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Politics in the Age of Simpletons

In Praise of Obstinacy

by ANDREW LEVINE

There is no point denying it any longer: those of us who thought that Barack Obama’s invocations of “hope” and “change” was all hot air were wrong; we didn’t get it.  We didn’t realize that he wasn’t talking about the hopes for change of the people whose votes he was seeking.

Sure, he let them think what they wanted; that’s how he won in 2008.  That illusion also helped him in 2012, though not nearly as much as Mitt Romney.

By now, though, it is beyond dispute that if Obama wasn’t intentionally addressing the reactionaries who have been hoping for decades for changes that would turn back the clock fifty, eighty, a hundred years, he might as well have been.

In recent years, as inequality has gotten worse and the country has fallen increasingly under plutocratic domination, many a plutocrat has signed on to the reactionary’s agenda.  At the same time, winning over plutocratic hearts and minds has been a priority of Democrats at least since the Clinton era.  Ever the counter-insurgent, Obama has taken on this project too, and made it his own.

So even if the man is not, strictly speaking, a secret Republican of the Hoover-Taft-Goldwater-Reagan school, the people he courts are, and he was certainly speaking to them.  Too bad for him that, in this year’s election, most of them didn’t realize it any better than “progressives” did; if nothing else, it would have made his fund raising easier.  In the end, though, it didn’t matter – at least not for getting reelected.

Plutocratic obtuseness has mattered, however, for getting the kinds of changes made that would finally realize plutocratic hopes.  Even if Obama is not quite as eager to deliver for them as Republicans are, he is far more able because he can neutralize the opposition and bring Democrats along.  A lot of one per-centers still have a problem wrapping their heads around this plain fact.  They have been their own worst enemies.

Had their self-interest been a little more enlightened, they could probably have seen to it that Obama would not have been thwarted with such predictable regularity — most recently on his efforts to enact the so-called “Grand Bargain.”  On that, he may still get his way.  No matter what diehard Tea Partiers think, the “markets” that rule over us could well see to it.

If Obama gets his way, inequality’s forward march will receive a mighty boost.  But, at least for now, we ninety-nine per-centers have gotten a temporary reprieve.

For this, Democrats are, as usual, useless or worse — because, for the most part, they want what Obama wants and because, even those who are not quite as servile to economic elites as their leader is, are determined to give their leader whatever he wants.  Nancy Pelosi has taken lately to salivating publically at the prospect.

The Republican Party is a different story.  We got our reprieve because House Speaker John Boehner couldn’t get a majority of his Republican caucus to agree to any tax increases on the super-rich.

MSNBC pundit and Obama cheerleader extraordinaire Rachel Maddow thinks that this happened because Boehner is no good at his job.  She is probably right.

Boehner is no Nancy Pelosi.  She was so good at keeping Democrats in line that George Bush not only escaped impeachment after 2006, but also punishment after 2008.  She saw to it that there was not even an anodyne investigation of his war crimes and crimes against humanity and against the peace.

But not even a Republican with Nancy Pelosi’s skills could have gotten a goodly portion of the Republican caucus to budge.  As I’ve written here before, their obstinacy rises to the level of the sublime.

Think what harm could have been averted had Democrats in the Bush years been half as obstinate – or a quarter or an eighth!  Think how much less murder and mayhem there would have been, and how much harder it would have been for Obama, on assuming office, to have morphed into President Drone or to have intensified the Bush-Cheney war on the rule of law.

As it is, though, we can’t count even on “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” what little there is of it, to stand up to their Commander-in-Chief.  They are Democrats, after all; they live to acquiesce.

This is why, short of a bigger and better Occupy-like revival – this time with a clear enough political direction to afford immunity from the temptations of lesser evilism and other snares of electoral politics — Republican obstinacy is our best, indeed our only, hope.

A wiser, better obstinacy would be better of course.  But it would have to come from somewhere, and in the current sorry state of our political culture, there is no somewhere there.

*  *  *

The problem on the liberal side is more psychological than philosophical.

Notwithstanding influential strains of academic liberal political philosophy, like the one associated with the work of John Rawls, that make reasonableness and civility paramount political virtues, there is no reason in principle why liberals cannot be obstinate too.

However practicing liberals are and long have been “reasonable” (cooperative, eager to get along) to a fault.

Conservatives, the kind worthy of the name, are reasonable too.   But there aren’t many of them in American politics these days.

What we have instead is a motley of modern day know-nothings who call themselves   “conservative.”  Their thinking, such as it is, is generally inchoate, though its political implications are clear.  Even when they speak in a “populist” register, they are unfailingly on the side of the super-rich.

For the most part, these self-styled conservatives have little use for ideas.  What Nietzsche called ressentiment, hostility towards those whom they (wrongly) blame for their frustrations, a condition that gives rise to an unacknowledged but politically consequential sense of inferiority – plus good old fashioned class and nativist hostility towards those even worse off than themselves — suffice to keep them going.

Add to that a cultural disposition towards mindlessness, nurtured by a media system owned and operated by aggressively class-conscious capitalists, and voilà – we have a Tea Party waiting to happen.  It’s a drunkard’s dream for a ruling class that long ago exhausted all semblance of creativity and that nowadays wallows in socially unproductive greed.

But even in this political netherworld, the need to justify oneself to oneself and to others survives.  And so, in recent decades, a few plutocrats have lavished riches upon compliant think tank intellectuals, media flacks and right-wing academics.  Academics, failed ones especially, are like Democrats; they only need to be asked.

The results have trickled down into the larger conservative movement.  This was entirely predictable: even empty minds abhor a vacuum.

And so, a bevy of superseded, and barely compatible, strains of thought – from classical liberalism to neo-classical economics to fundamentalist Protestantism – have become factors in American political life.

The resulting “conservatism” bears little connection to any of the major strains of traditional conservative thought, and its affinities with the sensibilities conservative political philosophers have articulated from time immemorial are tenuous at best.  Wisdom, caution and humility are not much in evidence in the doings of conservatives among us.

Moreover, within their ranks, there are enough authoritarian personalities and “rugged individualist” wannabes to set the tone, and so to quash any and all hints of reasonableness from the get go.

Our conservatives are therefore obstinate not just to a fault, but to a degree that can only inspire amusement, amazement and disgust.

Or rather that would inspire those reactions and more if our schools and media were not so adept at making the preposterous seem normal, whenever a sense of normalcy helps reproduce a political establishment subservient to the one percent.

The obstinacy evident today in Republican ranks is not a strategic pose, like the craziness Richard Nixon sometimes thought it useful to display.   Nixon and his advisors were clever sons of bitches.  No one could accuse a Tea Partier, or John Boehner, of that.

Over the years, the American right has produced its share of villains; Nixon was hardly alone.

But there is nothing especially villainous about today’s Congressional Republicans; even the Tea Party contingent is not genuinely evil.  Simpletons can never be truly maleficent.

But though, as individuals, they only merit contempt, as a group, confronting hyper-reasonable Democrats, they can be a mighty, even a decisive, force.   How ironic that individuals hostile to ways of thinking that extol, of even countenance, group identifications should merit admiration only for what they are able to achieve collectively!

Of course, their achievement is inadvertent.  But so was Monica Lewinsky’s thwarting of Bill Clinton’s efforts to begin the privatization of Social Security.  Her bad taste in men hardly undoes her service to her country.  Similarly, the stupefying shortcomings of GOP legislators hardly mitigate their success in stalling, and maybe stopping, Barack Obama.

In many circumstances, but especially in the ones prevailing nowadays in the Senate and House, obstinacy works.   But whether or not it is a good thing obviously depends on the context.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Tea Party appeal to many of the same people for many of the same reasons, and the NRA’s obstinacy is second to none.  Witness the ravings of their leader, the risible Wayne LaPierre.  But NRA obstinacy serves no useful purpose, except perhaps to convince doubters in other countries that the there is indeed something rotten – and unhinged – in the Land of the Free.

On the other hand, Republican obstinacy has created a space for those who would fight to keep intact what little we have in the way of an affirmative state.

If House Republicans keep it up, and if Obama doesn’t cave (as he is doubtless itching to do, yet again), all the Bush tax cuts will expire on January 1.   Then too, across the board spending cuts will go into effect.

Minus cuts to the military and the national security state, which are always welcome (and otherwise inconceivable under our Nobel laureate), the spending cuts and the tax increases will do more harm than good if they last for a long time; and, unfortunately, the harm will affect the least well off most.  But, of course, they won’t last for long because even bought and paid for legislators must bend to public opinion somewhat and, more importantly, because “market forces” will dictate otherwise.

All Obama need then do is stand firm on taxes, and dare Republicans to refuse to lower them for ninety-eight percent of voters, just so that the two percent at the top can hold on to the rates they presently have.  Because he would then be holding all the cards, he would not need to cut deals, and there would be no need to cut social spending.

But “reason not the need.”  As a not-so-secret devotee of neo-liberal austerity politics, Obama might decide to go “bipartisan” anyway.  That seems to have been his idea all along.

If it comes to that, as it well might, reactionaries and plutocrats will have gotten all the hope and change they could reasonably have expected – certainly more than a Romney administration would have been able to deliver — and the desperation of Obama voters will become even more palpable than it already is.

This is one reason why the prospects for a happy new year now seem even more remote than usual.   But for miscreant Republicans, they would hardly exist at all.

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. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).