What Obama Has Wrought

Will Tea Party machinations over Obamacare lead to the Republican Party’s demise?

No one, so far as I know, has quite suggested that it will.  But, watching MSNBC, one gets the impression that liberals are only holding back because they don’t want to jinx the prospect or, more likely, out of understandable caution.

After all, as everybody knows, in our electoral system, it is practically impossible for “third” parties to escape marginalization.  But the likelihood of that is better by orders of magnitude than the chance that one or the other of our two semi-established parties will fold.

However, it is not impossible.  In threatening to default on the U.S. debt if they don’t get their way on Obamacare, Republicans come perilously close to putting the basic interests of the class they exist to serve in jeopardy.  How can they get away with that?

We should also bear in mind that very unlikely political developments do sometimes occur.  Almost until the moment it happened, who would have thought, for example, that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – or, for that matter, the USSR itself – would fold?

More likely, though, the Democratic Party will just become stronger.  Their grip on the White House and their control over less benighted regions of the country will be enhanced.

Barack Obama, more than any other factor, has brought this situation about – not by anything he has deliberately done, and not because Republicans are wrong in insisting that his presidency has been awful.  The Republicans’ reasons are ridiculous, but their conclusion is spot on.

Obama has brought the GOP to ruin and perhaps even to extinction just by being there.

For reflecting on the Republicans’ future, his presidency is therefore a good place to begin.

*  *   *

It would be premature to draw definitive conclusions about the Obama presidency. Yogi Berra knew why: “it ain’t over, ‘till it’s over.”  The Obama administration has more than three years left to go.

That is plenty of time to turn things around for the better, and plenty of time to do worse still.   There is also plenty of time for events over which Obama has little control to run their course.

Of these possibilities, the least likely by far is the first; don’t count on changes for the better – not if the past is any guide.  Bet the ranch instead that if anything happens between now and January 2017 that alters the Obama legacy, it will be because, as the motto on DC license plates ought to read, “mistakes were made.”

What those mistakes might be is unpredictable, though the barely averted intervention into the Syrian civil war gives an indication.

There is also more than a negligible probability that Obama will soon make catastrophically wrong decisions on nuclear power, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and tar sands oil; or that the economy will tank again and that Obama will be blamed.  If that happens, he will certainly be at least partly at fault.

As of now, though, it looks like Obama will be remembered just for having been America’s first president of color – an achievement of historical importance indeed.

But it hardly compensates for his role in augmenting and helping to shape America’s already massive surveillance state.  Because privacy and due process rights stand in the way of full spectrum surveillance, Obama will also be remembered for enfeebling fundamental Constitutional protections – some with roots that reach as far back as the Magna Carta.

Not unrelatedly, government transparency has also been diminished during his presidency, and journalism along with it.

Obama will be remembered too for his role in reconstructing America’s perpetual war machine – with weaponized drones and “elite” assassination squads substituting for politically risky “boots on the ground.”

Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush era neocons harbored similar aspirations, but they barely got the project going.

Under Obama’s leadership, it has become feasible — technologically and politically — to deploy military force whenever and wherever the empire’s stewards decide, without putting many (or any) American troops in harm’s way and without stirring up troublesome discontent at home.

This does incalculable harm to the empire’s victims, and to the American people as well.  On the bright side, though, it is bound sooner or later to hasten the end of the empire itself.

This may already be happening under Obama’s watch.  If so, he will be remembered for that as well.

How he is remembered will depend not just on when but also on how the end of American world domination comes to pass.  Will there be a soft landing?  Or will America lash out all the more?  It is too soon to tell.

The one sure thing is that Obama will be remembered for normalizing violations of international law – by regularly undertaking military actions against sovereign states without any plausible self-defense justification and without United Nations authorization.  He will be remembered, in other words, for his (smaller and larger) wars of aggression.

This is a grave charge.  The International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg called wars of aggression “the supreme international crime.”  But that was a long time ago; with almost complete impunity, American presidents have been waging aggressive wars for decades.

Obama’s contribution has been to make this war crime seem commonplace.  When he sends kidnappers and assassins into Libya or Somalia or Yemen or any of a number of other countries with which the United States is not at war, and when he unleashes his drones, hardly anyone anymore even notices.   It has become business as usual.

Otherwise, the Obama presidency has been par for the course in a country governed by center-right Democrats and far-right Republicans; disappointing, but unremarkable.

Like his predecessors, he has pursued devastating “free trade” agreements and pandered shamelessly to Wall Street.  Whenever the occasion arises, he has done his best to advance corporate interests – including those of the insurance and health care industries, the principal beneficiaries of his “signature legislation,” the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

Ironically, that legislation, the Tea Party’s casus belli in this latest round of crises, would institute what is essentially a Republican program – hatched two decades ago at the Heritage Foundation (to counter Hillarycare, another milquetoast Democratic proposal), and put into practice in Massachusetts under Mitt Romney.

It might as well have been called “the Private Insurance Industry and Health Care Profiteers Protection Act” or, better yet, the “Set Back Genuine Health Care Reform for Another Generation Act.”

Tea Partiers are therefore right when they say that the Affordable Care Act sets up a bad system.  But that is all they are right about: the alternative they seem to favor, the status quo (with a few minor adjustments), is even worse.

And Obama is right to insist that it not now be defunded because the issue has already been settled legislatively and because the outcome is not about to be changed for the better any time soon – not in the current political environment.

Because its net effects will probably, on balance, be more beneficial than not, this reform will probably stand as the only positive piece of social legislation for which Obama will be able to take credit.

What a pathetic record this is for someone who came into office with so much political capital, and who was widely hailed as the next great leader in the New Deal-Great Society tradition!

The Obama presidency has also been unhelpful, to put it mildly, to most of the key constituencies that helped elect him: organized labor especially, but also people of color.

And, to his shame, he has done next to nothing to alleviate poverty or to impede the growing income and wealth inequalities that harm the material well being of the vast majority of Americans and that degrade the quality of life for everyone.

All this was predictable to anyone paying attention, as few were when Obama was first elected.  On the other hand, his feet of clay came as a surprise.

One would have thought that he would be a better negotiator; that he wouldn’t give almost everything away before negotiations even begin.

And who would have guessed that when he sought to move the government along, or to undertake diplomatic initiatives, he would do little more than give speeches setting forth vague policy objectives and then disappear, letting events take their course?

You can’t get anywhere that way in Washington – especially not on the domestic scene, where well-organized pressure groups keep well-funded lobbyists at the ready.  There are signs that finally this plain fact has dawned on the President.  Whether anything comes of it, remains to be seen.

Even if it does, however, the transformation could hardly be notable enough to alter overall assessments of his presidency.

At this point, it therefore looks like the Hope and Change President will go down in history as President Snoop and President Drone – at best.

It is a terrible legacy.

But what has been bad for the country and the world has been very good for the Democratic Party – and bad for Republicans.

Obama’s presidency has advanced an objective Democrats have yearned for since even before Bill Clinton set out to marginalize the party’s center-left: the goal of becoming what the Republican Party has been almost from its inception – the favored party of America’s ruling class.

Obama advanced this Clintonite cause not so much because of anything novel that he has done.  He did it by being a catalyst – on the scene at the right time and place.

It has been clear for some time that the Republican Party’s base and the one-percenters for whom the party exists are becoming increasingly estranged.  Obama’s presence has accelerated the process.  The divorce could now be consummated at any moment.

* * *

Congressional Republicans weren’t always whack jobs, and they aren’t all whack jobs now — though, for the sake of party unity and to save their own seats, they vote as if they were.

Their dumb obstinacy has not always been unwelcome either – because sometimes Republicans do the right thing for the wrong reasons.  Had not Vladimir Putin saved us from a war in Syria, they would have been our best and only hope.

And when the current government shutdown and debt crises play out, they may again be our best and only hope for avoiding the Grand Compromise Obama has long been angling for.

How ironic that we must rely on Tea Party hostility towards everything Obama touches to save what remains of New Deal – Great Society advances!

With Obama in the White House, Democrats, even “progressive” ones, are useless.  When there is no Republican president to stand against, their backbones turn to dust.

There are, of course, a few Democratic legislators who know better and who mean well.  But they are unwilling or unable to leverage their power.  They could learn a lot from the GOP’s lunatic wing.

Still, on the whole, the Republican Party generally — and the Tea Party especially –are more despicable by far than anything the Democratic Party has to offer.   Republican loathsomeness is particularly apparent now – as the crises the Tea Party brought on cause the party to splinter into warring factions.

How the GOP got that way is a question for future historians to unravel, though the broad outlines are already clear.

It started even before Richard Nixon launched the Southern strategy, his (successful) plan to recruit white Southern voters into the GOP –turning the Solid South from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold.

As this process unfolded, it became possible for Republican governors and state legislators to gerrymander Congressional districts in ways that assure safe Republican seats, leading Republican legislators to look only towards securing their base.  This drove their politics even further to the right.

Then, with billionaire money calling the shots — and Fox News, talk radio and other moronizing media appealing to the basest instincts of the target audience — the Tea Party or something like it became inevitable.  Add more billionaire money to stir the pot and a Tea Party takeover of the GOP became a disaster waiting to happen.

None of this would have been possible, however, were there not a disaffected, alienated public ready, even eager, to be taken in.  This too needs to be explained.

There are therefore complicated sociological and psychological issues that would also have to be examined to make sense of how we got to where we now are.

And, of course, the culture wars of the past several decades played a role as well.

For this, the Clintonized Democratic Party is largely to blame.  Having veered so far to the right on economic matters as to be indistinguishable from old school Republicans, there was nothing for them to do but market themselves as the less socially retrograde brand.

That seems to have been enough for the Democratic base and for many “independent” voters.

But within the Tea Party demographic, it was seen as an expression of contempt.

Right-wing ideologues then seized the opportunity to depict reasonableness and tolerance as “elitist” vices, and to glorify the base prejudices of later-day Know Nothings.

It was a convenient wedge for dividing the ninety-nine percent.

And it enabled those who would become Tea Partiers to think of themselves as populists, drawing attention away from the real elitists, the one percenters who brought their movement into being.

Then too there are the many factors that make America “exceptional” — exceptionally resistant to expressions of social solidarity, exceptionally religious, exceptionally hostile towards intellectuality, and exceptionally provincial and ill-informed.

These issues and others need to be explored but, for now, the crucial point is that the Republican Party has fallen increasingly under the thrall of a cultural contradiction that could well do it in.

Obama didn’t cause this phenomenon, and he hasn’t deliberately exacerbated it.  His being in the White House was enough.

For decades, the party’s grandees did their best to win over the votes of estranged poor and middle class white voters – in the South and in rural areas especially, but wherever desperation is rife.  In our overripe capitalist economy, desperation is rife everywhere.

It used to be different.  Only a few decades ago, the GOP was the party of Big Business, as it still is, but it was also the party of mainstream Protestant America.  An urbane and cosmopolitan ruling class, descendants of the robber barons of old, and the farmers of the Midwest had at least that much in common.

Back then, cultural affinities, bolstered by nativist hostility towards new immigrants, joined Republican voters together, even when shared material interests were scant.

The “Reagan revolution” was the beginning of the end of that.

The scare quotes are appropriate because the Reagan Revolution got underway during the Jimmy Carter presidency.

It was under his aegis that fundamentalist Christians entered the political arena and, upon doing so, turned sharply to the right; it was on his watch that (Scoop) Jackson Democrats, essentially Israel-firsters, morphed into “neo-conservatives.”

And it was under Carter that libertarian ideas, dormant for decades, began again to percolate into the political miasma – leading finally, in the Clinton years, to the deregulation of almost everything.

Still, the Reagan Revolution became mainly a Republican affair.  Republicans came to rely increasingly for votes on radicalized evangelicals, hyper-Zionists, socially conservative Catholics, proponents of “voodoo economics,” fiscal conservatives, neo-isolationists and unabashed imperialists.

To be sure, there are old guard Republicans who share these views.  Some of them pursue them aggressively, funding all kinds of nefarious causes.

But, however like-minded they and their useful idiots may be, they would have nothing to do with these newly recruited Republican voters.  The social distance between, say, a Koch brother and a Tea Party looney tune – or an impoverished fundamentalist, a conservative working class Catholic, or an uppity rightwing Jew – is as great as it has ever been.

What the grandees want is their votes, not their company.  Some old-line plutocrats may think this unseemly.  But greed conquers all.

However there are limits – not to capitalists’ greed, but to the means the pillars of the Republican establishment settled upon for satisfying it.

“Too much light blinds us,” Pascal famously said; at the limit, things turn into their opposite.

This principle holds as much for today’s Republican Party as for any of the historical phenomena Hegel and other “dialecticians” would investigate.

What started out as a manufactured (astro-turf) concoction, and then blossomed into a grassroots social movement dedicated to “small” government and free market theology is fast becoming a threat to capitalists’ interests – not by taking up an anti-capitalist perspective, but by acting out in ways that threaten to bring the entire system down.

Obama helped bring this about by causing the cultural contradiction that defines the modern-day GOP to intensify to its breaking point.

As an African-American, he aggravated lingering racist attitudes, and as a Democrat whom no one can mistake for a “good old boy,” he elicited, and continues to elicit, the hostility of people who feel threatened by “liberal elites.”

In getting reluctant Tea Partiers to support Mitt Romney, the only reasonably sane candidate running for the 2012 Republican nomination, the Republican establishment played its last card, and lost.

Back then, the lunatics hadn’t yet quite taken over the asylum; they could still be forced into line.  Now, it seems, they no longer can.

Therefore barring some new and very unlikely ‘statesmanship’ on the part of the Republican leadership – or, more likely, some capitulation on Obama’s part — the Tea Party is on the brink of leading the U.S. government into default, with consequences for world capitalism that are only barely imaginable.

Of course, Obama could always invoke his 14th Amendment authority to insure that the United States honors its debts.

But he has said that he will not, that it would be a legally dubious move that would lead to endless court battles, driving down confidence in the US economy.

He could have done this in 2011 too; and didn’t.  There is no reason to think him any more “audacious” now.

How odd that we have a President who feels free to wield drones and assassins overseas with only the flimsiest imaginable authorization, but who resists his Constitutional obligation not to maintain the good faith and credit of the American government!

* * *

Whatever happens, the Democratic Party has already inched closer to becoming the favored political instrument of the economic elites it yearns to serve.  Unless the GOP somehow shakes free from the Tea Party’ grip, this process will not just stay on course but will soon pick up steam.

How long can it be before even capitalism’s most avaricious practitioners realize that their interests are better served by center-right Democrats than by raving mad Republicans?

Bill Clinton may not have to wait for Hillary to realize his vision; Obama could do it sooner than anyone a few years back would have expected.

Of course, capitalists are not always clear headed, and inertia is a powerful force to overcome.  For many of them, the GOP is a family tradition – not to be cast aside lightly.

But if Southern Democrats could switch sides for the sake of white supremacy, surely the titans of American capitalism can do it to keep the capitalist system afloat.

A party that held together for as long as the GOP has, that could overcome the blatant incompatibilities and irreconcilable differences of its constituent parts in the pre-Obama years, is nothing if not resilient.  It can’t be counted out just yet.

But thanks to catalyst Obama, the tensions inherent in the cultural contradiction that has long threatened to tear the Republican Party apart have reached a level of intensity from which there may be no turning back.

The GOP deserves any misfortunes that befall it, but it is far from obvious that its demise would be a good thing.  Republican obstinacy has its uses.  And the Democratic Party is already rightwing enough; it hardly needs to take erstwhile Republicans on board.

The end of the GOP, if and when it finally takes place, would therefore be a mixed blessing.  But, for better or worse, it could happen.

Must we therefore now say “Adieu” to that god-awful mainstay of our political scene?    Probably not; not yet.  But maybe.

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).