The messianic cult around Obama was always at odds with his modest policy proposals. But events can force politicians to be bold. The new president has a chance to redefine American liberalismby Michael Lind / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
What is the meaning of Obama? It is, of course, impossible to evaluate a presidency that has yet to occur, notwithstanding premature declarations that he will be a “transformational” president to compare with giants like Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. But it is not too early to analyse the meaning of his election.
The fact that a mostly white democracy has elected a biracial chief executive is epochal in itself. Liberal democracy is now firmly rooted in much of the world, but many, if not most, liberal societies today would not choose to be led by someone who does not look like a member of the dominant tribe. Its history of slavery and apartheid notwithstanding, that can no longer be said of the United States of America.
The nightmare of the racist right in the US has always been “race-mixing.” It was particularly moving therefore to see a mixed-race president, who had begun his presideantial race in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois, conclude it on election night with an address to a jubilant multiracial crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park, named after the general who defeated the slave south in the civil war. There were many ghosts among that crowd.
But Obama was not elected because the American people chose to set an example of colour-blind democracy for the world. He was elected because the 2008 presidential election was a referendum on George W Bush’s two disastrous terms. And whether Obama’s election marks a transformation or a restoration depends on how the regime of his predecessor is viewed. If Bush’s presidency was an aberration, then Obama’s election can be seen as a restoration. On the other hand, if Bush’s presidency was typical of an earlier pattern, then Obama’s election can be viewed as a novel departure.
In my view, Obama’s election was a restoration, not a transformation. Bush’s presidency was an aberration, even by the standards of the Republican presidents who preceded him: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and his father. Of these, Nixon, Ford and the first Bush were moderate Republicans who dismissed radical-right ideas of dismantling the welfare state or repudiating America’s post-1945 liberal internationalism. And Reagan, the hero of the “movement conservatism” that began with Barry Goldwater in 1964, was much more moderate in practice than George W Bush, who sought to inherit Reagan’s mantle rather than his father’s.
Presidents, like prime ministers, are often chosen because of some quality conspicuously lacking in their predecessors. It was practically pre-ordained that after the partisanship and bungling of the previous eight years, the electorate would be ready for a statesmanlike figure disdaining vicious partisanship—ready, in other words, for someone like John McCain.
Who better than McCain to be the anti-Bush—the competent, reassuring, consensus-building manager for whom the nation was waiting? McCain’s post-partisan credentials seemed solid. He had broken with his own party on issues like global warming and campaign finance reform. He had lost the nomination in 2000 to George W Bush because of his dislike of the religious right, and he appealed more to independents than to his own party. Indeed, his nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 2008 was something of a fluke and happened despite the fact that most conservatives in the primaries preferred someone else.
But it was Obama, not McCain, who became the anti-Bush candidate in 2008. Obama, the product of left-wing Chicago activism, moved to the centre by brutally repudiating his mentor, the radical black preacher Jeremiah Wright, denouncing the Supreme Court for restricting the death penalty, musing about invading Pakistan to hunt down al Qaeda and preaching nearly universal tax cuts like a Republican, all the while making “change” his mantra. Meanwhile, McCain tried to ingratiate himself with the base of the Republican party by choosing the folksy but ill-prepared Sarah Palin as his vice-president.
McCain still might have won, but for the greatest financial crisis since the depression. It was clear that neither McCain nor Obama, any more than anyone else, knew what to do about the spreading crisis. But in the unforgiving eye of the television camera, Obama was cool and collected; McCain looked flustered and out of his depth. The young junior senator seemed more reassuring and possessed more gravitas than the elder statesman.
When Obama’s election was confirmed by the networks around 11pm on 4th November, people poured into the streets in my part of Washington, DC chanting and honking car horns. Granted, Washington is a liberal city. But across the continent, the breeze that was blowing was not so much a wind of change as a huge sigh of relief. The security threats and economic challenges facing the US and the world are grave, but the country is reassured by the thought that the individual in the White House will be informed, thoughtful and articulate.
Obama, then, was elected as the anti-Bush. During the campaign he aptly compared himself to a Rorschach test, in which people saw what they wanted to see. But the support for him of conservatives and libertarians as well as centrists and leftists was the result of a passing moment and owed more to the unpopularity of Bush than to Obama’s own qualities, attractive as they are. On assuming office, he is bound to disappoint many supporters. Let Obama be Obama, they will demand.
During one of his campaigns for office, Disraeli published a tract entitled What is He? Obama has authored two autobiographies but still seems sphinxlike. In part this is the result of successful dissimulation; though he was hardly the “pal of terrorists” the right made him out to be on the basis of his association with a former Weatherman radical, Obama was quite left-wing in his earlier career. But there seems to be a genuine indeterminacy, a certain chameleon quality, in the “Barry” Obama who reverted to “Barack.”
This is not necessarily a flaw. There are conviction politicians like Reagan and Thatcher and Theodore Roosevelt, and there are masterly improvisers, like Disraeli, Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Successes and failures are found in each genus. George W Bush is a conviction politician of the worst kind. He persevered with bad policies when a more flexible improviser would have reversed them without caring about the inconsistency.
Opportunism can be a virtue in a statesman. And Obama’s opportunism is breathtaking. When his long association with the black nationalist Wright became an issue, Obama gave a televised address in which he said he could no more disown Wright than his own white grandmother. Garry Wills declared in The New York Review of Books that Obama’s “speech about race,” defending his association with Wright, was at the level of Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1860. Within weeks, to the discomfort of his sycophants in the press, Obama had publicly disowned Wright, tossing him aside as an obstacle to his campaign.
One of the character flaws of George W Bush was his inability to sacrifice friendship to statesmanship. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith lingered in the Pentagon long after they should have been cashiered for incompetence. To make matters worse, Bush had the peculiar habit of allowing the people he put in charge of personnel searches to suggest themselves for the jobs they were assigned to fill. Dick Cheney effectively chose himself as vice-presidential candidate and Harriet Miers as a nominee for the Supreme Court. This is not how Obama will go about staffing or running his administration.
Obama will need all the Machiavellianism he can muster if he is to navigate the US through the disasters looming ahead. Although the elections of 2006 and 2008 swept the Republicans out of congress and the White House, they did not provide the new Democratic majority with a mandate to govern from the left. A third or so of the electorate call themselves conservatives, compared to a mere one-fifth who describe themselves as liberals or progressives—this has not changed much in a decade. In the absence of mass conversions to liberalism, the Democrats have had to grow their party rightward. They have picked up representatives and senators from socially conservative, economically populist areas. More important, they have won over former moderate, suburban “Rockefeller Republicans,” particularly in the northeast, where right-wing populists have been wiped out. Following the Republican capture of congress in 1994, the surviving Democrats in the house and senate became more homogeneous and more liberal. The party that has now regained majority status has done so by becoming less homogeneous and less liberal.
While this political diversity creates tensions, it is the price of success, in as much as majority parties in the US tend to be strange bedfellow coalitions. The Republican party now, like the Democrats in the late 1990s, will pay the price of greater homogeneity. Refusing to recognise that it was their own extremism that drove moderates into the new Democratic majority, many conservatives now insist that the voters punished the Republicans for abandoning their small government ideals. That’s right—the voters punished big government Republicans by voting for even bigger government Democrats! If this becomes the orthodoxy then the Republican party may face a long period of exile as a reactionary party confined mostly to the former Confederate states, like the Democrats between the civil war and the New Deal.
The impetus for modernisation within the Republicans is likely to come from centrist governors of large, diverse states, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. But it is hard to see how moderate blue-state governors and big-city mayors can wrest control of the national Republican machine away from southern and western conservatives.
Meanwhile, congressional liberals like house speaker Nancy Pelosi will have to accommodate northeastern former Republicans from the business and professional elite as well as the anti-abortion, anti-gun control Reagan Democrats. This very diversity is likely to strengthen the hand of Obama in his dealings with the powerful congressional leadership, by permitting him to play factions against one another and put together different coalitions of Democrats, with some Republicans, on issues of his choice. Unlike Bill Clinton, who faced a Republican congressional majority for the last six years of his eight-year term, or Jimmy Carter, whose relationship with the Democratic congress was troubled from the beginning, Obama will have more of an opportunity to shape legislation from the White House than any president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Obama won the Democratic party nomination partly because he appealed to the two major wings of the post-Clinton Democrats: the single-issue left, and pro-business New Democrats based in the financial, IT and media industries. Organised labour, which used to define the left, has little passion and few resources, compared to the organised feminist, black, Latino, gay and lesbian and environmentalist movements that are funded not by ordinary citizens but by wealthy foundations. With the support of right-wing federal and state politicians and judges, organised business has all but destroyed organised labour in the private sector, where fewer than one in ten Americans are unionised, compared with one in three government workers. Organised labour in the US is thus now dominated by public sector unions, of which the most important is the teachers’ union. The right wing of the Democratic party is more libertarian than conservative. Its members tend to be fiscal conservatives who favour racial integration and gay rights, but also (at least until recently) favoured free markets, free trade, and deregulation, and looked with suspicion on trade unions.
In putting together the single-issue groups of the left with the New Democrat neoliberals of Wall Street and the professions, Obama is following the precedent of Bill Clinton, who succeeded in synthesising cultural liberalism—gays in the military, affirmative action—with economic neoliberalism: Nafta, the WTO, hymns to globalisation. Clinton thus repelled culturally conservative, economically populist voters, and Obama, like Gore and Kerry, lost their votes too. (One would think that the Republicans would see the chance to be a coherently populist party and drop their free market ideology for Perot or Buchanan-style economic nationalism, but, apart from Mike Huckabee, few Republican leaders show any interest in rethinking free-market radicalism.)
By the time of the 2008 election, it was far from clear that the social issues wing and the neoliberal wing of the Democrats were actually wings at all, as opposed to the same financial-professional coastal overclass that opposes the minimum wage on Tuesday, supports drivers’ licenses for their illegal alien maids and gardeners on Wednesday, and sneers at working-class whites as inbred hillbillies on Thursday. Clinton and Obama have preferred the term “progressive” to “liberal” and there is a certain logic to their choice, because their upscale white elite base resembles the constituency of the Progressive movement of the early 20th century more than the majority behind the New Deal liberalism between 1932 and 1968.
The original Progressives were chiefly upper-middle-class northeastern Protestant gentry who were horrified by the excesses of early industrial capitalism, but equally horrified by what many saw as the primitivism of agrarian populists in the south and the west, like the followers of William Jennings Bryan. Based in the emerging professional classes, the Progressives of the 1900s (and Britain’s New Liberals and Fabian socialists) were attracted to Bismarck’s Germany, which avoided both plutocracy and populism by empowering enlightened technocrats to carry out social reforms from above.
In the crisis of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) managed to unite northern Protestant Progressives, southern and western populists, and urban ethnic Catholic and Jewish trade unionists in a new coalition that was described as liberal rather than progressive. The three groups shared nothing in common except a desire to counterbalance the northern capitalist establishment that had grown up after the civil war, sometimes with the help and sometimes with the opposition of their coalition partners, southern conservative Democrats.
Between FDR’s four terms and Obama’s first, this centre-left coalition has changed beyond recognition. The civil rights and the cultural revolutions of the late 20th century drove southern and western populists together with southern conservatives into today’s Dixie-dominated Republican party. Meanwhile, as we have seen, the private sector trade unions have dwindled in influence within the Democratic party. They are still important in a few manufacturing states, but upper-middle-class greens have far more clout than working-class union members outside of government bureaucracies.
If American society in 2008 were similar to that of 1932, the loss of the Populists and a powerful trade union movement would have doomed the Progressives. But two factors have helped them. The first is the enfranchisement of black Americans and the immigration-fed growth of Latinos, who voted 2 to 1 for Obama. In 1976, the US was about 90 per cent non-Hispanic white; today it is less than three-quarters non-Hispanic white.
The second factor was even more important. As the white share of the electorate has shrunk, the college-educated professional share has expanded. Today more than a quarter of the population earns a bachelor’s degree and roughly one tenth has a graduate or professional degree. The college-educated social stratum that was already the base for the Progressive movement a century ago has vastly expanded. Meanwhile, the traditional working class has not only shrunk, but is also increasingly divided along class and caste lines. Many immigrants and natives form a low-wage servant class, the so-called “working poor,” while the old prosperous working class based in manufacturing and clerical services is dwindling thanks to outsourcing and technological change. A homogeneous college-educated overclass, which favours diversity in complexion but rigid liberal orthodoxy in opinions, increasingly lords it over a divided and heterogeneous class of high school graduates and drop-outs. Obama is the new face of this emergent establishment.
This raises an interesting question. If the left stands for equality, in what sense are the Democrats a party of the left? Obama showed his contempt for the white working class when, in what he thought was a secret meeting with rich donors in San Francisco, he said white working-class voters who favoured Hillary Clinton were “bitter” people who “cling to guns, or religion,” or their antipathy to people unlike themselves. Unsurprisingly, Obama did worse among these voters than even Kerry had, except in a few industrial states. Despite promising tax cuts to Americans earning less than $250,000, Obama lost the votes of Americans who made more than $50,000 and less than $150,000—in other words, the working and middle class. Like every Democrat since George McGovern in 1972, Obama won the votes of an affluent white minority, plus solid non-white majorities, while losing the white working class. It is a very strange party of the left that combines the enlightened rich with the unskilled servants who work for them against a native majority working class. But then, a similar mutation of the left seems to be occurring in Europe.
When it comes to the current economic crisis the challenge is not so much political as intellectual. The good news for Democrats is that they have become the party of government because the voters perceive that the Republican party’s free-market ideology is discredited by events. The problem is that the Democratic establishment, with very bad timing, has adopted much of that ideology in the last generation. Obama ran as a technocratic, centrist New Democrat in the mould of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton when the moment for their kind of neoliberalism has passed.
Much of the new progressive establishment whose members are likely to fill or advise an Obama administration has been as committed to post-1960s deregulation and market utopianism as the libertarian right. In the US what we call neoliberalism is a movement of the centre-left (not a conservative movement as it is in Britain) that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as a response to the success of Thatcherism and Reaganism. Instead of arguing for a modernisation of the mixed economy, neoliberals tried to position themselves between the “old liberalism” of the mixed economy on the left and free-market fundamentalism on the right. This kind of triangulation was more justifiable in Britain, where the sclerotic left was composed of truculent trade unionists and ideological socialists, than in the US, where the “old liberals” were New Deal Democrats who would be considered centrist or centre-right in Europe. Jimmy Carter was more pro-free market than Richard Nixon had been, and Bill Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over.” With the zeal of converts, neoliberals promised to carry out government functions by market means.
Their pro-business rhetoric allowed neoliberals in the US and, to a lesser extent Britain, to shift the base of the main centre-left party from organised labour to the financial elites of Wall Street and the City of London. In the 1970s, the political action committee of the AFL-CIO, the national trade union centre, was the most important Democratic donor. By the 1990s the Democrats were funded mainly by Wall Street financiers like Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who lobbied for the dismantling of the New Deal era regulations on investment banking.
So, after a generation in which they denounced any deviation from free-market orthodoxy as the kind of old thinking that had marginalised the party, the Clintonian New Democrats are almost as clueless as the Republicans in a world in which the US and other governments have been forced effectively to nationalise much of banking and insurance and may next have to nationalise the automobile and building industries. With all the talk of a new New Deal under Obama, you might think there would be neo-New Dealers waiting in the wings with volumes of plans. But the New Deal strain of liberalism is all but extinct in progressive think tanks and university faculties. In economics departments, the last generation of Democratic neoclassical economists like the recent Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman, who is a conventional New Democrat of the 1990s type, have done their best to marginalise anyone to their left, like neo-Keynesians and the heirs of institutional economics. Brilliant, unorthodox thinkers like James K Galbraith are outnumbered by conformist Democratic economists who have internalised free market ideas about trade and labour markets. Elsewhere on the university campuses and in think tanks, it is hard to find any coherent progressive philosophy at all, as opposed to a miscellany of identity-politics “communities” based on race and gender.
New Democrat policymakers, like Lawrence Summers, spent a generation attacking those who thought that the US could learn something from continental European or east Asian models of capitalism as dangerous promoters of “industrial policy” or, even worse, “protectionism.” In their purge, the neoliberal thought police successfully limited the socially acceptable left in the US to a combination of support for free markets with support for public goods like universal health care plus mildly redistributive tax credits for the losers from globalisation. Following the global crisis, their synthesis of libertarian capitalism and moderate social democracy looks naive and anachronistic, but nobody has yet come up with an alternative. In today’s conditions a programme of tiny, symbolic subsidies and underfunded public investments in infrastructure and energy seems hopelessly small-bore.
The Democratic party is in equally bad shape when it comes to thinking about foreign policy. The few ideas it has are those of the Clinton years, and most are now irrelevant. Many New Democratic foreign policy mandarins supported the Iraq war and collaborated with the neoconservatives to promote a “concert of democracies” that would marginalise the UN and ostracise China and Russia (see Philip Bobbitt and David Hannay’s debate, Prospect online). I myself was denounced by two of these neocon-friendly hawks—Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay—for being too critical of George W Bush. They both signed a neocon statement praising Bush on the day of the Iraq invasion. During the Bush years, the most penetrating criticism has come not from Democrats but from moderate Republican realists like former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, along with Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democratic realist. Obama sometimes sounds like a moderate realist, but he has also speculated about attacking Pakistan and echoed neocon bellicosity toward Russia in its conflict with Georgia. It will be ironic if Obama, who attacked Hillary Clinton during the primaries for her vote to authorise the war, fills his administration with liberal interventionists who applauded the invasion of Iraq and whose main complaint is that the US hasn’t invaded enough countries, with Sudan high on the target list.
New Democrat neoliberalism was a political success, to the extent that it contributed to the elections of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and, arguably, Barack Obama, notwithstanding his contest with the Clinton machine. Obama’s transition team and likely cabinet are filled with former Clintonites, most of them convinced that the Democrats must still prove that they are pro-business and anti-big government. But the rationale for neoliberalism collapsed this autumn, along with the intellectual consensus in favour of an idealised free market.
The point is not that Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress should rush to enact grandiose new schemes of social insurance and public spending, as some on the left demand. Before turning to difficult issues like controlling healthcare costs and providing universal health insurance in the US, President Obama, if he wants a second term, may have to spend much or all of his first term working with government authorities and the private sector and other countries to fix the market itself, by trial and error if necessary. FDR’s first New Deal of 1933-34 was focused on stabilising the economy during the depression. Social security and other signature New Deal social insurance programmes came during the so-called second New Deal. But when the time comes, the American centre-left should dare to think big again, as it did in the days of FDR and LBJ. The American social contract still needs to be completed by universal healthcare and paid parental leave, and the American public prefers the simple, universal social insurance programmes of the New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s initiatives like social security and Medicare, to fiddling around with tax credits.
The American centre-left has gone through several phases in the last century, some more successful than others: the Progressive and Populist movements in the early 1900s; the bold and successful New Deal synthesis of 1932-68; the defensive, cautious neoliberalism of the late 20th century. The next reinvention of the centre-left may begin during Obama’s term in office.
Obama’s movement has so far been a personality cult, not a true movement with a substantive agenda. He is the leader of a party dominated by ideas about domestic policy that now seem trivial in their incrementalism, a party whose ideas about muscular US interventionism have been doomed by the costs of the Iraq quagmire. With no developed centre-left alternative in economic and foreign policy, and only a left of squabbling single-interest groups—greens, feminists, identity politics lobbies, pacifists, crusaders against urban sprawl—the Democrats under Obama will have to grope their way forward cautiously. They can best justify the trust which American voters have put in them by a ruthless willingness to jettison the old doctrines of the 1990s, the last era in which Democrats held the White House, and to think with a boldness more characteristic of mid-century liberals or early 20th century Progressives.
The messianic cult around Obama as a candidate was always undercut by his modest policy proposals. But events can force cautious politicians to be bold. During the secessionist crisis following his election and the early years of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln hoped that a promise of security for slavery in its borders and compensated emancipation could reunite the union. But in time he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and before his murder he was advocating suffrage for at least some freedmen. On assuming the presidency in early 1933, Franklin Roosevelt, a brilliant but rather conventional Progressive, had no idea that in a few years he would sign the Social Security Act, adopt Keynesian economic policies, lead a global alliance in a second world war and create the UN.
Along with abundant opportunities for failure there will be occasional opportunities for greatness—for Barack Obama and the nation he leads—in the turbulent years ahead. Of that at least we can be certain.
Prospect’s symposium on the future of America with contributions from Martin Walker, Thomas Wright, Jonathan Derbyshire and James Crabtree.
Also, exclusively online, ABC’s foreign correspondent Jim Sciutto argues that Obama will struggle to make friends in the middle east, Erik Tarloff dissects the Republican’s Palin problem, and Stephen Boyle explains why the Democrats might turn out to be Obama’s worst enemy.