'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, December 26, 2008

From the Archives: Obama: the Resurrection of American Liberalism 

[First posted on January 7, 2008: Part 1 of the Obama series. My response to his victory in the Iowa caucus was, for me, uncharacteristically euphoric.]

The extraordinary emergence of Barack Obama as the probable Democratic nominee for President is exposing fissures within American liberalism, fissures that will revitalize it as force for progressive change. Yes, I admit it, I exaggerate a little here, these fissures have already been increasingly visible over the course of the Bush presidency. A populist liberalism, one that initially emphasized aggressive activist opposition to the Bush agenda has now matured into a movement that recognizes that the transformation of the Democratic Party is essential if any of its goals are to be achieved.

But Obama's success in shattering the Clinton machine (a task that he will complete tomorrow in New Hampshire) has brought these fissures to the fore front, and hastened the creation of a new progressive coalition. The Clinton machine, while disliked by many for its political expediency, released liberals from the necessity of confronting basic questions about themselves, their methods and political values. With Hillary the presumptive nominee, the only challenge facing liberals was how to persuade themselves that voting for her was an affirmative act. It was understood that the Clintons were going to make all the tough calls, and even, when they deemed necessary, revile their own base to preserve their power.

Hence, there was no need for self-reflection, just a willingness to celebrate the mercenary ruthlessness of the Clintons as essential to electoral success. As a consequence, liberalism no longer possessed the attributes of a social philosophy, a perspective about the relationship of people to each other and their government, a means of inspiring people to believe that they could act to change the circumstances of their lives for the better. Instead, it had been reduced to the practice of power politics for the benefit of an entrenched elite within the Democratic Party, as embarrassingly exposed by the willingness of congressional Democrats to rescue Joe Lieberman despite his primary loss to Ned Lamont. That's all in the past now. Obama, along with Edwards, has destroyed a Democratic Party apparat constructed over 16 years since 1992.

Accordingly, many liberals find themselves disoriented, adrift in unfamiliar waters. Some still hold tightly to the hierarchical Clinton political model. They uncritically parrot false Clinton attacks upon Obama: he's inexperienced, he's just a mesmerizing speaker, he lacks substance. Even the most cursory investigatory effort reveals that all of these criticisms are untrue. His experience compares quite favorable to Hillary's once one discounts her pitiful attempt to expropriate her husband's achievements as her own, he directly engages people in a low key manner in any type of forum and his policy initiatives are well reasoned.

Sadly, there is a racial undercurrent in some of the more extreme expressions of these themes. For example, to see people at some liberal sites, like, for example, firedoglake, perpetually harping on Obama's lack of substance in the debates implies that, well, of course, how could a black man possess extensive knowledge of political subjects in a debate with a professional white woman like Hillary Clinton? I wouldn't have thought that there was a racial dimension to this criticism until I actually spent the time to watch the Saturday debate in New Hampshire.

After reading numerous comments to this effect, predominately on the firedoglake site, but also at Daily Kos, I expected to hear Obama speak in vague, unsubstantiated generalities, sort of like if Tony Robbins ran for President, while Hillary, the reputed policy wonk, ran rings round him. Imagine my shock when Obama displayed a confident command of the issues, effortlessly refuting Hillary's desperate attempts to distort his record. She came off especially poorly during a protracted exchange about their health care proposals. I remembered one of my more ascerbic political remarks that I make to close friends, some white liberals are white before they are liberals.

It gets especially distasteful when you read remarks posted by some apparently female Clinton supporters on these sites, as well as the New York Times (I say, apparently, because I am taking the gender of the Internet handles at face value). They openly assert that nominating Obama is a bad idea because it will be impossible to elect a black man President of the United States. If required to create a category for this sort of criticism, we might call it backhanded racism, the expropriation of concern about racism to engage in a racist attack upon an African American political figure. Some of Hillary's supporters seems to come from feminists who have little, if any, interest in the civil rights struggles of African Americans, much less sympathy for it.

But this is a digression that distracts from the real problem as far as the Clintonistas and their liberal supporters are concerned. Such accidental expressions of racial animus are being generated by something else: the fact that Obama, like Samson, is destroying the hierarchical temple of political power constructed by the Clintons and their corporate sponsors. The Clinton model enforces the rule that political needs must be channeled up to the top of the pyramid, where the Clintons and their operatives, people like Rahm Emanuel, decide to what extent they should be addressed, if at all. Nothing is more frightening to them than the prospect of real political empowerment, real political participation by a significant portion of the public. Accordingly, the Clinton model places a priority upon the demoralization of social movements, and the substitution of symbolic gestures for material rewards.

Thus, one reads numerous posts at firedoglake and Daily Kos decrying the demogoguery of Obama, posts that express the preposterous fear that Obama is multicultural pied piper leading his guileless supporters over the abyss. Leaving aside the hilarity of people decrying Obama precisely because he motivates people to support him, and inspires otherwise alienated people to participate in the political process, these posts reflect anxiety that Obama is refashioning American liberalism in a way that is open and inclusive. Hillary and her liberal supporters, permanently attached to the hierarchical Clinton model, and the power they possess within it, have no way to challenge Obama other than through character attacks, distortions of his record and coded racist references.

Obama is going to succeed in this endeavor, and his success is going to transform American politics. John Edwards understands it, which is why he volunteered to serve as Robin to Obama's Batman, and openly maligned Hillary as part of the ossified status quo in Saturday's debate. It will take some time for the liberals that accepted the Clintonian mantras of polarization, incremental change, triangulation, concealed political agendas and the marginalization of social movements as necessary pillars of progressive politics in America. But probably not too long, because the longer they stay with the Clintons, the more isolated they will find themselves as the new Obama coalition of Democrats, independents, and, yes, even some Republicans, coalesces. By the time the results from South Carolina come towards the end of the month, most of them will have performed the required acts of obeisiance for their survival. Fear of political oblivion concentrates the mind wonderfully.

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