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Barack the Gipper

Reagan Recycles Back to Life

by ANDREW LEVINE

Unlike Generalissimo Franco, who at least had the decency to stay dead, Ronald Reagan is rising again — in the form of Barack Obama. 

I am of course using “Reagan” to stand for “Reaganism,” a parochial designation that is apt in the United States and perhaps also in Canada.   In the UK and Australia, “Thatcherism” would do as well, and outside the English-speaking world there are other names.  Whatever we call it, the idea is to designate an historically peculiar form of aggressive (ruling) class warfare ? that targets political constraints on capitalists’ abilities to exploit and plunder, and that seeks to replace collective forms of provision, welfare state institutions, and other non- or extra-capitalist ways of organizing social and economic life with market “solutions.”  

Until the 1970s, Reaganism was a dream in the minds of fringe economists, philosophers, and social theorists.  A few of them were clever in the way that theorists can sometimes be when their views have no practical consequences; most of them were just mean-spirited and dull.  Their guiding idea was to resurrect long discredited “classical liberal” (libertarian) doctrines and then to apply them, as best they could, to modern conditions.  Their faith in markets and private property was as fervent as any true believer’s faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

And like their otherworldly counterparts, they attracted converts to their theology at the same time that they breathed new life into the old time (capitalist) religion.  Ronald Reagan was a convert, and with a convert’s fervor he took to heart what free market theologians had contrived.  Being a movie actor and an advertising flack, and a man of reactionary inclinations, he was a suitable vehicle for warriors on the wrong side of the class struggle.  But being lazy and poorly informed, he was not of much use on his own.  No problem there: with practically limitless resources provided by capitalists bent on taking the offensive, there were plenty of willing and able helpers to pick up the slack.     

In its first two years, the Reagan administration did score some successes in turning back organized labor; breaking the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike was especially pivotal.  However, neither Reagan nor Bush the father were able to do much more to implement the Reagan agenda.  That task fell to Bill Clinton.   No one was more effective than he at promoting globalization and deregulation and also, not coincidentally, at putting the “Vietnam syndrome” to rest.  Clinton was the father of the mother of all imperialist subterfuges: humanitarian intervention.

American welfare state institutions were always feeble in comparison with those of other developed liberal democracies; but, even so, even Clinton was powerless to weaken them further ? except of course, under the banner of “ending welfare as we know it,” canceling programs crucial for the relief of extreme poverty, like Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Still, thanks in large part to the Lewinsky affair, he was balked in going after Social Security or other legacies of the New Deal and Great Society.

George W. Bush did go after Social Security ? in 2004, after finally winning an election — but Democrats resisted and his efforts foundered.   But that was then.   Now we have the “yes, we can” champion of “change” determined to put Clinton and Bush, not to mention Reagan and Bush the father, to shame.

Supposedly, no deal has yet been struck, but it now seems that, with Republicans threatening to let the United States default on its debt obligations, Obama has agreed to spending cuts beyond the imagination of any of his predecessors ? taking aim even on Medicaid, Medicare and, the third rail of American politics, Social Security.  He will do this in “exchange” for Republicans not blocking efforts to close some especially egregious tax loopholes ? though, it goes without saying, that the Republicans can always move the goal posts again, and that the “deal,” if there is one, will then fall through.  Whether it does or not, Obama is already positioned to leave his Democratic predecessor behind in the sand, and to assume for all time the undisputed title of Defender of the (Reaganite) Faith.

Democrats could stop him, of course; but they won’t lift a finger ? even though his opponent in the next election is likely to be either Michele Bachmann, a certifiable wing-nut, or Mitt Romney, a smarmy flip-flopping practitioner of a faith whose brand of snake oil is repugnant even to the snake oil salesmen of the rest of the religious right. Were the Democrats not a wholly lost cause, they would by now have a flourishing Dump Obama movement under way.  Instead, not one Democrat has so far indicated even the slightest willingness to run against Obama, much less to stand up against his increasingly reckless capitulations. 

* * *

In his dealing with Republicans, Obama’s hand is weaker now than it was in his first two years in office, but he still holds most of the cards.  Why then is he such an enthusiastic capitulator?   One reason, of course, is that his “liberal” supporters, implausibly fearful of another “shellacking,” encourage him.  Another, much commented upon, is that it is not in his character to fight back.  Another is that, no matter how high he has risen, military and economic high-flyers intimidate him; and that he is therefore incapable of viewing them with the contempt they deserve.  All of this is true, but it’s not the whole story.

The Obama imperative ? to capitulate, capitulate, and capitulate again ? is built into his negotiating strategy.  His idea, in the main, is to concede a great deal at the outset and then to compromise away most of the rest.  It’s a little different, when dealing with the military brass ? in part because they probably do believe, just a little, in that Commander-in-Chief thing, but mainly because, terrified of seeming “weak on defense,” Obama begins by conceding not just a great deal but almost everything.  That enables him then to hold (comparatively) fast on the rest.  After all, as a Nobel laureate, he has a reputation to protect.

With the debt ceiling negotiations, Obama is again acting true to form, but the Republicans have ratcheted up their modus operandi.  They always understood that dumb obduracy would get them (nearly) everything.  Lately, they seem to have come to the conclusion that total obduracy will get them (literally) all they want.  My guess is that they reached this understanding by observing the dynamic between Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu.  But however they got the idea, they’re now intent on playing chicken up to the bitter end (and perhaps beyond it) ? and while they may not be good for much else, they’re superb at that.  

It will soon become clear how big a loser in the chicken game Obama will be.  At best, he’ll insist on saving face enough not to push his most diehard supporters ? “progressives” who would rather do anything than fight back — over the edge.  You can fool some of the people all of the time, but probably not enough of them to win a second term — at least not if, in the end, Obama doesn’t run effectively unopposed.

But however that may be, none of the explanations sketched above fully account for Obama’s spectacular unwillingness to do anything to advance the interests of the people who put him in office.  Having a character unsuited for the tasks he faces can’t be the whole story.  In his heart of hearts, he must actually want to capitulate ? not because he has to, but because he can.

It’s a scary thought — that Obama is a stealth Reaganite for whom government is the problem, not the solution.   It underscores just how susceptible all of the people can be to being fooled some of the time.  But there is no more plausible explanation. 

Last Spring, with workers in motion in Wisconsin and other states where Republican governors and legislatures decided that they couldn’t wait for Democrats to complete Reagan’s work, it looked for a while like the Reagan Revolution had overreached and that, no thanks to Obama, we really were on the threshold of “change we can believe in.”  This could still be true, but it has become much harder of late to sustain optimism; not with Obama giving it all away, again and again, as the party he leads stays entirely in tow.

In the end, it comes down to whether our President’s capitulations amount just to bumps in the road or whether, by taking up where Bill Clinton left off, he will do more lasting damage than any of his Reaganite predecessors. Much like the question of what will come from the contemporaneous Arab spring, what will come from the spring revolts in Wisconsin and other states is ultimately a matter for civil society to decide. 

It is hard to see, though, in either case, how anything good can come in the absence of a genuine and capable political alternative.  So, for now, it remains an open question, in both cases, whether we are talking about temporary setbacks or historical defeats.  The one thing that is certain is that, pace Reagan, it is not government per se, but Reaganite government — Obama government — that is the problem, not the solution.

Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.