The Narrow Spectrum and “The Obama Dividend”

As Noam Chomsky has noted, the best way to see the narrow state-capitalist nature of the spectrum of acceptable debate  in U.S. political and media culture is to examine content at the “leftmost” margins of what passes for “mainstream” opinion. It’s one thing to see and/or hear privilege-friendly coverage and commentary at the openly business-oriented Wall Street Journal, Business Week, FOX News, “conservative” talk radio or The Weekly Standard.  That’s what one is told to expect in such venues. 


It’s another and more revealing thing to see and/or hear such coverage and commentary in places like the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC and National “Public” Radio. 


These are the more officially “liberal” and even “left” segments of dominant media, where popular interests, progressive values, and critical thinking are accorded some greater measure of respect.


Look, for example, at the opinions voiced by the regular Opinion-Editorial columnists* at the “liberal” (many on the right even call it “left-wing”) New York Times in relation to the recent election of the frankly corporate-imperial candidate Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. 


Those columnists are not monolithically liberal at all. They include two open Republicans: the neoconservative William Kristol (of the Weekly Standard) and the “moderate” David Brooks.  In the middle the Times’ columnist stable includes Nicholas Kristof, globalization enthusiast Thomas Friedman, Gail Collins, and Roger Cohen. On the “left” we have the clever liberal Sunday columnist Frank Rich, left-liberal Princeton economist Paul Krugman, and left-liberal black writer and U.S. Army veteran Bob Herbert.


How have these leading pundits responded to Obama’s ascendancy? With remarkably conservative and narrowly confined safety to concentrated American power, privilege, and empire.  Dominant themes in the Times’ columnists’ commentary taken as a whole include the notions that Obama’s election wonderfully re-legitimizes “American” institutions and values at home and abroad; that it shows the openness and opportunity of the U.S; that it marks a dramatic break from racism and other negative aspects of American history; that the world no longer has a good excuse not get on board with wise and benevolent U.S. “leadership;” that Obama will and/or must govern from the center; and that (with the notable exception of Herbert) meaningful change is about wise and benevolent presidents, not active citizen engagement. Left-progressive arguments on Obama’s elite sponsorship, corporate connections, and conservative, state-capitalist- and power-friendly world- view and on the constricted and reactionary nature of the U.S. candidate-selection and election process are completely beyond the pale of acceptable discussion. The notion that Obama’s election might be dangerously re-legitimizing dominant authoritarian domestic and imperial structures and doctrines in any way [1] is unthinkable on the part of Times columnists. 


Still, Krugman and Herbert deserve praise for arguing that bold and progressive policy can and should be enacted in the wake of the election. 


Herbert merits special for raising serious questions about poverty, economic injustice, the over-concentration of wealth and power, and the need for rank and file citizen action beyond elections. 


Let’s take them one at a time, moving from right to left.




William Kristol responded to his party’s defeat and Obama’s ascendancy with smug equanimity, crowing that the United States’ remains a “center-right country” and looking forward to the possibility of a Republican victory in 2012.  While technically accurate in relation to the modes of ideological self-identification (limited to “conservative,” “moderate,” and “liberal”) mainstream pollsters use, this judgment ignores the fact that a popular American majority has long stood well to the left of both major parties on numerous key domestic and foreign policy issues, supporting things like universal national health insurance, a significant reduction in corporate power, major reductions in the military budget (to fund social programs), an end to the U.S-imperial role as “world policeman” and a rapid exit from (illegally occupied) Iraq. 


Kristol applauded Obama’s selection of the conservative corporate and pro-war Democrat Rahm Emmanuel as White House chief of staff.  According to Kristol, this appointment shows that “Obama’s not going to be mindlessly leftist.”  But the notion that the “deeply conservative” Obama might be “leftist” at all is ridiculous neo-McCarthyism for which Kristol and other Republicans should publicly apologize. It is also part of the effort to discipline the Obama phenomenon from the right – to make sure that it stays within privilege- and empire-friendly boundaries.




David Brooks is a strange egg. He  felt compelled on Election Day to refer to the blustering militarist and plutocrat John McCain (a selfish  and dull-witted “make-believe maverick” who went hard right for the campaign and glorified war like no candidate in recent memory) as “one of the heroes of our time.” 


Brooks exaggerated wildly when he claimed that Obama is “a man who breaks from the recent past in almost every way,” in accord with a “public demand for change” that “was total.”  Obama has not broken from – in some ways he reinforces and deepens – “mainstream” politics’ attachment to corporate power, racial denial, and imperial militarism.  As the center-liberal journalist Ryan Lizza noted in the bourgeois weekly The New Yorker last July, “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.” [2] Writing about Obama in the same journal last year, Larissa McFarquhar found that “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.” [3]  My own recent study of the Obama phenomenon [4] is consistent with these reflections and with the following observation about Obama by the black left political scientist Adolph Reed Jr in 1996 (yes, 1996):


“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances.  I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.” [5]


When Brooks says “total change” and “breaks from the recent past in almost every way,” he is operating from within a painfully narrow moral an ideological spectrum – one that can imagine nothing acceptable left of moderate tinkering with the basic structures of the corporate state. The proudly “Hamiltonian” Brooks’ biggest point after the election has been that anything more than marginal fiddling with existing institutions by an Obama White House will “freak out” the nation’s conservative and centrist majority and disrupt the nation’s “fiscal foundation.”  Never mind that the majority populace is actually left-progressive on policy issues and that a broad swath of economic opinion calls for strong progressive policy interventions (with significant deficit-spending) to attack the deepening recession and to introduce more economic fairness. .


Brooks hopes that the Obama administration “understands” it “cannot impose an ideological program the country does not accept.”  This is an absurd concern,  He means a “left wing agenda” here, something that the militantly centrist Obama team explicitly rejects (and has from the start) even thought the populace would support much of what “mainstream” media and political culture smear as “left extremism” in the realm of policy.


Brooks claims that this was an election of “the middle,” with “no sign” of “a movement to the left” – this despite polls showing that Obama gained popularity because of his identification with policy positions identified with the left: withdrawal from Iraq, retreat from war as an instrument of policy, universal national health insurance, and a reduction of corporate and big money power on U.S. politics and society. 


Brooks “dreams” of an ideal Obama administration.  It would include Republicans (members of a party that most of the country repudiates and sees as hopelessly plutocratic), support reactionary “merit pay” proposals (which punish K-12 teachers for poor standardized test performances resulting from endemic and rising poverty in American communities) and “postpone contentious fights on things like card check legislation.”  It would keep the blood-soaked Republican imperialist Robert Gates at the head of the “Defense” (Empire) department and put reactionaries like Ray LaHood and Diane Ravitch (a leading No Child Left Behind enthusiast) in key posts.


And what, pray tell, is “card check legislation,” you ask? It is the Employee Free Choice Act, widely supported across the country.  It would re-legalize open and free labor organizing in the U.S, helping American workers push union density rates back to a civilized point (we are currently at less than 10 percent of workers represented by unions – a pre-New Deal level) (It’s in the Obama policy book but will have to be fought for tooth-and-nail over and against the opposition of Brooks-reading conservatives within the Obama administration – people like Obama’s new corporatist chief of staff Rahm Emmanual).





Moving “left” from the Times’ openly Republican pundits, Nicholas Kristof is ecstatic over the utility of Obama’s skin color when it comes to re-legitimizing the American Empire Project abroad.  U.S. imperialism may have killed more than a million Iraqis since March 2003 and more than 2 million since 1991.  It may have butchered untold tens thousands in (also) illegally occupied Afghanistan.  It may have been identified as the leading global threat to peace and justice by world citizens since well before 9/11, thanks to its support of reactionary regimes and regressive neoliberal policies across the planet. And Obama may have clearly aligned himself (in numerous speeches and writings for such bodies and organs as The Council on Foreign Relations and its journal Foreign Affairs) with the imperial mission, practices, and establishment that has so alienated the world for so long. 


But forget all that. Kristof could never acknowledge any but a sliver of that terrible history.  He is excited about how America’s election of a black president with an Islamic name makes possible the “Rebranding [of] the U.S. With Obama.”  That is the actual title of one of his pre-election columns, applying the language of corporate advertising – the public relations of mass marketing – to the 2008 election.


“If this election goes as the polls suggest,” Kristof opined late last October, “we may find a path to restore some of America’s global influence – and thus to achieve some of our international objectives – in part because the world is concluding that America can, after all see, see beyond a person’s epidermis.” 


This argument conflated the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s global objectives with those of the American citizenry with the use of the words “we,” “our” and “America.”  And Kristof reflexively assumed that advancing “our” global agenda is inherently a good thing, reflecting the fact that neither Kristof nor his employer could ever remotely acknowledge the long and deep undertow and richly living legacy of U.S. economic and military Empire.


In one post-election column, Kristof celebrated America’s supposed glorious Cold War record of leading “the international effort to construct global institutions to promote peace and prosperity.  These included the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and they served our interests.  Now in the aftermath of the cold war, we need to rethink and refurbish this architecture for the next half-century or more.”  Nothing there about the millions sacrificed and the ecology ruined in the name of the IMF and World Bank’s neoliberal austerity doctrines.  Nothing about U.S. overthrow of numerous governments (Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973 etc.) or “America’s” support of Third World Fascist regimes across the “developing” world or about the U.S slaughter of 3 million (or more) Indochinese in the

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