The Real Polarization and the Manipulation of Populism

There has not been some massive expansion of social programs, programs that help the poor, environmental programs, education programs. That’s not our problem.

— Barack Obama, comments to the Associated Press, Washington D.C., April 3, 2012



The late, formerly left political provocateur Christopher Hitchens earned disgrace among progressives by embracing George W. Bush’s petro-imperialist war of terror after 9/11, but he deserves credit for penning a pithy and perceptive paragraph on the plutocratic farce that passes for democratic politics in the United States. As Hitchens explained in his 1999 study of the Bill and Hillary Clinton presidency, “The essence of American politics [is] the manipulation of populism by elitism.” Further:


“…That elite is most successful which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most “in touch” with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently “elitist.” Its no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of “Every man a king” to the insipid “inclusiveness” of [Bill Clinton”s slogan] “Putting People First,” but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a “reserve” tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers.”[1] 


 “The Ever-Widening Chasm Between the Ultra-Rich and Everyone Else”


In the latest among many episodes in which he has acted in almost perfect accord with Hitchens’ formulation,  Barack Obama recently played the “putting people first” card in what Talking Points Memo “called the fieriest speech of his presidency” last week. Posing before the annual Associated Press (AP) luncheon as a champion of ordinary working people, the president lit into the Republican Party’s regressive plan for the county as outlined in House Majority Leader Paul Ryan’s GOP budget proposal and in the presidential campaign of the multibillionaire Mitt Romney. Obama decried the Republican vision of a society in which “a shrinking number of people do exceedingly well, while a growing number struggle to get by” and “there’s an ever-widening chasm between the ultra-rich and everybody else.”  Against the Republicans’ claim “that when [by Obama’s paraphrase] the wealthy become even wealthier,…their success will automatically translate into more jobs and prosperity for everybody else,” Obama observed that “the income of the top 1 percent has grown by more than 275 percent…to more than $1.3 million a year” with no positive results for the rest of the country over the last three decades of trickle-down economics.[2]  


It’s no accident that Obama chose to hook his portrait of disparity off the top hundredth rather than, say, the top tenth or the top thousandth: “The top 1 percent” is (for better or worse[3]) the language of the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose populist energy he and other leading Democrats are working to co-opt for electoral purposes ever after the administration helped Democratic Mayors across the nation dismantled Occupy encampments with brute military-policing force from coast to coast.


“That’s Not Our Problem”

Never mind that Obama’s presidency has deeply furthered the very upward distribution of wealth the president claims to dislike, consistent with the record-setting campaign contributions he received from leading financial firms and the staffing of his administration’s key economic positions with top Wall Street elites like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. Forget the “change” administration’s record-setting transfer of taxpayer dollars to the very financial behemoths that crashed the American and global economy – unaccompanied by any remotely comparable program for the many millions of Americans struggling to get by in the wake of the catastrophe and inequality imposed by the Few.


Consistent with that depressing record, Obama’s remarks to the AP contained the required “‘reserve’ tag[s] that earmark[ed him]… for the bankrollers and backers” of national politics. Early in  his AP address, the president made yet another of his many statements to date of his longstanding vacuous, idiotic, and neoliberal, power-serving faith in “the free market” and self-help[4] and of his related bourgeois skepticism about the positive role government can play:


“Keep in mind, I have never been somebody who believes that government can or should try to solve every problem. Some of you know my first job in Chicago was working with a group of Catholic churches that often did more good for the people in their communities than any government program could. In those same communities I saw that no education policy, however well crafted, can take the place of a parent’s love and attention.” 


“As President, I’ve eliminated dozens of programs that weren’t working, and announced over 500 regulatory reforms that will save businesses and taxpayers billions, and put annual domestic spending on a path to become the smallest share of the economy since Dwight Eisenhower held this office — since before I was born. I know that the true engine of job creation in this country is the private sector, not Washington….So I believe deeply that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. My mother and the grandparents who raised me instilled the values of self-reliance and personal responsibility that remain the cornerstone of the American idea.”[5] 

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