On December 7, 2009, blogger Suzi Gablik of Virgil Speaks informed the world that she’s "not a liberal anymore". She had abandoned her so-called "liberal" stance in response to harsh criticism of Obama and his policies from "both sides (right and left wingers)", especially of his Afghanistan speech where he pledged further funding and massive troop deployments. In particular, Suzi expressed outrage at an article by Christian Parenti of the Huffington Post that argued that the expansion of the Afghan war was nothing more than a political decision to strengthen Obama’s position and “look tough” going forward. In the same article, Parenti also dismissed any possible imperialist, corporatist or long-term strategic military interests that the US might have in continuing the war or for having invaded Afghanistan in the first place. However, Ms. Gablik wasn’t upset about Parenti’s rejection of many of the motives for the war that are painfully obvious for any who have been paying honest attention. Instead, the “horrendously ugly and smearing essay” set her off for claiming that “Obama lives in mortal fear of being called a wimp by Republicans” and that “he [Obama] is willing to kill to get reelected”.
So, what did Suzi do to combat the horrible left and right wingers who were so badly abusing her beloved Obama, apart from blogging about her incredulity? She gave up being a liberal and became a “Taoist”, which she considered to be closer to Obama’s governing style and has something to do with “considering both sides of a question” and “[following] two different courses at once”. She got the idea from Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic, who had a lovely story comparing Obama’s style to a monkey trainer first offering his monkeys 3 cups of chestnuts in the morning and 4 in the afternoon, and then when they get upset, reversing the offer and appeasing them. “And I’m really glad to have a president who is brave enough and willing to do exactly that, too”, she finished her post proudly, finally understanding how Obama works and just how many cups of chestnuts she’ll be getting every day. (Zero.)
It turned out that Suzi wasn’t alone. As documented by Andrew Sullivan at the time (1, 2) and discussed by Glenn Greenwald in an insightful piece, many seemed to be deciding to “[leave] the left” to express their disgust with the “left’s” criticism of Obama and his policies. As Greenwald noted at the time, “what’s most striking about these valiant defenses [sic] of Obama is how utterly devoid they are of any substantive points and how, instead, suffuse with weird, even inappropriate, emotional attachments they are.” Of course, this is nothing new when it comes to partisan politicking. An unfortunate, and likely intended, outcome of the “democratic” US two-party system and the massive propaganda campaign that supports it (and the interests that it serves) is to force people to pick sides and think exclusively in terms of left/right or Democrat/Republican constructions – the limits of which are extremely narrowly defined by the centers of power most interested in controlling the debate, as noted frequently by Noam Chomsky.
What is new here, though, is the level of confusion and internal strife people are experiencing as a result of the hope they placed in Obama being so soundly smashed by the criticisms of his policies and actions, especially when those affronts are coming from the same side (the left) that, in their minds, is supposed to be supporting Obama. Rather than exposing the callousness and boundless self-interest of Obama and his establishment supporters – none of whom had any right to give that kind of hope to anyone who needed it in the first place – for people like Suzi, such “leftist” policy criticisms of their beloved President are nothing more than a confounding betrayal. However, when you combine the bewilderment of those like Suzi with the typical liberal establishment rhetoric coming from the likes of Sullivan and Parenti, what emerges are cracks in the ongoing conflation of Obama (and more broadly, the Democratic party) with both “the left” and any worthwhile definition of moral integrity. In effect, what we see here is a kind of cognitive dissonance (in consumerism’s terms, “buyer’s remorse”) that will inevitably lead to a rejection of either “liberalism”, as Suzi experienced, or of Obama and his policies, wholesale. (A third, less distinct possibility, might be an acknowledgement of the need for the rejection of the entire corporate-capitalist system itself.)
It is important to note here that confronting either liberalism or Obama in this sense, as Greenwald observes, would mostly be on the basis of “cultural identification and personality admiration and has nothing to do with the factors that ought to be used to judge political leaders.” Ultimately, then, the existing contours of debate would be maintained and little would be gained in terms of challenging dominant power structures or advancing a public discussion around the actions that should be taken across the range of Obama’s abject failures, from war to health care to reigning in the financial industry to social support, etc. The task, then, is to find a way to engage those that are already faltering on Obama in open, honest discussion, not only on the issues at hand, but also about, ideally, what kind of world we all want to live in – and to bring that kind of debate out into the open, to cultivate real discourse and dissent in the public sphere. As the majority of the population most likely has more in common with a Suzi than a Sullivan or Parenti – concerned and hurt and looking for answers rather than pompous, out-of-touch and self-absorbed, having lost any kind of moral or intellectual integrity long ago – there is actually real hope for this happening.
Part of that, I think, involves telling Suzi that it’s not her fault that things are the way they are, regardless of how she voted, and that unfortunately, Obama isn’t about to fix anything for her, but she can definitely change things for the better if she wants to. She should also know that there are millions of other people out there who would be happy and willing to give her a hand. The fact is, Obama and everyone like him, liberal and conservative alike, all being capitalists of the worst sort, simply care more about themselves and their wealth, power and status than anything else. While they do have an inordinate share of wealth and power on their side, we’ll always have the numbers on ours.