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Bleak Spring Ahead

Absurdity Surging

by ANDREW LEVINE

By the middle of March four years ago, we were deep into Barack Obama’s first hundred days.  By then, even those of us who never expected much – because we paid attention to his campaign, and because the shape of things to come was evident from his very first appointments — were already disappointed.  A Clintonite Restoration was underway; there would not even be cosmetic changes.

Obamamania had a longer shelf life, but it too was beginning to fade.  By late summer, it was already turning rancid.

As term two gets underway, only the most deluded Democrats expect anything good to come from the first hundred days, or from the next three and three-quarters years.  Therefore the good news is that there will be less disappointment this time around.

The bad news is that, although Obamamania is ancient history, alarmingly many former Obamamaniacs are still in denial.

This is why there is not more outrage over Obama’s drone driven state terrorism or his efforts to expand America’s perpetual war regime, and why it took a Tea Party Senator, Rand Paul, to focus public attention on the dangers Obama’s policies pose.

It is also why the public tolerates the impunity Obama accords too big to charge, much less imprison, financial criminals, and why he gets a pass on doing Wall Street’s bidding.  Muckety-mucks in the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and at Treasury have much to answer for too, but the buck stops just where Harry Truman said it did.

And it is why hardly anyone still cares that Obama protects Bush era war criminals or that he continues their work.

A reason not to despair four years ago was that Obama had announced his intention to close Guantanamo; a reason to despair now is that Guantanamo is still going strong and that instead of imprisoning people Bush-style, without due process, Obama just has them killed.

On the flimsiest of national security pretexts, he undermines basic rights and liberties, and treats international law with a scofflaw’s contempt.

And although he talks a good earful about “transparency,” he is among its greatest enemies: witness Bradley Manning and some half dozen others whom his administration has prosecuted, and his on-going attack on WikiLeaks.

And yet liberals cut him slack.  They blame Republicans and persist in thinking that, despite it all, Obama remains a “good guy.”  Republicans excel at obstructionism; Democrats are even better at deceiving themselves.

In all likelihood, it will soon get even worse.

The humanitarian interveners who are itching for another war in the Middle East are already looking forward to a deepening quagmire in Syria.  Lebanon beckons them too; and of course there is always Iran.

On the home front, Obama seems more eager this Spring than ever before to grand bargain progress away.  If Tea Party obstinacy slackens, Ronald Reagan will finally triumph definitively over FDR and LBJ.  It will happen on Obama’s watch — if not quite at his instigation, then with his far from reluctant acquiescence.

Then there is the Keystone XL pipeline decision in the offing, and much more that cannot now be foreseen.  Before long, we may well look back on the first first
hundred days as a Golden Age compared to the hundred days currently in progress.

Four years ago, disappointment was in the air.  Now absurdity is — with an intensity that is staggering.

That our politics reeks of absurdity is hardly news.  It has long been the Republicans’ stock-in-trade, and in our semi-established duopoly party system, Republicans hold up half the sky.

The electoral scene a year ago was a case in point.  Mitt Romney became the GOP standard bearer because every one of his opponents was an outright buffoon.  But it was only after each of them self-destructed that the lunatics ceded control of the asylum long enough for GOP grandees to see to it that their man would get the nod.

But their man still had a base to appease, and that based hated Romney’s guts.  He therefore had no choice but to join them with a vengeance.  A Republican “shellacking,” rivaling the one Democrats took in 2010, was the inevitable result.

The almost equally inevitable result has been that at a policy level, notwithstanding Democratic victories, the lunatics still call the shots.  This is because Democrats are ridiculous too; they too wallow in absurdity.

However, their ridiculousness is subtler and more insidious.   They are not buffoons; quite the contrary.  They are merely preposterously inept.  And so, as they muddle on, they err grievously; and then do the same thing over and over again.  The name for this is insanity.

But there is method to the madness.

Were it a deliberately adopted strategy, it would be a risky one.  The risk is that, if things go too far awry, Obama looks weak, and Democrats seem not quite up to the tasks of governance.  That perception helped fuel Democratic losses in 2010.

But it can also yield electoral success.  Because Republicans, Tea Partiers especially, cannot resist the bait, the more likely outcome is that, in stirring Democrats on and then blocking their every move, they look idiotic and childish.

And so, in 2012, Obama didn’t need to run on his record or even on his promises.  Republicans handed him the prize he sought.

Obama couldn’t be bothered to campaign for House Democrats or for Democrats at the state level, and he hogged all the money he could get his hands on for his own campaign.  But his effect on Republicans, Tea Partiers especially, helped his party too; Republican absurdists made Democrats look good.

They certainly helped them keep their base on board.  And they helped advance the Clintonized Democratic Party’s longstanding goal of replacing Republicans as the favored flunkies of the ruling class.  What self-respecting plutocrat wants to leave the management of global capitalism in the hands of idiots or children?

Was that Obama’s plan all along?  Liberals in denial insist Obama cares about policy issues, and that he’s doing the best he (or anyone) can.  But the evidence suggests that what he cares about is his own success; that, for him as for Vince Lombardi, the former coach of the Green Bay Packers, winning isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing.

The evidence suggests it, but I’m not so sure that his insanity is a strategic pose.  Acquiescence, it seems, comes naturally to him; susceptibility to “bipartisan” foolishness is in his genes.

In dealing with the Soviet Union, Richard Nixon is said to have found it strategically useful sometimes to seem unhinged; Obama is less guileful.  He is smarter than Nixon certainly, or than Henry Kissinger, but he lacks their “gift” for strategic thought.

But what he does is no less absurd on that account.

The existentialists found metaphysical absurdities liberating; perhaps they are.  But political absurdities are merely disabling.  They make a bad scene worse.

And so, with both Republicans and Democrats doing their part, each in their own way, to make absurdity the new normal, our political scene has taken a turn for the worse.  The more the situation is tolerated, the worse it gets.  This is why we are now on a downward trajectory.

And it is why the Bushes and the Clintons, the two most awful families in our nation’s political history, won’t go away.  That the decrepit House of Bush and the Clinton wannabe dynasty have spawned the two figures now billed as front-runners for 2016 is not merely ludicrous; it is emblematic of our current state of affairs.

This is a cause for concern; ludicrousness happens.  It has happened before.

In saner days, nothing seemed more ludicrous than the thought of Ronald Reagan in office.  But it didn’t take long, once the rightwing of the then still “moderate” Republican Party succeeded in floating the idea, that that actor-huckster became President of the United States.

This led to what Obama, not disapprovingly, called “a transformative presidency.”

He was right too: we have had nothing but Reaganite Presidents since.

And so, almost three and a half decades later, Obama is poised to consummate the Reaganite vision.  Because, as a Democrat, he can bring the opposition along, he, like Clinton before him, is a more effective, though less dedicated, Reaganite than the villainous Gipper himself or than any Bush could possibly be.

The idea that Bush and Clinton dynasties would still dominate American politics is at least as ridiculous.  But unlike the early 1970s, when Reagan was a joke, the idea of a President Jeb or Hillary is nowadays not just acceptable but almost common sensical.

This shows how profoundly resistance to absurdity has worn down in recent years.

It also shows how susceptible Americans are to dynastic temptations.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  At least a few dynastic episodes in our history turned out not too badly, compared to the alternatives.

The Kennedys had – and still have — their problems, and their hearts have not always been in the right place.  But the name does say “liberal” and the perception does have a basis in fact.  In today’s world, this is not a bad thing.

The name also suggests noblesse oblige, a virtue that was once esteemed and that is now practically extinct.

As for JFK, the wisest course is to frame no hypotheses.  Who can say what would have happened had he not been killed?  It is fair to say, however, that had RFK become President in 1968 instead of Richard Nixon or Ted Kennedy in 1980 instead of Reagan, the world would now be a better place.

Kennedys have style; they are good-looking streetwise Irish pols with social graces enough for any Boston Brahmin.  For eight decades, they have been as savvy as anyone in Washington and as glamorous as Hollywood stars.

On the Brahmin side, in the nineteenth century, the Adams Family didn’t do badly either – with John and John Quincy.  They even had descendants of intellectual distinction – Henry and Brooks, most notably.

Compare them to the Bushes.  Over only three generations, from Prescott to George W. and Jeb, intelligence was bred out of them along with noblesse oblige.  Any semblance of competence at governance is gone as well.

And yet Jeb is testing the waters.  Conventional wisdom has it that, among the contenders appearing before this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he is the one “adult” in the room.   This means that, like Obama’s longed for Grand Bargain, he stands a chance, if Tea Party obstinacy falters.

And, of course, Hillary Clinton has been an inexorable menace from the day her husband entered the national political scene.  There is just no getting rid of that family.

They are even becoming an inter-generational threat.  Even Chelsea, the hedge funder, wants in.  She will help judge a Peterson Foundation contest designed to engage youth in the importance of deficit cutting – in other words, she will cheerlead for austerity.

The Peterson Foundation is the creation of Pete Peterson, the bipartisan one per-center and inveterate (ruling) class warrior who has been trying to undo New Deal and Great Society advances for as long as anyone living can remember.

Of course, one could argue that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are “qualified” to be President.  Even if their accomplishments fall short, at least they are properly credentialed.

Remember, though, that Jeb would be a nobody but for his family connections, and that had First Lady Hillary not been Bill’s official wife, she’d not have been parachuted into New York state to run for the Senate in 2000, and her political career would never have gotten off the ground.

Were we not swimming in a sea of absurdity, the legs up the two of them benefit from would be political death warrants.  Have not the Bushes and the Clintons done enough harm already?  If guilt by association won’t save us, what about, in Jeb’s and especially Hillary’s cases, outright complicity?

Obama’s penchant for spreading murder and mayhem, and his pathological “centrism,” are far greater menaces, at least for now; but, for sheer absurdity, nothing comes close to a political scene with Bushes and Clintons still scuttling about.

Indeed, the very idea of a Bush-Clinton race in 2016, only eight years after the worst President in the history of the United States left office and sixteen years after we thought we’d seen the back of the man who steered the Democratic Party to the right of where Republicans used to be is an offense to political morality.

That this is what “moderate” Republican grandees and mainstream Democratic Party liberals are now promoting is not only disheartening; it is beyond ridiculous, the very quintessence of absurdity.

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).