about politics at all.

In confining the political to the Republocrat consensus, the liberal exhibits a common political vice that needs to be called for what it is: a deficiency of historical imagination. The logic that says one should vote only for someone who can win is self-perpetuating. If it’s good advice now it will necessarily be good advice next time around, and the time after that, and the time… The bare possibility that the Democrat-Republican, liberal-conservative dichotomies may be historically obsolete in these neoliberal times is ruled out a-priori. The present moment is frozen in time. This is a poory disguised version of the End of History thesis. We turn out to inhabit what is in effect the only possible world, which must be, if you think about it, also the best possible world. The liberal as Panglos. The late historian Tony Judt expressed the loss of historical imagination this way:

“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?…Our shortcoming—forgive the academic jargon—is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things.” Tony Judt, The New York Review, 2009

There is a lesson in all this. The Left has excelled in identifying the contradictions of capitalism and the way these manifest themselves in the political system. But we have done much less to provide the historical imagination with material for its task of creating an image of an alternative future. What would a democratic economy and polity actually look like? How might it work? A detailed description of a post-capitalist order is impossible, since it is the process of getting there that will determine the specific contours of the outcome. But a critique of the existing order without at least a rough outline of what a genuinely democratic economic system (for example) might look like can breed cynicism. “Another Future Is Possible.” And…?

Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. This article is based on themes in his book in progress The “New Normal”: Persistent Austerity, Declining Democracy and the Globalization of Resistance. He can be reached at nassera@evergreen.edu

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Obama As The Lesser Evil

  1. Steve says:

    A thought-provoking article indeed. (It led me to learn of the death of Tony Judt in 2010; I knew I was missing his columns in New York Review, which a neighbor kindly provides me.)

    Despite my incessant reading, I haven’t a clue what I really, really ought to do this presidential year. Deciding not to vote for Obama and not to vote for any Republican is, indeed, damned close to deciding to toss one’s presidential vote in the trash can. Nasser certainly asks the right questions, and rightly dismisses voting for the lesser evil, but he leaves me no closer to an affirmative decision.

  2. taradharma says:

    Much to chew on, here. (My nephew is a student at Evergreen.) It seems to me that it would take a critical mass of people asking these questions before any real political and economic change is possible. The problem is, not many of us are asking these questions. The two-party system is a given in most US citizens’ eyes. Many failed attempts at forming and ‘selling’ another party just reinforce the notion.

    Watching the melt-down of the GOP makes me wonder if there may someday soon be a viable 3rd, 4th and 5th party, as in other countries. I hope so. But I also know it’s not likely. Though, stranger things have happened.

  3. Pingback: Lesser-Evil Thinking « Steve Bates, The Yellow Doggerel Something

Leave a Comment for Adgita

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.