Obama’s Boundless Contempt
Governments lie – to each other and to their own citizens. This is not news; it has always been this way. It is not news either that governments hold their citizens in contempt.
Nor is it news that real world “democracies” bear little resemblance to the democracies political philosophers imagine and defend. Forget about rule of, by and for the demos, the people (as opposed to elites); forget about citizens collectively deliberating about what is best for the political entity they comprise; even forget about procedures for combining peoples’ preferences into collective choices.
Nowadays, if a country holds competitive elections, it counts as a democracy. It doesn’t even have to accord equal rights to all its citizens.
And even competitive elections may not be enough. Lately, an additional requirement is sometimes added on: the outcomes have to accord with Western – more precisely, American — ideas of what the outcomes should be.
For example, Israel counts as a democracy – the only one in the Middle East, we are told – though it denies equal rights to its Arab citizens. It is a Herrenvolk democracy, but that is good enough. Meanwhile, part of occupied Palestine, Gaza, is condemned to pariah status because Hamas won a free, fair and competitive election there.
Where there are competitive elections, politicians court voters. When they do, they try not to show the contempt they have for them. But electoral campaigns don’t last forever. They end and then everything reverts back to the way it was.
Personalities at the top, and a little way down, may change. But policies remain generally the same. Voter disappointment – indeed, voter regret — is therefore an inevitable by-product of what we have come to call democratic governance.
In non-democratic, “authoritarian” regimes, the leaders change less frequently. Paradoxically, though, it is easier for them than for their “democratic” counterparts to change policies fundamentally. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen; sometimes quite dramatically.
Of course, nothing is frozen in time; inevitably, circumstances change and policies accommodate. Political figures die or lose favor too, and, eventually, there are generational shifts.
Now that capitalism afflicts the entire world, the pace of change everywhere has picked up. Marx said famously that under capitalism “all that is solid melts into air.” Refuting Marx has been an obsession of pro-capitalist ideologues for generations; it is one of the many ways they make fools of themselves. But even they are not foolish enough to gainsay Marx on this.
But all things solid don’t melt at the same rate. The political realm, in modern democracies especially, is a case in point. It is not immobile, but it sometimes seems that it is.
This is especially true in the United States; witness the overarching continuities, obscured only by stylistic differences, between the George W. Bush administration and the administration of the “hope” and “change” President who followed him.
It would be very different if the people actually did rule. But real democracy is on the wane everywhere. Neoliberalism is a grave enemy of democracy – an effect, but also a cause, of its decline.
President Obama declared recently at West Point that he believes in “American exceptionalism” with “every fiber” of his being. Who knows what, if anything, he was thinking. The one sure thing is that when it comes to democracy in decline, the Land of the Free is no exception.
Except perhaps in the extremism with which its government – Obama’s government – holds its citizens in contempt. This truly is exceptional.
The brunt is born by constituencies that Democrats take for granted because they think they have nowhere else to go.
Organized labor is at the top of the list. To keep Republicans at bay, they do yeomen’s work for Democrats. They supply the party’s foot soldiers and they squander their resources on the party’s electoral campaigns. They ask for nothing in return, and that is exactly what they get. Obama’s labor policy is malign neglect.
The neglect suffered by African Americans and other persons of color is more usually the benign variety celebrated by the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The main exception is the Obama administration’s passion for deporting “undocumented” workers, a point to which I will return.
Only constituencies that can’t entirely be taken for granted garner less contempt. If their money is at stake, then so much the better – for them.
This explains the end, finally, of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the support, such as it has been, that the Obama administration has given to marriage equality.
In both cases, it is also relevant that polling data suggests overwhelming support for both measures. When a sizeable majority wants Obama to do the right thing, he will sometimes do it.
Obama is hardly the first Democratic president to treat Democratic constituencies with contempt. This was the norm in the Clinton era too. But the extent to which the Obama administration insults the American people’s intelligence is unprecedented.
A good example is the post mortem on the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry launched and superintended. The word from official sources and also from “unnamed” muckety mucks in the know – Martin Indyk is a prime suspect — is that they are shocked, shocked, that the Israelis sabotaged the whole affair.
Of course, they don’t quite put it that way – that would be undiplomatic, not to mention impolitic. It would also require moral and political courage, something conspicuously lacking in the Obama White House. But the message is clear.
It is also clear that if they really were shocked, they must be the only ones on the planet who were.
Kerry is not a stupid man nor is he exceptionally ill informed, and neither is Obama. Whatever their reasons for restarting negotiations between a party that holds all the cards and that has unqualified U.S. support and another that holds no cards and that the West treats like dirt, the prospect of success could hardly have been among them.
Not when the side holding all the cards has no interest in peace or, for that matter, in reaching any agreement at all.
For the negotiations to have succeeded, Obama and Kerry would have had to make Israel an offer it couldn’t refuse. This was never a remote possibility.
Then why the charade? The most likely answer is that starting up another “peace process” seemed like a good way to keep well-meaning liberals on board. Team Obama wants them to think that the Obama administration really is on their side. This is important because no matter how scary Republics are, lesser evilism isn’t always enough to get liberals to part with as much of their “free speech” as they can afford.
But then why insult their intelligence by setting up a situation that was bound to fail, and then going on to absolve themselves of responsibility by feigning surprise that Benjamin Netanyahu, the American political class’s BFFL (best friend for life), let them down?
Unless they are a lot dumber than anyone suspects or unless they are absurdly incompetent and driven to show their incompetence off, there is only one explanation: that they hold their liberal supporters in so much contempt that they don’t care what they tell them or what kind of nonsense they spout.
Then there is the Deporter-in-Chief claiming that no one wants immigration reform more than he, but that we can’t have it yet because those pesky Republicans won’t do their part. And so, Obama tells us, he will placate them (along with nativists in his own party), by not putting deportations on hold just yet, as his supporters thought he would, so that he can win bipartisan support for the immigration reform bill he is eager to sign.
His rationale hardly merits a “huh?” One would think that with elections coming, Democrats would be working overtime to court Hispanic voters. Obama evidently holds them in too much contempt for that.
Then there is the dangerous geopolitical maneuvering that the Obama administration seems intent on pursuing, now that the repackaged Bush-Obama wars and the quasi-secret wars in Yemen, Pakistan, and east Africa that Obama expanded no longer suffice to keep America’s perpetual war machine flourishing.
The new strategy is to go after Russian and China by fomenting instability in and around those countries – exacerbating linguistic, ethnic and religious tensions wherever they can. Much of this work is done through NGOs; the pretext is always “democracy” promotion. It is a ploy America is good at; it has had a lot of practice.
Obama is playing with fire, of course; and since America’s grand strategists are nothing if not clueless, the danger is multiplied many fold.
What they tell us, and what their media flacks slavishly repeat, is that it’s all Putin’s fault or China’s – when, of course, just the opposite is the case.
They don’t care. They’ll say whatever suits their purpose, confident that the corporate media will reinforce their message. Their confidence is well placed: when it comes to insulting our intelligence, they are all in it together.
Then, of course, there is Obama’s gobbledygook about how privacy rights are protected under the 24/7 total surveillance regime that he, the ace Constitutional scholar, oversees. The wonder is that he can go on about this with a straight face.
But, for sheer preposterousness, the pièce de résistance has to be the Obama administration’s response to Edward Snowden’s claim that he had tried whistleblowing by going through channels, and that the NSA has an ample record of his efforts.
Ever since Snowden said this during his interview with Brian Williams on NBC, the administration’s hackles have gone back up. John Kerry famously told Snowden to “man up” and come home to face the music.
Evidently, Kerry thinks that real men submit to injustice by willingly turning themselves over to the malefactors they have embarrassed by telling the truth. This would be the same John Kerry who thinks that it is perfectly OK to be bossed around and made a fool of by a pipsqueak bully named Bibi.
Then the NSA claimed that they had made an exhaustive search and could find only one email from Snowden, and that it only voiced vague concerns. They declared that it hardly rose to the level of whistle blowing; that Snowden had just been blowing air.
Did Obama made them do it or did they figure this out on their own? It hardly matters except for determining which of the two holds the American people in greater contempt. Could they seriously think that any sane person would believe them?
Of course, they knew that they could count on corporate media to repeat their story so often that it would turn into conventional wisdom. But the truth will out in the end; it always does.
By the time it does, it is usually too late. This time may be an exception.
However much Obama and Kerry and Hillary Clinton and the rest want people to think that Snowden is a troubled soul asking to be caught in a lie, they won’t succeed. That just the opposite is the case is too obvious.
Even if they can fool most of the people all of the time about Ukraine, fooling them about Snowden is beyond the power even of National Public Radio, the cable news networks (minus Fox, which no one takes seriously anyway), and the three or four “quality” newspapers that still survive more or less undiminished.
Either Obama doesn’t understand this or else his contempt for the “folks” (his favorite word) he governs is so profound that he simply doesn’t care. Obama to his minions: insult their intelligence — by all means! Go for it!
Perhaps he has taken H.L. Mencken’s maxim — that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people”—too much to heart.
Or perhaps his contempt for all but the rich and malicious is so overwhelming that he just can’t help himself.
But contempt is a two-edged sword.
One of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell goes: “as the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.” Obama thinks this applies to the people he governs – especially the gullible, well-meaning ones who voted for him.
Sooner or later, he will learn, to his dismay, that it applies as well to himself.
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).