Nothing Left to Lose

Perpetual war, rising inequality, impending environmental catastrophes, and so much more – the world can’t catch a break.

The political scene in the United States is, at once, a symptom of the problem and a major cause of it. It is difficult not to despair of American politics.

But as the late Mr. Natural would say: rather than despair, “keep your sunny side up.”

This isn’t easy in a country whose political class is comprised of Democrats and Republicans, and when the coming Presidential election will likely offer a choice between a pro-war, pro-corporate Democrat with impeccable neoliberal credentials, and one or another sick joke of a Republican.

Ironically, though, the coming election, already shaping up to be the most dreadful in living memory, opens up opportunities — for Barack Obama and for the people he has been screwing over – that haven’t existed until now.

*          *          *

Obama cannot run again, so, in the 2016 election, neither the Democratic nor the Republican candidate will have the advantage of incumbency. Nevertheless, you can bet the ranch that a Democrat will win.

The problem for the Republicans is that they cannot find a plausible candidate whom their “base” won’t abhor, but who will not scare off everyone else. This isn’t about to change; they have as much chance of finding a winner as they have of squaring a circle.

The GOP today is a house divided: with America’s most heinous plutocrats on one side, and its most benighted voters, and their Congressional representatives, on the other.

The cultural contradictions were always there, but the party hung together because each side needed the other. They still do, but keeping them together is harder than it used to be.

For the plutocrats, it is all about retaining and enhancing their own wealth and their political power. To this end, they are willing, even eager, to make common cause with riff raff they would otherwise cross the street to avoid. With them, greed conquers all.

For the base, the situation is more complicated.

Suffice it to say that it has to do with some unseemly combination of cultural and economic dislocation, false consciousness, racism, nativism, and, at a psychological level, with what Nietzsche called ressentiment. Add on the reactionaries who will always be with us – and voilà.

The affliction is most acute in Southern and border states and in the mountain West but it exists everywhere. In every corner of the United States, there are men and women just as eager to side with the “economic royalists” Franklin Roosevelt inveighed against, as the economic royalists are to turn them into steadfast Republican voters.

It is a fragile alliance, however – particularly inasmuch as the people on one side, the one where the voters are, are moved by passions that conflict with their own material interests.

It is hardly surprising therefore that the plutocrats are finding it difficult to manage all the hostile people they have recruited over the years, and that some of the hostility is blowing back on them.

And so, where once there was a semblance of harmony between Republican grandees and Republican voters, there is now a zero-sum game – in which one side or the other gets its way, but not both.

In recent years, what has held the two sides together was an all-consuming hatred – for all the wrong reasons — of Democrats generally and Barack Obama especially.

But the Obama era is coming to an end, even as the cultural contradictions intensify. Our stultifying, duopolistic electoral system helps keep the status quo in place, but there is a limit to how much it can do. A tipping point cannot be far off.

On the other side, it now seems likely – indeed, inevitable — that the Democrats will make the justly despised Hillary Clinton their candidate. Even this will not boost the GOP’s chances in 2016. Come Election Day, she will trounce her opponent.

And since candidates who win by wide margins have coattails, or the pantsuit equivalent, count on Democrats generally to have a good year then. They will likely take back the Senate, and many Governorships and state legislatures as well.

Thanks to gerrymandering and other “bipartisan” shenanigans, the House of Representatives will be a bigger problem for them. But restoring a Democratic majority is not out of the question even there.

In 2008, it was different: then charisma and the ability to foster illusions counted for something.   In 2016, it will be enough not to be associated with the Republican standard-bearer.

Yesteryear’s “malefactors of great wealth” are now called “donors.” It is plain that the GOP’s donors would like one of their own to get the nod. But for the fact that the base hates his guts, Mitt Romney was perfect.

But Romney smelled defeat, and dropped out. The donors will therefore have to make due with Jeb Bush. Unlucky them: thanks to guilt by association, Jeb is a sure loser too — his hapless brother having very nearly ended the world “as we know it.”

Informed observers agree that Jeb’s politics is even more retrograde than George’s, and that of the two of them, he is less “pragmatic” and more doctrinaire. In a word, his politics is deplorable.

That should go over well with Republican voters. Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom has it that he too is too “progressive” to get their juices going; that, for real Republicans, Jeb Bush is just another Mitt Romney.

The donors will therefore probably find that they will have give up on him as well. If they had any smarts, they’d have signed on with the Clintons years ago. Many of their class brothers and sisters already have. Don’t be surprised if, before long, many more join them.

I confess that I wouldn’t mind were Jeb Bush to become the Republican nominee. It would underscore the moral and intellectual depravity of our political class.

Dynastic politics was bad enough when it was about the Kennedys.  But the Clintons? And the Bushes? Either one is unthinkable, if only on aesthetic grounds; the two together is absurd.

But this is what the guardians of conventional wisdom are now predicting. When they do, to keep despair at bay, I imagine a modern day Saint-Just declaring that “this great humanity will not be truly happy until the last Clinton is strangled on the entrails of the last scion of the Walker family and Prescott Bush!” A pipe dream, of course. But how can anyone face the prospect of a Clinton-Bush election without giving fantasies like that free rein?

I’d give odds that we will be spared a Clinton-Bush election, however; memories of brother George still stick in too many craws. Not Jeb, but some Tea Party buffoon, a Scott Walker or a Marco Rubio or someone even more ridiculous but cut from similar cloth, will lead the party of Lincoln.

It could even be a Ted Cruz or a Chris Christie – but only if God is just and if late night comedians have been leading blameless lives.

And so, the election will be a farce – with a predictable outcome.   When it is over, the country and the world will end up with another Barack Obama – twice as awful and in drag.

* * *

But for as long as Jeb Bush remains a contender, there is as good a chance as there ever will be for holding his brother’s administration accountable.

Obama and his minions, Eric Holder especially, have dedicated themselves to keeping Bush-Cheney era war criminals from being brought to justice. The Democrat who succeeds Obama won’t change that – even if somehow it is not Hillary Clinton.

However, while Jeb remains a fixture in the 24/7 news cycle, his brother and Dick Cheney, his brother’s éminence grise, and all the other poltroons they let loose upon the world can be brought to justice in a way – not as they would be in a country truly governed by the rule of law, but in the court of public opinion.

This is an opportunity that has come seemingly, from nowhere. It is welcome indeed.

Nothing can compensate for the enormity of what George Bush et. al. have done. But subjecting at least some of it to public scrutiny can be beneficial. If the donors try to make a go of it with Jeb, as they likely will, and if the liberal commentariat rises to the occasion, then, before the Republican base forces him out, something good might yet be salvaged from the Bush years, after all.

Also, with a Democratic victory all but certain, there will be less reason than in the past – less even than in the 2000 election, the one Al Gore effectively threw — for those who should know better to stay within the Democratic fold. The temptations of lesser evilism will be diminished.

Lesser evilists can nevertheless be counted on to fall in line behind Hillary. But their numbers are likely to diminish if there is, or seems to be, no cost to thinking – and voting — outside the box.

The problem is that with our duopoly party system, it isn’t easy to get outside the box; hence the perennial temptation to look for left alternatives within the Democratic Party – in other words, to cast one’s lot with Democrats who seem less onerous than most, and who nevertheless are or could become “players.”

This year, there are a few available. Several of them are contending for the nomination or are seriously thinking about it. And there are others — Joe Biden and Andrew Cuomo, for example – who might join them later.

Those two would be as bad or worse than Clinton, but Elizabeth Warren, Jim Webb, and Martin O’Malley would be better. This isn’t hard: a turnip would be better.

Warren is the one favored by and several other activist groups on the left fringes of the Democratic Party. What she has said and done so far on Wall Street versus Main Street issues and on inequality is promising — unlike her remarks on the world outside our borders. There is another problem with her as well: she has said repeatedly that she will not run, and, by all accounts, she is not just being coy.

Webb, an ex-Marine and former Secretary of the Navy (under Ronald Reagan) gets more cred for his anti-war stances than other Democrats would, and he does seem genuinely to care about poverty and about bringing the old (white) populist constituency, minus its racist side, back into the Democratic fold.

O’Malley was a decent enough Governor, and a big city mayor before that. Never having spent a day as a Senator, he is more outside the box than any of the others. But, so far, as with Webb, hardly anyone knows he is in the running.

If Bernie Sanders runs, will it be as a Democrat? If not, he can’t contest Clinton in the primaries. That would make his candidacy useless.

I’d wager that, if he does run, it will be as a Democrat. Though officially an “independent,” he caucuses with the Democrats and he is, for all intents and purposes, a Democrat in every way but the name. And as an independent, he would have no chance at all.

In my book, the fact that he wants to keep at least a fictional difference between himself and the Democratic Party counts for something. Better still: he calls himself a “socialist.” What he could possibly have in mind by this, however, is, to put it mildly, far from clear.

Sanders’ record at taking on the money interests is more extensive than Warren’s because he has been around longer. Perhaps this is why he generates less excitement.

I’d say that, at this point, it is a draw between him and Warren on policy issues, but that, as a nominal independent and socialist, he is way ahead on self-representations. Also, unlike Warren, he wants the job.

On the other hand, who has a better chance of defeating Hillary Clinton – a woman from Oklahoma or an elderly Jewish man with a Brooklyn accent?

What about the Greens? The Green New Deal program is better, by far, than anything Warren or Sanders or any of the others have suggested. And the Greens are certainly outside the box. But they have been running candidates forever, it seems, and gotten exactly nowhere.

More power to them in 2016!   Even if the Democrats don’t go with Hillary, I’ll probably vote Green again; I always do. But, in the end, what is the point? The Green Party is good for a protest vote, and that is about it.

With a Democratic victory assured, more people will likely feel free to cast votes in protest than in the recent past. I hope they do. But there still won’t be enough to make even an insignificant difference.

* * *

In the year before the last Presidential election, pent up outrage suddenly gave rise to hope. Inspired, in part, by the Arab Spring, it began when organized labor and its allies rallied to resist the efforts of Republican Governors and legislators to smash public sector unions. It culminated with Occupy Wall Street and the many Occupy movements it spawned.

There were similar eruptions of indignation in Europe and elsewhere. All of it – the Arab Spring especially – came to naught.

Part of the problem everywhere was that a Left, willing and able to take spontaneous expressions of popular discontent to the next level, to turn them into a political force powerful enough to change the world – had gone missing a long time before.

In the United States, there was, additionally, the stranglehold that the duopoly party system exercises over any and all efforts to move the country in a more genuinely (small-d) democratic direction.

Now in Greece and in Spain – and perhaps soon in Ireland and other European countries being bled to death by global financial markets and the international organizations that sustain their power – indignation has erupted again.

The Syriza Party has come to power in Greece; the Podemos Party is changing the face of politics in Spain.

Because these expressions of Greek and Spanish indignation have taken an expressly political turn from the outset, the consequences this time are likely to be more effective and long lasting than anything that came out of the Occupy movements four years ago.

Of course, there is no guarantee of success or even of continued movement forward; there are far too many pitfalls ahead. But, for the first time in a very long while, there is now a real chance that “hope and change” – the genuine article, not the Obamaesque illusion – will come bounding back onto the political agenda.

Could there be a Syriza equivalent here? Again, our electoral system is an inhibiting factor; the duopoly cannot keep new parties from forming, but it has ample means for keeping them marginal.

On the other hand, the programs of the anti-austerity parties in Greece and Spain fall well within the bounds of what many people around the world – and in the United States — are thinking.

All that Syriza and Podemos and the others are talking about, so far, is anti-austerity. They want to reverse the most debilitating consequences of the neoliberal turn. Their position on capitalism itself is less clear.

By the standards of just a few decades ago, the positions they are taking are hardly extreme.

Nevertheless, in today’s world, their demands are implicitly counter-systemic. This makes them historically significant, even if they are comparatively modest.

At this point, even in countries where a genuine Left once thrived, a more radical program would probably go nowhere. Were Syriza or Podemos to get too far ahead of the movements they aspire to lead, those parties and movements would probably founder, leaving only marginal sects in their place. There are more than enough of those already.

In a world order structured by countries with political cultures deformed by neoliberal ideologues, neocons, and “humanitarian interveners,” even demands for very modest income and wealth redistribution, or for restoring the rule of law, can seem hopelessly utopian.

This can and must change, but it won’t happen overnight.

For the time being, with another mind numbing and politically otiose electoral season looming, Americans who realize that to move the country forward, or even to stop it from regressing further, it is necessary to think and act outside the box can now begin to explore ways to do here what forward-looking Greeks and Spaniards are doing there.

All but the most fretful or the most in thrall to the meretricious appeals of lesser evilism must realize that there is nothing to lose.

Barring a miraculous transformation of the GOP, the Democrat running for President is going to beat the Republican in 2016, as surely as night follows day.

Syriza and Podemos are the best thing that has happened not just for Europeans but also for the Left in the United States and throughout the developed world at least since the neoliberal scourge erupted.

Whatever they manage to accomplish, they are our best chance for keeping hope alive. This is something Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders can never do; and that counts for a lot.

* * *

With nothing left to lose, President Obama is now free too. Of course, he has a Cold War to rev up and on-going wars throughout the Muslim world to superintend; his plate is full. But he also has opportunities he never had before.

How ironic! After disappointing everybody except the corporate moguls and Wall Street financiers who vetted him, and after leading his party to two well-deserved shellackings, he can now actually be a “hope and change” President – a real one.

He seems to know it too.

And so, while continuing to advance his paymasters’ neoliberal agenda through trade pacts like the execrable Trans Pacific Partnership, he is also now proposing reforms that challenge aspects of neoliberal orthodoxy.

The challenge is a modest one.   Eisenhower and Nixon era Republicans would likely have found some of the proposals he made in his State of the Union address overly timid. Even so, there has been nothing this progressive coming out of the White House or Congress since the Carter administration.

To be sure, in pressing his case, Obama is mainly blowing air. He knows, as does everyone else, that there is no chance of getting any of his “middle class economics” proposals through Congress. But things are now so bad that just putting the “conversation” on a less retrograde track can be salutary.

Obama could do a lot more good by letting the Republicans in Congress act out as they please — forgetting about them, as far as possible. He could do a lot of what he is talking about just by issuing executive orders. This is what Republicans in his position would do.

But we are not likely to see much of that in the months ahead. More likely, Obama will exercise restraint.

From his point of view, that makes sense. He knows that he will have to work with – not against –Republicans to get the trade deals his plutocrats and theirs want. Why, then, rattle their cages by forsaking “bipartisanship” altogether?

But where he can throw a few crumbs to “the middle class” without overly inconveniencing the donor class, he has no reason to hold back. This is a welcome development; there is a lot of good he can do within that constraint.

Only the terminally greedy or the most ideologically obsessed plutocrats will object. The others can live with almost anything it would occur to Obama to try.

We know this because, not very long ago, when less timid Eisenhower Republicans were running the show, the plutocrats of the time had to contend with a whole lot worse, and they still made out like the bandits they are.

Under Obama’s aegis, we will never get to anything even vaguely counter-systemic. Obama’s middle class economics is neither Syriza-light nor Syriza-super-light; it doesn’t even come close.

But, like Obamacare, it is better than nothing; and, unlike Obamacare, his latest proposals do nothing to further entrench the power of the institutions that stand in the way of real progress – the way that private insurance companies and the for-profit health care industry does. In the Age of Obama, this is as good as it gets.

* * *

More important in the long run than anything Obama achieves or even attempts under the middle-class economics rubric, the Commander-in-Chief is now free to stop cowering before the Israel lobby.

Obama must have been yearning to do just that for years. From the moment he took office, that gaggle of moribund ethnocrats has been doing its utmost not just to thwart his designs, but also, following Benjamin Netanyahu’s lead, to disrespect the man himself.

A little defiance could go a long way. This is how it works in “Emperor’s new clothes” situations.

In the Hans Christian Andersen story, two weavers promise an Emperor a new suit of clothing that is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions. When it arrived, no one, including the Emperor himself, could see anything at all. The weavers were con men; they had sold the Emperor – nothing.

Nevertheless, the Emperor called his subjects out so that he could parade before them in his new apparel – thereby determining their competence (because only those who were fit for their positions could see his new garments). No one dared admit the obvious – until a small child cried out that the Emperor was naked. Then, in one fell swoop, perceptions changed. Illusion gave way to an obvious truth.

It is much the same with the Israel lobby; it is not powerless (completely naked), but its invincibility exists mainly in the minds of its beholders. When someone finally calls its bluff, it will all be over.

The difference is that in this case, a small child – or a clear-headed, but powerless, observer — is not enough. Prominent political figures are needed, and no one is better suited for that role than the steward of the American empire itself.

Making it plain to all that the Israel lobby is a Paper Tiger would do wonders for Palestinians and for Israelis too, even if most of them don’t realize it. And it would certainly be in America’s national interest to treat Israel like a country among others, rather than like a spoiled child to be indulged come what may.

Imposing a semblance of balance to America’s relations with Israel and its neighbors would make Americans safer too by removing a chronic irritant to the peoples of the area and throughout the Muslim world.

Were Obama to call off his drones and his special ops assassins, it would be more helpful still. But that is far too sensible for Democrats or Republicans — and mainstream pundits — to contemplate.

However, fair play for Palestinians and Israelis both is no longer as unthinkable as it used to be, now that the Netanyahu government has exhausted what little moral capital the state of Israel had left when he last assumed office.

A more balanced American policy would not be nearly enough to implement what both prudence and justice require, but it would help; it would help a lot.

Of all the things that Obama might do that he is now free to do in the coming electoral season, this might have the most enduring and beneficial effect.

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).