Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Omitting Obama

Most Clintonistas argue like Barack Obama never existed, let alone became president.

That’s because centrists' assumptions cemented in the late 80s and early 90s, so subsequent events have had no impact on their perceptions. According to their worldview, any Democrat who looks dovish is automatically George McGovern and any Democrat who is not tough on crime is Michael Dukakis.

Similar cynicism shaped their estimation of a black man whose middle name is Hussein becoming president in the wake of the War on Terror. To centrists, Barack Obama was McGovern and Dukakis rolled into one. His winning by landslides twice in 2008 and 2012 did not inspire them to revise their worldview. To them, it is still 1994. To them, it is always 1994.

In 2008, Clintonistas hypocritically mocked Obama's theme of hope as naïve - forgetting that it was Bill Clinton's shtick in 1992. In a TV spot entitled "Hope," William Jefferson Clinton touted his boyhood meeting John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Did Hillary Clinton’s team learn from this 2008 mistake and strike a more optimistic and ambitious tone in 2016? Not for the most part.

Yes, they avoided directly attacking her likeable opponent this time around. They at least understood that strategy had spectacularly backfired last time when they went negative against Obama. So instead, they largely farmed-out their expressions of patronizing contempt to their surrogates.(1)

Centrist pessimism is dispiriting as well as alienating. Clintonistas followed Obama’s Audacity of Hope with their significantly less inspiring resignation to low expectations. Saying that single payer will "never, ever come to pass" was a pretty shitty pep talk for Hillary Clinton to give. That's not how you energize the party's base. And, as I wrote before, “never” is not gradualism – it’s defeatism.

I have called centrists “centrist quislings,” “covert conservatives,” and “closeted conservatives” on many occasions, but I have not explained the dynamic which makes them so. I think there may be an attitudinal continuum from centrism to libertarianism to conservatism - and pessimism may be the engine that pushes things ever rightward. In my last post, I pointed out centrists’ libertarian tendencies. In my book, I wrote a lot about libertarianism’s “built-in authoritarian drift.” The political philosophy is not really supposed to cohere. Indeed, it is built with planned obsolescence. It’s a rickety bridge to conservatism that is supposed to collapse once you reach the other side. Conservative commentator Matt Lewis talks of the libertarian-to-alt-right pipeline, although he do not fully acknowledge conservatism’s particular pipe segment in it. In my book, I posit pessimism is what pumps the flow ever rightward:
[T]his atmosphere of fear breeds an anti-libertarian attitude – even among libertarians themselves. Why? Because the basis of libertarian thought is the Enlightenment belief that people are basically rational and good and therefore require very little government to peaceably get along. But, if you think most people are ignorant or predatory, your attitude becomes authoritarian. Conservative founder John Jay wrote, “The mass of men are neither wise nor good, and virtue, like the other resources of the country, can only be drawn to a point and exerted by strong circumstances ably managed, or a strong government ably administered.”(2) As George Orwell observed, “The mental connection between pessimism and a reactionary outlook is no doubt obvious enough.”(3) Humorist Andy Rooney once ironically observed that liberals think people are basically good but need some help from their government while conservatives think people are basically bad but will be okay if they are left alone.(4) Of course, that does not stop conservatives from trying to legislate morality.
This explains why Glenn Beck’s “libertarian” rhetoric turns authoritarian so quickly. It’s largely in part because his vision is so dark. With this dynamic in mind, the fact that Hillary Clinton has long belonged to creepy right-wing prayer group should be less surprising. In 1993, she declared that single payer was inevitable: By 2016, she declared it the opposite of inevitable. Even if we accept the charitable interpretation that her idealism was sapped out of her by difficult experience, a presidential candidate without ideals is hardly, well, ideal. Trauma is not always maturity. But trauma or no, she has a very well-feathered nest. When you can spend $3 million on your daughter’s wedding, your credible complaints are few. Such feather-bed pessimists tend toward conservatism sooner or later.

And this pessimism isn’t just about accepting conservative domination of the political process as a law of nature or an American peculiarity. Centrists share conservatives “skepticism” of government. That’s why they did not feel betrayed when Bill Clinton proclaimed “The era of big government is over” in his 1996 State of the Union Address - to enthusiastic applause from a Republican Congress.

This also explains why Bernie Sanders’ supporters favor feminist legislation more strongly that Hillary Clinton’s: It’s because child care, paid family leave, and other proposals that would materially benefit women would also inconvenience corporations - and centrists certainly can’t have that! Centrists are feminists as long as it does not cost their donors anything. 

Pro-woman programs that are taken for granted in other western democracies are taken off the table as nonstarters here. Centrists are dismissive of any ambitious government effort to make lives easier. As Hillary Clinton said in the first primary debate with Bernie Sanders, “We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.” What she is basically saying is: “We can’t have nice things because this is America.” That starkly contrasted with her empty message that “America is already great.” Well, by this metric, we are not as great as most Scandinavian nations - which incidentally have greater gender parity in their governments. Look at Sweden. Look at Iceland. They elected their first woman presidents and prime ministers long ago and their healthcare covers everyone.

The Onion recently ran a piece in which puzzled historians wonder how Americans possibly could have built Hoover Dam the same way people used to wonder how the Egyptians built the pyramids or the Celts built Stonehenge. Whether intended or not, it was a brilliant critique of centrist pessimism and skepticism of government. Sometimes I wonder if centrists think the moon landings were faked. After all, it would be the logical end product of their defeatist world view.

As I keep saying, Obama's election should have dispelled such pessimism. Let me repeat: We elected a black man president twice by comfortable margins and his middle name is Hussein. And, oh yes, conservatives constantly called him a socialist. What else do I need to tell you? 

I am not arguing that Obama was not a centrist. But he at least had the good sense to encourage rather than discourage the progressive base. The fact the he - like Bill Clinton - campaigned to the left of where he later governed is enormously disappointing, but it also shows that is where the votes are. And that torpedoes and sinks a central centrist conceit about the American electorate. Centrists love to argue that America is a conservative country. This pessimistic assessment excuses their every policy betrayal and dog whistle triangulation. And BONUS: their conservative cocktail party friends love to hear it.(5)

I’ve always said that pessimism is as intellectually lazy as optimism. Both attitudes assume human nature has an inherent unitary trajectory - and attitudes are poor substitutes for specific instance analysis. The “realism” and “pragmatism” centrists boast is simply blind, unthinking pessimism. It’s the superficial wisdom if imbeciles stuck in 1994 who do not read past the headlines, so they never notice when someone has buried the lede - which is often where the greatest harbinger of change is found. 

Optimism may be just as lazy as pessimism, but it is rarely as reactionary. And, unlike pessimism, optimism gets out the vote. The mass appeal of big ideas over modest tweaks is something that Hillary Clinton herself belatedly admitted in a passage in her book, What Happened:
Democrats should reevaluate a lot of our assumptions about which policies are politically viable. These trends make universal programs even more appealing than we previously thought. I mean programs like Social Security and Medicare, which benefit every American, as opposed to Medicaid, food stamps, and other initiatives targeted to the poor. Targeted programs may be more efficient and progressive, and that’s why during the primaries I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued. ... Democrats should redouble our efforts to develop bold, creative ideas that offer broad-based benefits for the whole country.
Of course, anyone familiar with conservative strategy should already know this. It is a truism that "Social Security is the third rail in American politics" while welfare was a soft target. Also, comparative political science is a thing: Universal programs are the norm in western Europe, as anyone who says "I love Denmark" should know. That's why they have better resisted neoliberal attempts to repeal or defund them. And it cannot escape comment that Hillary Clinton mentions her own demagoguery here, oddly calling targeted programs "more efficient and progressive" when they chronically miss their targets because millions who desperately need them are not considered poor enough to qualify. 

But more important here is the fact that Clinton's passage dramatically clashes with bedrock centrist attitudes. As Doug Henwood wrote in his review, it rejects "a generation of neoliberal orthodoxy." 

Hopefully, her die hard supporters will follow her lead and reject it as well.

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1) In turn, they basically slandered Sanders the same way they had Obama. Both were portrayed as Messiahs to myopic misogynists and simpletons who did not understand politics. The old script only needed some slight revisions like name changes, so "Obama Boys" became "Bernie Bros." The inconvenient fact that younger women preferred Hillary's opponent in both primaries was studiously ignored when not patronizingly dismissed. Age, not sex, was the party’s primary dividing line each time.

2) Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 261.

3) George Orwell, A Collection of Essays (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1948), 230. Interestingly, Orwell thought prosperity and despair have a counter-intuitive relationship. Here is more of that quote:  
The mental connection between pessimism and a reactionary outlook is no doubt obvious enough. What is perhaps less obvious is just why the leading writers of the ’twenties were predominantly pessimistic. Why always the sense of decadence, the skulls and cactuses, the yearning after lost faith and impossible civilizations? Was it not, after all, because these people were writing in an exceptionally comfortable epoch?
4) Andrew Rooney, And More by Andy Rooney (New York: Atheneum, 1982), 119.

5) They also love to hear centrists parrot their talking point that America turned away from “big government” in the 1980s. That is their explanation as to how Ronald Reagan got elected. Funny, you would think that Jimmy Carter’s Iranian Hostage Crisis might have figured into their analysis. In reality, Reagan benefited from his charisma and the economy. As I wrote before, he was personally popular, but his policies were not. His genial demeanor created a cognitive disconnect in voters’ minds: They could not associate pompadour grandpa with his heartless policies. It similarly insulated him from his administration’s constant scandals – hence the talk of his “Teflon” coating.

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