Thursday, December 4, 2008

Chicken Little Politics: Moderate Obama Causes Progressive Panic

Reality Check for the Left: Obama Is a Moderate
With every new Cabinet appointment, guarded and nuanced statement about the prospect of reform, and "shocking" embrace of policies that progressives vehemently oppose, the Left continues to discover what it refused to see earlier: Obama is a moderate politician (which I do not view as an inherently negative quality). If Obama is not a moderate, he has strongly indicated that he will likely govern from the middle nevertheless, probably in order to maximize his political support and ensure reelection.

In a normal year, this rather standard assessment of a president governing a politically divided, yet moderate, country would not warrant extended debate. But progressives have formed high expectations of Obama's presidency. Progressives have heralded Obama's victory as a triumph of the righteous Left over the corrupt Right. The Democratic primaries provided the initial stage in this battle of good versus evil, and Obama's victory over Clinton supposedly renewed the Left's influence in Democratic Party politics. According to progressives, it also dethroned the Clintons and reduced them to useless relics of a nightmarish political past filled with selfishness, immorality, and triangulation.

Although Obama's campaign focused broadly on "change," liberals and Leftists largely interpreted this mantra as progressive change. His presidency would rid the country and world of the worst elements of the Clinton and Bush legacies: free trade, deregulation, wealth inequality, and foreign policy marred by hawkishness and unilateralism. Obama would also strengthen labor unions, enforce and augment civil and individual rights, protect the environment, appoint liberal judges, bring about world peace, and generally restore the "dignity" of the United States. Although the Left is usually skeptical of establishment politicians, progressives truly believed Obama could deliver this enormous basket of liberal reforms.

Obama's general election victory has only heightened the dramatic claims of liberals and progressives. Now, many of them have argued that the nation has become center-left and that a new generation of political and social dominance by liberals has finally arrived. Liberal commentators have begun eulogizing the GOP and declaring the death of "old white wealthy male heterosexual" power (see 2008 Is Not 1964: Why Liberal Mania and Conservative Panic Are Nothing But Melodrama).

But now that Obama has hired several individuals most despised by the Left, including Clinton, many progressives have shifted gears and now argue that Obama has betrayed them. Their anger, however, is misplaced. Progressives must blame themselves for believing that Obama was anything other than a moderate politician in the mold of Bill Clinton. They have only recently discovered his true political ideology because their irrational hatred of the Clintons and desperate desire for a progressive president caused them to accept Obama uncritically and project their own desires upon him. He became "their" candidate, even though he designed his campaign to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Now that Obama has signaled that he will not transform the White House into a leftist space, progressives are experiencing collective shock, dismay and a sense of betrayal.

How and Why Progressives Constructed Obama as a Progressive

Anti-"Clinton" Hatred
During the Democratic primaries, progressives exhibited an extreme level of animosity towards Hillary Clinton. Much of their disgust with Clinton stemmed from lingering disappointment with Bill Clinton's presidency. Progressives hate former President Clinton's compromises with conservatives, his failure to fight for some progressive causes, and his embrace of the center. They refuse to acknowledge or diminish the significance of his liberal accomplishments (e.g., protecting abortion rights, making liberal judicial appointments, reducing black unemployment, and negotiating the Irish peace accords). Leftists unleashed their pent up anger with Clinton's administration upon his wife. Progressives helped construct the two Clintons as a pathological "Billary" and refused to take Hillary Clinton on her own terms. Although Clinton contributed to this by claiming "experience" related to her husband's presidency, she never said that she was simply his political clone. Progressives, however, refused to distinguish the two. Both represented unmitigated evil.

Liberal Sexism
Many progressives also harbored deeply sexist hostility (explicit and unconscious) towards Clinton. To these individuals, Clinton was a dangerous (b/w)itch, Tanya Harding, shrill, nagging, dominatrix, etc. Prejudice prevents a realistic assessment of its victims. If, as I argue, Clinton experienced sexism from progressives, this could explain their distorted and negative view of her and their unrealistically positive understanding of Obama.

Naive View of Race Relations
In addition, a large number of white progressives and liberals supported Obama in part because his success could prove to them that the United States had finally become a post-racist society, despite the fact that people of color lag severely behind whites in every significant indicator of social well being. One liberal white academic told me that he was content campaigning for Obama because as he "knocked on each door, he realized that we were finally putting this race thing behind us."

Even before Obama secured the Democratic nomination, political commentators opined warmly about the tremendous progress his successful candidacy symbolized. Many said that it proved that race no longer mattered in American society. Obama represented a younger generation of black politicians for whom race politics (thankfully) did not play a significant role. Obama became the treasured antidote to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Linking him with either of these men constituted racism; Bill Clinton discovered this when he compared Obama's South Carolina victory with Jackson's.

Obama's success in the general election has led to even more sweeping claims about American post-racialism. A close examination of exit polls, however, demonstrate that Obama only won the election due to an increased presence of black and Latino voters in key states and to his greater level of support among these demographics relative to Democrats in the recent past. Despite media commentary that suggests a fundamental transformation in race-based voting, Obama failed to win a majority of white voters in eleven "blue states," and he only won a slight majority (51-52%) in five others, including his home state of Illinois, where he received just over 1/2 of votes cast by whites. Furthermore, Obama, like all other Democratic presidential candidates since 1964, failed to win a nationwide majority of white voters. Without a surge of black and Latino voters, Obama would have lost the election (see Reality Check: Obama's Election Victory Does Not Mean That Era of Race-Based Identity Politics Has Died ).

Obama as Rorschach
Progressives so desperately wanted a left-leaning president -- without Clinton as a surname -- that they projected their own political fantasies upon Obama. Progressives constructed Obama, with his tacit acceptance, as the progressive leader they "had been waiting for." They also reacted swiftly to any dissenting voice that offered a complicated appraisal of Obama. For example, progressives responded with hostility when liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman began criticizing Obama's economic and healthcare proposals and statements he made on the campaign trail. Often, the popular media along with progressives would imply that people who preferred Clinton or McCain over Obama were racists. This racist lot included Latinos who voted for Clinton during the primaries, but who later fueled Obama's general election victories in Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Regardless of the merits of Obama as a candidate and president, an atmosphere that rejects dissent cannot sustain progress. Because the Left helped to silence inquiry regarding the details of Obama's political commitments, while lauding him effusively and bashing his opponents, they must blame themselves for not discovering his moderate political status earlier.

No, Chicken Little, the Sky Is not Falling

Progressive Social Movements Can Create Change With Moderate Presidents
Being a moderate does not make Obama (or any other candidate) unfit for office, nor does it preclude progressive change. Many progressives who are angry that Obama is a political moderate seem to have a gross misunderstanding of the history of social progress in the United States. Advancements in terms of race, gender, class, and other liberal causes did not occur because a progressive president governed the nation. Instead, these changes occurred because of progressive domestic social movement activity, international scrutiny and criticism, extreme factors like economic depression and warfare shifting voter attitudes, and a convergence of interests between dominant forces and minority groups.

Great Historical Changes With Moderate Presidents
Obama's supporters have likened him to President Lincoln in order to portray his presidency as potentially generating tremendous change. But Lincoln was not a radical. He would have preferred to maintain slavery or to end it gradually. Exigencies of the war led him to a more dramatic path, however. And while he personally opposed slavery, Lincoln embraced many of the prevailing racial prejudices of his generation and devised a plan to send blacks "back to Africa." He was not a card-carrying member of the Radical wing of the Republican Party. Lincoln was not Charles Sumner. But abolitionists and Radical Republicans used him to help create change.

Liberals have also made very warm comparisons of Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But labor and other liberal groups pressured Roosevelt to design and implement his New Deal legislation. Furthermore, despite his commitment to forward looking economic legislation, Roosevelt had a shaky to horrific record on civil rights and is responsible for the racist internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Progressives also frequently compare Obama to John F. Kennedy. Progressives have long overstated Kennedy's contribution to racial equality movements. Although he was prepared to sign comprehensive civil rights legislation before his death, civil rights leaders constantly pushed him into this direction, and it took witnessing state-sponsored and private violence against blacks in the South before he finally endorsed the legislation. Johnson, by contrast, whom progressives despise due to his role in the Vietnam War, actually did far more than Kennedy had indicated he would do in terms of advancing racial and economic justice. Clinton was right in saying that it "took a president to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964," but it took a politically active village to make sure that he did so.

What Today's Progressives Must Do to Create Liberal Change with Obama
Historically, nongovernmental actors have pushed moderate, though sympathetic, politicians to implement progressive reforms. In order to make sure that Obama's presidency delivers progressive change, the Left needs to take inventory of and admit to its own responsibility in misreading him. Progressives also need to acknowledge that sexism, Clinton-hatred, and an understandable but naive desire to move beyond race politics combined to create a situation where they idealized Obama and assigned to him values that he did not specifically espouse. Finally, progressives need to begin articulating specific political agendas that they want to see accomplished in the next four years and to design strategies to bring these goals to fruition.

Bickering over Obama's moderate status -- something many others knew or suspected a long time ago -- will not do the work necessary to generate progressive change. If the Left actually believes in the ideas it espouses, then its members will quickly begin the task of constructing a new progressive agenda. If they simply continue to whine, then maybe "more of the same" satisfies them well enough.

Related Readings on Dissenting Justice:

* Leftists Finally Realize Obama Is a Moderate; Huffington Post Suddenly Embraces Clinton and Political Center

* The "Left" Responds to Obama's "Centrist" Foreign Policy Team

* Progressives Awaken from Obama-Vegetative State

* 2008 Is Not 1964: Why Liberal Mania and Conservative Panic Are Nothing But Melodrama

* Reality Check: Obama's Election Victory Does Not Mean That Era of Race-Based Identity Politics Has Died

* Head Explosion at The Nation: Left "Duped" by Its "Own Wishful Thinking"

* Warning to Progressives: NYT Proclaims Obama Will Govern From Center-Right

* Back Down Memory Lane: A Review of Anti-Clinton Rhetoric by "Progressives" on Daily Kos, Huffington Post, and AlterNet


Jerry said...

Thanks. I need that! I love the title. Keep it up.

scarle said...

Does anyone think there's a bit of good news in Obama appointment-land in the choices of Lisa Jackson as EPA administrator and Steven Chu as Energy czar? I do! As a former complainer on this very blog, I'm feeling a bit happier today.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi. Illinois has overshadowed their appointments. His other ones do not bother me. My purpose in analyzing them was to reveal the miscalculation of the Left and to start a conversation about making change. I think it was a bit naive to believe that progressive change necessarily requires a progressive president -- or that the presidents who held office during moments of great change were themselves progressives.

I am actually optimistic about the possibilities, but less optimistic about the people on the outside of government who must help make change take place. But I think we can keep pushing. That's the purpose of dialogue. Nan Hunter has a blog that has raised similar issues about the value of social movements during an Obama presidency.

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