Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Danger of Making Obama the Face of the Democratic Party and Liberal Activism

Much as I'd enjoy joining the internet in another cycle of liberal disappointment, I have to express my discontent at the quality of the liberal blogosphere's Obama criticism. He is not a Republican. He is not like Republicans. And the more this has to be constantly reasserted, the more liberals will continue to ineffectually flounder in search of legitimate complaints. Every "this is exactly what Obama wanted" argument, every "Obama is a weak president/negotiator" argument, every "Obama isn't a True Liberal" argument betrays how thoroughly liberal disappointment rests on idealistic projection. Instead of criticizing the president, the left has contented itself with whining about Obama's failure to live up to the ideals of their strawknight while ignoring unfavorable political realities (like Republican intransigence and the media embrace thereof). This is a fine tactic for e-venting and the inevitable circle-jerking it produces, but it fails as political expression and political analysis.

This isn't to say that the linked arguments don't have minimal grains of truth - they do. But the image they rely on and the narrative they contribute to couldn't be further away from explaining the discrepancy that makes Obama the right president for a misinformed and centrist electorate and the wrong president for an unflinchingly destructive opposition or the left. Ironically, no one can illustrate why better than Barack Obama himself:

It's quite possible - and indeed, likely - that President Obama is either a liberal or mostly-liberal. It's likely that if he sat down at a table with Paul Krugman, Digby and Ezra Klein, he would either agree with or be sympathetic to many of their arguments. Why, it's even likely that he could sit down and have a productive conversation about something like unions or education reform with self-proclaimed Real Leftist Freddie deBoer. What almost none of these parties seem to understand is that the specifics of the issues in question are completely secondary to Obama's priorities.

In his mind, he's not president to fulfill the "WE NEED TO GET THIS DONE NOW!" quota of the left. His responsibility is to the institutions that he feels makes discussion of those issues - and progress generally - possible. To put it in construction terms, Obama is a janitor most of the time a repairman some of the time and almost never an architect. No effort to understand or persuasively critique Obama can happen until these details are internalized. The main flaw with from-the-left efforts to comprehend Obama is that while they're looking at it on an issue-by-issue and case-by-case basis, Obama feels he has an obligation to something greater than his - or even his party's - political preferences. He feels he an obligation to the office itself. In his eyes, his goal isn't to use the office or government to enact what he feels is societally superior (though he will try when he can, and consider it a bonus when he succeeds). His goal begins and ends with institutional functionality.

When he wanted healthcare reform, he made sure that congress was nigh exclusively responsible for conceptualizing, writing and voting for it. When he made his moves in support of gay marriage and against DADT, he went through the pentagon, which went through Congress in the form of "recommendations", and then waited for the process to prepare itself to vote on it. When he stopped enforcing DOMA, he waited until he had cover from elements of the judicial branch to do it. When he faced the possibility of a government shutdown, he took the strongest option he could that would not upset the established status quo. An approach he again repeated with the recent debt ceiling "deal". Even his consistent desire for compromise is best viewed through the lens of institutional attachment.

The way he works and the way he wants congress to work (i.e through compromise) is precisely how the government functioned before the last two decades. His loyalty isn't to liberals or conservatives, it isn't to Democrats or Republicans, it isn't even to what's "best" or "worst" for America's standard of living. Obama's loyalty is to a lost vision of the American system, and nearly every decision he's made (from avoiding his 14th Amendment options to constantly meeting with Republicans as though they're somehow good-faith negotiators) is his conformity to a role and to a functional norm that the American government feels it's been forced to collectively discard. This is the scope of Obama's vision, this is the basis for the "transformative" power he so admires in other presidents, this is the justification for every compromise, every posture, every "cave" he's made. As long as institutional functionality is maintained, in Obama's mind, he didn't cave at all. He stopped the system from irreparably breaking, which he feels is the extent of his purpose.

This isn't just an unsurprising summary of his philosophy. It's completely consistent with his political views going as far back as at least The Audacity of Hope. His belief that government can and should work is inseparably tied to his belief that government works best as it is/was. This perspective is a lot of things. A lot. But it's breathtakingly short sighted and blind to view Obama's stubborn insistence on it as naive and illegitimate or to view his distinctly conservative impulses as inherently illiberal.

Obama is a product of, an admirer of and an embodiment of the American political system and no attempt to critique Obama will have lasting value until and unless they can engage his philosophy on the terms he's outlined for himself and with a full understanding of what, exactly, they're attacking when they attack Obama. This is much, much more important than Liberal Issue Du Jour and any attempt to provide insight is going to have to confront the conclusion that by criticizing Obama, you're criticizing a comprehensive and historically informed vision of American government. You're not only saying that his conception of government can't work: you're saying it shouldn't. This isn't a moral or qualitative judgment, it's just a fact. I repeat: disagreeing with Obama's philosophy is saying that the way American government has worked for the past 200 years is not how America can or should work in the future.

The left's primary failing arises from from similarly sentimental attachment to the status quo that's tempered (in ways that Obama's isn't)
by an empirically informed disloyalty to it. That means that the left sees the factual justifications for political change, sees what's wrong with society, sees where we've erred as an electorate and how the system rewards and encourages those errors, but wishes to and thinks that it can fix these problems in the same way every single democratic movement in America has fixed the problems of their time. To put it another way, the left's problems with America are systemic. They're fixtures of our government, they're codified by law, and they're perpetuated by politicians that we elect. And despite that, the left is reluctant to take its feelings to their logical conclusion. They're willing to say that the system is broken, but they're unwilling to treat the system like it's broken.

I've long complained about the stupidity of organizing around Obama in 2008. I thought it was incomparably foolish and short-sighted to create a movement around a candidate instead of influencing a candidate with a movement. But that short-sightedness and liberal susceptibility to it is significantly motivated by that sentiment. In Obama, the left confused a maintainer for a radical. They looked at Obama and projected onto him what they wanted: systemic change without systemic destruction. In doing so, however, the left revealed how little it understands itself and its motivations. Just think about it.

Through the Senate, redistricting and Republican thievery in 2000 and 2004 and journalistic internalization of Republican arguments, the system has proven incapable of being democratic. Through campaign contributions, Supreme Court removal of campaign financing laws, and the overwhelmingly white/male/rich demographic/income representation of its government, the system is highly distorted to disproportionately represent the wealthy. Through "looking forward and not backward" rhetoric, the system forgives wrongdoing from politicians while cruelly punishing the poorest and weakest of its citizens with inane laws and extraordinarily long prison sentences. Through its failure to meaningfully police Wall Street or even set up a means of addressing climate change, the system has proven to be fundamentally averse to regulation. Through the continuation of systemic and cultural inequality the system still manages to be both racist and sexist. Through our ability to call for and wage war on countries that have done nothing to us without even requiring the pretense of an internal debate, the system institutionalizes war and makes carrying it out as easy and consequence-free as possible. Through the loss of privacy protections, civil liberties protections, and even effective safeguards against police brutality, the system spits on civil liberties while giving the most power to the people best positioned to abuse it. Through a society that values making money more than it values what's done to make it, the system doesn't just ignore income inequality, it creates it. Through its complete removal from nearly all national and political conversation, the system has shown complete indifference to unemployment and underemployment. The system birthed the circumstances that led to every decision the left has disliked in the past 20 years.

When the left saw Obama, they saw a way to address their complaints without giving the system up. They saw a way to say that their goals, their ideals and their principles were in-keeping with the best traditions of American progress. They saw the system as benign and abused instead of resistant and antagonistic. For them, Obama didn't just represent a dream of calm, liberal resurgence; he represented a vision of America that didn't have to destroy itself to become its ideal embodiment of self. What the left didn't - and still doesn't - want to do is take those principles to their logical conclusion.

Here's a hint: that conclusion isn't the sudden appearance of a candidate and a congress sometime in the distant future that somehow fixes everything we dislike - after the poor have died and after tens or hundreds of millions have suffered from our government's ailments and limitations. It isn't the slow, gradual, grassroots attempt to galvanize the electorate while the media pretends it isn't happening if there's even a hint success. If we wanted to be completely honest, completely open, and utterly clear about what the stakes are and what the left wants, the left has to admit that the logical conclusion posits that the system itself causes and represents the things the left dislikes. That what we see and despise are not systemic anomalies, but are wholly inevitable - and possibly even intended - results of a system that is actively compliant in America's most toxic ailments. Obama-hatred is simply a proxy. A symptom of a considerably deeper problem the left has with American governance. In fact, one could say that the unique passion behind Obama hatred is because many of the left have reached this conclusion without formulating it and internalizing it.

If Obama is a perfect representative of the American political system - and I think that anyone who pays attention to politics must conclude that he is - then contempt for Obama, Obama's methods, Obama's policies and Obama's approach is tantamount to contempt for the system, contempt for the methods the system requires for functionality and contempt for what's in the realm of systemic possibility for policy. When the left made Obama the face of liberalism, they weren't aware that all they were doing was wearing a mask. The failure to introspectively reach this conclusion themselves has made a liberalism that's bitterly fractured, completely unfocused and disastrously unwilling to understand the scope of their critiques and apply methods that appreciate the proportion of that scope. "Part of America" isn't wrong. America is wrong. And changing America as an entity is the only thing that could make it right. This is not in any way inconsistent with what liberals do or need to think. It's not wrong to think that. It's the key to the left's intellectual liberation.

We are radicals tied to a malignant system that institutionally diminishes the power of radicals - even when they're right. And the left should say that until the word is robbed of its marginalizing potential. We. Are. Radicals. And there's nothing wrong with that. We belong to a system where a black president can talk about the Emancipation Proclamation's retaining of slaves to a group of white people and collectively laugh at the prospect of anyone criticizing the compromise. How is it illegitimate to be its opposition?

The left faces a crisis of identity. And whether it becomes the true form of itself is entirely incumbent on whether it premises its opposition to Obama on the proper grounds. Ultimately, Obama is one man. Even in constitutional terms, his power is remarkably limited. Institutions don't merely exist to limit the power of men. They exist to shape what's permissible to say and do in a modern society. As long as the institution insists it is right, there's no institutional pretext to treat it as though it's innately flawed. We don't need new candidates because as long as this system exists, it's impossible for them to do anything worthwhile. We need new political environments for the next generation of candidates to function in.

None of this is to say that we should discard the concept of a democracy/republic or discard the spirit of our founders and dismiss the extent of what America has inadvertently done right. This post merely exists to highlight the fact that everything the left finds wrong is as attached to the system as my arm is attached to me. You can patch it up, euphemize it and rearrange it, but as long as the system exists you can't fix it.

If we're to be active visionaries and not unwitting victims of power struggles we're barely able to participate in, we must approach our arguments with total clarity. We need to know and bravely explore what we want. And we need to reach the final, painful realization that what we want is completely incompatible with the America that exists in front of us. We need to understand that Obama's failures are not Obama's: they're ours. And they'll continue to be as long as America continues to be seen as something to defend instead of something to dismantle. Obama is not, never was and never can be the face of liberalism. He's merely the face of all that liberalism can do under our current institutional framework. If that's what you want, support him. If that's what you don't want, oppose him. But understand what you're doing. Understand why. Understand its enormity. Own it.

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