It Could Still Be a Good Thing for Lefties that Obama Won the Election: On Historical Irony and Radical Hope

Here is a statement that may surprise some of my more regular readers (yes, all four of you): it’s a good thing that Barack Obama won the presidential election last fall. 

That might seem an odd comment coming from me.  Am I not a radical writer who has spilled more critical jet-ink than any known leftist on Obama’s corporate and imperial world view and (after January 20 2009) policies and on his pacifying impact on progressive forces at home and abroad?  Am I not a left Marxist who wrote an entire book (well before the election) exposing the Obama phenomenon as the vile spawn of the United States’ "corporate-dominated and militaristic election system and political culture"

Yes, I am. And I stand by all of it.

Has the new president not richly validated the harshly unfavorable analysis that I and other left critics have given of him by: sustaining the occupation in Iraq, expanding  imperial violence in South Asia, increasing "defense" (empire) spending,  butchering innocents (including more than 130 civilians recently bombed to pieces by the U.S. Air Force  in western Afghanistan) in "Af-Pak," reviving military commissions, continuing the practice of renditions, expanding the Bush program of targeted killings (with predictable high "collateral damage" to innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan), maintaining secret prisons (for persons "held on a short-term, transitory basis"), continuing the unspeakable torture of prisoners by an "extrajudicial terror squad" (Jeremy Scahill’s description of the Pentagon’s sadistic "Immediate Reaction Force" in Cuba) at Guantanamo Bay,  threatening England into preventing a Guantanamo victim from having his day in court on the Bush administration’s torture practices, sustaining the Bush administration’s abrogation of habeas corpus rights in regard to the roughly 600 "enemy combatants" kept at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan,  sustaining the Bush policy of military detention without trial for "terrorist suspects," making bogus moral and political arguments ("better to look forward than backward") to prevent the investigation of Bush administration crimes, sustaining Bush’s domestic wiretapping program, invoking the "state secrets" doctrine to prevent disclosure of evidence in response to lawsuits emerging from Bush era rendition and surveillance policies, suppressing photographic evidence of U.S. torture practices,  advancing a fake-progressive health care "reform" that leaves the leading parasitic insurance corporations (major campaign sponsors of his) in power, abrogating his campaign pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (so as to insert stronger labor and environmental protections), failing to seriously advance an elementary and overdue labor law reform (the Employee Free Choice Act) he campaigned on,  and failing to advance a moratorium on foreclosures or appropriate levels of support for working class homeowners?

Yes, Obama has done all of these and other terrible things. It’s pretty sickening – thoroughly predictable (and in fact predicted, by yours truly and many others on the left) but shocking nonetheless. Along the way, to make things yet more nauseating, Obama’s image-makers and the dominant (so-called "mainstream") corporate media have wrapped it all the officially respectable aura of "realism," "pragmatism," supposedly virtuous and democratic "centrism," and the noble "duties of governance." A ridiculous segment of the "liberal’ electorate (including more than a few drunken and weepy eyed academicians I know) still clings to the pathetic notion that Obama’s presidency is "progressive" and that Obama is some sort of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" character ready, willing, and able to take on the corporate and military powers that be. Obama’s power to pacify and marginalize what’s left of the U.S. left has been something to behold, just as I feared and predicted. To maker matters worse and also as predicted,  his "black but not like Jesse," officially race-neutral campaign and presidency have been a powerful weapons for white supremacist claims that racism no longer poses serious barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the U.S.

After all that, how can I say that Obama’s election was a good thing? Five reasons.

First, no genuinely Left presidential candidates can ever win or even remotely challenge under the openly plutocratic U.S. elections and propaganda system. Obama’s only seriously contending opponent under that authoritarian system last fall was of course neither Ralph Nader (for whom I voted in Iowa) nor Cynthia McKinney (to whom I made a modest financial contribution). It was John McCain, a dangerous, demented and blustering messianic militarist who proposed (among other things) to (i) create of neo Cold War "League of Democracies" (excluding and provoking nuclear Russia and China) and (ii) put an openly idiotic evangelical proto-fascist (Sarah Palin) more (given McCain’s age) than the usual "heartbeat away" from the most powerful and potentially annihilation-inflicting office on Earth.  We shouldn’t have to think too hard about the sort of judicial appointments and other domestic and global policies that truly vicious and dangerous bastard John McCain could have been expected to enact to get a chill down our spines.
(Imagine if you will what a racist statement it would have been for the nation’s electorate to have been seen "choosing" the obviously inadequate McCain-Palin ticket over the outwardly erudite charisma of "Brand Obama." [1] Racial prejudice would have been an obvious leading reason for a John McCain victory in light of the Republican candidates’ astonishing liabilities and the deep unpopularity of the Republican Party in the wake of the long national Bush-Cheney nightmare. It is a major reason for the disturbing fact that McCain-Palin won the majority of white votes last fall.)  

Second, differences that seem (with good reason) quite minute to radical intellectuals can have significant multiplier consequences for masses of people living under the rule of highly concentrated power systems like U.S. state capitalist corporate-imperialism.  As the left-liberal political scientist Larry Bartels showed last year in his book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, during the past six decades "real incomes of middle-class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working-poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans."  This difference (at which it is bad political and moral form to sneer from the left) reflects technically small but real economic and social policy differences between the two reigning factions (Democrats and Republicans) of the U.S Chamber of Commerce and Pentagon Party.

Third, there is no reason to believe that progressive activists and citizens would be any more energized or active if the Republicans had managed to retain the U.S. executive branch last year. Having Bush and Cheney in power did little to energize the Left, really, despite the initially impressive anti-Iraq War movement, which faded after it became apparent that the bipartisan imperial Establishment was going to do as it wished in Iraq with minor regard for irrelevant public opinion.  A McCain-Palin victory (plausibly "stolen") might have sparked some initial resistance, some quite fierce.  But progressive forces and people would have sunk yet further into despair, fragmentation, torpor, isolation, and irrelevance while the FOX News crowd crowed. There wouldn’t have been all that much been much cool progressive backlash and civil unrest on the whole. Such serious disruption as might have occurred would have been crushed with ruthless, proto-fascistic ease.

Fourth, as part of their co-optive mission/assignment as the bourgeois U.S. electoral system’s largely fake "party of the people" [2],  Democrats tend to initially increase and channel rather than simply depress popular expectations for progressive change. As my book on Obama suggested last year, Obama rode, reflected, and raised popular expectations for democratic transformation that an Obama White House would be certain to disappoint and betray. That certainty need not, I argued, be a source of dark dismay and depression for those who remain attached to left-progressive ideals. It carries the radical potential to help move citizens off what the left social critic Charles Derber aptly calls "The Election Trap" – the belief that serious progressive change is mainly about voting in quadrennial, corporate-crafted, and candidate-centered "electoral extravaganzas" (Noam Chomsky’s excellent phrase)   – and into the more significant work of building the sorts of grassroots and political movements that have previously forced serious progressive change from below in American history.  It could also help fuel popular demands for changing the political system in such a way the electoral hopes could become less of a "trap."  Revolutions, historian Barrington Moore argued, come when there are rising expectations.

Fifth, intimately related to point 4, the Democrats are best exposed as agents of empire, inequality, and "corporate-managed democracy" (the late Alex Carey’s useful term) when they hold top offices. That’s when the hot rubber of their populist- and peaceful- sounding campaign rhetoric hits the cold pavement of corporate-imperial governance. Why has the Left done best – made the most noise, with the greatest impact – in this country when Democrats have held power, as during the 1930s, the 1960s? Part of the explanation, I think, is that the Democrats tend to come into power having made rhetorically populist and progressive campaign promises that are more conducive to popular organizing.  At the same time, the Democrats’ rhetoric and policies tend to create more open space and freedom for left progressives to breathe and organize.
But another factor is a bit more complex.  It is that the corporate- and empire-captive Democrats are better able to deceptively pose as a progressive alternative to corporate-imperial rule and the Republicans when they are out of office than when they are in power. They are more effectively exposed as ultimately inadequate tribunes of the ordinary working people they claim to represent when they hold power and then quite naturally fail to deliver on popular hopes and dreams they’ve ridden and/or raised on the road to office. They are less able to hide their essential identity as the other business and empire party when they sit atop the political system.

Nobody captured my sentiments on the ironic sort of hope that could be meaningfully drawn from the prospect of an Obama White House last year than the clever Marxist writer Doug Henwood.  In an April 2008 essay titled "Would You Like Change With That?," Henwood criticized: Obama’s subservience to big capital, Obama’s militarism, Obama’s disingenuous claims to be against the Iraq War, Obama’s "empty" slogans, Obama’s vapid "fan club" ("he doesn’t really have a movement behind him"), and Obama’s denial of the extent of racial inequality in the U.S.  But then Henwood shifted gears to reflect on the potential historical upside of an Obama presidency:

"Enough critique; the dialectic demands something constructive to induce some forward motion. There’s no doubt that Obamalust does embody some phantasmic longing for a better world – more peaceful, egalitarian, and humane. He’ll deliver little of that – but there’s evidence of some admirable popular desires behind the crush. And they will inevitably be disappointed."

"There’s great political potential in popular disillusionment with Democrats. The phenomenon was first diagnosed by Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes. As Wills explained it, throughout the 1950s, left-liberals intellectuals thought that the national malaise was the fault of Eisenhower, and a Democrat would cure it. Well, they got JFK and everything still pretty much sucked, which is what gave rise to the rebellions of the 1960s (and all that excess that Obama wants to junk any remnant of). You could argue that the movements of the 1990s that culminated in Seattle were a minor rerun of this. The sense of malaise and alienation is probably stronger now than it was 50 years ago, and includes a lot more of the working class, [who are] …really pissed off about the cost of living and the way the rich .are lording it over the rest of us."
"Never did the possibility of disappointment offer so much hope. That’s not what the candidate means by that word, but history can be a great ironist."

Now, most middle-aged and senior leftists and progressives probably don’t require an education from Obama on the bipartisan nature of American Empire and Inequality, Inc., on the painfully narrow nature of the dominant U.S. political spectrum, and about how "life is [still] a crock of shit" (to quote Kurt Vonnegut in his 1997 novel Timequake) with "corporate Democrats" (Ralph Nader and John Edwards’ useful phrase during the primary campaign) in charge.  We have living recollections of Democratic betrayals perpetrated by (depending on our age) Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John Fitzgerald Kenney, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore (whose excessive corporate centrism helped cost him the presidency in 2000) to remind us of all that. [3]

But many in a new and younger generation of real and potential left progressives DO need the education, however. No amount of lecturing or warning from older progressives can begin to match younger progressives’ experience of Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emmanuel, Hillary Clinton, and Harry Reid et al.’s right-center policy and practice —  epitomizing what former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf last fall called (in reference to then-President Elect Obama’s transition team) "the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right" [4] —- when it comes to learning that "everything still pretty much sucks" when Democrats hold the top jobs in the American System. They have to live it themselves.

Older lefties can be forgiven, perhaps, for chomping at the bit as they watch Obama’s honeymoon with much of the electorate, young and old, linger into the summer of 2009. But liberal and progressive disillusionment with "Brand Obama’s" egregious state-capitalist corporate and bankers’ bailouts (amidst growing poverty and unemployment),with the "new" White House’s repackaging of terrible anti-civil-libertarian Bush-Cheney policies (surveillance, renditions, torture, anti-habeas corpus, "state secrets," secret prisons, military commissions, etc.), and the expanding Obama war on "Af-Pak" is steadily growing beneath the president’s still high approval ratings (naturally sky-high among Democrats). Nothing is for certain in our heavily propagandized, thought-controlled age of mass "mind management" (Herbert Schiller) and "manufactured consent" (Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky), but I expect the progressive disenchantment to deepen in coming months and years in accord with the continuing deep recession (capital slashed yet another 600,000 plus Americans from payrolls last month) and Obama’s fierce commitment to the American Empire Project and to the post-9/11 National Security State.

This disenchantment will not be worth a hill of progressive beans, however, unless popular forces develop considerably more capacity and willingness than they are currently exhibiting to organize for meaningful social and political change from the left and from the bottom up. More than merely meaningless, that disenchantment can actually become quite dangerous in the absence of such development, for popular resentment abhors a vacuum. Disconnected from the deceptive hope-phoria of "Obamalust," and deepened by deepening, capitalism-imposed economic dislocation, the "pissed off" feelings of "malaise and alienation" in which Henwood found ironic hope last year could easily feed a dodgy right-populist (proto-fascistic) rebellion against supposed Obamaist "socialism" (the "right wing talk radio mob’s" preposterous description of the administration’s and Democratic Party’s world view and agenda).  On the hard right, of course, there is no shortage of powerful demagogues ready to appeal to anxious and oppressed people with real grievances. Just listen to and/or watch Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly and the rest of the nation’s still powerful right wing noise machine.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is a veteran radical historian, political commentator, and author in Iowa City, IA.  He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefied, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008):  http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987


1. The prolific left author and political analyst Mike Davis recently put the candidate contrasts in amusing light. "Multi-tasking on his beloved Blackberry or plugged into his MP3 player during his morning workout," Davis writes, "Obama was easily cast as an epitome of those 21st-century competencies that some psychologists claim may represent a human evolutionary leap, while McCain, with his self-confessed computer phobia and archaic elocutions (‘My friends…’) was prone to caricature as an escaped Alzheimer’s patient." See Mike Davis, "Obama at Manassas," New Left Review (March-April 2009), pp. 10-11.

2. See Lance Selfa’s instructive book The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008).  See also my review of this excellent study: "A Left Case Against the Democrats," International Socialist Review (May-June 2009):  73-75.

3. My lived memories click in with LBJ’s vicious War on Vietnam (inherited from the arch-militarist JFK), which bitterly divided my father (anti-war) from my paternal grandfather (pro-war) for at least three years during the middle and late 1960s.

4. For the Rothkopf quote, see David Sanger, "Obama Tilts to Center, Inviting a Clash of Ideas," New York Times, November 21, 2008, A1. Translation: Obama may have campaigned and gained office with populace-pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric but he has governed in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions.

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