There is more than a little expression of betrayal in this statement.
But could it be that the disappointment and sense of betrayal is misplaced? Could it be that liberals and progressives misread the moment, misjudged the locus of power, and, indeed, totally misunderstood the mechanism of capitalist rule in the US? Could it be that the Obama election was little more than an adjustment to corporate rule, an adjustment from a failed regime that threatened to rip the fabric of contrived consensus to one more likely to strike a path offering the appearance of change and a new direction while preserving the interests of those holding power? Could it be that, in the clatter of the usual campaign rhetoric, most change-starved voters heard a message that they wanted to hear, ignoring the huge corporate funding and same cast of characters orchestrating the campaign?
This is not an understanding yet agreeable to the liberal and progressive establishment, though it was the conclusion that I, and too few others, drew during the presidential campaign. In response to a euphoric celebration of the Obama victory, I wrote the following shortly after the election:
At the top [of the Obama team] is a superstructure of solidly established, old-guard politicos who have yet to propose one idea that departs too far from the limited toolbox of neo-classical economics and imperial foreign policy. Yes, there is talk of green initiatives, a friendlier relationship with labor, support for social liberalism, and a vague, dangerously tame reform of health care. But this group has shown no new thinking on the catastrophic economic crisis. Moreover, their timidly progressive pronouncements differ little from the false hope promised by the Clinton and Carter Democratic Administrations that precede this one. .. Below this elite center of power is an electorate overcoming racism, demonstrating a decisive rejection of the Bush administration, and starved for real change.... Change will come from the efforts of those organized oppositionally to force new initiatives and not from those relying on the good will of ruling elites. To ignore this historical truth is to risk the disillusionment and alienation of all of those who have advocated change with their vote. (November 22, 2008)
And now, disillusionment is widely apparent.
A little over four months after the inauguration, I wrote again on this topic, comparing the euphoria and subsequent sourness of the venerable I. F. Stone on the Kennedy presidency. Stone, like today’s liberals, embraced JFK with star-struck infatuation. His return to reality was both bitter and filled with disappointment. My comments:
Typical of jilted lovers, many will turn against Obama with a bitter sense of betrayal. This is both naive and misplaced. Like Kennedy, Obama is neither an agent for change nor a closet reactionary. Like Kennedy, Obama is the executive of a vast structure welded to interests that have little in common with the interests of the majority of US citizens. Admirers of Kennedy will recall the enormous forces arrayed against change in his time: the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defense contractors, the CIA, Southern politicians, etc. Detractors will, with equal passion, note how little Kennedy did to challenge these forces. Likewise, those still taken with Obama fever will point with disgust at the obstructionist Republicans, the "Blue Dog" Democrats, the "disruptive" left, and other evil forces, as though they are not always a part of the two-party carnival.
It is not Obama, but this corrupted, broken two-party system of governance that betrays our aspirations. It is not designed for change, but to smother it. Never in the history of this undemocratic "democracy" have the wants and needs of the citizens been so distant from the intent of the ruling elites. This reality cannot be laid at Obama's feet.
The only antidote to the rot of this system is political independence within, but especially outside, of the existing two parties. There is simply no reason that activists engaged in Democratic Party circles cannot work outside - independently, uncompromisingly and vigorously - on progressive, advanced issues, with no concern for ruffled feathers. To fail to do so, betrays any commitment to real change. (May 30, 2009)
Indeed, the predictable disappointment has set in, witnessed by the Nation forum. It would appear from the “debate” that the fault lies not with Obama, not with liberal self-delusion, but with the system: “It doesn’t matter what Obama dreams of. The far more important fact is that the system is rigged, and it’s rigged against us,” to quote Eric Alterman.
Yes, it is – and it’s called “capitalism,” with its accompanying phony democracy, ownership of the media, and measurement of all things by profit.
Sadly, the wave of disappointment has not brought forth a deeper understanding and new resolve. The participants largely endorse Alterman’s sketch of the ills of the system: the influence of money, the Bush legacy, the dysfunction of political institutions, the power of finance, and the corruption of the media. All true, but hardly new or alien to the evolution of the system. One searches in vain for an over-arching theory that explains and connects these features of our present predicament. There is not even a modest indictment of capitalism in this debate – not to mention an advocacy of socialism.
Instead, we are offered a shallow and diverse set of remedies ranging from mandatory voting to reforming the Senate rules, including the predictable, but tragically complacent call to stay the course. To her great credit, Barbara Ehrenreich cuts through the fog of liberal hand wringing to serve up a moving indictment of government’s role as a “handmaid to corporate power.” Her palpable anger at the state of the nation leads her to announce that “these are revolutionary times.” One only wishes that her brief essay offered a course of action to match these “revolutionary times.” One hopes that we will hear more from her.
One can find little to inspire from the other discussants who serve up the following lame variations on “change that you can believe in” and resignation to Administration impotence:
●“One hopeful hypothesis… Obama is taking the best deal on the table today, but one expects that once he is re-elected in 2012… he will build on the foundations laid during his first term to bring about the fundamental “change” that is not possible in today’s environment.” (Eric Alterman)
●“From the legacy of Bush-era incompetence and corruption to the partisan discipline of the GOP and the Roberts Court to the influence of lobbyists, one marvels that the president has accomplished anything at all.” (Michael Kazin)
●“Operating in a dysfunctional environment dominated by a minority party that thinks its road back to power is to block everything and bring the president to his knees, Obama and his congressional allies have had remarkable success… far more than the bitter cauldron of partisan rancor and ideological fervor would ordinarily allow.” (Norman Ornstein)
●“…Obama may well be the most progressive alternative possible in our current reality.” (Salim Muwakkil)
●“President Obama and his unwieldy party have managed to enact major reforms… that are the most far-reaching and economically redistributive social accomplishments since the New Deal.” (Theda Skocpol)
●“Don’t give up… Don’t believe in silver bullets… Deal with fixing Senate rules first…” (Chris Bowers)
Unlike with Ehrenreich, the sentiments expressed in these comments show no sense of outrage or urgency about the problems facing millions of citizens. Instead, there is complacency, a distance from the everyday tragedy of unemployment, foreclosure, and an uncertain future faced by even more people today than in the Great Depression.
With their apology for the new Administration, the academics in the forum display an unpardonable distortion of the history of the New Deal era. They fail to acknowledge the similar forces holding back reform in that era: intransigent corporate and political opposition, a hostile Supreme Court, and demagogues and false prophets. The Roosevelt Administration overcame these obstacles thanks to pressure from a militant, revolutionary left and the determination and commitment of unswerving progressives. Where are the Perkins’s, Wallace’s, Wagner’s, Connery’s, and Hopkins’s in the Obama Administration? To hold the Obama Administration to a lower standard is to demean the dogged effort and sacrifice readily assumed by those courageous liberals. None succumbed to the seduction of lobbyists. None weighed their future careers before the task at hand. Perhaps these scholars think the KKK and the Liberty League and the other native fascists were less of a threat then than the tea-baggers of today.
One yearns in this forum for some call to action – perhaps an endorsement of the October 2 march in Washington supported by the NAACP and the AFL-CIO – or even a commitment to revitalize the too long dormant anti-war movement. One looks for alarm at the Obama stealth commission patiently waiting for the November electoral dust to clear before pillaging Medicare and Social Security. But we find none of these progressive initiatives.
The cure for the hangover from the Obama-high is honesty and action, not remorse or more hope. The realities of our political system are transparent and have been for over a generation: the two-party system is broken and lurching ever further from any credible vision of democracy. More importantly, we are facing an unprecedented social, political and economic crisis that is in many ways even more challenging than the Great Depression. We have to be honest enough to see that we have not measured up to these challenges. We have to be bold enough to risk radical solutions worthy of the moment.