Obama’s Wisconsin Betrayal

When all else fails, Obama apologists conjure up what FDR is supposed to have said to some of his liberal supporters: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”  In the early days of the Obama presidency, this was a call to action.  It quickly degenerated into a blame-the-victims excuse.

If you are among the multitudes who are “disappointed” because the Nobel laureate morphed into President Drone, champion of perpetual (and secret) war, or because the banksters and Bush (and post-Bush) era war criminals are not just unpunished but still marauding shamelessly, or because the Constitutional Law professor turned out to be even more disdainful of Constitutional protections than George W. Bush, or because he’s done nothing or almost nothing for the  “progressive” constituencies who voted him into office or for poor people or for organized labor, or that he deports “illegals” at record levels, or that the last time he did anything positive for African Americans was when he and his family, “the next first family of the United States,” stepped out onto the stage at Grant Park – well, it’s your fault.  You didn’t make him do it.

Then came Wisconsin – masses of people, from all walks of life, including all sectors of the labor movement, rising up against Governor Scott Walker’s brazen, corporate-driven assault on public sector unions.  It was of a piece with the (contemporaneous) Arab spring and a direct inspiration for last fall’s Occupy movements and their continuations to the present moment.

What happened in Wisconsin – and then in Ohio and elsewhere — was as sustained an effort to make him do it, to make him stand up for those whose interests he is supposed to champion, as could be imagined.  And yet the Change and Hope President remained serenely detached.

When, months later, the swelling Occupy movement struck a chord that Obama couldn’t ignore, there was a detectable up-tick in the “populist” tone of a few of his speeches.  But that’s all that changed.  Even the Occupy movement didn’t “make …[him] do it.”  And now reports are trickling out that his administration’s repressive apparatus, ever vigilant in its determination to keep change at bay, has the Occupy movement in its sights – in much the way it targets Muslims and, in line with longstanding FBI traditions, the entire Left.

The Wisconsin case is especially illuminating because Obama is still at it – doing his best to damn Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate running against Walker in the

June 5 recall election, with feint support.  The Democratic National Committee, led by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the darling of the MSNBC evening lineup, is towing a similar line.  It seems that national Democrats have better uses for their time and money.

If Barrett loses, liberals will blame the Koch brothers and their zillionaire comrades.  They’ll have a point.  Those miscreants will spend what it takes to get their way, and they have it to spend.   But, at least, they don’t dissimulate.  Their strategy is not, like Obama’s, just to fool some of the people all of the time.

* * *

It is too soon, of course, to write an obituary for the Wisconsin insurgency.  People power could still keep the worst from happening.  But if the worst does happen, if Walker emerges stronger than ever from the events of the past year and a half and therefore more able to do harm, the malign neglect of the forces of hope and change will have much to account for.  It won’t just be the Koch brothers’ fault.

Obama’s conspicuous disinterest is important for what it betokens, a point to which I will return.  The same holds for his relations with the Occupy movement, where he may be up to worse than mere neglect.  But before reflecting on what Obama’s aloofness reveals, we should remind ourselves of some of the many ways that people power, the only antidote to plutocratic malfeasance and political corruption, tends to dissipate and become enfeebled.

There is, first of all, something like a law of human history, a regularity almost as infrangible as a law of nature, according to which progressive ventures that seem unstoppable but that, for one reason or another, fail to reach immediate consummation give rise to reactions that usually prevail, at least in the short run.

Recent history abounds with examples – from May 68 through the Arab spring.  In the Western tradition, the unhappy transition from action to reaction has been a theme of literary and historical writing from Greek antiquity through Shakespeare to the present.   Ralph Waldo Emerson got the wisdom of the ancients and the moderns right when he wrote: “if you would strike a king, you must kill him.”

Barring a revolution, which no one contemplated and which was never even remotely in the offing, this meant, in Wisconsin, where politicians can only be recalled after they have served at least a year in office, that anti-Walker energies were bound to dissipate.

It also meant that they were bound to be channeled into an electoral contest between a Democrat and a Republican — a sorry prospect even in the pre-Citizens United days and a dreadful prospect now, in a political culture where the main beneficiaries of our preposterously inegalitarian capitalist system have free rein to buy electoral outcomes.

Long ago, George Carlin asked why when we have fifty choices for Miss America and thirty-one flavors of ice cream to choose from (he meant at Baskin Robbins, where there are now many more), we must choose between just two people for President?  A similar question might be asked about gubernatorial elections.

That there are only two parties that have any chance of winning elections has nothing to do with anything resembling a law of nature.  It is, if anything, a convention imposed against nature; one of many examples of the real “exceptionalism” that deforms our political life.  We live unnaturally under a semi-established duopoly party system installed and sustained by the parties themselves and underwritten, now more than ever, by the ill-gotten gains of an increasingly aggressive ruling class.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  To cite just two examples still in the news, think of the many party choices available to voters in France and Egypt in their recently concluded presidential elections.  In the end, there are runoffs, and the outcomes are often not much better than the outcomes here; but at least fewer voters are disenfranchised because they have no one to vote for, and the political culture is all the better for it.  If nothing else, the spectrum of respectable (non-marginalized) opinion is broader.

Add to this another sad fact: that Democratic voters, more than Republicans, tend to internalize the debilitating constraints that afflict us by gravitating “strategically” to the dead center.  This is why we ended up with John Kerry as the Democratic standard-bearer in 2004, and why Wisconsin voters, intent on ridding their state of the Walker menace, selected the most “moderate” of the major contenders in the primary that concluded early in May.

The idea was to get more than just “Madison liberals” on board; to get those vaunted “independents” to vote Walker out.   No matter that Madison liberals are a generally anodyne group; Democrats flock invariably around the conventional wisdom.  No wonder, then, that they lose so often, even to the likes of Scott Walker.  Voters who deemed Barrett’s main rival, a quintessential Madison liberal, too left to win were begging for an enthusiasm deficit, and inviting defeat.

Republicans, to their credit, are not as inclined to pull their punches.  And so, in Walker, they have a candidate they not only deserve, but also ardently desire.

In their case, though, it may be a case of too much of a good thing.  It was the unwillingness of Republican voters to strategize that turned the Republican primaries into the circuses they were, forcing Mitt Romney, the plutocrats’ favorite son and therefore always the likely winner, to assume positions he cannot easily etch-a-sketch his way out of, and is bound to regret.

Because they hate Obama for all the wrong reasons, Republicans are now doing their best to coalesce round Romney.  It remains to be seen, though, how long they will be able to hold their noses.  To get to November with a candidate so many of them despise will be a daunting task.  Come November, there are likely to be enthusiasm deficits on all sides.

But in Wisconsin next week the deficit is all on the Democrats’ side.  How consequential this will be remains to be seen.  Since Walker is about as execrable a candidate as can be imagined, revulsion might just save the day.  Or not.

The polls say the race is close, with Walker slightly ahead.   Were Obama to deign to campaign for Barrett, this would almost certainly change the dynamic; there are still plenty of Obama fans in the Badger state.  No matter how much money the Koch brothers throw at the race, a jolt from the White House, and some DNC cash, would, in all likelihood, result in a resounding Walker defeat.

But don’t hold your breath.

* * *

One would think this would be a no-brainer for Obama and the DNC.  A Walker defeat would all but insure that Wisconsin, a battleground state, would again go Democratic.  It would demoralize the Republicans nationally, and (re)energize the forces that put Obama in office in 2008.  But there’s the rub.

Obama needs the people who enthused over him four years ago to enthuse over him again; that’s where the votes are.  And so we can count on him trying to reel the base back in.  Therefore expect more of what we got two weeks ago on gay marriage: encouraging words.  Some of those words may even come packaged in a vaguely populist register.

And why not?  There is no percentage, after all, in pissing potential voters off or in offending labor leaders, especially when they are prepared, as always, to mobilize their members to do yeomen’s work in behalf of Democratic candidates.  Obama needs the active support of the old lib-lab coalition; he knows that without it Democrats will get “shellacked” again, and he along with them.

But the last thing he or Wasserman Schultz or any other national Democrat wants is for the people to call the shots.  It’s not just that they want to run the goings on from the top down as in 2008.  More than that, they want to make sure that popular mobilizations don’t get out of control – to the point that they threaten the interests of the fraction of the one-percent whose favor Obama and the DNC assiduously court.

Their concern for the interests of the richest of the rich should surprise no one; it is in line with a tradition Bill Clinton made central to the Democratic Party’s identity.  It is pitiful, however, to see Democrats court in vain whenever Republicans manage, despite the obduracy of their base, to put up candidates the party establishment can abide.

Romney is such a candidate, obviously, and arguably so was John McCain.  But McCain chose a bona fide ditz for a running mate, someone no self-respecting plutocrat would want just a heartbeat away from heading what Marx called “the executive committee of the (entire) bourgeoisie.”  Unless Romney repeats that mistake, it is a sure thing that Obama doesn’t have enough abject servility in him to get the plutocrats back on board.

But that won’t stop him from trying.  Although the anti-Walker insurgency was defensive in nature, it developed into a movement that began to name the enemy, the plutocrats behind Walker and his fellow over-reachers.  From there, it is not a great leap to move on to Obama’s plutocrats, the ones who fund him already and the ones he still seeks to enlist.

This, of course, was what the Occupy movement, drawing on the Wisconsin experience, was about.  And this is what Obama and Wasserman Schultz cannot abide, even if it means acting against their own electoral interests.

No doubt, some national Democrats are simply confused or cowardly or both.  Perhaps they think that Big Money is always going to prevail, and that even when people power erupts, it will soon become spent, and fall short of victory.  In other words, they may believe, in all innocence, that, for “pragmatic” reasons, Democrats should side with economic elites and against the people when push comes to shove as it did in Wisconsin; or at least that they should abstain, allowing the conflict to run its course and wither away on its own.

But even if well intentioned, this way of thinking is reprehensible.  It is also self-defeating.  This is so obvious that it is hard to impute such thinking to anyone not terminally obtuse.  It is plain that Obama and other Democratic bigwigs are smarter than that; they didn’t get where they are by being stupid.

This is why, I think, they know what they are doing, and that they are doing it despite the harm to themselves.  They are doing it because they are good soldiers in the class war, fighting on the wrong side.

It may once have been possible to argue that Obama kept his distance from popular struggles out of simple cowardice or wrong-headedness.   The Rorschach candidate of four years ago, the man upon whom voters yearning for ‘change’ projected their hopes, remained inscrutable enough long enough to fool all (or nearly all) of the people all of the time.

In progressive circles especially, but also in the labor movement and among persons of color, there is still a lingering belief, a baseless hope really, that whatever he does, he is ultimately one of “us”; that he’s on the peoples’ side.

But, after Wisconsin, it is hard to see how anyone who is not willfully blind can avoid drawing the obvious conclusion: that Obama is not a tragic figure– a good man, moved by good reasons, who is somehow obliged to do ill – but that he is instead, like everyone else integral to the “bipartisan” consensus that makes our politics so odious, not one of us at all, but one of them; and that what he does, he does for them, not for us.

FDR could say: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me …” without clear-headed observers gasping in disbelief.  Obama cannot.  If we must put words like these in his mouth, then instead let it be something like “whether or not I agree with you, I won’t do it, and you can’t make me.”

If this seems harsh, ask yourself – if not after Wisconsin, when?

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).


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).