Sam Smith, 2009
Barack Obama didn’t kill liberalism; he’s just doing a nice job of burying it. The end of liberalism as a meaningful ideology came with the nomination of Bill Clinton. The argument was – although hardly phrased so accurately – that it was far better for liberals to dump their policies and become the indentured servants of an elected Democrat than to continue to press for their beliefs and miss out on all the power and the parties.
This same willingness to go with icons rather than ideas drove liberals quickly into the Obama camp, especially since he had the added advantage of looking the way he was supposed to believe.
It was apparent from the start, however, that Obama wasn’t what the liberals thought. During the campaign, for example, I listed over two dozen positions and statements of Obama’s that clearly were in conflict with what liberals once believed.
But of course, belief was no longer the issue. Liberalism had long ago become more of a secular church than a cause, and based more on socio-economic demographics than on actual politics. To the extent it had issues, these issues were, like abortion and gay rights, ones that appealed to its core demographics. Long gone was the liberal concern for doing the most for the most; economic issues had faded; and the base that had helped build the New Deal and Great Society were now dismissed as red necks, racists, gun nuts and crazy church goers.
The factor of class was both immense and silent. But you could tell it by listening to liberals talk. The little folk had simply disappeared from their concerns.
Thus it is that we came to have a Democratic Congress and president that pressed a bailout for bankers with virtually no help for homeowners, who promised to leave one war but then escalated another and who couldn’t bring themselves in majority to support the sort of universal healthcare the rest of the western world had long adopted.
As Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report put it the other day: “The first Black president has racked up some impressive victories. Barack Obama has quarantined single-payer healthcare advocates, crushed dissent against the war in Congress, and transferred more money to the finance capital class than at any time in planetary history. Not bad for just five months in office.”
Liberals became part of the new center right; they became the modest conservatives the Republican reactionaries had kicked out of their own party. Instead of going to hell noisily in the manner of Rush Limbaugh, you were to proceed thoughtfully, cautiously, and in a measured manner inspired by a thoughtful, cautious, and measured president. But we are still going to hell.
Tom Hayden caught a moment of the measured madness, noting in the Nation:
“MoveOn.org resumed its historical antiwar stance this week, symbolically breaking with the Obama administration for the first time.
“After being criticized for abandoning the antiwar stance that won it millions of activist supporters, the organization sent targeted mailings supporting the demand for an Obama administration exit strategy report contained in HR 2404, by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. . .
“Despite its modest nature, MoveOn’s entry into the debate could be an important factor in legitimizing antiwar criticism of the Obama policies among Democrats. Antiwar sentiment at the grassroots is smothered by the unwillingness of several organizations to openly oppose the war escalation, despite their roots in the antiwar movement against Iraq.
“The silent organizations thus far include Democracy for America and its founder, Howard Dean, Ben Cohen’s True Majority, and the Obama campaign’s offshoot, Organizing for America. The Feminist Majority even supported the $80 billion war supplemental with an amendment supporting women’s programs in Afghanistan.”
This lethargy, cowardice and compliance to the top dogs has been repeated with issue after issue. The sell out on the bailout and single payer perhaps top the list, but the failure of liberals to defend public education from control freaks like Arne Duncan or Obama’ replication of the Bush war on civil liberties, while getting less attention, are just as bad.
If liberals had paid more attention to what the far right was up to, rather than just using it as a punching bag to make themselves feel better, they might have noticed that the GOP reactionaries hardly ever caved into their party’s mainstream. Instead they redefined that mainstream. Liberals, on the other hand, surrender before they even enter the ring.
Our political labels are largely assigned for us by the media. There is thus hardly an inch of space allowed between center right liberalism and socialism. Proposing policies of the sort that gave America its greatest days over the past century is dismissed as radical.
But that doesn’t change reality, which is that the liberal power brokers are essentially following traditional conservative policies, that Obama is the most conservative Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson, and that there is a growing gap between what liberals are today and what they were when they were truly making a better America.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t an alternative. It would help if we made a clear distinction between indentured liberals and independent progressives – a major difference being that the latter understand that ideas are still more important that icons.
To an independent progressive, the issue is not support of Obama but a set of policies that Obama may or may not support. My scorecard, for example, finds me agreeing with Obama about 30% of the time, which is pretty dismal, especially when you consider that it is among the alienating 70% that much of American history will be written. And why is Obama so alienated from the progressive path (and so much more so then when he was just representing Illinois in the Senate)? Simply because he is driven not by conscience but by calculation. And in Obama’s calculations, liberalism now equals zero.
The media insists that we define what is happening in terms of whoever is in the White House. Here’s how I put it in “Shadows of Hope” fifteen years ago:
“Congress has lost power relative to the White House not merely for various political reasons, but because 535 legislators are simply too many for the media to handle. TV, in particular, treats politics much as it does wide screen movies; it snips off the right and left sides until the frame fits comfortably within the more equilateral shape of its eye. The edges of our experience are lost and we find ourselves staring at a comfortable center — which in the case of politics, means we find ourselves endlessly watching the President while much of the rest of American democracy passes unnoticed.
“This preoccupation with the presidency not only exaggerates the importance of the position, it distorts the constitutional division of political power, denigrates the significance of state and local government and creates pressures for presidential action when such action may be neither wise nor even lawful. We can not, even out of seemingly harmless celebrity worship, imbue our president with supra-constitutional virtues or powers without simultaneously damaging the Constitution and the democratic system it was established to protect.
“Besides, our presidential fetish badly skews our view of our country and the changes occurring within it — not only elsewhere in government but beyond politics entirely. It trivializes our own collective and individual roles in creating social and political change. And, conversely, it can create the illusion of great change when far less is really happening.”
Independent progressives understand this instinctively and struggle – with sadly little help – to help keep our eyes on the real game, which is the change that is occurring as a result of the political puppet show we watch on the nightly news yet which are usually ignored or treated as of minimal importance. An example: the foreclosure crisis is enormous but you would never know it listening to the news or the Democrats.
You can tell independent progressive groups because they will actually challenge the Democrats in power on their policies. They will oppose imperial wars even if a Democrat is leading them. They will fight the coddling of the welfare fathers of Wall Street even if the chief coddler doesn’t look the part. They will worry about how our politics affect the weak and not just the comfortable, and they will spend more time opening doors for the powerless than in cracking glass ceilings for the few.
No one in the conventional media is going to tell you about these distinctions, but they are real. The independent progressive story is not about how bad some reactionary politician or commentator is, but how good we all could be if we did things differently and if we pursued real policies of true worth rather than worshiping false heroes.