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Former Harper’s Magazine editor Roger D. Hodge has just published what may well be the definitive critique of the Obama presidency from the left: The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism. I put six questions to him about his new book.
1. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs recently derided liberal critics of the Obama Administration as the “professional left.” Was he talking about you? What do you make of this line of attack?
I’m not sure Gibbs has a coherent idea of what he means by the “left,” but if opposition to permanent war, extrajudicial assassination of American citizens, boundless state secrecy, and unlimited corporate bailouts constitutes “leftism,” then so be it. True to their Clintonian principles, President Obama and his advisors have spurned the Democratic Party’s liberal base and have sought to govern by appropriating the policies of the Republican right. Just as Bill Clinton enacted NAFTA and destroyed welfare, Barack Obama has pushed through a health-care program that was inspired by the Heritage Foundation and largely written by the insurance lobby—and he shows every sign of being willing to vandalize Social Security in the name of deficit reduction even though the program has nothing to do with the federal budget deficit. Obama has embraced the Bushite war on terror and has refused to roll back the unconstitutional executive usurpations that so outraged his supporters. And yet Democrats expect liberals to toe the line and shut the hell up lest the Republicans take advantage of their dissent. In fact, for the most part, the “professional left” of policy intellectuals, public interest advocates, and opinion journalists have done just that.
What’s fascinating about the Democrats is how consistently they have squandered enormous political advantages. The party’s leaders have apparently internalized Republican propaganda to the point that they feel they do not deserve to rule; consequently, when Democrats come to power, they always negotiate with themselves prior to meeting their opponents, make the tough-minded decision to betray their most loyal supporters, and profess shock and anger when the GOP—which never makes the mistake of publicly spurning its base—refuses to accept the purported bipartisan compromise. What results, of course, is that the Democratic Party, over and over again, enacts some version of the Republican agenda.
2. You frame your critique of Obama with the writings of James Madison. Why do you consider Madison to be the right optic for the analysis of contemporary American politics?
Americans are preoccupied with the Founders, and that is not at all a bad thing, yet much of the contemporary discussion of the revolutionary generation and the early years of the republic is appallingly shallow. In my view, too little attention has been paid to James Madison’s political philosophy—which is surprising, since Madison is the principal author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Founders did not speak in one voice, and careful attention to the substance of their debates (which were in many ways far more acrimonious than our own cable TV spectacles) can help clarify contemporary controversies, especially when so many of our present political combatants are merely reenacting old debates in seeming ignorance of the principles that were originally at issue.
Madison provides a particularly apt perspective on our current predicament because as a politician he devoted much of his energy to fighting precisely the sort of corruption that has swamped our political system. Madison was the intellectual and political force behind the republican opposition to the Federalists, who very much like the present-day Republican Party saw themselves as the natural rulers of the United States. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, sought to protect a narrow financial oligarchy from the interests of the great majority of American citizens. Hamilton’s ambition was to bind his “moneyed men” to the state through an innovative financial program that would at the same time lay the foundations for an international commercial empire. Madison and Jefferson did everything they could to obstruct the Hamiltonian agenda, correctly perceiving that such policies would lead, in time, not only to a sundering of republican philosophy from the reason of state but also to an aggressive militarism. And, as Madison wrote, “of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.” Those other enemies, he continued, include excessive debts and taxes, the domination of the many by the few, the extension of executive power, and the inequality of fortunes—all of which lead to that degeneration of manners and morals known to republicans as corruption.
3. Let’s take the recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, which holds that for at least some First Amendment purposes corporations are persons under the Constitution. How do you think this holding can be reconciled with Madison’s thinking—noting of course that Madison was a principal author of the Bill of Rights?
The Citizens United decision overturns more than a century of campaign finance legislation and jurisprudence—at least with regard to corporations—and lays the foundation for the complete deregulation of campaign spending. The Court’s majority held that the First Amendment rights of corporations were violated by some modest and heretofore uncontroversial restrictions on election spending. The Court’s reasoning was premised on a view of corporate “personhood” that would have been unintelligible to the framers of the Constitution—and, as Justice John Paul Stevens demonstrated in his magisterial dissent, the majority’s opinion was fundamentally inconsistent with a long series of precedents. The decision is an aggressive assault on anemic and insubstantial restrictions that have failed to prevent the corporate dominance of our political system; consequently, although it is likely to encourage some highly political corporations to spend even more on electioneering, Citizens United mainly serves to clarify the brute fact that our political system is little more than a plutocracy. More disturbing than the curious judicial metaphysics of corporate personhood is the consistent equation of spending with speech. Indeed, throughout Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority decision, the term “speak” was used in place of the words “contribute,” “spend,” and “buy.” This substitution is telling, and despite Kennedy’s vigorous assertions, most campaign spending is less a matter of intelligible speech than a pure show of force.
As for James Madison, without whom the Bill of Rights would never have been brought before Congress, much less ratified, we can be reasonably certain that he would never have extended First Amendment protection to the expenditures of corporations. In fact, during the First Congress, on February 8, 1791, in the midst of debate over Alexander Hamilton’s proposal to charter a Bank of the United States, Madison delivered a speech on the floor of the House denouncing the corrupting effects of “incorporated societies”: They are “powerful machines,” he argued, which often pursue principles that are very different from those of the people. No one who is familiar with Madison’s horror of all forms of political corruption could believe that he would have blithely extended the rights of citizenship to soulless creatures of pure commerce. Even so, the point is not whether one or another eighteenth-century politician would approve of a current law or court decision; what is at issue is the integrity of our political system. Citizens United confirms that we do indeed live in a “capitalist democracy,” as current usage has it, one in which a tiny minority quite literally votes with its pocketbook and in which laws and even lawmakers can be bought and sold like any other commodity.
4. Obama touts his health-care reform bill as a signal accomplishment—he claims to have done something that presidents since the end of World War II have attempted and failed to do. You’re obviously not so impressed. Why?
Like Bill Clinton, Obama often prefers to solve his difficulties by means of redefinition. He promised to close the concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay and then sought to keep his promise by moving prisoners into other facilities where they would continue to be detained indefinitely, thus preserving the doctrine that made Guantánamo objectionable in the first place. He has declared an end to the war in Iraq by redefining the mission of the 50,000 troops who remain there. Yet the war continues, our soldiers fight and die, and Iraq still lacks a functioning government.
We’ve seen much the same thing with ObamaCare. As with the Iraq War, Obama has merely redefined the mission. Far from being the universal health-care system that the country needs, Obama’s health program is best understood as a bailout of the private health industry that seeks to guarantee some 30 million additional customers for insurance companies and continued obscene profits for large drug manufacturers. The paradox here is that in a system aiming at universal coverage, the actuarial role of insurance companies, which is to determine the precise odds of paying unprofitable claims on a given class of customers, has become obsolete. Although the law contains some praiseworthy measures, for the most part it merely entrenches our system’s most irrational elements.
Meanwhile, having squandered all his political capital in passing the health bill, Obama stands helpless as the economy begins to shrink once again and unemployment remains painfully high. The Democrats now have little hope of passing vitally needed additional stimulus measures, and anger over the health bill appears to be a strong factor in the current Republican resurgence. If an average citizen loses his job tomorrow, there’s a good chance he’ll have to decide whether to give up health insurance or default on the mortgage, and yet partisan Democrats and policy technocrats can’t understand why Americans aren’t more grateful for their efforts.
5. One of the key dilemmas in American politics today, you write, is the disappearance of conservatives and the emergence in their place of “pseudo-cons.” What is it about Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich that can’t be squared with the traditional definition of conservative?
Alas, jingoistic demagogues like Palin and Gingrich are nothing new in American politics. What’s interesting is the obsessive insistence of such right-wing agitators that they are conservatives when, in fact, almost nothing about them is conservative in any traditional sense. They are extremists who display no sense of affection for the past; no humility or skepticism about their revolutionary proposals; no sign of the compromising and practical spirit that is so characteristic of classical conservatives; no awareness that capitalism itself is the most powerful force for change in the history of humanity. By today’s incoherent standards, even Edmund Burke himself would be derided as a bleeding heart, welfare-state socialist. As political writers as disparate as Theodore Adorno and Richard Hofstadter have observed, the funny thing about pseudo-conservatives is that they champion the very forces that are destroying what remains of traditional American ways of life. What’s ironic, given their rhetoric, is that pseudo-cons like Gingrich and Palin have no use for core American values such as the rule of law, freedom of religion and association, or for the idea that the Constitution follows the flag. They champion torture, extrajudicial assassination, unconstrained domestic surveillance, and a thoroughly monarchistic vision of the presidency; they happily encourage wars of aggression, demand that native-born children be stripped of their citizenship, demonize a religious minority, and then have the audacity to accuse their opponents of being anti-American.
The Republican Party’s opposition to the Obama Administration has nothing really to do with conservatism or liberalism. The Republicans simply wish to seize power again, and they will apparently say anything toward that end. Obama’s political incompetence has given his partisan opponents the opportunity to motivate a large number of relatively ill-informed voters with outlandish and incoherent claims about his purported socialism when he is in fact the best friend Wall Street could hope for. Public opinion is largely an artifact of political struggle, and the most successful politicians are those who are able to define the terms of debate; astonishingly, Obama’s Democrats have proved themselves to be the weaker party even as they controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency. The absence of authentic conservatives in our politics serves to ensure that our national debates are largely carried out in the realm of fiction; pseudo-conservatives take on pseudo-liberals in symbolic battle over cultural ephemera when what is really at stake is which of the two corrupt parties will win the privilege of representing the interests of the superrich.
6. Your prescription for the country’s current dilemma is fairly simple: class warfare. Isn’t it troubling to see a solution in conflict? How does your vision of class warfare differ from that of Karl Marx?
My use of the term “class warfare” in the book was meant to be somewhat provocative, since this is typically the most damning charge that our economic royalists can come up with to counter any proposal that threatens their economic and political prerogatives. It also happens to be an accurate, if somewhat melodramatic, term for what happens in any society. Marx was obviously correct to point to the struggle between the rich and the poor as one of the motive forces of human history, but his Hegelianism led him to imbue historical change with metaphysical significance and to posit the working class as the trans-historical carrier of human freedom. It is ironic that workers should be obliged to bear such a load.
The Atlantic republican political tradition that informed the minds of the revolutionary generation also understood history in terms of the struggle of rich and poor, the few and the many, the nobili and the populi. This is an essential attribute of the Roman republican heritage, as Machiavelli makes clear in his Discourses on Livy, in which he observes that it was the productive tension between the patricians and the plebs that preserved Rome’s republican institutions for so long. So-called class warfare, in this view, is necessary for the health of the state, precisely because it makes explicit the natural conflicts that arise between groups with fundamentally differing material interests. By rendering those conflicts transparent, Roman institutions helped preserve civil peace.
James Madison believed that differing economic classes must of necessity grow up in any civilized nation, and that these classes would naturally pursue their own self-interests. The principal role of modern legislation, Madison wrote, is the regulation of these various and interfering interests. What is dangerous, from the Madisonian point of view, is when one narrow interest captures the institutions of the state and uses the power of government for its own purposes, to the detriment of other groups. Madison, in keeping with republicans such as Machiavelli and James Harrington, argued that a moderate balance of wealth must be maintained, that too great a distinction between the rich and poor would naturally lead to the decay of republican governance. Judging from the stench of corruption rising up from Washington, I’d say he was correct. The singular achievement of America’s wealthiest individuals has been to convince a large portion of the citizenry that their own interests are served by maximizing those of the superrich. A glance at income statistics over the last thirty years will suffice to refute that proposition. Americans like to pay lip service to the virtues of competition and the pursuit of self-interest; what could be more American than an organized assertion of material self-interest by the vast majority of our citizens against those who have plundered our commonwealth?
More from Scott Horton:
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From the June 2014 issue
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Vanilla latte and lemon pound cake continued to be the best-selling items at the Starbucks at CIA headquarters, where baristas do not write customers’ names on their cups.
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”