Tag Archives: Rick Perlstein

When Professors Oppose Unions

4 Dec

Rick Perlstein has a great piece on how faculty respond to grad student unions.

He quotes at length from a letter that a professor of political science at the University of Chicago sent to graduate students in his department who are trying to organize a union there.

What always amuses me about these sorts of statements from faculty is how carefully crafted and personal they are—you can tell a lot of time and thought went into this one—and yet somehow they still manage to attain all the individuality of a Walmart circular. No union contract was ever as standardized or as cookie-cutter as one of these missives. The very homogenization and uniformity that faculty fear a union will foist upon their campus is already present in their own aversion.

Anyway, here’s what the good professor has to say:

First off, let me preface these remarks by saying that when I was in graduate school at Berkeley in the 1990s, I was very active in the graduate student unionization movement. I was shop steward for the political science department for several years and was very active in a three week campus wide teaching strike we held in the fall of 1992. It may also be worth mentioning that I come from a working class family (I was the first and only person in my family to go to college) and I grew up around a lot of issues of collective bargaining. So I’m highly sympathetic to issues of collective action.

The I-come-from-a-working-class-background-my-dad-was-in-a-union-my-aunt-fucked-Walter-Reuther-I-organized-the-workers-at-Flint-this-may-come-as-a-surprise-but-I-actually-am-Cesar-Chavez opening. Check.

That said, I found your co-signed letter to be naive, unconvincing, and, quite frankly, kind of offensive. It is naive in that you seem to really think a union would not change relationships between graduate students and the faculty. I don’t know if either of you have ever been members of a union or worked in a unionized environment, but unions inevitably alter the relationships between union members and the people the interact with, be they management, clients, customers, or what not. The formalization of such relationships is, in fact, the central goal of a union. Your letter says “Our goal is simply to gain a voice in the decisions that affect our working conditions.” Well, these decisions are largely made by the faculty. Thus, if you want a collectivized voice in these decisions, you will be unavoidably shaping your relationships to faculty members.

We make all the decisions around here. Check. (Ask that professor if he even knows how much you make as a TA; they almost never do, though this one seems to. One point for research.)

The union will screw up your very close and personal relationship with your adviser. Check.

Oddly, when you point out that relationships between students and professors at Berkeley, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all of which have unions, are not that different from relationships between students and professors at Chicago, Yale, and Harvard, these peer institutions that these professors would be thrilled to get their students a job at suddenly become tarred with that dreaded word “public” or even worse “state school.”

And when you ask these professors to explain, concretely, why it makes a difference that Berkeley is public and Chicago is private, a thoughtful look will inevitably descend upon them, as they slowly emit the following carefully chosen words: “Well, it’s different at Berkeley. They’re a public university.”

What’s more egregious is the fact that most of the faculty I know do not think of interns [the University of Chicago's term for teaching assistants] as employees but think of the internship as another educational experience.

You’re students, not workers. Check.

Though this one has a novel twist: we, the faculty, think of you as students, not workers.

And just like that, our hard-bitten empiricist turns into the most starry-eyed constructivist.

And now comes the climax.

Every year there are hundreds of applicants for a very small number of slots to study here. You are very lucky to be here, just as I am very lucky to teach here. When you were admitted to the university, you were not hired. You were offered a spot as a student. The university owes you nothing beyond what it initially proposed and what you accepted. To call yourself an employee and complain about an absence of cost-of-living adjustments, health insurance, or the burdens of being a graduate student…sounds both presumptuous and petulant.

You’re privileged, presumptuous, and petulant. Check.

I, on the other hand, am…just another tenured professor at a fancy school. Saying what every other tenured professor at a fancy school has said to any one of his students who managed to tell him that she wanted to form a union too.

Check check check.

Academia: the herd of independent minds.

Rick Perlstein Schools Mark Lilla

16 Mar

After discussing the forgotten lunacies of the conservative movement during its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s—including one Fred Schwarz, right-wing crackpot and author of You Can Trust the Communists: To be Communists—Rick Perlstein, who knows more about the American right than just about anyone, writes this:

The notion that conservatism has taken a new, and nuttier, turn has influential adherents whose distortions derail our ability to understand and contain it. In a recent New York Review of Books review of Corey Robin’s ground-breaking book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, which traces continuities in right-wing thought all the back to the seventeenth century, the distinguished political theorist Mark Lilla pronounced that “most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley.” So what did a “reality-based conservative” like Buckley make of Fred Schwarz? Reader, he blurbed him, praising the good doctor for “instructing the people in what their leaders so clearly don’t know.” So, in fact, did Ronald Reagan, who in 1990 praised the quack’s “tireless dedication in trying to ensure the protection of freedom and human rights.” And here’s the late GOP heavyweight Jack Kemp, who wrote in praise of Schwarz’s 1996 memoir(Reagan is pictured with Schwarz on the flap): “How much I appreciate the fact that as much as anybody, including President Reagan, President Bush, and Pope John Paul … [Dr. Schwarz] has had the opportunity to educate literally thousands of young men and women all over the world in the struggle for democracy and freedom and the struggle against the tyranny of Communism.” The “establishment conservatives,” Reagan and Kemp, and the “nut,” Dr. Fred Schwarz, were never so far apart after all.

 You hear a lot about Ronald Reagan from the conservatives-are-nuttier-than-ever-before crowd: They praise him as a compromiser and point out, correctly, that he raised taxes seven of his eight years as president, in stark contrast to today’s Republicans, who refuse to raise them at all. Here’s the thing, as I wrote amid the hosannas after he died in 2004, during the awful reign of Bush: “It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.”

Amen to that.  Rick also writes:
But are right-wingers scarier now than in the past? They certainly seem stranger and fiercer. I’d argue, however, that they’ve been this crazy for a long time. Over the last sixty years or so, I see far more continuities than discontinuities in what the rightward twenty or thirty percent of Americans believe about the world. The crazy things they believed and wanted were obscured by their lack of power, but they were always there – if you knew where to look. What’s changed is that loony conservatives are now the Republican mainstream, the dominant force in the GOP.
Again, amen.

The Prison House of Labor

11 Mar

When Kathy Saumier learned that a new factory was coming to town, it seemed as if there really was—as that absurdist bit of suburban wisdom from The Graduate has it—a great future in plastics.  Landis Plastics, to be exact.  Landis, a family-owned company based in Illinois, makes containers for yogurt and cottage cheese.  The company was opening a plant in Solvay, New York, not far from Syracuse where Saumier lived.  She applied for a job.  “It’s a new place,” she thought.  “It’s more money.  It sounded good.”  New York Governor Mario Cuomo thought so too.  With the help of Solvay officials, Cuomo’s administration had put together an $8.5 million package of tax breaks, cheap electricity, and direct aid to lure the factory – and 200 promised jobs – to upstate New York.  The day the plant opened, Cuomo was there to welcome it.

For Saumier, however, the celebration was short-lived.  Hired to operate a machine that produced 36,000 plastic containers per hour, Saumier was expected, within a single minute, to inspect 600 containers, pack them in a box, and haul the box over to a conveyor belt.  The breakneck pace was the least of it.  Safety conditions at Landis were dire.  Within thirteen months of Saumier’s hiring, printing presses at the factory had claimed part of the finger of a co-worker, almost all of the finger of another worker, two fingers of a third, part of the pinky of a fourth, and the tip of the middle finger of a fifth.  Sex discrimination and sexual harassment were rampant.  Managers reserved all but one of the higher-paying and safer technician jobs for men – and openly admitted to doing so.  Male workers asked female workers for oral sex, called them bitches and cunts, touched their breasts and buttocks, and humiliated new female employees with simulations of masturbation.  Management did nothing about it.

Saumier decided to speak up.  She got involved in a union drive at the plant.  She filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the factory’s safety conditions and lodged a sex-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Viewing her actions as the opening shot of a larger “insurrection” by the workers, Landis struck back.  Harassment, particularly of Saumier and other pro-union employees, increased.  When Saumier complained, the assistant director of human resources replied, “If you’re in the public eye, you’re opening yourself to harassment.”  Saumier was called into a meeting where she was accused by a former FBI agent, now working for Landis’ lawyers, of sabotaging the cars of anti-union workers.  Another pro-union worker was hustled off to jail by the police after a co-worker accused her of stealing a coat; the charges were later dropped.  Saumier was forced to work by herself in a room called “hold,” where she was not permitted to talk to anyone.  “It’s like they put you in solitary,” she told a reporter.  She was again questioned by management, this time in the presence of a police officer, about sabotaging the car of an anti-union worker.  Finally, after she herself was accused of sexual harassment – among other charges, it was alleged that she pulled down a co-worker’s pants and tried to touch his genitals and that she asked an African American co-worker about the size of his penis – Saumier was fired.  Claiming that Landis treated its employees as “rabble that must be kept under the boss’s heel,” Syracuse’s mild-mannered local newspaper editorialized thus:

Like most central New Yorkers, we cheered when Landis came to Solvay, bringing nearly 200 jobs to a community that had been clobbered by the Allied pullout. [Allied Chemical had closed its Solvay plant in 1986.]  But no one expected a seventeenth-century attitude toward worker rights to come with the deal.  No one expected mangled bodies to be accepted as a cost of doing business.

Then the federal government stepped in, and things began to go Saumier’s way.  OSHA fined Landis $720,700 – one of the largest safety fines in New York history – for seventy-four violations at the plant.  An EEOC settlement forced Landis to pay $782,000 to former and current female employees.  A federal judge issued an injunction, ordering Landis to reinstate Saumier.  Pointing out that the company had done nothing in the past about female workers’ complaints of sexual harassment – or about black workers’ complaints of racial harassment – the judge ruled that Landis was retaliating against Saumier for her union activism and whistle-blowing activities.  Then the National Labor Relations Board conclusively determined the same and ordered Landis to rehire Saumier.

By the time Saumier returned to her job thirteen months after being fired, the pace had increased:  now the machines pumped out 700 containers per minute.  Saumier could barely keep up, and a workplace injury caused her intense pain.  Of the more than one hundred workers who had originally joined Saumier in signing union cards, only fifteen remained.  Most of the new workers were immigrants, too frightened to speak up and suffer Saumier’s fate or worse.  Saumier decided to quit, the union drive stalled.  Today, there is no union at Landis Plastics.

• • • • •

In the course of cleaning up my computer, I found the above discussion of workplace coercion and labor unions that I wrote for, and had intended to include in, The Reactionary Mind. Originally I planned to use it to open the  introduction—to give readers a more concrete sense of what I meant by the reactionary politics of the right, a politics dedicated to the preservation of private hierarchies of power—but Rick Perlstein wisely counseled me to take it out.

Since I’ve been talking quite a bit of late about workplace coercion—though it’s an old concern of mine, going back to my grad school work as a union organizer and my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea (especially chapter 8)—I thought I’d post this passage here, particularly since it’s never been published anywhere.

The material is entirely drawn from Steven Greenhouse’s excellent book The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (New York: Knopf, 2008), pp. 15-34, which I highly recommend. Focusing on a little known labor struggle from the 1990s, this story gives a visceral sense of the neo-feudalism of the workplace I often talk about. Outside the military and the prison, is there any institution that so controls the bodies of adult men and women? No wonder they call it the prison house of labor.

Even Narcissists Have Enemies

25 Feb

It’s been a long while since our last roundup of news of the book.  So here goes….

  1. Firedoglake held a salon about The Reactionary Mind today. Rick Perlstein hosted the discussion, lots of people chimed in.
  2. Thom Hartmann conducted an interview with me for his show Conversations with Great Minds. I certainly don’t have a great mind, but it was, thanks to Thom, a great conversation. Here’s Part I; here’s Part II.
  3. Paul Heideman has a really thoughtful review of the book here, one of the best I’ve read. Though Heideman has some criticisms, he gives a thorough account of the book’s argument.
  4. Jeffrey Goldfarb wrote an interesting blog post about the book, which sparked some more interesting discussion.
  5. Daniel Beland, a Canadian sociologist, wrote a good review—my first academic review in fact—in the Canadian Journal of Sociology.
  6. A Dutch magazine did a lengthy interview with me, which appears here.  In Dutch.
  7. The Reactionary Mind got a nice plug and discussion in this excellent piece in Salon about conservatism and Saul Alinsky by historian Tom Sugrue; my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea also got a nice plug, again in Salon, in this excellent piece about unions and workplace democracy by political scientist Dorian Warren.
  8. Amanda Marcotte made some good use of The Reactionary Mind to blog about the contraception wars and the GOP.
  9. Though I’ve already blogged separately about these, I wanted to make sure they were included in this roundup. The New York Times Opinionator did a piece on The Reactionary Mind. Lots and lots of comments there. I responded to Mark Lilla’s review in the New York Review of Books, and he responded to my response.
  10. Somewhere out there is a recording of an interview I did with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. —yes, that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—about the book and all matters GOP. Sadly, I can’t find it anywhere…

And though this has nothing much to do with me or my book, John Holbo did a blog post about Robert Nozick and libertarianism, in the course of which he wrote:

The next time someone tells you that Corey Robin is paranoid, just explain to them that actually you are an orthodox Nozickian about these things.

Which of course made me wonder: Is everybody saying I’m paranoid?

Even narcissists have enemies…

Still Batshit Crazy After All These Years: A Reply to Ta-Nehisi Coates

3 Jan

Jumping off from Mark Lilla’s negative review of my book in the New York Review of Books—about which more later, though if you’re looking for a hard-hitting response, check out Alex Gourevitch’s demolition at Jacobin—Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a helpful corrective to Lilla’s claim that “political apocalypticism” is a recent development on the right.

It’s interesting that Lilla raises Buckley here. People often bring him up as foil to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as an example of a time when conservatism was sane. But that Buckley joke has always struck me (a college dropout) as batshit crazy. I constantly hear about the sober-minded Buckley, but it’s tough for me to square that with the man who posited that the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church might lay at the feet of  “a crazed Negro” and basically worked as a press agent for apartheid in South Africa. (But National Review is against the drug war, so it’s fine.) From a black perspective, modern conservatism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham.

One of the reasons I wrote The Reactionary Mind was to challenge this refrain, which you hear on the right and the left, that today’s conservatism is fundamentally crazier—not being a licensed professional, I prefer the term “more radical” or “more extreme”—than yesterday’s. As I  state on p. 43:

As the forty-year dominion of the right begins to fade, however fitfully, writers like Sam Tanenhaus, Andrew Sullivan…claim that conservatism went into decline when Palin, or Bush, or Reagan, or Goldwater, or Buckley, or someone took it off the rails.  Originally, the argument goes, conservatism was a responsible discipline of the governing classes, but somewhere between Joseph de Maistre and Joe the Plumber, it got carried away with itself.  It became adventurous, fanatical, populist, ideological.  What this story of decline overlooks…is that all of these supposed vices of contemporary conservatism were present at the beginning, in the writings of Burke and Maistre, only they weren’t viewed as vices.  They were seen as virtues.  Conservatism has always been a wilder and more extravagant movement than many realize—and it is precisely this wildness and extravagance that has been one of the sources of its continuing appeal.

So, naturally, I agree with Coates’s claim that there’s no great disjuncture between the Buckley of the 1960s and contemporary conservatism.  (Readers interested in these continuities should check out Kevin Mattson’s Rebels All!.)  And in my book, I offer many more instances of the ways that modern conservatism and visions of a racial apocalypse are intertwined. (Though if you want a real sense of that fusion, Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is the place to start.)

Nixon, according to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.” And of course there is this classic National Review editorial from 1957:

The central question that emerges [from the civil rights movement] is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

That “for the time being” adds a nice touch of dread: the end may be nigh.

But I’d like to suggest that Coates’s dating of the beginning of “conservatism’s batshit phase” needs to be pushed back a bit. Like a hundred and seventy-three years bit.

As I’ve argued repeatedly, from its very inception in the reaction against the French Revolution, conservatism has contained within itself some of the most wild and extravagant visions of war and apocalypse.  It was none other than the supposedly level-headed Edmund Burke who, when confronted with the Jacobin challenge, declared, “The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.” Burke was fully prepared to see and stare down the coming apocalypse, by any means necessary: Jacobinism “must be destroyed,” he insisted, “or it will destroy all of Europe.” By Jacobinism he meant not simply a political movement but an “armed doctrine.”  Each and every expression of that doctrine would have to be exterminated: “If it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.”And far from arguing that the destruction of the Revolution would bring a return of the tried and familiar, he insisted that whatever came next would in fact be “in some measure a new thing.”

It’s arguments like these—and my book features many more of them throughout the 19th and 20th century—that led me to choose as the epigraph to my book this lovely passage from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to a suitor she kept at bay: “Dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”

Now Coates has an important qualifier to his claim about conservatism’s history: “From a black perspective, modern conservativism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham” (my emphasis).

But even from a black perspective, I would argue, the batshit—sorry, extremism—goes way back.  Some of this, of course, is not news to Coates, who’s been writing at length about the history of slavery and white supremacy in this country. John C. Calhoun’s constitutional vision, which is featured in virtually every anthology of the conservative canon, is absolutely rooted in the defense of slavery. (Manisha Sinha’s The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina is the definitive account; her discussion of Calhoun’s stance on the tariff and its relationship to slavery, which Coates also discusses here, is positively riveting.)

And as I discuss in my book, virtually every major defense of slavery, from Thomas Jefferson’s to William Harper’s, ends on a note that should be familiar to any student of European fascism, the apex of right-wing apocalypticism.  If the slaves are set free, warn the slaveholders, there will have to be a final solution to the Negro Question: either deportation or elimination. (Though it’s not considered polite to say so, it’s important to remember that, as late as 1941, the Nazis were mulling over the same options.)

Beating the drums of race war, Jefferson warned that emancipation would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.”  The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history.  When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.” Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported along with their parents, Thomas Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.” With abolition, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.” (Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Ideology of Slavery and Paul Finkelman’s Defending Slavery are excellent anthologies of pro-slavery primary documents.)

The relationship between conservatism, slavery, and white supremacy is a complicated one, and I by no means wish to suggest either that all conservatives were pro-slavery—some, including Burke, were not—or that liberalism does not have its own intimate relationship with slavery and racism, as the example of Jefferson reveals. (The latter topic has generated a vast literature, but two useful places to begin are Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract and, more recently, Dominic Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History.)

But mere opposition to slavery hardly made conservatives abolitionist: far from it. When confronted with the actual question of emancipation, the intransigent demand to politically transform societies of deeply rooted domination into societies of freedom—Ground Zero, as I argue in my book, of the reactionary mind—virtually all of them sang a different tune (see chapter 4 of Patrick Allitt’s generally sympathetic survey The Conservatives).  As I put it on pp. 27-28:

Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests.  But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question….his predecessor was in all likelihood against them.  Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is one of the few contemporary conservatives who acknowledge the history of conservative opposition to emancipation. Where other conservatives like to lay claim to the abolitionist or civil rights mantle, Gerson admits that “honesty requires the recognition that many conservatives, in other times, have been hostile to religiously motivated reform” [of the sort that produced the last two centuries' worth of black freedom movements] and that “the conservative habit of mind once opposed most of these changes.” Indeed, as Samuel Huntington suggested a half-century ago, saying no to such movements in real time may be what makes someone a conservative throughout time.

And, again, we can date this to 1789. One of the issues conservatives worried about in the French Revolution was that it might spur slave revolts and revolutions throughout the Americas. (John Adams, incidentally, voiced a similar concern about the impact of the American Revolution.) In a speech before Parliament in April 1791, Burke warned that any “constitution founded on what was called the rights of man” would open a “Pandora’s box.”

As soon as this system arrived among [the French]…every mortal evil, seemed to fly open, hell itself to yawn, and every demon of mischief to overspread the face of the earth.  Blacks rose against whites, whites against blacks, and each against one another in murderous hostility; subordination was destroyed….

Four months later, on the night of August 21, black slaves fired the first shots of the Haitian Revolution. As with so many things, Burke’s was a prophetic voice. Small wonder he called for not a little bit of madness and mayhem in response: “Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.”

Long after the slaves had thrown off their masters in Haiti, that revolution—and its predecessor revolution in France—would haunt the memories of the master class in the South. In response, they would not only tighten their coercive hold on the black population—as well as the national government—but they would also begin to promulgate the most elaborate notions of white supremacy, some based on religion, others, more far-reaching, based on science.

Not only did these notions justify the enslavement of blacks, but they also helped create the cozy inclusiveness of a white herrenvolk democracy. Racism and slavery made whites, no matter how different their holdings, equal. As Calhoun put it:

With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

Not only would such a notion help conscript all whites, whether masters or not, in the defense of slavery, but it would also provide, as Thomas Dew would note, an enormously potent toxin against the egalitarian notions and movements then roiling Europe and Jacksonian America.  Radicals, Dew wrote, “wish all mankind to be brought to one common level. We believe slavery, in the United States, has accomplished this.”  By freeing whites from “menial and low offices,” slavery has eliminated “the greatest cause of distinction and separation of the ranks and society.”

More than a century later, pioneers of the Southern Strategy would find a similar utility—as they sought to beat back the New Deal, the Great Society, and the egalitarian movements of the Sixties—in the avenging armies and arguments of white supremacy.

From Bristol in 1789 to Birmingham in 1963: not such a long journey, after all.  Apocalypse then, apocalypse now.

Update (January 4, 11:45 am)

Lauren Kientz Anderson offers some fascinating follow-up material on white supremacy in the South here. (And if you don’t know or follow the U.S. Intellectual history blog, you should. It’s got great stuff and great writers.)

Obama: WTF? A Facebook Roundtable of the Left

1 Aug

This morning, my Facebook page exploded. It all started when I posted this excellent piece by Glenn Greenwald about Obama and the debt-ceiling deal. Greenwald says that those who think Obama is weak and lacks backbone, or that he got suckered by the Republicans or is somehow being held hostage, are full of shit.  With a few exceptions, Obama got what he wanted.

Greenwald has a lot of evidence to back up his claims, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. So I put the question to my FB friends.  Is Obama politically inept or does he want these massive cuts? And if he wants them, is it because of political calculation? Is he a true believer in neoliberal economics? A hostage of Wall Street?

 To my surprise, lots of people weighed in, many of them leading voices and scholars on the left: Katha Pollitt, Adolph Reed, Josh Cohen, Tom Sugrue, Rick Perlstein, and more. With their permission, I’ve reprinted the discussion, almost verbatim (I had to leave out a few comments from people who didn’t get back to me, and I edited some comments for context and flow).

Corey Robin: What do you guys think of this Greenwald piece? I think it’s excellent, but I’m not convinced. Obama didn’t get the tax cuts he wanted. It’s not clear this will help him electorally (the state of the economy in the fall of 2012 will matter much more than his pose of bipartisanship now; there is zero evidence to suggest this deal will help the economy and lots of reasons to think it will hurt.) Though it’s true that Obama has wanted cuts to entitlement programs for some time, he doesn’t get them in the first phase of the deal, and in the second phase, assuming the trigger mechanism kicks in, Social Security remains off-limits.

What’s your sense of why Obama wants these cuts? We know why the GOP wants them. But what are the ideological underpinnings or economic/political interests of Obama’s position? Even within the framework of neoliberalism, I’m not sure I get the motivation. Have the financial markets really been pushing for these cuts? My anecdotal sense was that people like Summers — I know, now out of the administration, but I took him to be a fairly good representative of that sector — thought this wasn’t the way to go. My assumption is that the reason Obama has taken this route is that he thinks it’s a good way to position himself electorally, and that this is coming less from the money people than the politicos. But I am more than happy to be told otherwise.

So what do you guys think: Weak president? Moderate right president? Shrewd negotiator? What?

The “he’s weak” line mystifies me

Doug Henwood: He’s going to position himself as the “reasonable” alternative to extremists, the man who can compromise where they can’t, etc. His partisan selling point will be his bipartisanship, unlike the other guys, who are just rigid ideologues. He’ll have to do this subtly, so he doesn’t sound too partisan.

Corey: Doug, so is your position that the motivation for this is electoral or do you also see pressure for this coming from the bond markets, the money men, etc?

Rick Perlstein‎: “The people hate partisan gridlock”; “I defeated partisan gridlock”; “The people will hail me as a hero, bearing me aloft on their shoulders.” The fellow’s not quite well.

Doug: He loves it that both “extremes” are complaining.  Wall Street wants budget balance with no tax increases on itself. That means cuts. Their major jones has been for “entitlement” reform, which means anything from a squeeze (CPI gimmickry, etc.) to outright privatization. The squeezers are more the WS establishment, like Goldman; the outright privatizers are the hedge fund guys, who tend to be more libertarian, often rabidly so. A lot of WS doesn’t follow details closely – they just *know* that gov spends too much and needs to be “reined in.” A lot of the time, their “facts” are wrong. But there’s no doubt they want spending cuts, big ones. And the only way to get that is SS & Medicare. BTW, Summers is now a good guy, as these things go.

Jay Driskell: To me, he reads like a classic late 19th century progressive – that there are smart people who know smart things and it is they who should sit down in a room and hammer out the details above the “partisan fray.” The problem, then as now, is that there is no way above that fray – especially when one or both parties are trying to game the non-partisan/bi-partisan negotiations for their own partisan advantage. However, I really do think that Obama really believes that he is making progress. Otherwise, his negotiating strategies make absolutely no sense. I’d like to think he’s in the thrall of capital…that would at least be comprehensible (and reprehensible) to me.

Katha Pollitt: IMO, he’s weak. He made a strategic error in letting the debt ceiling, which has a rigid deadline, be connected to deficit reduction, a longterm and complicated issue. this allowed the Republicans to hold the debt ceiling hostage to their ongoing attack on entitlements and discretionary spending on anything good. he also failed to hold the line on raising revenues through taxation. That kind of disappeared.

Corey: Katha, what do you make of all the evidence Greenwald amasses, arguing to the contrary? Genuine question, as ordinarily I tend to be more in your camp; I just can’t square that with the evidence Greenwald has and some of the stuff Doug and others have been saying.

Doug: The “he’s weak” line mystifies me. Why should we see a guy who had a near-overnight rise, blessed by the Dem establishment, be assumed to be lacking in political skills and understanding? He said all along he wanted entitlement reform and budget balance. The mix may not be what he wanted, but he had plenty of rhetorical, legal, and political possibilities to change the discourse and he didn’t. Occam says he didn’t want to.

Jodi Dean: I’m not sure moderate right fits someone to the right of Nixon and Reagan. I don’t think he is a playing an electoral pollitics game. He seems to think of government in the service of markets, where markets mean primarily financial markets (but also insurance markets and others). So, my basic read is: never the progressive or moderate Democrat that progressives and moderate Democrats wanted or fantasized him to be; always the state as an instrument of the ruling class. But what gets me: his last debt ceiling speech went on about shared responsibility when that was not at all what he was going to do or what he actually wanted. Differently put, I sign on to the “not weak just a bad guy capitalist” interpretation. Yet this is rooted in taking him at his word (and not thinking that he deceives or is manipulated). So the glitch is why he would present his preferred solution/plan as other than what it was. Maybe the only difference now between Tea Party crazy and mainstream conservative (Obama) is the willingness to embrace the becoming-Mad-Max-future-of​-the US v. lip service to the fragile veneer of governance/sociality still holding something like everyday life together.

Doug: Jodi, I suspect that in an ideal world he’d like to see modest upper-bracket tax increases and somewhat less dramatic spending cuts, but didn’t want to go to the mat for them. Plus, he needs Wall Street money for a billion-dollar re-election campaign.

Doug: Jay, “If he were in the thrall of capital”? In who else’s thrall is he?

Jodi: Doug–so your version of “not weak” still includes the fact that even if strong he has to make some compromises; that makes sense to me (so, it answers my question about the speech).

Katha: You know, none of us know what is in his head. However, he did say, as recently as last monday, that he wanted tax hikes on the wealthy. He wanted the Bush tax cuts to expire, which is not in the current deal. I don’t exactly disagree with Doug — clearly, he is Wall St’s man –but I think a more skillful politician, one less in love with being above the fray, could have handled this a lot better and gotten more on the other side. I mean, asking people to call their congressperson? Pathetic.

He’s a One-Trick Pony

Adolph Reed: He’s a one-trick pony, always has been, and that trick is performing judiciousness, reasonableness, performing the guy who shows his seriousness by being able to agree with those with whom he supposedly disagrees and to disagree with those with whom he supposedly agrees. He has never — not at any moment in his political career — stood for anything more concrete than a platitude. He is also one of those get all the smart people in the room to figure out what’s best for us all technocratic left-neoliberals and at the end of the day (well, even at dawn) believes that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us.

Corey: Jodi, moderate right is a term relative to the political spectrum. It doesn’t make sense to say Nixon was to the left of Obama without some reference to the political circumstances. Nixon was constrained by a still vibrant New Deal regime; Reagan came into destroy it, and did so somewhat successfully, but he was still encumbered by it. Obama operates in a different political world. As for taking him at his word, he’s said a lot of words. Sometimes he’s quite explicitly signaled a desire to break with the Reaganite consensus; not just in the campaign but early on in his presidency. So the words are murky.

Doug: Adolph, I mostly agree with you, but he is standing up for the freedom and power of capital. That’s not unprincipled, though it’s not our principle, nor that of many of the febrile sorts who promoted him back in 2008.

Corey: Adolph, I find that persuasive. That supports the notion that he is both a political performance artist, in which the main ideology is one of reasonableness without any content whatsoever, and he’s kind of like the 19th century progressives Jay talked about above.

Doug: Jodi, sure. He had to get something through a divided Congress. But there were arrows in his quiver he chose to leave there.

Corey: Doug, Adolph: Your last two comments to each other really do mark a genuine question I have. I tend to think people like Obama really don’t believe the bullshit they preach; what they do believe is that moderation is the mark of maturity and that Wall Street types are smarter than the rest of us. But that is a fairly apolitical reading of them, which doesn’t look at the real and substantive impact neoliberal ideology has had on such folks. I toggle back and forth between those two views. Obama reminds me so much of people I went to college with, who just hitched themselves to a cart that told them this is where success was, and that intelligence is demonstrated by breaking with the crazy left. After a while maybe they start believing their own bullshit, but I can’t help thinking that if careerism is your motivation, you’ll basically go with wherever you think the career incentives will take you. Of course, all this gets into the kind of armchair psychologizing that is totally besides the point. But I do wonder how these ideological formations happen.

Adolph: Note that his posture toward health care, economic policy, the budget crisis, etc has been to sit back and position himself to work the Grand Compromise. (Note as well his bizarre version of Lincoln that never manages to include the fucking Civil War, not even in relation to the Emancipation Proclamation; James Oakes has pointed out that Lincoln’s penchant for compromise was only with members of his own party; the Dems, after all, were at war against him.) Obama’s one trick was good for getting him elected to successively higher offices, but now he’s where the buck stops where that trick — the equivalent of a short con — doesn’t work so well. And he doesn’t have a long con to operate. So all he has is a knack for getting himself out of the room he’s in at the moment. I imagine he feels, if he even looks that far, that that aptitude will re-elect him in 2012. At that level, who knows what he’s thinking, if he’s thinking anything beyond the moment and having another piece of paper showing that he’s gotten something done. I take Doug’s “I told you so” point to heart (not like he and I haven’t talked about it for a while anyway). All I’d add is that it’s intriguing from the standpoint of ideology-critique and more than exasperating from the standpoint of concern with building a serious left to see how many people who should have known better got swept up in the utterly, transparently bullshit hype about Obama either sanitizing their pasts or tying themselves into more and more convoluted knots trying to rationalize what should have been obvious about him from the very beginning.

Doug: Corey, the personal angle with O, I think, is the fact that he was nurtured from an early age by elites – fancy universities and foundations and then the Dem leadership. He’s in awe of them, and grateful for all they did. Cf. FDR, who emerged from the elite and had the confidence to challenge them. That, plus the times are different. But that’s how I see the personalities meshing with history. I also wouldn’t go too far with the contentlessness of his reasonableness: it’s always about loyal service to power. Not to belabor the obvious, but it’s extremely useful to the bourgeoisie to have a mixed race, cerebral Democrat imposing the austerity program. I’m reminded of Dinkins telling Wall Street skeptics, who thought he didn’t have the balls to impose austerity after the 80s went poof, back during his first campaign: “They’ll take it from me.”

Corey: Doug, did you ever see David Bromwich’s piece (maybe in the LRB or on Huffington Post) about Obama’s infatuation with elites and his comparison with FDR? Very interesting. Though again too much focus on character, for my tastes, not on politics.

Doug: No, Corey, didn’t see that Bromwich piece. The “politics” of it all seem crystal clear to me. What’s going to be interesting, in a sick voyeuristic car wreck kind of way, is watching the pwogwessives rationalize this and get ready for 2012.

Adolph: Doug, of course you’re right about his standing up for the freedom and power of capital. I intended to mention that not only does he believe that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us; they’ve also bankrolled him up to his eye teeth in 2008 and now. They started getting behind him about 20 minutes after he was elected to the US Senate. And, if lefties of a sort didn’t have such a ridiculous soft spot for the black guy of the moment, more people might have noticed that that element and maudlin Fulfillment of the Dream fantasies — Pritzker, the Daley crowd — was always where his effective political base was, from the beginning of his political career or that he had never weighed in on any live conflict bearing on inequality, ever, except, of course, in that abstract, Kang and Kodos cum overblown eloquence style of his. He’s a vacant tool, but he’s capital’s vacant tool, not ours, and he never has been. All the crap about his “better angels” that the Nation crowd and others persist with is either the equivalent of not wanting to admit having been wrong in their idiotic slurping in the first place or pathetic clinging to the baseless hope that he’ll listen or toss a face-saving bone. Hell, he told you during his campaign that he wasn’t a progressive and that his skill is in making people believe that he’s with them.

Corey: By the way, it looks as if Social Security is off the table in terms of the trigger mechansm. As is Medicaid. Medicare, though, is not.

Doug: He’s not unlike Jerry Brown – a fundamentally conservative guy who can convince pwoggies that he’s one of them. As J.D. Lorenz, the founder of California Rural Legal Assistance who spent a few months working for Jerry and wrote a fine book about him, his strategy was to create “an ambiance of possibility that gave the viewer space: space to project his fondest wishes onto Jerry, space to identify with Jerry….” They both come off as thoughtful and cerebral, more reflective than your standard issue pol. This is what gives the pwog audience space to project fantasies: he must be one of us!

Doug: They’ll play COLA games with SS, won’t they?

Adolph: Corey, apropos of your comment that BHO reminds you of people you went to school with. I’d refrained from saying that he, as well as his various running dogs, haunt me as illustrations of the modal type of Ivy League POC students I’ve been teaching for the last 30 years. That same mastery of performance of a cultivated, yet at the same time empty and pro forma, intellectuality, conviction that one’s career advancement literally embodies the victory of the civil rights movement, and that awe that Bromwich notes of the rich and powerful. Of course, this doesn’t apply only to the POCs; Arne Duncan and others proceed on the same basis. But take a look at Yalie Jonah Edelman, spawn of Peter and Marian Wright, boasting alongside Crown family scion and financier James Schine Crown at the Aspen Institute about how his ed reform non-profit (also funded by investment bankers, hedge fund operators, Walton Family Foundation, etc) went after Illinois teachers’ unions: http://j.mp/oytHI7 See 6ff, and esp. 8ff.)

Doug: Marx: “The better able a ruling class is to absorb the natural leaders of the oppressed, the more solid and dangerous its rule.” By that measure the American ruling class is doing just fine.

Corey: Funny, Doug, that’s 1/4 of my theory of counterrevolution right there; had totally forgotten about that quote from Marx, which must be where I got it from. Love that pairing of solid and dangerous, which are ordinarily not words we associate together.

Corey: Yeah, Adolph, I know exactly what you mean. But as you know and say, it’s a phenomenon that totally transcends race. Except for that part about telling themselves that they embody the victory of the civil rights movement. Though I’ve seen a version of this among Jews and other sorts whose grandparents were one step removed from the farm or shtetl or whatever: that their arrival constitutes another step in the long march of justice.

Doug: My god, I missed this a couple of weeks ago: http://www.time.com/time/n​ation/article/0,8599,20829​71-2,00.html. So this has all been scripted for weeks? And Obama rejected Boehner’s $2.4 trillion – to get $4 trillion?These dollar amounts are big, but the discretionary caps amount to 0.4% of GDP over the next 10 years, and what the magic commish is supposed to come up with is another 0.6% of GDP. Maybe this isn’t quite as awful as it looks, though it’s awful. Of course it could always get worse, and they haven’t started the COLA game yet.

Tom Sugrue: I am with Adolph. There is little about Obama’s trajectory on economic issues that is surprising, except to those who believed that (despite both his words and his record) he was a crypto-leftist waiting for the right moment. Whether or not Obama believes what he practices is immaterial.I would also add that we are where we are because BHO glamored “progressives” including the Nation‘s editors and so many more who should have known better. Without a well-organized, vocal left, we can’t expect any better. FDR did not tack leftward in 1935 and 36 out of principle, but because he was pulled there. (And remember that he veered just as quickly rightward in 1937, when he succumbed to bipartisan deficit-mania.)

Thaddeus Russell: I am struck again and again by how closely Obama’s rhetoric and policies adhere to Kristol’s and Podhoretz’s founding documents of neoconservatism: imperialism, cultural homogenization (e.g., his “post-racial” discourse and especially Race to the Top), and the dismantling of the welfare state. So, to me, this explains his “willingness” to sacrifice SS and Medicare. Also, the elitist attitude toward policy-making, which the neocons got from the original progressives.

Joshua Cohen: ‎1. I think BHO’s political views are in the neighborhood of Cass Sunstein’s: pretty centrist, with different leans on different issues. But much less conventionally left than some supporters painted him as being. Part of the reason for the painting was the poetic rhetoric, but that rhetoric (hope….change….etc etc) was always VERY VERY abstract, not tied to policy.

2. BHO has shown a willingness to be reasonable with the unreasonable: which is an invitation to being exploited by the unreasonable. People smell weakness: and they treat a willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness, esp. when you compromise right out of the box. That is who BHO is: he does not have a back-up political style.

3. I also think that critics like Greenwald and Krugman, who have zero political sense or experience, have been much too quick to be dismissive of the constraints. (I think Krugman is more careful on this issue than Greenwald.)

4. Huge factor in contemporary politics is extraordinary disarray of mass politics on the left. Unions at 6%, no peace movement, and no jobs movement of any consistent and public visibility. It is much easier to talk about Obama than to talk about this HUGELY important fact.

5. Given point (2) above, and despite (4): I think BHO has not done as well as he might have at, in particular, keeping a focus on jobs.

So I kind of agree with Tom Sugrue….esp. on the Roosevelt point.

Joe Lowndes: I’m with Adolph here. I would add though that nevertheless, Obama continually craves – or rather demands – progressive credentials. Beyond mere triangulation, it’s as if he understands his signal accomplishment to be the translation of progressive desires into neoliberal politics, and he thus can’t understand why we don’t see the flawless logic of his having done so. It’s the Obama of the Iowa victory saying, “They said this day would never come” that is necessary to make his conservative commitments meaningful. In foreign policy it is his supposed unique ability to empathize with Muslims oppressed that rationalizes militarism. In education he just wants better for failing students in the poor communities he knew as an organizer. He is visibly petulant towards LGBT activists who can’t seem to see that he has been their best ally since he was in the State Senate. On and on.

Neolib, Neocon, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Thad: Why is he a neoliberal and not a neoconservative? I really so no daylight between his and both Kristols’ politics.

Joe: You’re right, Thad. I was thinking of economic policy when using that exhausted term. He is a total neocon in both foreign and domestic politics.

Corey: Actually, Obama is far more enthralled with capitalism than Kristol Senior was. Remember Kristol could only offer two cheers for capitalism; Obama would more than happily offer three.

Thad: Corey, are you referring to Kristol Sr.’s dislike of the hedonism and cultural chaos produced by capitalism?

Corey: Its deleterious effects on the martial spirit; the fact that it is a completely ignoble way to organize public life (his words, not mine); that anyone who would privilege money over other values like glory is an ant. Kristol was never that concerned with cultural chaos, if by that you mean immoral or libidinous values.

Thad:  We basically agree on Irving K. But hasn’t BHO always been a powerful proponent of the martial spirit and critic of the “ignoble” products of capitalism? Remember his argument for a national service? He and McCain agreed that America should always look like it did on 9/12. And during the campaign he went out of his way to attack black men who watch ESPN, kids who wear baggy jeans, and all of us who “engage in childish things, who are more concerned about what they want than what’s good for other people.” And how many times has he referred to the military as representing the “best” and “highest” of who we are.

Corey: That’s what makes the neocon position that much more interesting and ultimately frightening. I could be wrong — haven’t studied BHO to the extent I have Kristol — but my sense is that Obama doesn’t attribute these cultural things he complains about to any notion of capitalism. Kristol did. And while that didn’t lead Kristol to call for capitalism’s overhaul or anything like that, he did see an antidote to it in militarism. Obama doesn’t endorse militarism in the same way.

Thad: I think it’s only a difference in emphasis. But Obama — like his heroes TR, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and JFK — has essentially the same love of a regimented social order as Kristol. Check this out: http://articles.cnn.com/20 ​08-09-12/politics/candidat​es.sept11_1_mccain-and-bar​ ack-obama-common-ground-sa​rah-palin?_s=PM%3APOLITICS

Thad: Put it this way: I am sure that if Kristol’s argument were presented to Obama, he would agree with it. No?

Corey: Kristol didn’t like a regimented social order. He liked a warrior social order. There’s a big difference. It’s not the authoritarianism of the military; it’s the extravagant glory, the blood-curdling, artistically executed violence, the way it delivers us from the tedium and ennui of a market society — so, no, I don’t think Obama would agree with that. Certainly not in public, and I suspect not even in private. As Josh said above, Obama has a Cass Sunstein view of the world; that’s different from a Carl Schmitt view of the world. At least in some respects.

Thad: I think you’re splitting hairs here, Corey. One of Kristol’s big causes — now enacted in Obama’s ramped-up version of No Child Left Behind — was the establishment of a hegemonic, unified, national culture. No better model for that than the 82nd Airborne, which is one reason the great liberals have always loved the military and the draft. Speaking of which: http://www.nytimes.com/201​1/06/16/opinion/16kristof.​html

Alex Gourevitch: Josh, I think point 4, ‘the disarray of mass politics’ begins pointing this thread in a wider, and possibly more important direction. We can debate Obama’s ‘real’ politics all we want – FWIW I basically agree with Adolph/Doug/and Co. But Obama did not end up here alone. The Democratic Party has been decidedly weak during this whole affair. Moreover, especially under New Democrat leadership, it has spent the last decades setting the table for a budget debate in which deficit spending is seen as irresponsible, in which the argument for progressive taxation has severely waned, and in which the state is seen as having a much more limited role – basically correcting market failures. I think we fool ourselves if we think the major problems here are just a) right-wing Tea Party populists with an ideological backbone and b) an opportunistic President who is happy to be the respectable patsy of certain class fractions. It is also a so-called left wing party that has been itself the party of austerity for at least twenty years. They created the environment in which massive spending cuts when on the verge of a double-dip recession can seem like a reasonable thing to do. And we’re talking here just about the Democratic Party, never mind the other elements that go into the ‘disarray of mass politics.’

Lisa Garcia Bedolla: I can’t really say it better than Robert Reich did in his Berkeley blog: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/​2011/08/01/ransom-paid/. It continues the fallacy that our individual desires (esp. if we’re wealthy) should trump the public good. The Dems have not been able (or perhaps willing) to articulate an alternative vision. They just jumped on the GOP bandwagon (I blame more than just Obama).

Shane Taylor: Others have ably commented on the Obama’s chronic underestimation of Republican intransigence, his pursuit of compromise for the sake of compromise, and his desire for “entitlement” reform (the White House affirmed their commitment to this cause to David Brooks back in March of 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/06/opinion/06brooks.html. I, too, see those as features of this administration. However, there was something different about this episode. I suspect that Obama has an inflated sense of his talent for eleven-dimensional chess, but in this round, the president lost control. Last week the president was pleading with the public to plead with Congress to make it stop. Twice. Something seemed to have gone horribly wrong, and I think John Kay made the appropriate analogy: it was like a dollar bill auction. As Yves Smith said, there was a toxic “bidding” dynamic. http://agonisticliberal.com/2011/07/30/lost-in-the-strategery/

Update (August 2, 12 pm)

This debate has been pinging around the various spheres of the internet.  It’s been sent into the strato/twittersphere by Glenn Greenwald, Joan Walsh, Jeff Sharlet, Mike Konczal, and others, who’ve tweeted it to their, between them, 100,000 some-odd followers.  It’s been picked up by Digby. It’s brought more traffic to this site than anything I’ve posted.

Two pieces came out this morning that I want to give special mention to.  First, this blog post by Alex Gourevitch, amplifying his comment above, is among the smartest I’ve seen and pushes us in a genuinely new direction—away from the individual focus on Obama to larger questions about party formation and comparative political economy. Don’t miss it.

Second, this piece by Matt Taibbi, well, need I say more? As always, Taibbi says and sees things more clearly than the rest of us. Again, not to be missed.

Update (12:45 pm)

More voices have joined in, which I wanted to include. First, this from Anne Norton, who participated in yesterday’s FB discussion but whose comment I wasn’t able to include in the original blog post.

Anne Norton: Adolph’s characterization of Obama’s commitment to performing the reasonable, judicious statesmen is directly connected to his progressivism: both in the endorsement of a particular ostensibly passionless elite expertise and in the priority of process over results. To my mind this shows the ease with which progressivism moves into the service of capital, especially finance capital, which also understands itself as the realm of passionless elite expertise. Our analyses are too cold as well. What is lost in this are the basics: equality, democracy, hunger and profit. I confess it: I expected better.

Then this FB message from Dorian Warren.

Dorian Warren: Hey Corey. I was in a meeting all day yesterday so couldn’t weigh in on the debate on your FB page. How excellent and exciting!! Although I’m a bit glad I didn’t; I can only take so much psychologizing about what BHO thinks and who the “true” BHO really is, especially devoid of context, history and constraints. Obama wasn’t the sole player in the debt debacle. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t analyze his strategy, ideology, etc. But we pour so much energy into a) assessing his true inner state, again and again and again, and b) never get to the implications of those kinds of narrow analyses. Okay, so now what? Primary challenge him? Any “Democrat” president that wins would do the same, white or black, male or female. At least that’s my prediction. I think Josh Cohen and Alex G. were pointing the conversation towards a more constructive direction that’s more comprehensive in an analysis of the current moment, of political and party structures, of large ideological shifts, etc.

I just came back from a union conference in England over the weekend where most of the Europeans I spoke with spoke not of Obama in personality terms but rather of the fact that the “US”, structurally, is about redistribution to the top from the bottom, and that the country has been this way for 30 years. Quite a different starting place relative to us, which is surprising…

And then this email from Rogers Smith.

Rogers Smith: I confess to being too dispirited about current affairs to join in the lively exchange yesterday; but do want to acknowledge that Adolph’s take is looking pretty good at the moment.  On the two questions of political style and substance, I think it has been and is debatable whether Obama’s compromise/community organizer style is better suited to getting something done in the current context than all-out left advocacy: that advocacy is needed to push compromisers, but you also need to win some elections.  On substance, I’ve seen Obama as seeking somehow to satisfy both his belief in Wall Street economics and his identification with black church social justice goals–and hoped the results would be compromises that moved at least some meaningful degree in more egalitarian directions.  Adolph has consistently attacked that kind of view as naive, and at this point it’s hard to argue.  I’m sure Obama is telling himself he’s positioned now to accomplish more in the future, and I’d like to see it, but I’m not predicting it will happen.

Which prompted this further email exchange between Rogers and Anne.

Anne: What troubles me most about Obama is that the unfolding of Obama’s presidency seems to knit together aspects of his policies and persona that point in a less democratic and egalitarian direction.  He seems consistently committed to elite governance -worse, to an elite governance of people drawn from the unelected and irresponsible ranks of finance.  He seems consistently committed to a big state.  I’ve always had suspicions of a big state, but I make allowances for those followers of the big state who see it as providing for the poor, the ill and the common good. I can make common cause with that, in the present circumstances.  This is a big state making war and preserving its credit rating -or not. Obama’s apparent acceptance of the idea that “the economy” is measured by the welfare of the stock market; his failure to insist on measures drawn from the well-being of the people gives the lie to the idea of fundamental change.  His consistent preoccupation with producing elite consensus while remaining indifferent to the popular judgment of that consensus suggests to me that he is not at bottom a democrat, but a Progressive of the old managerial school.

Rogers: Mixes of democratic egalitarianism with managerial elitism are of course characteristic of much Progressive pragmatist thought, which is very much Obama’s thought.  And though today’s American left builds on much in the more left Progressives, most Progressives did prove themselves more managerial elitist than democratic.  So Obama can rightly be seen as a new chapter in an old story–but I’m not sure the contemporary progressive left knows how to build a politics that avoids that (nor do I).  Which is particularly dispiriting.

Update (7:30 pm)

This forum is getting more and more traction. In addition to the folks mentioned above, it’s now been tweeted by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Peter Daou. Between all the various folks who’ve tweeted it, I think this forum has been brought to anywhere from 150,000 175,000 of the Twitterati.

Our old friend Matt Yglesias has now weighed in.  He takes issue with a comment by Thad Russell above—actually, he says he “kind of choked” over it—but then takes his disagreement in an interesting direction. The argument he makes is actually not that different from Chomsky’s.

We made the “Roundup” post at Firedoglake.

And from what I hear, this post is all over Facebook, generating discussion, getting thumbs-upped (and I’m sure thumbs-downed), and more.

Lastly, Dorian Warren, who was featured in one of our previous updates, writes in again with some further thoughts.

Dorian Warren: Another thought after reading the updates: I think the problem with this conversation is that it’s too high up in the air. All of us are discussing Obama and the “big” policy deals/outcomes from 30,000 feet up. Okay, true, in every case there was capitulation and non-progressive results which now show somehow who the “true” Obama is. Fine, I agree with that as far as it goes, which frankly isn’t far. I think if we were to look a bit more closely and in detail, we’d find empirically that the Administration as a whole is best described as a set of contradictions. Let’s not forget the power of Administrative politics, even though it’s not as sexy as the hot policy issues of health care, financial reform, or stimulus or debt ceiling. But from where I sit, the Dept. of Labor, the NLRB, the NMB have all been doing rulemaking and enforcement as progressively as they possibly can under the circumstances. We can’t simply lump their work into one box of “Obama sellout/neoliberal/neocon”. Why is the FAA reauthorization being held up now? Because the GOP is furious the NMB changed the rule to make it easier for transportation workers to organize last year. Why is there such outrage over the NLRB’s Boeing complaint? Because the Chamber of Commerce is furious the NLRB is enforcing the all-too-weak labor law, and are fearful the pro-labor board will change the rules to favor unions. The DOL is doing incredible wage enforcement work not seen even under Clinton. On the other hand, other agencies have clearly been captured by Wall Street: SEC, Commerce, Treasury, etc. And obviously I’d be the first to criticize BHO for never going to bat for labor law reform, even though he gladly took labor’s money and ground game. But then how do we square the difference between the SEC and the NLRB? Rogers argued that Obama’s political ideology & governing style (characteristic of Progressive thought) is both democratic egalitarianism mixed with managerial elitism. I think that comes close to capturing the Administration’s policy failures *as well* as some of the progressive political outcomes on the non-sexy but arguably very important Administrative politics side.

Update (August 3, 9:30 am)

Our friend Gordon Lafer was late to this discussion, but as always with Gordon, it was worth the wait.

Gordon Lafer: I am, of course, in the Adolph Reed camp. I think he’s neoliberal in his heart, but most of all that he doesn’t have a heart besides the desire to be elected. He clearly wants to move 70% of the way to the right on the political spectrum (and that point keeps getting further right as the Koch bros, Ari Fleischer et al (I think it’s impt not to call them “the Tea Party” since there is no such thing, while there are real actors at work here) keep pushing the envelope rightward), in order to leave the R’s no room but the fringe right, and get reelected handily. He doesn’t care how far right that strategy takes him, and it’s the only strategy he has, and that’s the only thing he really gives a shit about. Which gives the total lie to the idea of his being the adult in the room. There’s nothing at all adult about his behavior – weak or strong, this is not about getting the best deal possible for the country under difficult circumstances. It’s just about getting himself reelected, even if it means obviously fucking the country in ways that could have been avoided.

This is one of the moments where it pays to ask “what would W (or a left version of W) have done?” and I think the answer is: he would have announced months ago that he would absolutely veto anything that doesn’t include termination of the tax cuts for over $250k, show absolutely no sign of entertaining any compromise on that. Then as the deadline got closer he would have announced that, if the Congress doesn’t give him a bill that includes making the rich pay his fair share, he will have to invoke the 14th amendment and unilaterally raise (or really, just ignore) the debt ceiling in order to pay the country’s bills. He’d then do it, daring the Rs to take him to court in what would easily be portrayed as a legal effort to destroy the country’s credit rating. The fact that it was Obama himself who took the 14th amendment option off the table, saying his lawyers told him it wasn’t a strong option, as he also was first to put Social Security on the table – shows his priority, which is not actually wanting to solve the country’s debt problem in the best way while protecting citizens and economic growth, but rather to get himself reelected, which he and his advisors believe requires moving right and having a vote that Rs and Ds supported rather than being saddled with raising the debt ceiling on his own. Nothing adult about that.

I also think there’s no chance he really believes this is the road to economic health. I was in briefings by all kinds of mainstream economists who said what Summers too (no friend of the left) said — the deficit is a long term problem that should be addressed in 2013 or 2014; right now what you need to do is MORE deficit spending in order to create consumer demand to spur economic growth. He must have had all those same briefings. This isn’t a principled economic position.

One final thing I’d add is that the other option, other than going as he’s been going on this and everything else, is a big bold option. He already thinks his reelect will cost $1 billion. And that’s with doing the free trade treaties, extending the Bush tax cuts, etc. If he moves more to the left, that cost goes up and the question of where it comes from gets more difficult. You saw this with Dodd-Frank when there started being stories about Wall St bundlers being hesitant about obama – then they made up with Wall St. So the only real option, is to go so dramatically to the left that you generate some kind of mass response that counterbalances the fact that you’re going to drive hundreds of millions of dollars to the opposition. I think that’s do-able, and certainly that it’s the only strategy worth doing, but it’s an all-in strategy, a high risk strategy. And the people in this WH are not risk takers. They’re sneak-through-ers.

Update (11:30 am)

We made it into the Wall Street Journal.

Update (12:30 pm)

The estimable Christian Parenti, whose new book on the politics of climate change is must reading, emailed me this late last night:

Christian Parenti:  Better late than never…. I agree with Doug and Adolph, if I read them correctly….

Pretty is as pretty does.

 Obama is a neo-liberal but his method of arrival at that position is not ideological true belief. Rather it is by way of his endless performance of political sobriety, maturity and “reasonableness.” It is all tactics and no strategy; form and not content.  Were this a socialist dictatorship or a theocracy, he would still be a brilliantly capable, charismatic, highly effective, totally reasonable, cipher  of a completely different ideological stripe. Or to put it another way: Obama is like Ishmael in Moby Dick. Or he is like CLR James’ reading of Ishmael as delivered in “Mariners, Renegades and Castaways.” He is a dangerously alienated intellectual, smart and eloquent enough to see how it all works, all the while narrating as if on the outside, seemingly protected from it all by his “critique.” Yet he is so disconnected from the masses that he goes along with Ahab’s totalitarian madness, doing his job without ever endorsing the insanity, yet helping the apocalyptic hunt and the mutual destruction of whale and ship come to fruition.

In other words, he is about having it both ways, always. And it will end in a shipwreck.

 Update (2:15 pm)

Playing off Obama’s reference to himself and his cohort as “the Joshua generation,” Christian (see last update) adds:

 Obama has inspired the invention of a game I like to call “The Old Testament Meets Obama via the New York Times.”

 Exhibit A

And Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to Debir; and fought against it:  and he took it, and the king thereof, and all the cities thereof; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed all the souls that were therein ; he left none remaining… “while seeking to position himself as a proven voice of reason in an era of ideological overreach.”

Update (August 5, 12:30 am)

The History News Network (HNN) is now plugging this discussion as “a rather startling (and refreshing) use of social media by academics.”  HNN further comments that “it does seem oddly fitting that a website that originally rated the looks of Harvard’s undergraduates has been appropriated to serve as a forum for serious political and intellectual debate.”

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