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In 2008, after a financial seizure that was the inevitable consequence of 40 years of rising inequality, a spectre was haunting America – the spectre of economic reform. Yet by means of skillful misrule Obama and the congressional Democrats managed to avoid direct contact with that most dangerous wraith of redistribution. At long last the November election conjures the magic powerful enough to finally dispel the demon, freeing Democrats to speak boldly of economic reform without the slightest danger of seeing the actual transfer of resources from the plutocrats to the citizenry. Bewildered liberals will soon forget the betrayals by Obama and the 111th Congress and will direct their fear and hatred back toward the Republican beast.
Here I pay homage to the insights of Walter Karp on the Politics of Misrule. In Indispensable Enemies Karp describes the failures, certainly in comparison with the promises and expectations, of two other reformist periods – the New Deal of FDR and the War on Poverty of LBJ.
Of FDR Karp wrote, “An overwhelming Democratic majority, seemingly eager to follow his lead, split into warring factions; a coalition of Southern Bourbons and obstructionist Republicans, although numbering together no more than some 130 members, swiftly seized the legislative helm and blocked virtually all further reform. At the very height of its power and prestige, the New Deal came to a dead stop in one of the most remarkable reversals in American history.”
Karp summarizes the record by noting that “First, Roosevelt almost never fought for reform until it was forced upon him by overwhelming popular pressure, whereupon he saw to it that the reform enacted was as minimal as he could make it…Second, the major legislation which Roosevelt proposed under no specific reform pressure cannot be called reforms at all.”
Almost thirty years later, following several wars and vigorous popular disruption embodied in the civil rights movement, the menace of reform again seemed imminent. In 1964 Johnson had large legislative majorities behind his promise of a “war to end poverty.” What was the result? “A few months after the election, Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ was deep in an Asian war; after a brief spate of trumpery legislation—the ‘poverty program,’ for example—Congress became balky and unmanageable. In 1966, Johnson’s great legislative majorities were reduced and the Great Society was dead.” Poverty today stands around 15%, an obscene level even using the officially-sanctioned underestimates.
The tepidity of both the New Deal and Great Society have long been recognized. The true insight of Karp is his explanation. Instead of treating presidential missteps as honest mistakes by otherwise brilliant politicians he recognized that “these blunders were not blunders at all, that each was the deliberately chosen means for achieving the very end it achieved: bringing reform to a halt.”
I argue that we have witnessed in Obama and the 111th Congress the third Karpian moment in the last 80 years. “Another reform President, another landslide election, another landslide Congress, another stunning reversal.”
Of course would-be reformers – FDR, LBJ, Obama – never renounce reform – they are thwarted, they are outmaneuvered, they are betrayed, they are deceived. Despite their best intentions they simply can not do that which they earnestly desire.
Enter Karp’s indispensible enemies. In periods of popular demand for reform the President will need – indeed may have to cultivate – plausible excuses for failure. “The indispensible enemy may make an instant appearance…Or it may be a permanent presence, like the obstructionist wing of each national party…The enemy may even be a single individual…”
Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson had theirs but who or what were the indispensable enemies of 2008-2010? The prime enemy was Obama’s pledge of bipartisanship and the power Obama thereby bestowed upon the obstructionists. It is important to recognize that this stance was as gratuitous as revocable. Few would have challenged an interpretation of the 2008 election as a repudiation by the citizenry of the Republican, indeed neoconservative, agenda. Absent this posture Obama could have adapted almost instantly to the highly partisan facts on the ground.
Obama all but verified the Karpian hypothesis in his Rolling Stone interview. Describing the period of transition into office Obama admitted, “we realized that we weren’t going to get the kind of cooperation we’d anticipated. The strategy the Republicans were going to pursue was one of sitting on the sidelines, trying to gum up the works, based on the assumption that given the scope and size of the recovery, the economy probably wouldn’t be very good, even in 2010, and that they were better off being able to assign the blame to us than work with us to try to solve the problem.”
So why did Obama keep trying to work with those he knew were trying to “gum up the works”? There seem to be three options: (1) Obama is unintelligent; (2) Obama is irrational; or (3) Obama rationally acted in a manner he knew would not produce the ostensible results.
Obama is more plausibly a Kenyan than a blundering dunderhead. We must therefore take as the more reasonable interpretation of events that Obama intended to sabotage his reformist agenda or, more accurately, Obama had no such agenda and merely employed reformist rhetoric.
The President, of course, is not the only Democrat with indispensible enemies. The Senate has the filibuster, an institution so sacred that is has not been altered since 1979. Or perhaps the Democrats are deeply committed to the democratic principle that 11% of the country’s population – those in the 21 least populous states – should exercise veto power over the other 89%.
The House of Representatives, of course, is in the most enviable position: it has the luxury of passing whatever bills it may wish with the complete assurance that no reform will ever survive the Senate.
The attribution of repeated Democratic failures to honest mistakes against devious enemies seems to require a certain level of gullibility among liberals, whether professional or lay. But this delusional condition is greatly aided by the cruel logic of the lesser of two evils. Again we turn to Karp and his assessment of the New Deal: “That a stricken citizenry was nonetheless grateful is due largely to the fact that the apparent alternative to this meager slice was the Republicans’ no loaf at all.”
Obama’s successful misrule over the last two years ensures that wages and employment will stagnate, that corporations will grow more powerful, and that another political-economic crisis will occur a few years henceforth. If the left in this country remains committed to the Democrats and the two-party system then there is every reason to expect it to be also our Fourth Karpian Moment.
RICHARD ANDERSON-CONNOLLY is an Associate Professor of Comparative Sociology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.