In trying to figure out why so many people think Barack Obama is a socialist, it finally occurred to me that it wasn’t a matter of politics or ideology at all, but one of class and culture.
Because of the way Americans have been raised – in school, in the media and in the barroom – they have come to think that there is only one type of governmental cloud that can descend and ruin their day. To them, Hitler was the only fascist ever made, communists are so 1950s, the excesses of conservatism are hardly noticed, and no one’s ever heard of corporatism. What’s left is socialism.
By any logical standard, Obama has hardly a socialist bone in his body but we don’t live in a time when logic owns definitions. Still, if one accepts that many feel something is going on that is intrusive, indecipherable, and uncomfortable, then it is the discomfort rather than the misnomer that should be examined. And politics may have surprisingly little to do with it.
For example, we live in a time of class disparity unlike any in recent history. A few examples:
– Income inequality is at an all time high
– Since 1980, the richest Americans have seen their incomes quadruple, while for the “lowest” 90% of America, incomes fell.
– The average real wage is lower today than it was in the 1970s.
– In 1950 the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s was about 30 to 1. Since 2000 that average has ranged from 300 to 500 to one.
– Between 1978 and 2008, almost 35% of America’s total income growth went to the top one-tenth of one percent.
– From 1990 to 2008, middle class incomes rose just 20%, and most of that happened in the 1990s. Since then, income has stagnated for people in the middle, yet home prices shot up 56%, college costs 60%. As for health care, it’s up 155%.
– Today, men in their 30s earn 12 percent less than the previous generation did at the same age.
– Percent of workers with defined benefits pension plan is down 50% since mid 1980s
– Long term unemployment rate is the highest since 1948.
– In 1983 middle class debt held at 67% of income. By 2007, middle class debt had gone over the falls to 157% of income.
-Personal bankruptcies are up 400% since the 1980s
Bad as these conditions are, they are exacerbated by ineffective action to deal with them by our elected leaders and seemingly only a passing interest by these leaders and the media.
To them an oil spill or a war is just far more interesting to worry about. But terrible as either may be, they don’t immediately and directly affect the average American the way economic factors do.
Imagine, if all the cable coverage we’ve had of the oil spill had been given to the mile deep, hidden malfunctions of our economy.
But this won’t happen because the top controls the media as well as our politics.
And it’s not just about economics. For example, only about nine percent of our population has been to graduate school, yet it is this segment of the population that is increasingly controlling our policy choices. Similarly nearly half of Congress is composed of lawyers, which these days means, among other things, people who do legal work for corporations.
And both these groups are bipartisan. Just look at the contributors to Barack Obama’s election and you’ll find that every thing you were taught about the political views of big business is just about as wrong as, say, what an average Tea Party member thinks about socialism.
Or consider the lack of small business people, labor leaders, teachers, or social workers in Congress other political bodies.
It helps, therefore, to jettison – at least temporarily – the ideological and political divisions and look at the matter more anthropologically. Because what really divides the leadership of the country from ordinary citizens is class and culture.
And not necessarily the sort of culture we like to talk about. For example, the election of Obama was buried in an influx of commentary on the ethnic implications. But have you noticed how little this has actually mattered?
Obama has done practically nothing that can be attributed positively or negatively to his ethnicity. It turns out that it was not that he was black that mattered; it was that he was a Harvard Law School graduate steeped in the perspective, biases, arrogance and assumptions of an elite subculture that has an increasingly difficult time relating to those not of their class.
This is not to say it has to be like that. FDR and JFK showed otherwise. Of course, FDR lived in a smaller, less economically segregated America and JFK was a war hero.
Even Bill Clinton, who went to Yale and Oxford, was save by an Arkansas accent, which helped him until he lied and got laid once too often. It may also be one reason no one noticed that 77% of Clinton’s initial cabinet were millionaires, beating out both Reagan and Bush in this category. And that one third of his top appointments came from Harvard and Yale.
Obama has continued this strange new Democratic Party tradition. The Washington Post reported that 22 of his first 35 appointments had “a degree from an Ivy League university, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Oxford or Cambridge. Since then, Obama has appointed a Harvard alumnus as education secretary, a Nobel-prize winning Stanford physicist as energy secretary, and a handful of Harvard law school classmates.”
Further, his appointment of Elena Kagan insures that Harvard will retain a super majority on the Supreme Court.
Increasingly, the people running our country act as though they belong to a private club. The Washington media, of course, doesn’t mention this, because it belongs to the same club (albeit on probation depending on what it writes) So only occasionally is there a true glimpse of what is going on.
For example, Lorraine Adams, a onetime Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Washington Post, left the paper and became a novelist. In her latest book she has a character modeled on Bob Woodward. Asked on a PBS program to elaborate, Adams said:
“I think if you’re a student of American journalism, Bob Woodward is an undeniably potent figure. . . . I think he practices access journalism, which is different from what I did at the Post.
“[I] would talk to the people who have no power and who are affected by the people in power, and that gives a much more useful picture of the way policy affects the human soul. Woodward, who started as a reporter who did that, who knocked on doors and talked to people on the ground, became a celebrity. In becoming a celebrity, he invariably saw it as a much better deal for him, in terms of making money, to talk to other celebrities inside Washington: presidents, their chiefs of staff, vice presidents, their chiefs of staff.
“We have learned that Deep Throat was an FBI official, not an agent, an official. He was on, what we call the 7th Floor. I think Woodward’s capitulation to interviewing people in limousines, as opposed to people on the subway, is something I feel is partly responsible for the fact that we ended up in Iraq. Because so many reporters, Judith Miller is the most egregious of them, spoke to Scooter Libby and some other higher officials, and never spoke to intelligence people on the ground. They swallowed wholesale Colin Powell at the U.N., and [ultimately] their limousine reporting meant that 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives.”
The assumption of the capital club class is that ordinary Americans will buy into limousine politics and limousine reporting. But they don’t. They may not understand it, they may mistakenly call it socialism, and they may not have the slightest idea what to do about it, but they recognize the gap between their lives and what is going on in Washington. And it makes them mad.
In another era, a populist progressive movement might have gathered up that anger and put it to good use for a social revolution or two. But the potential for such a movement these days has been emasculated by a horde of indentured liberals willing to line up behind anyone who calls themselves a Democrat. And as they do so, their beloved president of the moment – a Clinton or Obama – moves the country further to the right with impunity, even as an increasingly angry populace becomes an ever greater market for the real right.
All of which is not helped in the slightest when a president – hailed as eloquent – can’t even get the public to feel his pain over the oil spill. Imagine a White House news briefing exchange like the following – only with a FDR, Harry Truman, JFK or LBJ – and you can sense the problem:
Chip Reid, CBS: You said earlier that the President is enraged. Is he enraged at BP specifically?
Press secretary Robert Gibbs: I think he’s enraged at the time that it’s taken, yes. I think he’s been enraged over the course of this, as I’ve discussed, about the fact that when you’re told something is fail-safe and it clearly isn’t, that that’s the cause for quite a bit of frustration. . . Which is one of the reasons you heard him discuss the setting up of the oil commission in order to create a regulatory framework that ensures something like this doesn’t happen again.
Reid: Frustration and rage are very different emotions, though. . . . Have we really seen rage from the President on this? I think most people would say no.
Gibbs: I’ve seen rage from him, Chip. I have.
Reid: Can you describe it? Does he yell and scream? What does he do? (Laughter.)
Gibbs: He said. . . he has been in a whole bunch of different meetings. . . clenched jaw. . . even in the midst of these briefings, saying everything has to be done. I think this was an anecdote shared last week, to plug the damn hole.
Again, what we face is not an ideological problem, but a class and cultural one; a president so practiced at self-protective reserve that he can’t get cross when he needs to. By trying so hard to act intelligent and measured, he ends up seeming distant and a bit dumb.
But the problem extends far beyond speech and manners. For example, the techniques of traditional politics are fading, largely replaced by what is presumed to be good public relations, although often seeming like just one more bad cable TV news clip.
I was reminded of this when Obama recently went to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Republicans. My first reaction – thinking politics rather than PR – was, “Uh oh, this isn’t going to go well.”
Turns out, I guessed right, as the Chicago Tribune explained later:
“One angry Republican accused Obama of treating members of the opposition like political props, saying the president’s bipartisan words have repeatedly been followed by partisan deeds on such issues as regulation of Wall Street, healthcare and economic stimulus.
“‘I told him I thought there was a degree of audacity in him showing up today,’ said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who accused the administration of sabotaging efforts to write a bipartisan Wall Street bill. ‘I asked him how he was able to reconcile that duplicity.’
“Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said Obama’s response to the GOP criticism showed he was so ‘thin-skinned’ that he should ‘take a Valium’ before he comes to talk to Republicans again.”
Real politicians would have seen it coming. But because the PR ethos has so overwhelmed politics, real politics is pushed aside in favor of easy to puncture performances.
Lyndon Johnson would have had Bob Corker and Pat Roberts over for drinks, given them the pork they were looking for, and you wouldn’t have even read about it until the next volume of Robert Caro’s biography came out.
But the public relationists of today’s politics get so wrapped up in sending a clever message that they completely forget the other side gets to speak into the microphone as well.
The capital club class also works on a restricted set of assumptions on how to best get something done, assumptions that involve an overwhelming reliance on centralized decision-making, endless review, public messages, and data that spews itself over the capital as from an uncapped well head.
Thus the sense you often get is that people who should be leading are behaving more in the manner of someone writing a college thesis or appearing on a CPAN panel; they explain, analyze and calculate; they just don’t know quite what to do.
And here is where socialism raises its head again. It is part of the popular belief that socialism is, if not a dictatorship, a system run tightly from the top. There is no sharing of power, no decentralization of authority, no letting difference places do things their own way.
This is not an accurate description of socialism, but it is, I think, a fair description of much popular thought on the subject.
Thus the irony of a small group of corporate-sponsored politicians, devoid of any real ideology other than the maintenance of their own power, becoming regarded in popular culture as mean and nasty Marxists.
Obama has produced a series of overly complex, almost indecipherable pieces of legislation that share an additional common trait: extraordinary centralized control by his administration. Worse, perhaps, some of this legislation will clearly result in ordinary citizens having to fill out more forms, go through more procedures, and feel rationally confused about this or that.
Right now, for example, small businesses and small non-profits are facing significant additional tax reporting requirements.
The health bill includes an ungodly aggregation of uncertainties and new obstacles to doing things simply.
The stimulus package had so many restrictions that the paperwork alone would have prevented a reiteration of New Deal public works efforts.
Further, the Obama administration has been clearly unwilling to share power on these matters. It even wants to restrict Congress’ budget power by a back door approach to the line item veto.
But perhaps more importantly, there is no sense that Obama and his staff have any feel for the fact that governors and mayors are part of our government as well and that if he wants to look good, they have to look good, which means sharing power. This doesn’t even have to be a matter of honor, just good politics.
In public education, he is working to eliminate the whole two century tradition of local control over public schools. Underlying a lot of this is the assumption that people like the Obamites know best how to do things. After all, they have fine law degrees and MBAs from some of the best universities.
And so we find FEMA coming close to causing a disaster on the Portland Maine waterfront by declaring it a flood zone on which no further major construction could ever take place. It wasn’t true, but it took not only the Maine congressional delegation but the Portland fire chief coming down to Washington to explain to FEMA that they didn’t now what the hell they were talking about.
And while Obama represents these values, he is far from alone. The Supreme Court recently decided a case desribed by Time’s Adam Cohen:
“Van Thompkins, a criminal suspect, was not interested in talking to the police, and he never affirmatively waived his right to remain silent. But the court ruled that by not saying clearly that he was exercising his right to remain silent, he in fact forfeited the right – and that a one-word answer he gave late in the questioning could be used against him.
“The ruling flies in the face of the court’s long-standing insistence that a suspect can waive his rights only by affirmatively doing so.”
Now, mind you, this was a 5-4 decision of the court. This means that the average purported perp without even a GED has to know a bizarre ruling that silence only matters if you first say you’re being silent and also has to choose which of the Harvard Law grads on the court to believe on the topic. You don’t get more culturally out of touch than that.
Finally, the oil spill story still has too many loose ends to analyze fairly, but what we do know is that local talent and judgment, and alternative approaches, have been squashed in favor of a one big solution (actually a series of one big solution) which has yet to come
A problem with people with fine law degrees and MBAs from some of the best universities is that they are unlikely to know squat about oil spills.
Of course, there’s at least a partial solution to this: find out who does. This might be called the reporter’s approach to life. A good reporter wakes up in the morning not knowing a thing about Topic X, but by the end of the day or week will have found a whole bunch of people who do. Essential to this, however, is first admitting that you don’t know a thing about Topic X.
The problem is that those in the capital club class don’t think like this. They see themselves and their friends as the best source of knowledge.
Which may be why you heard so much of late about the “Nobel Prize winning Energy Secretary,” Mr. Chu.
If you’ve got a Nobel Prize winner, what more do you need? But as Eugene Robinson pointed out the other evening on MSNBC, Chu didn’t get his prize in ending oil spills but in the “development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.”
Much of the public sees the Obama administration as arrogant, power-hoggng and indifferent ot the concerns of the ordinary citizen. A strong case can be made that this is true. This, of course, doesn’t make Obama a socialist, but the misappropriation and misuse of power is a far great offense than a mundane misnomer. Besides, whatever you call it, it’s not helping the Democrats or the country one bit.