Sunday, May 07, 2017

Obama's There Is No Alternative bipartsan illusion

James Santel, a speechwriter in the Obama White House, has some important observations in his review of a collection of Barack Obnama's speeches, Orator-in-Chief The American Scholar 04/28/2017.

He does a good job of relating Obama's chronic appeals for bipartisanship, which he often presented as an end in itself, with the larger ideology of neoliberalism, one of whose key concepts is TINA (There Is No Alternative), the idea that all the major ideological questions prior to the fall of the Soviet Union have been solved. The basics of liberal democracy and economic liberalism, i.e., the "free market" economics of deregulation, privatization, low wages, labor "flexibility" (loss of job protections and unions), and the continuing reduction of the welfare state, have triumphed in the world. The only real questions now remaining, or legitimately remaining, are technical issues of how to implement the policies to make life and business more agreeable for corporations and the super-rich.

The most famous ideological formation of these ideas are those associated with the "end of history":

Even more exciting was what Obama’s candidacy seemed to promise about the future of politics in the United States: that it would disappear, a kind of domestic unfolding of what Francis Fukuyama predicted in The End of History and the Last Man. Again, this interpretation was encouraged by Obama’s version of American history. As he told it, the moments emblematic of the American character – the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments; the women’s rights and civil rights movements; the New Deal and the Great Society – were instances in which Americans came together to expand the meaning of liberty and justice. His speeches cast these actions not as the triumph of liberal politics, as the victory of one viewpoint over the other, but as the result of our shared values, never mind how deeply or even violently we have disagreed over the meaning of those values throughout history. Obama’s rhetoric suggested that if we simply followed our instincts and stayed true to our principles, liberalism would reign triumphant, and all Americans would recognize this development as a blessing. [my emphasis]
Politics is about conflict. So the idea of the "end of history," and its direct predecessor of an earlier decade, the "end of ideology," didn't actually assume that all conflict in politics and government would end. Only that any fundamental question that called into question the legitimacy of capitalism, or even opposed a welfare-state concept to the neoliberal one, was unacceptable and had to fade away.

But the corporate interests and the radical right were not willing to pretend that history had completely ended. What the End of History meant substantively was the collapse of the center-left parties as defenders of the welfare state. We saw that with the Democratic Party in the US, with the social-democratic parties in most of Europe. The process occurred as well, at a more accelerated pace, in much of Latin America. When it came to fundamental economic issues, and to political measures associated with the welfare state, in practice it was a one-sided surrender.

Santel describes how Obama's conception of bipartsanship played directly into the Republicans' plans to further rig the system to the benefit of the One Percent:

Even Obama in his more combative moods – during his 2011 speech on economic inequality at Osawatomie, Kansas, for instance – hardly drew lines in the sand, lest he disprove his own argument that we can move beyond partisanship. The first task of his speeches was always to convince Americans that they were in basic agreement on the ends of government, long after the GOP’s actions had made clear that this simply was not true. Obama often talked of politics as requiring compromise. “The point is, you need allies in a democracy,” he told graduates at Howard University’s commencement last year.

But what happens when those you would court as your allies cast themselves as your enemies? What happens when your opponents not only disagree with you, but harbor a completely different understanding of America’s founding principles? What happens when they not only challenge you, but question your legitimacy? What happens when they flock to a leader who calls into question the very pillars of democracy itself: a free press, the rule of law, and an educated citizenry?
Late in his Presidency, Santel observes, Obama made at least rhetorical admissions about the failure of his bipartisan vision:

His final speeches sounded notes of uncharacteristic somberness. In his final State of the Union (not included in this collection), Obama called increasing partisan rancor “one of the few regrets of my presidency.” At the memorial service for five Dallas police officers killed last summer, he said, “I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.”
And Santel calls the following passage from Obama's last address to the United Nations "a meditation on history as a tragic cycle, rather than an arc, steadily bending toward justice," the latter being a phrase of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s that Obama often evoked, in Obama's case as a soothing reassurance that history always progressed in a favorable way:

Let me conclude by saying that I recognize history tells a different story than the one that I’ve talked about here today. There’s a much darker and more cynical view of history that we can adopt. Human beings are too often motivated by greed and by power. Big countries for most of history have pushed smaller ones around. Tribes and ethnic groups and nation states have very often found it most convenient to define themselves by what they hate and not just those ideas that bind them together. ... Perhaps that’s our fate.
But even in that passage, it's notable that Obama called that alternative to his bipartisan notion of politics without ideological conflict "a much darker and more cynical view of history that we can adopt." Even in that moment of seeming insight in the flaw of making Bipartisanship itself a goal of one party when the other party had a more traditional idea of politics as conflict, Obama treats it with a postmodern flourish as an optional narrative. Not a recognition that the end of history and the end of ideology is a long way from having arrived.

Meanwhile, Obama has gone from the Presidency to offering end-of-ideology speech to Wall Street audiences at $400,000 a pop. For the few leaders that can steer left-of-center parties into corporate-friendly positions, there can be big paydays. Even when they leave their own party is a drastically damaged condition, as we have with the Democratic Party in the wake of the 2016 elections. Or maybe we should say, especially when they leave the left-of-center party in such a state.

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