Shared Delusions

What a spectacle Washington has become! Democrats fall over themselves capitulating to Republicans, expressly as with Obama’s “compromise” on taxes or, more often, preemptively; while establishment Republicans, fearing the wrath of their useful idiots, capitulate to Tea Partiers, who therefore call the shots. Such democracy as we have had has always been a tenuous achievement thanks to institutions that make it difficult for the will of the people to prevail, and thanks to the inequalities generated by our barely regulated capitalist system. Thus America has always been more of a plutocracy, where moneyed interests rule, than a democracy, where the people rule. Lately, benighted plutocrats have turned their affairs over to their most deluded servants, conjuring up the prospect of a full-fledged kakistocracy, a regime where the least able and most foolish among us control the state.

What makes this possible are the many disempowered voters who are impervious to reason and indifferent to facts; people who fervently believe, for example, that the way to stick it to the Wall Street schemers and gamblers who do them harm is to funnel wealth their way, immiserating themselves along with almost everyone else in the process. Still, to their credit, these “folks” (Obama’s word for everybody not richer than sin) are angry, as they have every reason to be. “If the fool would persist in his folly,” declares one of William Blake’s “proverbs of hell,” “he would become wise.” Blake also wrote that “the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” The benighted women and men who identify with the Tea Party exude folly and wrath. They are not necessarily lost causes. But they have a long way to go before their rage transcends their delusions, and a great deal of folly to work through. Meanwhile, there is a grave danger that the movement they comprise will take a more classically fascistic turn.

[As I write these words, it is still not clear whether yesterday’s massacre in Tucson, where Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, is a an opening salvo of a collective movement exerting its “second amendment rights” Tea Party style or whether it is just what happens in a gun culture when deranged individuals overload on talk radio and Fox News.]

Obama apologists have a long way to go too, but their folly is of a different kind. They are like abused spouses who hold on to the belief that their abuser is a “good man” (read “progressive”) despite everything. That delusion seldom turns out well for victims of spousal abuse and it will not turn out well in this case either.

Plutocrats almost always prefer Republicans to Democrats. But in 2008, because the Bush-Cheney administration had led them to the brink of ruin and because the Republicans fielded a dunce and a gun-toting, God fearing nincompoop against the Obama-Biden ticket, the pillars of American capitalism, some of them anyway, were willing to fulfill Bill Clinton’s dream ? to abandon the GOP for the Democrats. Not any more.

Why their change of heart? After all, in Barack Obama, they got what they bargained for. Republicans may be better than Democrats at redistributing wealth upwards, though Obama is no slouch. But when it comes to undoing our feeble welfare state institutions and breaking the back of the labor movement, Democrats do it better. Case in point: Bill Clinton. Perhaps Republicans would, on balance, be even more corporate friendly than Obama has been, but hardly enough to matter. Notwithstanding the pronouncements of liberal poseurs and pundits of the Howard Dean and Chris Matthews variety or the whacky perceptions of William Daley, Obama’s next chief of staff and also finance capital’s (and Big Pharma’s and Telecom’s and the Chamber of Commerce’s) main man, Obama started out at the center-right, not the left, and has been moving rightward ever since. Nevertheless, the plutocrats have concluded that they’re better off with their traditional flunkies. Why?

The short answer is because Obama is a hapless leader. Despite his many gifts and uncommon intelligence, he allowed Republicans, dumb as they are, to outmaneuver him at every turn. He was easy prey to an obdurate foe. So what if the Nobel Laureate’s stewardship of the empire and its wars is of a piece with George Bush’s after 2006 or if the Constitutional law professor’s assault on traditional liberties and the rule of law rivals his predecessors’. So what if his team of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase operatives has taken up where George Bush’s left off, opening up the taxpayers’ coffers for the benefit of their banker buddies. Provided she or he is not totally bonkers, a Republican can do it better.

No doubt. But the calculations of our greediest capitalists hardly make the belief that Obama is a beleaguered “progressive” up against insurmountable odds any less delusional. Apart from a few vacuous speeches given during the campaign and in the first months of his administration, is there any evidence for that belief at all? The problem is not that Obama hasn’t advanced a vision of a qualitatively better society as a true progressive would or even that his reforms, though beneficial, enhance plutocratic power. It is that he has done almost nothing to restore the minimal decencies that preceded America’s Reaganite turn. Is there any reason to think that he would if he could? Like Obama’s enemies, his apologists think so; they continue to believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Obama is a progressive at heart.

This is the thinking of victims of abuse who stand by their abuser no matter what; the thinking of those for whom the only defense is no offense at all. Organized labor is a case in point. Although they were promised little ? basically just the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a reform nearly as milquetoast as Obama’s health care reforms — no one has worked harder to elect Democrats. Yet, from Day One, Obama, continuing Bush’s teach-for-tests-and-thinking-be-damned (mis)education reforms ? rebranded, of course, and polished over — took aim at teachers’ unions. His next move was to license the Republican-Tea Party assault on what remains of the labor movement, and to legitimize their anti-deficit nostrums, by freezing the salaries of federal workers, even as he turned over billions to bankers and acquiesced in massive tax breaks for the rich. Now even “good Democrats” like Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown are following suit. Is there any question why, with “progressives” like these, Republicans, smelling blood, have taken aim at public employees and their unions? And yet labor is still there for Obama!

A year and a half ago, Democrats could easily have pushed EFCA through. They could have gotten better health care and Wall Street reforms too, along with much else. They might even have been able to quash Bush’s wars before they became Obama’s. But either Obama was too “bipartisan” and aloof to bother or else he was happy enough with the way things were. At this point, this is a distinction without a difference. And it is why today, in the aftermath of the “shellacking” Democrats took in the mid-term elections, Obama has let the Republican-Tea Party make the deficit the issue, and why its remediable causes, our endless (counter-productive) wars and our savage inequalities, are not part of the “discussion” on deficit reduction. As Republicans, take aim at Social Security and Medicare and at ‘discretionary spending’ ? in other words, at the good things our government does ? expect Obama to go along. He is now setting the stage ? loading up his self-declared “centrist” administration with a gaggle of tried and true “pro-business” Clinton hands who, like Obama himself, are basically of one mind with Obama’s electoral rivals.

The time is therefore past due for everyone whose head is screwed on right, everyone less “centrist” (rightist) than Howard Dean and Chris Matthews and hizzoner the mayor’s son to set this bipartisan nonsense aside, and to face the world as it is. The Republicans are a malign force of nature. There is no working with them. Moreover, the folly of Obama apologists, unlike the Tea Partiers’, has no chance of turning into its opposite — for what sustains it is not correctable misinformation fueled with justifiable rage but cowardice and obtuseness and, above all, self-deception. It cannot be transformed; it can only be rejected and replaced.

Republican ineptitude made possible the historical opportunity Obama squandered, and there is already evidence, after just a few days of Republican rule in the House, that the kakistocrats running the show will continue to provide Democrats with fresh opportunities. If they are buffoonish enough, maybe even the plutocrats will come back on board ? fearing to entrust their affairs to the likes of a Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann. In short, Obama has an excellent chance in 2012.

But that’s hardly the point. Except for party hacks, like the ones leaving the administration and the ones now taking their place, what matters is not who wins elections, even when, as is likely in 2012, there is a clear lesser evil. What matters is how policy goes. For that, what happens in the streets matters more than who the incumbents of political offices may be. Remember: it was civil society in turmoil that led even Richard Nixon, heinous as he was, to do more good on the home front than any of the Democratic presidents who followed him.

As long as Obama apologists stand by their man in the way that abuse victims stand by theirs, as long as they subordinate their interests to the conventional view of how best to enhance his electoral prospects, the kakistocrats will remain in charge. The world cannot wait for Tea Party supporters to outgrow their folly as per Blake’s proverb. There is already too much hell to pay. It is therefore urgent that Obama apologists be disabused of their delusions and that those who remain steadfastly recalcitrant be marginalized by the real partisans of “change.”

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. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.


ANDREW LEVINE is 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).