Puppydog politics and the end of left and right

Obama’s public discussion of the First Pet reveals his true strategy: to win America over by making politics boring.

Guy Rundle

Topics USA

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

‘Well, we have two criteria for choosing the puppy – one is that Malia is allergic so it has to be a hypoallergenic breed, and the other is we want to get a dog from a shelter – but most of them are mutts like me. But we’ll work it out.’

Last Friday, when president-elect Barack Obama gave his first press conference following the election – deflecting questions about Iran and fielding the customary softballs about the First Pet – the sense of excitement in large areas of the country had barely died down. For tens of millions of Democratic supporters and workers, a certain amount of it was simply a vast onrush of physical relief – not merely at the victory of a preferred candidate, but at the failure of a Republican campaign that had become a scrappy and desperate appeal to fear and distrust.

No matter how strong one’s belief in people’s ability to see through the Republican hype, it was easy to get spooked. I spent the last days of the campaign in Washington, a city that has had particularly fraught race relations and high levels of violence for some time. After a few conversations with mostly elderly white Democrats – ‘nahhh we’ll never elect a black guy’; ‘racism is good, it means you support people from your own community’ – I staggered out of taverns and taxis with my compass spinning. It seemed obvious that these were voices from an earlier era, laced with the bitterness of life in a decaying city, but hell…

So when it turned out that people voted almost exactly as they said they would, that there was no Bradley effect, no mysterious sinister forces, it was as much a confirmation of basic sanity as the choice of a preferred candidate.

‘People are doing something weird in New York’, Jon Stewart noted on the Daily Show: ‘making eye contact’. In heavily Democratic areas of the country, there was a distinct ‘bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ moment. Nor did one feel any illegitimacy in that. Though small in the historical order of things, this was a real Event, a categorical shift in the nature of the world.

Anyone who thought that the election of a new American sovereign would create some sort of top-down revolution was fooling themselves. But day after day, one was reminded of issues that could at least be debated more rationally, rather than through the jousting of myth and ideology. On a train out of DC on the day after the vote, I passed one of the umpteen new prisons built over the past eight years – stylish, brick places done in earth tones, most of which could pass for malls or convention centres, save for the slit-like windows, too small to climb out of.

Hundreds of small ex-manufacturing towns now rely on these institutions for jobs. Any change to the sentencing procedures that fill them with petty criminals serving staggering terms is felt as a direct attack on a town’s last lifeline. Will there be a shift in the economic base to start to change this useless waste of life? There are no guarantees, on this and countless other issues, but there is a real possibility – one that didn’t exist a week ago.

Yet the most striking thing about that first press conference was what it wasn’t – neither the sudden slipping off the mask to ‘reveal the hidden face of liberalism’ that many conservatives had feared, nor the oracular and prophetic Obama of the primary season that many had hoped to see again. Instead there was the precise, soft-spoken leader of a team, getting in position for a staged transition to power. After so many Bush press conferences which have long since passed from the amusing and appalling to the sad and pathetic, it was a profound relief, but it was so… non-American. That this thin young African-American man was now president-elect was still surprising, but what was really weird was that he sounded like the prime minister of a Scandinavian country, one of those interchangeable Nordic technocrats.

And this is what is going to make Obama’s presidency so potentially different. Conservatives and left-liberals both hope for different reasons that Obama will soon reveal his true leftist colours. Neither side has understood Obama’s plan: he’s going to win by making American politics boring.

Waiting for Obama to screw up

To say that the political right in the USA has not yet realised the challenge they face in the Obama era is something of an understatement. The liberal-left have their delusions, too, but conservatives are trapped in a circular logic. The myths they deployed to campaign against Obama – that he was a secret, insurgent leftist under deep cover in the Democratic mainstream – have now become genuine beliefs.

Conservatives have constructed a consoling narrative: that Barack Obama will have to move to the centre, because the US is ‘a centre-right country’ and once he does that he’ll face ‘relentless attacks from the left’, and the fearsome ‘Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid faction’. This will apparently send the Obama administration into relentless conflict with the legislative branch, and the country will see a divided government and return to the Republican fold.

In summoning up this scenario, hopeful Republicans are drawing on the last two new Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom comprehensively mismanaged both their transition to power and their relationship to the Democratic Party and the liberal-left. Carter, the born-again Christian from Georgia, had gained the support of a large section of the American left in the wake of the McGovern disaster of 1972 (where the Democrats lost by a 23 per cent margin), who were now convinced that openly left candidates like Jerry Brown or Morris Udall could not win.

In the aftermath of Watergate, Carter had spoken of a new spiritual politics that was not militantly religious, had quoted Bob Dylan at a time when political crossover with popular culture was minimal, and he promised an American renewal. He supported a continuation of detente policies opposed by other contenders for the nomination such as Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, and a denial of US support to right-wing Latin American dictators.

Coming into office in 1977, he faced the deep and unyielding ‘stagflation’ recession of the 1970s, and the continued problem of high oil prices in the wake of OPEC’s 1973 oil price quadrupling. Yet his first key decisions were social measures – amnesty for Vietnam draft resisters, for example – which alienated many socially conservative rank-and-file Democrats (so-called Nixon Democrats) whose support he had won back. After that, he could never fully establish a sense of command and control and his presidency has become a byword for ineffectuality.

The Clinton administration suffered a related fate, conducting a chaotic transition process that reflected the campaign’s character – captured in Joe Klein’s Primary Colors – as the last ride of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Magic Bus. Bill Clinton’s determination to put together a team that was ‘representative of the diversity of America’ was a highwater mark of tokenism and symbolism, and foundered on the fact that two early Cabinet choices had illegal immigrants as nannies (pretty representative of the US professional class one would have thought), and then crashed into a series of mishandled yet, overall, minor initiatives, such as overturning a ban on gays serving in the military. Desperate to regain control after the 1994 loss of Congress, it cleaved hard to the right, in order to re-centre itself, sacrificing any possibility of real progressive structural economic reform in the process.

An outdated world of left and right…

For the Republicans, these are the only two modes the Democrats have. The limits of political possibility are defined by the post-New Deal political spectrum: the left ‘liberal’ side is defined by a fusion of socially liberal values emphasising rights and equality of treatment coupled with state economic intervention; conservatism is defined as small-government and free-market with a ‘defense’ (or enforcement) of traditional social values.

Thus, Irwin Stelzer, in a Weekly Standard piece, anticipates that Obama will push in a uniform and relentlessly statist direction, aided and abetted by a ‘more-than-willing Congress’. Jonah Goldberg in the National Review argues in a piece on gay marriage that an Obama presidency will tangle itself up by pushing a series of social changes that most Americans do not want. One could quote a half-dozen other pieces, including a most bizarre one in National Review by British columnist Melanie Phillips – shipped in by the US right, as the Vegas mob will sometimes bring in a hired killer from out of town to do a job the locals are too squeamish to contemplate – noting that Britain under Blair had already committed ‘national suicide’ and Obama was simply another Blairesque pied piper.

Their haunting fear – barely thinkable – of course, is that this is exactly what won’t happen. What if an Obama administration begins with solid policies that are change-making within the American context, which nevertheless do not fit into the most lurid ideas of ‘liberalism’? What if he’s… good at it? What if he is a versatile, rounded-out politician who thinks outside of this narrow, Americocentric political spectrum?

That spectrum was created by two alliances: social radicals and social democrats in the early 1930s; and social conservatives and libertarians in the 1950s. It is parroted by endless mass-media commentators whose political knowledge rarely extends beyond the American framework.

Even a voracious reader such as Bill Clinton found it difficult to think ‘outside of’, because both these political coalitions have attempted to ground themselves in differing myths of origin from the Revolution itself. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind of the early 1950s recanonised the American Revolution as an essentially conservative revolt in favour of a natural order betrayed by a corrupt British regime. Kirk elevated some figures – John Adams – who emphasised the restorative aspect of revolution, while excluding others – his cousin Sam Adams, for example – who emphasised the ab nihilo quality of revolution, its establishment of a new reality.

Liberalism, as represented by figures such as Walter Lippmann, represented the extension of rights, both domestically and internationally, in the form of assistance in the process of ‘national self-determination’.

…and how Obama might subvert it

If there’s anyone in recent mainstream American political history who may be able to think beyond this sort of approach, it’s Barack Obama. Ironically, that’s for many of the reasons that the right were so wary of him – his passage through the postmodern and post-Sixties left, through the long and disappointing years of the 1980s and 90s. In his memoir Dreams From My Father, Obama was open about his background, from undergrad years in Occidental College – where he hung out with the ‘Marxist professors and postmodern feminists’ and debated ‘Eurocentrism and Edward Said’ – and his passage through the remnants of black liberation and Marxism, in New York and Chicago later on.

But as he noted, what struck him most about these scenes was how fragmentary they were, the shards of a dying politics. His move into community organising was a response many made in those years – to emphasise concrete and immediate micropolitical change, a flee from large narratives felt to have failed. When he later reconnected with larger political frameworks it was with a substantially different understanding.

In other words, I suspect that Obama went through a similar journey through recent politics as did many readers here – a sharp revision of what is possible in the current era, and an understanding of how this changes the whole nature of a project. A more sceptical and critical view of the American mainstream political framework may then lead to a strategy that emphasises some causes as having a deep-rooted logic in a progressive politics – support for abortion would be one – while steering clear of others that are an extension of abstract rights, but which many Americans lump in as part-and-parcel of liberal politics.

Gay marriage would be one of these. Conservatives are desperately hopeful that Obama will speak up in favour of it. Liberals and activists are already disappointed that he has said nothing about the passage of Proposition Eight in California – the successful move to put a gay marriage ban in the California state constitution, thus circumventing the state’s Supreme Court ruling that a gay marriage ban was a breach of separate and equal treatment. The issue is fraught for many because the ban had strong support in the African-American and Hispanic communities, often from the very people that the Obama campaign was getting out to vote.

The assumption of pro-gay marriage activists that Obama will get behind them seems to me to indicate a liberal misinterpretation of what is happening symmetrical with the conservative one. If Obama lends his weight to gay marriage, I will eat my gold lamé ‘Yes We Can’ souvenir t-shirt. The issue is exactly the sort of thing that separates a blind American doctrine of rights from a deeper understanding of the wellsprings of social life and the deep attachments many people have to them.

The meaning of marriage, as a social institution, is grounded in fertility and the idea of a transcending union of man and woman. It is the primary bond in any given society by which a particular form of cultural life is connected to the general process of natural reproduction, the condition for the possibility of a culture’s continuation.

When marriage rituals were drawn into the church in the thirteenth century, and then the nation state in the nineteenth century, it was because both needed marriage’s deep meaning to ground their own extension into social life and meaning. Now, the relationship is to a degree reversed – the state stands in for society as a witness to marriage, as its guarantor.

For liberals to try and reconstruct this social institution as a contract between two people that is blind to gender and nature can be argued back and forth in terms of rights and implicit constitutional guarantees – but politically and socially, it’s on a hiding to nothing. Gay-marriage advocates were shocked that people could vote for Obama, could support his economic policies, his pluralist international policies, his pro-abortion policies and so much more, but nevertheless utterly part company on the issue of marriage. Michael Patrick King noted in the Huffington Post that Californians had passed Proposition Two (reforming battery farming) while also passing Proposition Eight, which left ‘gays in a cage’. Others repeated the comparison to Jim Crow era bans on interracial marriage, and slated the black community for its ‘homophobia’. Still others compared it to the family-focused policies of Nazism.

Should American liberals continue to rail on Obama in this manner it will be, politically, a godsend to him, defining him from the left as a centrist – but also giving cover for a variety of policy actions that would otherwise be seen as doctrinaire liberalism. Personally, after this strange week, I will be getting my scepticism back out of pawn next week, and turning a more critical eye on a president who has promised to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and who points to Reagan’s former man at the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, as one of his key economic advisers.

Any man who can turn the cutesy selection of a White House puppy into a multi-criteria selection process is clearly someone who is intent on making American politics so boring and procedural that within four years his dominance of it may be total. Whatever critical attention one turns on Obama, it would be wise not to underestimate his breadth of knowledge or political skills, an easy error to get into after the past eight years. It’s a mistake the American right seems intent on making. Mutts like them? They may be in the doghouse for years before someone takes pity.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and has been covering the US election campaign for the independent online media service Crikey.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today