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David Brooks’ Pragmatic Illusions and the New Administration


I wonder if the conservative New York Times columnist and "Public" Broadcasting System [1] news commentator David Brooks would care to advance his definition of the terms "ideology" and/or "ideological."
 
In a recent Times column and on "P"BS’s News Hour, the Republican Brooks heaped praise on the members of the Obama transition team ("more impressive than any other in recent memory," he says) for being "pragmatic" and "not ideological."  He also applauded them for possessing degrees from elite educational institutions, making them what Brooks (a University of Chicago graduate) calls "a valedictocracy." [2]
 
In a Times column published three days after the election, Brooks said that his "dream" Obama administration would be loaded with highly educated, market-friendly technocrats who "understand that [Obama] cannot impose an ideological program the country does not accept."[3] By "an ideological program," Brooks meant a remotely populist agenda meant to address some of the stunning social disparities that cripple democracy and daily life in the United States, the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far.
 
Here are some of the Obama team members that Brooks adores (he makes sure to list many of their academic alma maters) for being highly educated and "not ideological": "Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law)," "Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford D. Phil.);" Jason Furman (Harvard, Harvard Ph.D.):" "Austan Goolsbee (Yale, M.I.T. Ph.D.);" Rahm Emmanuel (academic degrees and affiliations not given by Brooks); and Dennis Ross (no degrees listed), who Brooks calls "the best I’ve ever seen" at "giv[ing] the president a list of concrete steps he can do day-by-day to advance American interests." [4]
 
Let’s have a closer look at some of the Obama regime "valedictocrats" Brooks mentions. Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, is a militantly imperial Democrat who is strongly allied to the U.S.-sponsored occupation and apartheid state Israel.  He worked hard to favor pro-Iraq War over antiwar Democrats during the 2006 Congressional primaries.  He was a key player behind the Democratic Party’s remarkable decision to ban ex-president Jimmy Carter from its 2008 convention because Carter has committed the unpardonable ("ideological") sin of acknowledging that Israel oppresses Palestinians.
 
Emmanuel has been closely connected to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), formed to steer the Democratic Party closer to the interests of big business and away from the influence of labor, minorities, and environmentalists.  He was a leading agent in the Clinton administration’s successful effort to pass the regressive, business-friendly The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And Emmanuel advocates adding 100,000 soldiers to the U.S. Army and creating a domestic spying agency on the model of England’s M15. 
 
Rahm Emmanuel is not "non-ideological." He is a major corporate-neoliberal militarist.
 
So is Hillary Clinton. She was a strong supporter of her husband’s mass-murderous "economic sanctions" on Iraq and of George W. Bush’s deadly and criminal invasion of that country.  She eagerly advanced Dick Cheney and Bush’s pre-invasion war propaganda campaign, helping peddle White House’s nonsense about Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD).  She undermined serious efforts at universal national health care (on the single-payer model) during the 1990s.  During the last presidential campaign she resisted Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards’ call for lifting the regressive cap on the Social Security income tax.  She refused to apologize for her 2002 vote to authorize Bush to attack Iraq.  She talked about "totally obliterating" Iran if its government attacked Israel and she essentially authorized Bush to attack Iran by agreeing to join other congressional hawks in labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a "terrorist organization." She boasts of having strongly "urged [Bill Clinton] to bomb" Yugoslavia.
 
Hillary Clinton is not a political and policy actor who has magically soared above the stain of "ideology." 
 
Neither has Dennis Ross.  As Jeremy Scahill notes:  "Middle East envoy for both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Ross was one of the primary authors of Obama’s [militantly pro-Israel] speech before AIPAC [the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee] this summer. He cut his teeth working under famed neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon in the 1970s and worked closely with the Project for the New American Century. Ross has been a staunch supporter of Israel and has fanned the flames for a more hostile stance toward Iran. As the lead U.S. negotiator between Israel and numerous Arab nations under Clinton, Ross’ team acted, in the words of one U.S. official who worked under him, as ‘Israel’s lawyer’…. After the Clinton White House, Ross worked for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a hawkish pro-Israel think tank, and for FOX News, where he repeatedly pressed for war against Iraq." [5]
 
Susan Rice is also not untouched by the supposed stench of "ideology." A former Assistant Secretary of States and member of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, she joined Hillary Clinton and other leading Obama foreign policy advisors (e.g. Richard Holbrooke) in helping advance the Bush administration’s preposterous Iraqi WMD lies. Along with fellow Obama advisor Anthony Lake, she passionately advocates a U.S. attack on oil-rich Sudan.  Like Obama’s other foreign policy advisers, she would never acknowledge that the Iraq invasion is an immoral crime (the foreign policy establishment can only retrospectively criticize Bush’s illegal invasion as a strategic "mistake") and she supports the escalation of America’s equally illegal assault on Afghanistan. 
 
Like Obama himself, nobody on the Obama team could ever acknowledge immorality and criminality in U.S. foreign policy past and present.  All of them are beholden to the deeply ideological American Exceptionalist notion that the United States is – as Obama told CNN’s Candy Crowely last summer (in the process of explaining to her why the U.S. should not apologize for any of its foreign policy actions during the last eight years) -  "a force for good in the world."
 
The economist Jason Furman is not ideology-free. He has written in support of "free trade" (global investors’ right to exploit freely) and applauded the low-wage union-busting firm Wal-Mart’s supposed positive impact on American and global economic life. Prior to his appointment as candidate Obama’s Economic Policy Director, Furman headed the aptly named Hamilton Group, a leading neoliberal, state-capitalist think tank.  Furman is linked closely to Robert Rubin, the top Wall Street financial mogul and former Clinton administration economics advisor and Treasury Secretary. Rubin’s regressive views and actions on behalf of "free trade" (investor rights), relative wage stagnation, public welfare elimination (combined with corporate welfare preservation), financial sector deregulation, and "deficit reduction" gave the Clinton administration credibility in the halls of corporate and financial power.
 
Rubin is a top Obama advisor.  So is Furman’s fellow neoliberal economist Goolsbee, a "free market" enthusiast who told Canadian officials not to worry  about Obama’ s politically expedient pseudo-populist rhetoric on NAFTA prior to the Ohio primaries. 
 
I won’t bother with the other names Brooks mentions or with numerous other Obama team-members like John Brennan, Jamil Miscik, Madeline Albright, Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke, Valerie Jarrett, Eric Holder, Sara Swell, the leading corporate neoliberal economist and former Harvard President Lawrence Summers (who as World Bank Economist once argued that Africa was under-polluted because people don’t live very long there anyway). [6] 
 
Contrary to Brooks’ technocratic and "valedictoriat" fantasies, all of these Obama team members are heavily ideological (corporate-neoliberal) people who understand very well that one doesn’t climb into the political elite by questioning dominant American domestic and imperial institutions and doctrines.  This is also understand by the militantly bourgeois, openly imperial, and distinctively corporate-neoliberal Obama, who has demonstrated his allegiance to reigning state-capitalist, racially accomodationist, and U.S. world-supremacist ideologies in a large number of speeches, comments, essays, and book chapters [7].
 
To get a sense of how significantly ideological Obama himself is, Brooks could read my careful and critical review (titled "Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power") of Obama’s deeply conservative campaign book The Audacity of Hope. He should also examine my recent study Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). This book shows that Obama, like his fellow centrist Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy – an outwardly "pragmatic" and supposedly post-or non-ideological corporate-neoliberal before his time – can in fact (with some basic critical investigation) be found on the ideological spectrum. Like the Kennedy depicted in Bruce Miroff’s remarkable and forgotten New Left study Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John Fitzgerald Kennedy  and Noam Chomsky’s instructive Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture, Obama is a "progressive" of a very particular corporate, imperial, and racially neutral type. With Obama, as with the neoliberal icon JFK, this is the dark reality behind claims of a benevolently post-ideological and nonpartisan commitment to technical expertise under the rule of the "the best and the brightest." [9]
 
But a self-proclaimed "Hamiltonian" like Brooks would never give my study more than a cursory glance.  I identify myself in the book’s preface as an egalitarian anticapitalist.  For the outwardly delicate but secretly vicious elitist Brooks, even a semi-progressive pro-labor "populist" like John Edwards was too "ideological" to be treated with anything but disdain in the presidential race.  Brooks and his comrades in the political and media elite are very clear on a core principle: anyone who argues that U.S. politicians and policymakers should act in accord with longstanding majority U.S. opinion – well to the left of both dominant political parties and the business class [10] – by working for economic justice and rolling back American Empire is a dangerous and dysfunctional "ideologue." In Brooks’ heavily ideological (he would never admit) world view, the inherently "crazy" left (and the extreme right) is spoiled by the evil stain of "ideology," but the "smart" and vital state-capitalist center is not. 
 
He’s as wrong as he could be.
 
Paul Street (
paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).
 
NOTES
 
1. When Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act and created the Public Broadcasting Corporation in 1967, it denied public media a stable source of federal income.  As a result, American "public media" has always relied heavily on corporate donations, foundation grants, and listener/viewer contributions.  This has turned N"P"R and "P"BS affiliates into de facto commercial enterprises, heavily dependent on corporations who strongly influence programming content.  At the same time, the need to raise donations from media consumers tends to bias "public" broadcasting towards affluent people over and against poor and working-class folks. That’s because elite listeners and viewers have considerably more disposable income than do working- and lower-class people. They also exercise immeasurably more influence over the legislators and other policymakers who determine how much taxpayer money "public" media gets from the federal government. See Robert W. McChesney, Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (New York: Seven Stories, 1997).
 
2. David Brooks, "The Insiders’ Crusade," New York Times, November 21, 2008; Public Broadcasting System, News Hour, "Brooks and Markus on Obama’s Cabinet Picks, Economy Woes" (November 21, 2008), read transcript at 
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec08/bmeconomy_11-21.html.
 
3. David Brooks, "Change I Can Believe In," New York Times, November 7, 2008.
 
4. Brooks, "The Insiders’ Crusade."
 
5. Jeremy Scahill, "This is Change? Hawks, Clintonites, and Neocons to Watch For in Obama’s White House" ZNet [Alternet originally] (November 22, 2008).  
 
6. ZNet has published useful summaries of these and other insider Obama names by Scahill and Stephen Lendman:  Scahill, "This is Change?;" Stephen Lendman, "Obama Mania," ZNet (November 13, 2008).  See also Rannie Amiri, "Dual Loyalties Will Doom Obama," Antiwar.com (November 17, 2008); Mary Lynn Cramer, "Obama’s Brain Trust," antiwar.com (November 14, 2008). 
 
7. For details and sources, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), pp. 1-163.
 
8. Paul Street, "Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power," ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at
http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936.
 
9. Bruce Mirrof, Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (New York: Longman’s, 1976); Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (Boston, MA: South End, 1993). On the pseudo-pragmatist JFK as proto-neoliberal, see Randall Rothenburg, The Neo-Liberals: Creating the New American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), pp. 41, 44, 47, 70-71, 128-129.
 
10. See Katherine Adams and Charles Derber, The New Feminized Majority (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), pp. 67-75; Chicago Council on Foreign Relationsm "Global Views" (October 2004); Noam Chomsky, Failed States:  The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006); Paul Street, "Americans’ Progressive Opinion vs. ‘The Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business," ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at
http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/commentaries/3491.

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