Like every good person I know, and a lot of evil (i.e., regressive) monsters I don’t, I’ve been watching very eagerly and carefully to see what decisions Barack Obama is going to make as our new president.
It makes perfect sense for us to do so, for such policy positions are the bread and butter of any presidency, and arguably the most consequential part of the job. Are we going to invade a country, or not? Are we going to have national health care, or not? Will we saddle our children with unconscionable loads of debt in order to lavish upon the super-rich yet more discretionary income, or not? These are the sorts of questions that go to the heart of what government is and does, and the consequences of their answers can be seen most starkly in the difference between the America a Franklin Roosevelt would make, for example, and the one a George W. Bush would create instead.
In short, policy decisions will matter immensely. And, what is more, they already do, just a scant one month into the Obama presidency. Already he is reorienting America programmatically – ending the Iraq war, closing Guantánamo, building a national health care system, negotiating seriously on global warming, spending heavily on education, energy and infrastructure, and taking strides to reintroduce some small measure of economic justice to the country. We sometimes lose track of this as we contemplate the national politics of these decisions, but they are not abstract propositions – they have enormous consequences in the lives of individuals. To pick just one narrow example close to home, I might very well not be writing this column today, had it not been for the completely unexpected GI Bill which sent my father to college after the war, the first person in my family to make that leap. Meanwhile, six thousand miles away, perhaps a million people lie dead amongst the rubble that George W. Bush made out of Iraq.
Yep, these things matter, and we are completely justified in devoting so much attention to what presidents do in making such decisions.
Sometimes, though, other effects of presidencies can be quite subtle compared to their overt policy decisions, though equally if not more profound. In much the same way that the application of soft power – in addition to or instead of hard power – can be a hugely consequential instrument of foreign policy, a similar effect applies on the domestic front. Who can say that George Washington’s policy decisions as president were more consequential in the long run than the ethos he brought to the presidency as its first occupant and the impact that had in launching and sustaining the new republic? Who can say whether it was more important that FDR created Social Security than it was that he inspired hope across an entire nation’s beaten-down and frightened population? Who can say whether Ronald Reagan did more damage by tripling the national debt than he did by getting Americans to believe that their own democratically elected government was the enemy? And I think all of us can say that, with the possible exception of his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy’s inspirational ethos entirely dwarfed in impact much of anything he actually did policy-wise during the brief thousand days of his presidency.
Similarly, a successful Obama presidency – and my guess is that he will turn out to be regarded by history as one of the best, even if he doesn’t turn out to be among the most progressive (though he might do that too) – will have powerful effects of a very tangible nature, such as (hopefully) rescuing the economy, ending the Iraq folly, and creating a real national health care system (only about a hundred years behind the curve, but who’s counting?). But it will also produce a raft of far less immediately tangible effects, which may well even surpass in magnitude those of the policy decisions.
It’s worth thinking a bit about what those might include.
An obvious place to begin is with race relations, the open wound of American politics from more or less the time there was an America to have politics. Racism has not, and will not, be destroyed on the altar of the Barack Obama presidency. There are definitely places in America where killing racism will require no less than the death of dyed-in-the-wool racists, to be replaced by more enlightened generations. But apart from those cracker boxes, imagine the effect Obama can have among the less committed core of racists in the majority population. If this guy becomes a Lincoln- or FDR-like figure, how palpably ridiculous will it be to continue to maintain the notions of superiority that are at the core of racist attitudes? How absurdly unsustainable will it be to continue to believe those fallacies? The very fact of a successful black presidency could do more than a thousand federal programs toward the changing of pernicious attitudes in American society. And changing attitudes is the key that unlocks all kinds of other doors, including bringing changes both to other attitudes and to policies.
Likewise, imagine what the effects of a successful Obama presidency will mean to the black community in terms of subtle but profound attitude changes. I’d be shocked if the impact on how blacks see themselves, and therefore on what they demand of themselves and what they demand of others, isn’t changed substantially – and, again, in ways that government programs could probably never replicate even at their most successful. This transcends the old cliche about anybody being able to grow up to become president of the United States. This is about a champion who carries on his shoulders the aspirations and self-assessments of a nation. For better or worse, this is a common psychology that cannot be ignored, and the black community has been overdue for its manifestation in a big way. Probably the last person to carry even a fraction as much national pride for African Americans was Thurgood Marshall.
But even Supreme Court justices might as well be room furnishings compared to the visibility of the president, and therefore, there has really been nothing comparable to this moment. Of course, implicit in all this is the ‘if’ of whether or not Obama has a successful presidency. I expect he will, but there is also a very edgy flip side here. If things go sour for him with the country, a la, say, Jimmy Carter, that will only add ammunition to the racist arsenal, and perhaps even diminish rather than enhance self-esteem within the black community. Eh, Colin? Eh, Condi? Eh, Clarence?
A second obvious effect of the Obama administration has to do with reorienting American attitudes toward government. Again, there will be hard policy decisions that will determine things like how we get our health care and whether industry can pollute the atmosphere unregulated. But what is also likely to emerge from this period, and this presidency, is a new and infinitely more sane relationship between American government and Americans. We’ve always had a real wide paranoid streak in this country when it comes to this question, and one that is both unique among comparable democracies and simultaneously unjustified by any particular historical experience. We had nasty King George III – over two centuries ago, mind you – whose greatest crime seems to have been imposing taxes on the colonists without letting them vote on the legislation. Bummer, man. A sub-optimal governance system, to be sure. But this in a world which has given us Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot – each of whom have eradicated millions of their own people – let alone a plethora of your garden-variety thuggish dictators ranging from Pinochet to the Shah to Marcos and Sudan’s al-Bashir. Given the relative levels of oppression – not to mention lethality – in these and scads of other cases compared to the American experience, even our revolution let alone our raging and congenital public antipathy toward government seem pretty silly.
Of course, there’s money to be made from fomenting such nonsense, and now we get to the heart of the matter. If you fear and loathe government, then you’ll oppose programs like Social Security or national health care. And if you do that, rich people won’t have to pay taxes in order to support such programs. Hence, the attitude, and hence Ronald Reagan and the contemporary conservative movement which loves war and regulating other peoples’ sexuality, but is fundamentally at its core about cutting taxes.
It still astonishes me to this day that an American president – democratically elected, no less – could actually say, “Government is not the solution, government is the problem”. All the more astonishing that it could resonate powerfully with the electorate. But this is actually precisely my point here. Just as FDR’s New Deal broke the psychological barrier of a government functioning to assist its public (what a concept, eh?), so I believe Obama’s programs and attitude will go a long way toward burying the regnant political ethos of these last three miserable decades – that government is bad, and that the less it does the better. Grover Norquist, noxious anti-tax enforcer for the noxious anti-tax right, once said his goal was to “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub”. My sense is that the American people, having experienced life under his vision and life under the FDR/Obama alternative, will turn decisively, and finally, from the former to the latter. And, again, this will be the result of a hugely consequential change of attitude more than any particular programmatic or legislative development. If we get very lucky, we can shrink this deceitful and pernicious regressive sickness down to the size where we can flush it into the sewer where it belongs.
A related phenomenon concerns the American mythology of government competence. This notion is fulminated by greedy elites and propagated by the legions of dumbed-down dittoheads who not only take their attitudinal marching orders from Rush Limbaugh, but who actually think he is amusing. Anyhow, the song goes like this: Government is incompetent and screws up everything it touches, whereas the captains of industry in the private sector are infallible (you know, like the ones at AIG, GM, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, etc.). Here’s George F. Will this week with an off-hand but typical example, as he desperately launches a rear-guard salvo against Obama’s attempt to rescue us from poverty: “The stimulus legislation, a.k.a. No Social Worker Left Behind, offers financial incentives for states to enlarge their welfare rolls. This looks like the beginning of a semi-stealthy repeal of the 1996 welfare reform. So it goes, as government, with a confidence disconnected from its current performance, toils to make more and more people more and more dependent on it.”
You know, god forbid we should put some money in the hands of poor people made poorer by this crisis. That smells an awfully lot like godless socialism to me. But, more to the point, the little snipe at government’s “current performance” says it all. Given that the one-month old Obama administration’s policies cannot possibly be measured for effectiveness yet, I think we can agree on just whose performance we’re talking about here. George W. Bush was a walking case of self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only about the dangers of genetic lottery in a monarchy, of course, but especially about what happens when you put buffoonish kleptocrats in charge of running institutions they don’t believe in. Heckuva job, Bushie.
The truth – mortal enemy of the entire regressive movement – is that the success of government is dependent upon the same factors as the success of any given corporation or any other major institution. If the mission makes sense, and the people involved are top quality, and the resources are there, and the timing is right, then the chances of a happy outcome are high. What has the private sector ever done that can match the Manhattan Project, going to the moon, or defeating totalitarianism for daunting tasks, whatever one thinks of the merits of any of those projects? And, even when you see some impressive stuff – like for example the creation of the Internet – guess who’s behind the private sector in making it happen?
I’m hoping and expecting that the combination of George Bush’s hated failures and Barack Obama’s welcome successes will go a long way toward purging the public of this attitude, perhaps once and for all. Other developed democracies don’t have these silly debates. Everyone recognizes that there is a positive role to be played by competent government, same as there is for the private sector. A more grown-up America will do the same, and we can get past this debilitating attitude – bequeathed to us by the predators amongst us for purposes of enhancing their ill-gotten profits – that government is incompetent. An attitude change of that magnitude will open many policy and programmatic doors now shut by America’s brainwashed political culture.
Another sickening development that I expect to be changing profoundly nowadays is American support for an imperialist foreign policy. Of course, we never acknowledge it to be that, but there is simply no question that a country with nearly a thousand military bases around the world, that spends more on its military than all other countries of the world – nearly 200 of them – combined, and that invades countries like Iraq or Panama or Grenada or Nicaragua whenever it damn well feels like it – there can be no question that this is an empire. Americans loved their non-empire empire, and they loved how powerful it made a people who were not finding self-fulfillment elsewhere feel. But empires are expensive, in every way. Even by 2003, and even in the immediate wake of 9/11, Americans didn’t want to go to war in Iraq, despite no doubt believing it would be the cakewalk we were told it would be.
Today, another imperial adventure of this sort would be far harder to sell. The process of Americans weaning themselves away from such lethal foolishness really began earlier, with the last imperial disaster – in Southeast Asia. Already, long before 2003, the government realized that it needed an all ‘volunteer’ military, a coopted and corralled press, hidden fiscal costs, a machine-intensive military force, and a ban on photos of the Dover AFB caskets for those few but inevitable (American) human casualties, in order to continue to prosecute its imperial adventures. My expectation and hope is that this reluctance to engage in militarism will grow manifold, for several reasons.
Chief among them, of course, has to do with Iraq. Let’s give credit where credit is due: no one has given American imperialism a worse name than George W. Bush. But I hope that Obama’s return to multilateral and bilateral diplomacy will also remind Americans that there are better ways than war to do things in most situations, thus further discrediting the very most gruesome form of regressive insanity there is (and that is a very robust competition, indeed). Additionally, as our fiscal situation begins to deteriorate, there will be new pressures on a ‘defense’ budget that is as sure a sign of societal sickness as one can imagine. You’ll know America has changed its stripes when you start hearing the debate about whether we need to spend six or seven hundred billion dollars per year to fund a force arrayed against not a single enemy in the world other than a rag-tag band of guerilla fighters who basically cannot be defeated by military means anyhow. In any case, once again, what we’re talking about here is not so much a specific policy change, but rather a mind-set change, which will lead subsequently to multiple policy changes. That could mean the difference between war in Syria, Iran, Cuba or Venezuela – or not. And it could mean the difference between educating our children or building another useless aircraft carrier.
The destruction of the right’s monopoly in defining what may be discussed in our political discourse will also pay huge but subtle dividends in attitude shifts and what is possible in American politics today. The regressive program is discredited, and whether Obama turns out to be a liberal or a centrist, political space has now been opened up on the left for the first time since the 1970s. Movements to pull the Obama administration and the American public to the left now have a chance to flourish because of a combination of the right’s failures, the public’s desperation, the transparent and hideous idiocy of the Limbaugh-led regressive opposition to Obama, the absence of a necessity for the left to be continually fighting defensive battles against all manner of destructive policies under the Bush administration, and the right’s new preoccupation with blocking Obama and the Democrats in Congress. Those energies can now be transferred in a more positive direction.
That will be especially productive if coupled with a newly politicized youth movement in this country. We already know that young people are registering Democratic in staggering numbers, and we know from past experience that that is likely to mean a lifetime of political allegiance. We can also hope that their mobilization in the 2008 election, and especially at this week’s Power Shift conference and civil disobedience action, are the beginnings of a long-overdue movement toward – in the words of Patti Smith – wrestling the world from fools. Never has a young generation been given such a crappy deal by parents who claim to be devoted to their children but who, because of their astonishingly selfish political choices, in fact have been devoted entirely to themselves, often at the direct expense of their progeny. In any case, whether it comes from younger Americans or their elders, one of the quiet yet powerful consequences of our current political moment is that we can now open up political space on the left to begin making some sense again.
But it isn’t only the content of American politics that will change in unseen but hugely consequential ways. Obama – quietly and subtly, in complete contrast to the bombastic fulminations of his predecessor – allows us to be smart again. If you ever need a barometer of the depth of American insecurity, just take a gander at how so many of us went for Bush and his lies and blunders, all because it made us feel good. Remember that line about how he was the candidate you’d rather have a beer with? Of course, now, because of his policies, the idiots who used criteria such as that one to choose their president can no longer even afford a beer, just at the moment they need it most, but you get the point. Bush and Bushism – AKA regressivism – catered to that sickest little aspect of our mentality, the idea that we could feel better about just how mediocre we are by putting a regular guy in the White House. And his whole ‘govern from the gut’ thing played into that as well, in addition to providing the enormous side benefit (more likely, it was the other way around) of allowing the Bush people to justify as their choice the policy option they had already selected, despite any evidence – often rigorous, scientific evidence – to the contrary.
But smart is the new stupid in Washington. And even though that isn’t in itself a particular policy change, it is the key to reorienting a host of policy changes. More importantly, as Obama returns us to the practice of following the best minds in making policy choices, rather than the overclass-driven gut preferences of a dry drunk former frat boy who got gentlemen’s C’s in college (that’s where you actually got F’s, but your daddy donates a building to the school), people will once again recognize how smart it is to be smart. I don’t expect it to be easy in the future to put another tongue-tied cowboy master of malapropisms in the White House because it makes us feel good about feeling bad about ourselves. My guess is that people have now discovered that being hungry, homeless and jobless only makes feeling bad about being ordinary a whole lot worse.
Perhaps, more than anything, though, it will be changes to the character of our discourse that may provide the most profound effect of all. The single thing that excites me most about the Obama phenomenon is the manner in which he injects a long-missing grown-up maturity into that discourse. Jimmy Carter was probably the last American politician to talk to the public with this degree of honesty and sophistication. We weren’t ready then, but after 30 years of the alternative and its consequences, it strikes me that we may be now.
To which I say, put aside all the legislation, policy discussions and executive orders – this may be the biggest single effect of the Obama years. Because if we can’t talk about politics like adults, we’ll never get an adult politics. If we can’t discuss the massive debt implications to our children of slashing taxes, we’ll just keep getting both. If we can’t recall our own sickening past sins against the people of Iran, we’ll continue to argue over whether it’s best to adopt the really stupid approach to that country, or just the merely idiotic. If we can’t be honest about class politics in America, the middle and working classes will continue to abet the wholesale transfer their own property to the already fabulously wealthy. If we can’t discriminate between real science and junk dogma used to enrich oil companies, we’ll continue to commit planetary suicide in the greatest act of destructive foolishness ever known.
Whatever one feels about Barack Obama’s policies, watching his thoughtful, respectful and intelligent approach to the politics of our time provides a stunning contrast to the faux swagger, willful stupidity, and inherent contempt for the public of his predecessor. Even during the latter years of his own administration, watching tapes of Bush in his earlier years, announcing this or that invasion, threatening this or that adversary, could be a jaw-dropping experience for any mildly sentient creature. Imagine how pathetic they’ll look in a year or two, after experiencing the Obama alternative, especially because the GOP keeps sending out junior versions of Junior (hard to imagine that’s physically possible, isn’t it?) like Limbaugh, Gingrich and Jindal to go up against the president.
I don’t think Americans are ever going to want to go back to that sadly immature politics, any more than most adults ever crave a return to the fun days of adolescence. And this is huge. Make no mistake about it – regressivism not only thrives on an immature, two-dimensional, dumbed-down, bumper-sticker sized politics, it requires it. Creating an America in which the public demands a more intelligent and thoughtful political discourse automatically takes ninety percent of regressive arguments off the table before the discussion even begins – at least outside the hollows of Appalachia, the tabernacles of Utah, or the grubby currency shrines on Wall Street, where they either haven’t gotten the message, or don’t want it. An intelligent people who demand an intelligent politics will have no more interest in the kind of fear-based politics Karl Rove specializes in than they will in Zoroastrianism.
And, really, this may bring us to the best change of all. Anybody with a heart and a brain has spent so much of the last eight years (if not thirty) in a stupefied daze, gazing upon the knuckle-draggers of the right in action, and wondering in befuddled astonishment how this could be happening in twenty-first century America. Particularly for any of us with memories of the Sixties, who could have imagined back then a return to the Fifties, then to the nineteenth century, then to the seventeeth, and then to the thirteenth? It was if something was in the water, and everyone went on a decade(s) long bender, leaving a few of us somehow unaffected by anything other than grief and chagrin at the actions of the rest.
But I think that’s over now. Welcome to the new American sobriety.
Yet the right still hasn’t figured it out. Which is good. Because now, instead of bucking up our collective fear and insecurity, the sight of Sarah Palin, the rhetoric of John McCain, or the creepy monsters drawn to their political rallies is only enraging voters who were merely disillusioned yesterday, but are fast hurtling toward a furious anger today.
We seem to have reached the moment when the little dictator morphs from Hitler into Charlie Chaplin mocking Hitler.
Impoverished, deceived, broken and isolated, America is finally growing up.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.