America, Where Selling Out is the Right Thing to Do

In an excellent piece about Obama’ s troubled relationship with his liberal base, Ta-Nehisi Coates hints at something I’ve long felt but have yet to see discussed in print:

Obama has been much praised for the magnanimity he shows his opposition. But such empathy, unburdened by actual expectations, comes easy. More challenging is the work of coping with those who have the disagreeable habit of taking the president, and his talk of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” seriously.

Among the pundits and the polite, there’s no greater virtue for a political leader than to break with his base and embrace some point or principle of the opposition. In practice, at least since the 1970s, this has meant Democratic politicians getting praise for breaking with their liberal base (Carter, Clinton, Obama) and Republican politicians getting praise for working with their conservative base (Reagan, Bush).

But even if the principle were universally applied, it would still make little sense. Though this is certainly not the only way to think of morality, we  usually assume that a good deed or virtuous act requires some kind of sacrifice or imposes some sort of difficulty on the doer or the actor.You know, I give up a portion of my time or income to help out the homeless shelter down the street. I don’t, but you get the idea.

What’s odd about the pundit principle is that betraying one’s friends, allies, and beliefs for the sake of personal advance is the easiest thing to do. That’s why politicians, at least on the left, do it every day. Pundits do it too; that’s how they get to be pundits. In fact, you might say it’s the American Creed, what William James famously described as “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success.”

But in the eyes of the pundits, selling out is the hardest—and therefore the right—thing to do. And you know what? I don’t think they’re being insincere; I think they really believe it.

That’s the craziness—or genius—of America. We take a vice, and make it a virtue.


  1. John Halle July 28, 2011 at 11:11 am | #

    I liked the basic point of the piece too. But notice that the left apostate/god that failed game, which is what Obama is playing a variant of, after all, goes back a long time. Any soi disant left-liberal on the make knows that since Ignazio Silone the key to establishment access is being willing and able to bash those seemingly irrational and emotional elements on the left, the crazies and the DF hippies, those who are unable to consider seriously the weighty responsibilities, contractions and nuances which those who are navigating the ship of state must confront. In fact, Coates has played this game himself. He has made much (literally and figuratively) of his trajectory from being the son of a black panther to someone who in 2008 came out in strongly in support of “aggressive prosecution of violent criminals” and questioned whether the police who shot Sean Bell (in a notorious incident) should be held responsible. And where has this landed Coates, well first in the pages of the ur-neo liberal/neo-con rag the Atlantic and finally to the elysian fields of hackdom: the Time Op-Ed page. Does this come across as too sour? Glad to see this piece, but sorry if so-but if I can’t yet work up total enthusiasm for this stop on Coates’s trajectory. Jeffrey Sachs’ piece in the HuffPo,, that is another story!

    • Corey Robin July 29, 2011 at 7:55 am | #

      I could be wrong, but I think that stand goes back even further; I remember reading some similarly posed writings from the French Revolution though now I can’t find or remember them. But as I said on our FB thread, it wasn’t the author I was shilling but the argument.

  2. BREE ROBIN July 28, 2011 at 11:16 am | #

    and the tea party? they’re holding tight to their post…br

    • Corey Robin July 29, 2011 at 8:02 am | #

      And that’s why they’re winning, as Coates suggests in the very last line of his piece.

  3. Harry Harootunian July 28, 2011 at 4:26 pm | #

    Corey: You might have said that this tactic has a name, which is ‘pragmatism,’ which functions to mask the sheer opportunism at the heart of ‘selling out.’ In Obama’s case, I can’t recall how often his political gestures are described as pragmatic move, which are valorized as disclosures of an aptitude for the art political compromise, when in fact they exemplify no capacity for commitment whatsoever other than a talent for caving it.

    • Corey Robin July 29, 2011 at 8:01 am | #

      The funny about the so-called pragmatism of this move — and I totally agree with you Harry that that is the often the political and even philosophical scaffolding that gets us hung on this type of cowardice and opportunism — is that it’s not even pragmatic. Pragmatism, at least in its philosophical form (and even in its crude popularized form), implies that you’re adapting your means in order to get to your end. You bow, you bend, you massage, in order to keep getting to your goal. The Emancipation Proclamation, which Coates talks about here, was at least pragmatic in that sense. But try as I might I can’t see how anything Obama has done in the name of pragmatism has been actually pragmatic. Julian Zelizer has a great piece here about how Obama’s compromises on debt and deficits, which some hail as masterful gamesmanship on his part, are actually furthering and furthering the GOP agenda. Now if that’s Obama’s goal — it’s unclear what the hell he actually is aiming at — then he’s achieving it. But if his goal is to slowly inch the discussion away from the GOP, well, then it’s hardly doing that. Check this out here:

  4. Peter Wirzbicki July 28, 2011 at 4:45 pm | #

    Wendell Phillips, who Coates quoted, also said this about compromise: “The broadest and far-sighted intellect is utterly unable to foresee the ultimate consequences of any great social change. Ask yourself on such occasions, if there be any element of right and wrong in the question, any principle of clear natural justice?… If so, take your part with the perfect and abstract right, and trust God to see that it shall be expedient.”
    Take out the religious stuff, and I think its one pretty good argument against the fetishism of compromise. You don’t actually know all the future consequences of your actions (especially true in Obama’s case. He doesn’t know if he’ll be president in 2 years. Moreover, as people keep pointing out, he could reduce the debt today, like Clinton did, and see future Presidents squander it, like Bush did.) Obama is giving away very real things today on the pathetic hope that future good will come from it. Why not seize good today?

    • Corey Robin July 29, 2011 at 8:02 am | #

      That’s a fantastic quote, Peter. Thanks for it.

  5. jason July 31, 2011 at 10:35 am | #

    Shit and scrambled eggs!! Of course it makes sense for the Dems to “break with their base.” I am sure I am not telling you something you don’t know.

    We have a completely corrupt electoral system: a two-party monopoly controlled by money.

    BHO is a rational actor in a completely corrupt and irrational system. He needs TONS of cash to run against the Republicans. His goal: $1 billion. Where does he get it from>?? Wall Street and the super-rich. He knows his “progressive” base has no where to go. They are trapped by the two-party duopoly. There is no viable third-party on the national scene (although there are many powerful third parties at the state and local level).

    BHO moves to the mythical “center” in order to appease his Wall Street campaign funders and appeal to “centrists” and “independents.” Again, he knows he doesn’t have to worry about his base fleeing to another party–there is not other national third party to flee to.

    Instead of agreeing with BHO–FIGHT HIM–PUSH HIM. He made a speech saying this early in his administration. THINK FDR in the 1930s: he was pushed by socialists, anarchists, and the radical labor movement. FDR was a moderatley liberal, patrician politician from the Hudson Valley in updstate NY. The radical leftist movement PUSHED him to do the right thing. Same thing took place during the civil rights movement. LBJ and JFK had to be pushed by the movement: strikes, peaceful civil disobedience, street protests, etc…It’s not rocket science.
    Focus on creating a strong movement that pushed the President where he needs to go. Change comes from below–it comes from us. It doesn’t come from a President. Electoral and legal change are largely produced via strong movements OUTSIDE the electoral arena.

    All this intellectualizing and moralizing–strikes me as somewhat absurd and largely irrelevant.

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