Barack Obama received a blast last week from one of his former Harvard law professors who made the case that he “must be defeated.” Roberto Unger’s argument boils down to a damning indictment spelling out charges that the President has betrayed the progressive cause and those who militated for his election. The alleged betrayal is all the more painful, Professor Unger says, because it reveals a man who never was what he claimed to be. Deep down, he is a conventionally conservative person- not just a politician who bowed to electoral expediency. Moreover, he claims that Obama has nailed the lid on the coffin of the Democratic Party that has veered sharply away from its historical constituency and principles. The President’s actions and rhetoric are having the longer term effect of skewing the nation’s political discourse far to the right of where the locus of the American people’s interests and sentiment lie. Hence the conclusion that the man must be stopped now lest the damage reach the point of irreversibility.
Democrats, and especially liberals, seem to have lost sight of the historic opportunity that was presented to Barack Obama after the election. The nation was at the nadir of the financial crisis that had discredited Republican philosophy, Republican policies and Republican politicians. Anxiety was at its zenith. Exposing the deep flaws in the economy, the crisis also highlighted how the system worked to the disadvantage of now badly hurt – and scared – salaried Americans. A revival of progressive thinking, and with it electoral dominance, was in the cards. Instead of seizing the historic occasion, though, Obama soughtonly to patch up the status quo ante. So he calculating chose the course of stocking his administration with tainted establishment figures while setting out on the quixotic mission of conciliating the opposition. Hence, dinner meetings with William Kristol and George Will, currying favor with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell in the name of a fictitious bipartisanship. From today’s perspective, with the benefit of inside the White House accounts by the President’s own people, it is crystal clear that Obama never even entertained the thought of fashioning a new liberal majority in the country. It just wasn’t in him.
Unger’s bill of particulars extends to civil liberties and foreign policy as well as domestic affairs. The White House’s aggressive actions on surveillance, detention, mistreatment of illegal aliens, prosecution of whistleblowers, and government secrecy constitute a concerted assault on the bedrock values and laws of the American republic. As to foreign policy, he claims that Obama’s strategy relies more on muscle than brains. The so-called “war on terror” has been pushed into more and more places, Afghanistan saw a drastic escalation, and a military confrontation with Iran looms as the White House has ruled out any reasonable accommodation of Tehran’s own valid security interests.
In summary, the Obama administration has been to the right of Richard Nixon. Nixon who launched the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the Clean Air Act, supported OSHA, offered a government managed and more coherent health insurance plan than Obama’s, never called into question Social Security or Medicare, upheld financial regulation, reconciled with China, did not tick off names (including Americans) on kill lists and whose Watergate crimes are juvenile pranks in comparison to assault on constitutional rights of the past three years. This will not change. There are two certainties about a second Obama term in the White House. He will do nothing that challenges either orthodoxy or established interests; and he will do only that which conforms to his self-defined personal political interest and image.
Unger’s counsel is that progressives vote for Mitt Romney as part of a scorched earth policy that will leave re-fertilized political terrain on which to cultivate a new progressive movement. An alternative is just to stay home – to vote ‘no.’ As Will Rogers once urged, “don’t vote, it just encourages them.” Encourages them in the mistaken belief that they have a mandate, and have been legitimated. There is truth to the underlying premise that the choice is between a mainstream Republican (circa 1980) and a Republican cipher yoked to the far right agenda of the Tea Party and their camp followers. The principal practical difference is merely the pace at which the United States becomes an outright plutocracy. The direction is the same. For Unger, and for those who share his viewpoint, there is one outstanding inhibition: what a Romney presidency would mean for the Supreme Court. The Court majority’s unrestrained dedication to advancing a set of political, economic and social doctrines that point the country back to the golden days of the 1890s raises the stake. Even on this score, Obama’s critics point out that he has rejected the idea of appointing an articulate advocate of a liberal bent cut in the mold of Paul Stevens. Indeed, one of his appointees – Sonia Sotomayor – has shown a disposition to side with the ruling ’conservatives’ on a number of criminal rights and social policy issues.
For the overwhelming majority of liberals/progressives, a cultivated pragmatism will dictate a vote for Obama – contre-coeur – with quite a number exposing their own insecurities and credulity in pleading that the President deserves to be viewed as some kind of heroic champion fighting against great odds. In addition, they dispute the prediction that a true progressive Democratic party will arise Phoenix-like from the ashes of another resounding defeat. That is a compelling appraisal – although not on the grounds usually offered. Progressive ideas and policies are not out of synch with what the populace wants. Real financial regulation, protecting Social Security, shedding our imperial ambitions abroad, taking the Bill of Rights literally – those are winning positions. Rather, it is their sell-out by Democratic Party leaders, their corruptibility by money, their weakness for trendy palliatives like charter schools, their lack of honesty in addressing their constituents and their better selves – therein lies the reason for the Democrats’ deformation and defeat.
The unlikely prospect for a progressive revival stems from our dominant political culture and social malaise. Pervasive self-centered disengagement from public life and public responsibility, the takeover of the media by doctrinaire ‘conservative’ and corporate interests, the compromised ‘intelligentsia,’ consequent abandonment and, thereby, de facto disenfranchisement of a large chunk of the (potential) electorate – together they militate strongly against a progressive renaissance. These are the harsh realities of our situation. Maybe a Democratic Party in opposition to a Republican president would be spurred by activists and by the sting of defeat to mount a fighting retreat, at least, with an ardor that a nominal Democratic White House works so hard at forestalling.
That returns us to the question of whether or not to vote at all. Abstention is hard to justify on practical grounds. Yet, there exists for some an instinctive resistance to placing their personal imprimatur on Barack Obama. How can one approve what he has done? How can one express approval of the man himself? Can one do so with a clear conscience? This question cannot be cavalierly cast aside as an exercise in vanity, as a naïve indulgence of misplaced moral purity. It is true that the morality of individual action and ultimate ends always co-exists uneasily with standards of political ethics. But the two cannot always be reconciled. Is it unreasonable for someone to feel in his heart that he cannot tolerate pulling the Obama lever – that the act itself sullies and degrades who he is? That it could even hamper his future ability to carry on as a public person with a sense of integrity unimpaired? I personally do not find it unreasonable.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.