Essay — From the March 2014 issue

Nothing Left

The long, slow surrender of American liberals

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Taking into account the left’s disappearance into Democratic neoliberalism helps explain how and why so many self-proclaimed leftists or progressives — individuals, institutions, organizations, and erstwhile avatars of leftist opinion such as The Nation — came to be swept up in the extravagant rhetoric and expectations that have surrounded the campaign, election, and presidency of Barack Obama.

Obama and his campaign did not dupe or simply co-opt unsuspecting radicals. On the contrary, Obama has been clear all along that he is not a leftist. Throughout his career he has studiously distanced himself from radical politics. In his books and speeches he has frequently drawn on stereotypical images of leftist dogmatism or folly. When not engaging in rhetorically pretentious, jingoist oratory about the superiority of American political and economic institutions, he has often chided the left in gratuitous asides that seem intended mainly to reassure conservative sensibilities of his judiciousness — rather as Booker T. Washington used black chicken-stealing stereotypes to establish his bona fides with segregationist audiences. This inclination to toss off casual references to the left’s “excesses” or socialism’s “failure” has been a defining element of Brand Obama and suggests that he is a new kind of pragmatic progressive who is likely to bridge — or rise above — left and right and appeal across ideological divisions. Assertions that Obama possesses this singular ability contributed to the view that he was electable and, once elected, capable of forging a new, visionary, postpartisan consensus.Illustration by Tim Bower

This feature of Brand Obama even suffused the enthusiasm of those who identify as leftists, many of whom at this point would like to roll up their past proclamations behind them. Here was a nominal progressive who actually could win the presidency, clearing the electoral hurdle that Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and other protest candidates could not. Yet few acknowledged the extent to which Obama’s broad appeal hinged on his disavowals of left “excesses.” What kind of “progressive” pursues a political strategy of distancing himself from the left by rehearsing hackneyed conservative stereotypes? Even granting the never-quite-demonstrated assertion that Obama is, in his heart of hearts, committed to a progressive agenda (a trope familiar from the Clinton Administration, we might recall), how would a coalition built on reassuring conservatives not seriously constrain his administration?

The generalities with which Obama laid out his vision made it easy to avoid such questions. His books are not substantive articulations of a social program but performances in which his biographical narrative and identity stands in for a vaguely transformational politics. Sometimes this projection has been not so subtle. In an interview with the journalist James Traub a year before the election, Obama averred: “I think that if you can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and in our country. And they’d be right.”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there is little with which to disagree in those books. They meant to produce precisely that effect. Matt Taibbi characterized Obama’s political persona in early 2007 as

an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can’t run against him on issues because you can’t even find him on the ideological spectrum. Obama’s “Man for all seasons” act is so perfect in its particulars that just about anyone can find a bit of himself somewhere in the candidate’s background, whether in his genes or his upbringing. . . . [H]is strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view, and conversely emphasizes that when he does take hard positions on issues, he often does so reluctantly.

Taibbi described Obama’s political vision as “an amalgam of Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and the New Deal; he is aiming for the middle of the middle of the middle.” Taibbi is by no means alone in this view; others have been more sharply critical in drawing out its implications, even during the heady moment of the 2008 campaign.Illustration by Tim Bower

Nearer the liberal mainstream, Paul Krugman repeatedly demonstrated that many of candidate Obama’s positions and political inclinations were not only inconsistent with the hyperbolic rhetoric that surrounded the campaign but were moreover not even especially liberal. When in a June 2008 issue of The Nation Naomi Klein expressed concern about Obama’s profession of love for the free market and his selection of very conventionally neoliberal economic advisers, Krugman responded rather waspishly, “Look, Obama didn’t pose as a Nation-type progressive, then turn on his allies after the race was won. Throughout the campaign he was slightly less progressive than Hillary Clinton on domestic issues — and more than slightly on health care. If people like Ms. Klein are shocked, shocked that he isn’t the candidate of their fantasies, they have nobody but themselves to blame.” As early as 2006, Ken Silverstein noted in these pages that the rising star’s extensive corporate and financial-sector connections suggested that his progressive supporters should rein in their hopes. Larissa MacFarquhar, in a 2007 New Yorker profile, also gave reason for restraint to those projecting “transformative” expectations onto Obama. “In his view of history,” she reports, “in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. . . . Asked whether he has changed his mind about anything in the past twenty years, he says ‘I’m probably more humble now about the speed with which government programs can solve every problem.’ ”

These and other critics, skeptics, and voices of caution were largely drowned out in the din of the faithful’s righteous fervor. Some in the flock who purported to represent the campaign’s left flank, such as the former SDS stalwart Carl Davidson and the professional white antiracist Tim Wise, denounced Obama’s critics as out-of-touch, pie-in-the-sky radicals who were missing the train of history because they preferred instead to wallow in marginalization. This response is a generic mantra of political opportunists. Some who called for climbing on the bandwagon insisted that Obama was a secret progressive who would reveal his true politics once elected. Others relied on the familiar claim that actively supporting the campaign — as distinct from choosing to vote for him as yet another lesser evil — would put progressives in a position to exert leftward pressure on his administration.

Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments made on the candidate’s behalf by their children. We were urged to marvel at and take our cues from the already indulged upper-middle-class Children of the Corn and their faddish, utterly uninformed exuberance. And it was easy to understand why so many of them found Obama to be absolutely new under the sun. To them he was. A twenty-five-year-old on November 4, 2008, was a nine-year-old when Bill Clinton was first elected, ten when he pushed NAFTA through Congress, thirteen when he signed welfare “reform,” and sixteen when he signed the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, which repealed Glass–Steagall.

Obama’s miraculous ability to inspire and engage the young replaced specific content in his patter of Hope and Change. In the same way that he and his supporters presented his life story as the embodiment of a politics otherwise not clearly defined, the projection of inspired youth substituted a narrative of identity — and a vague and ephemeral one at that — for argument. Those in Obama’s thrall viewed his politics as qualitatively different from Bill Clinton’s, even though the political niche Obama had crafted for himself only deepened Clintonism. Of course, perception of Obama’s difference from the Clintons and other Democratic contenders past and present was bound up in his becoming the first black president, the symbolic significance of which far outweighed the candidate’s actual politics. Thus, for instance, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, usually not a faddish enthusiast, proclaimed just after the 2008 presidential election that

Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all the pragmatic calculations and manipulations that involves. It is a sign of something more. . . . Whatever our doubts, for that moment [of his election] each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity. . . . Obama’s victory is a sign of history in the triple Kantian sense of signum rememorativum, demonstrativum, prognosticum. A sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates; an event which now demonstrates a change; a hope for future achievements.

Nevertheless, Obama could not have sold his signature “bipartisan” transcendence so successfully to those who identify as leftists if Clinton had not already moved the boundaries of liberalism far enough rightward. Obama’s posture of judiciousness depends partly on the ritual validation of bromides about “big government,” which he typically evokes through resonant phrases rather than through affirmative argument that might ring too dissonantly with his leftist constituents. He can finesse the tension with allusions because Clinton, in his supposed “New Covenant” from a “New Democrat,” had already severed the link between Democratic liberalism and vigorous, principled commitment to the public sector.

* In a 2008 speech to a mostly African-American audience in the city of Beaumont, Texas, Obama scolded his listeners about feeding junk food to children: “Y’all have Popeyes out in Beaumont? I know some of y’all you got that cold Popeyes out for breakfast. I know. That’s why y’all laughing. . . . You can’t do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school.”

Obama also relies on nasty, victim-blaming stereotypes about black poor people to convey tough-minded honesty about race and poverty. Clinton’s division of the poor into those who “play by the rules” and those who presumably do not, his recasting of the destruction of publicly provided low-income housing and the forced displacement of poor people as “Moving to Opportunity” and “HOPE,” and most of all his debacle of “welfare reform” already had helped liberal Democrats to view behavior modification of a defective population as the fundamental objective of antipoverty policy. Indeed, even ersatz leftists such as Glenn Greenwald, then of Salon.com, and The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel defended and rationalized Obama’s willingness to disparage black poor people. Greenwald applauded the candidate for making what he somehow imagined to be the “unorthodox” and “not politically safe” move of showing himself courageous enough to beat up on this politically powerless group. For her part, vanden Heuvel rationalized such moves as his odious “Popeyes chicken” speech as reflective of a “generational division” among black Americans, with Obama representing a younger generation that values “personal responsibility.”* Perhaps, but it’s noteworthy that Obama didn’t give the Popeyes speech to groups of investment bankers.

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is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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