Elena Kagan is the perfect Supreme Court pick for Barack Obama.
In fact, in so many ways, she is Barack Obama.
Moreover, they both represent their generation well. They are the leading edge of Generation X, and they embody its character fully.
You don’t need a fancy degree in sociology to figure that generational politics are driven at in least part by generational life experience and social and economic conditions. It makes a certain degree of sense, to wit, that the last generations in American history known for their mobilization around progressive politics were products of extreme economic conditions, albeit polar opposite ones. In the Thirties, when socialism had real prospects in America, the economy could hardly have been more challenging. During the Sixties, on the other hand, the young people marching in the streets were arguably the product of the world’s first-ever generation of widespread economic security, if not opulence.
Perhaps what they both had in common is little to risk. In any case, by the time Gen X came around, the doors were already slamming shut. In part this was because we were actually living beyond our means anyhow, and the principles of economic physics reasserted their inevitable gravitational pull. In part it was because the Boomers were such a large generation that they sucked up a lot of opportunity in the economy for those who came after them. And in part, this happened because regressivism had begun its thirty year (and counting) successful project to undo the anomalous fairer wealth redistribution of the mid-twentieth century, which had scandalously produced a somewhat just economic system for the first time since the industrial revolution, if not ever.
Whatever the explanation, I don’t think it’s an accident that the people coming of political and career age under such conditions have exhibited a certain degree of conservatism in their outlook on life. I don’t mean here ideological conservatism, though there is that as well, but more of a hunkered-down, blinkered, instrumental, cautious, personal conservatism – one that is devoted to the narrowest agenda of self. One might even call it peasant conservatism, to which it is akin.
I don’t mean that term entirely pejoratively. It seems to me a natural human survival instinct to act conservatively in times of scarce resources, and I don’t fancy myself anymore immune to that sensibility than is anyone else. But I do think there are multiple possible responses to such challenges, especially to the extent that they are being driven by political decisions allocating those scarce resources, as opposed to natural phenomena like drought or disaster. One solution, in place of an atomistic enhanced to devotion to self-interest, is to seek a collective political response to insanely destructive societal policy choices. No generation I can think of has been handed a lousier deal by its parents and grandparents than Generation X (except Generation Y, of course), and none has responded to that as silently.
If Barack Obama isn’t the epitome of this mentality, then Elena Kagan surely is. Nobody can figure out what she stands for, because she has been so careful never to stand for anything. Obama’s really the same, although as a former candidate for the US Senate and the presidency, he’s been obliged to make a few more vague noises about political positions than Kagan has or will in her confirmation process. In both cases, though, you can look long and hard – and ultimately in vain – for much of anything that resembles a political conviction. In the end, though, what both of these folks are really about is right there in front of you. They’re about themselves. They are bloodless careerists.
They are also supposedly the left in America, and that’s the disastrous part. You see nothing whatsoever of this kind of (non-)politics on the right. Regressives in this country are passionate, strategic, mobilized, extreme and effective. And because of that, they are winning, and have been for thirty years. Where there used to be a left in America, only a black hole exists today, sucking in everything around it, including light and truth. Obama, for example – the supposed socialist in the typical regressive’s infantile paranoid nightmares – is actually one of the most conservative presidents of the last century. And he is not alone.
It’s axiomatic among the grandees of the moronic mainstream media that he is a liberal, to such an extent that the question is never even discussed. In fact – though I suspect he is ultimately far more of an apolitical careerist than anything – the truth is that his policies are so regressive that they cannot meaningfully be distinguished from George W. Bush’s. And I don’t mean that in the powerfully true relative sense that reminds us of what a real liberal president would actually look like, either, though contemplating that long-lost comparative benchmark puts the point even more emphatically. And I don’t even mean that in the sense of a Ralph Naderesque critique about the lack of fundamental difference between the Tweedledee and Tweedledum parties. I simply mean that a purely empirical side-by-side comparison across the board – from civil liberties to civil rights to ‘defense’ budget to war fighting to Middle East policy to Wall Street sycophancy to every other meaningful policy area, including health care by the way – reveals a literal near identity between the two administrations, other than in style.
The upshot of all this is that America has been moving seriously rightward, at least concerning matters of political economy if not social policy, for a full generation or two now. Where once there was a right, now there is a rabid right. And where once there was a left, now there is a collection of apolitical careerists. Given the powerful ability of the right to tilt the playing field in every meaningful dimension, the policy options seemingly open to these would-be progressives when they gain office (which happens almost purely because of regressive over-extension, rather than on their own merits) are effectively, but not actually, proscribed to more of the same right-wing insanity that has brought this country so much grief and decline since the Hollywood Cowboy rode into town and borrowed insipid two-dimensional morality plays from the sets of B-movie lots and screened them as the cheap horror production known as American politics.
The same is absolutely true of judicial politics as well. As Justice Stevens has himself correctly noted, every single appointment to the Supreme Court since and including his own, 35 years ago and now again today, has replaced the prior justice with someone further to the right. The entire center of gravity of the Court (and the federal courts below it) has shifted dramatically rightward. Not only do regressives vehemently demand that Republican presidents nominate throaty young Troglodytes to fill any vacancy (as they did when they forced Bush to withdraw the Harriet Miers nomination), but this is in fact probably the single biggest reason that they fight so hard to win the presidency. Sure, they want some twisted pathological freak in the White House who will invade hapless third world countries, slash spending on the poor, keep the womenfolk in their place, and then piously attend church on Sunday (though both Reagan and W typically managed only the first three items on that agenda during any given week of their presidencies, but they faked their religiosity well enough that they were forgiven), but what they really want is somebody who will stick a Sam Alito on the Supreme Court for the next forty years. It’s not quite as permanent an establishment of their repressive politics as would be, say, making up some religion for people to adhere to over the next couple of millennia, but it’s as close as you can get as long as that pesky Constitution and its evil secular government is still around and in the way.
Democrats, on the other hand, do what Democrats do best when it comes to making judicial appointments, or anything else for that matter. Which is to say just about nothing. This is why Kagan is so representative of Obama, and Obama is so representative of the politically neutered Generation X. Imagine somebody living through some of the most contentious debates of the last decades, and serving in some of the most prominent positions in and out of American government during that time, and leaving absolutely no paper trail whatsoever that indicates any politics of any sort. I’m sorry. Elena Kagan is not a socialist, she’s a Kaganist. She’s not a liberal, she’s just a nil.
And so, as Stevens leaves and she fills his seat, the Court marches yet further rightward, with a weak apolitical centrist taking the place of a towering progressive. Meanwhile, Obama continues to do his part to aid in the complete repudiation of liberalism by running a presidency so anemic Neville Chamberlain would be embarrassed by it, while continuing allow himself to be labeled as some radical leftist by the regressive right, whose bottomless cleverness is matched only by their sociopathic cynicism. The upshot is that Obama – the appointer of nothingburger apolitical nobodies to the Supreme Court – will soon enough be replaced by another Republican president appointing a fresh crop of Lil’ Scalias to complete the process. As soon as one of those replaced is one of the moderates on the Court rather than one of their own, the show will be definitely over (as it almost entirely is already), moving the regressive voting dominance from the current 4.75 to 4.25 votes (Kennedy occasionally siding with the non-Neanderthals), to a full-out 6 to 3 instead.
And nobody says much of nuthin’ about it. Nobody holds Obama’s feet to the fire like the right did to Bush with the Miers nomination. Can you imagine the conversations in the White House? Maybe some twenty-something rube staffer is dumb enough to say, “Hey, don’t we need to appoint a progressive every once in a while to take care of our base?” To which everyone in the room bursts out laughing, and Rahm Emanuel responds: “#$@%& those stupid #@$^&–@#$#%’s. What are they gonna do? Send us #$^@ing email? Have a @#$%ing rally with fourteen aging hippies doing a sit-in at Harry Reid’s office? $#@&$ ‘em, and the horses they rode in on. We answer to Wall Street, son.”
So the short version of the story is that the aberration of partial economic justice and democracy that characterized the middle of the twentieth century is collapsing all around us. That implosion has now swallowed up both political parties. It has long held sway on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And it is finally being ossified into place for at least the next several decades with lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court. The first priority is to create an all-powerful executive. The second priority is to create an all-powerful state. And the third priority is to make sure that both are put to the service of oligarchic interests. This is the regressive play book, rarely ever seen with greater clarity than in the voting records of the Scalia bloc on the Court. All else is commentary, if not diversion.
The astonishing irony, of course, is that there could hardly be a moment more propitious for an ideological swing in the other direction. People are hurting badly. Elites are vastly richer today than they were three decades ago. The connection between the two, in the form of predatory Wall Street plunderings continually aided, abetted and even funded by the government, is no longer even particularly hidden. And yet there is no left at all on the national horizon, apart from an occasional Bernie Sanders or Dennis Kucinich. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. All energy is with the blind raging tea party mentality, which only seeks to vastly exacerbate the problem through some sort of vague libertarianism that will further unleash corporate dominance and further shred what little is left of a tattered social safety net in America.
You really have to hand it to the right. They understand mass psychology so much better than progressives do. They know that rationality is the first victim of fear, and that fear breeds upon itself, amplifying its own effects exponentially. They understand how fragile a thing is a thoughtful, sober and responsible democracy, and how readily undermined it can be for nefarious and hidden purposes.
And they understand how easy it is to buy off those with the capacity to prevent a country’s political and economic suicide.
Barack Obama and Elena Kagan have gotten everything they’ve ever wanted from life.
All they had to do, in return, was to stand for nothing.
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.