Essay — From the March 2014 issue

Nothing Left

The long, slow surrender of American liberals

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With the two parties converging in policy, the areas of fundamental disagreement that separate them become too arcane and too remote from most people’s experience to inspire any commitment, much less popular action. Strategies and allegiances become mercurial and opportunistic, and politics becomes ever more candidate-centered and driven by worshipful exuberance about individuals or, more accurately, the idealized and evanescent personae — the political holograms — their packagers project.

As the “human cipher” Taibbi described, Obama is the pure product of this hollowed-out politics. He is a triumph of image and identity over content; indeed, he is the triumph of identity as content. Taibbi misreads how race figures into Brand Obama. Obama is not “without” race; he embodies it as an abstraction, a feel-good evocation severed from history and social relations. Race is what Obama projects in place of an ideology. His racial classification combines with a narrative of self-presentation, including his past as a “community organizer,” to convey a sensation of a politics, much as advertising presents a product as the material expression of inchoate desire. This became the basis for a faith in his virtue that largely insulated him from sharp criticism from the left through the first five years of his presidency. Proclamation that Obama’s election was, in Žižek’s terms, a “sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates” was also a call to suspend critical judgment, to ascribe to the event a significance above whatever Obama stood for or would do.

In fact, Obama was able to win the presidency only because the changes his election supposedly signified had already taken place. His election, after all, did not depend on disqualifying large chunks of the white electorate. As things stand, his commitments to an imperialist foreign policy and Wall Street have only more tightly sealed the American left’s coffin by nailing it shut from the inside. Katrina vanden Heuvel pleads for the president to accept criticism from a “principled left” that has demonstrated its loyalty through unprincipled acquiescence to his administration’s initiatives; in a 2010 letter, the president of the AFL-CIO railed against the Deficit Commission as a front for attacking Social Security while tactfully not mentioning that Obama appointed the commission or ever linking him to any of the economic policies that labor continues to protest; and there is even less of an antiwar movement than there was under Bush, as Obama has expanded American aggression and slaughter into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and who knows where else.

Barack Obama has always been no more than an unexceptional neoliberal Democrat with an exceptional knack for self-presentation persuasive to those who want to believe, and with solid connections and considerable good will from the corporate and financial sectors. From his successful wooing of University of Chicago and Hyde Park liberals at the beginning of his political career, his appeal has always been about the persona he projects — the extent to which he encourages people to feel good about their politics, the political future, and themselves through feeling good about him — than about any concrete vision or political program he has advanced. And that persona has always been bound up in and continues to play off complex and contradictory representations of race in American politics.

Particularly among those who stress the primary force of racism in American life, Obama’s election called forth in the same breath competing impulses — exultation in the triumphal moment and a caveat that the triumph is not as definitive as it seems. Proponents of an antiracist politics almost ritualistically express anxiety that Obama’s presidency threatens to issue in premature proclamation of the transcendence of racial inequality, injustice, or conflict. It is and will be possible to find as many expressions of that view as one might wish, just as lunatic and more or less openly racist “birther” and Tea Party tendencies have become part of the political landscape. An equal longer-term danger, however, is the likelihood that we will find ourselves with no critical politics other than a desiccated leftism capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering, and making up “Just So” stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity. This is neoliberalism’s version of a left. Radicalism now means only a very strong commitment to antidiscrimination, a point from which Democratic liberalism has not retreated. Rather, it’s the path Democrats have taken in retreating from a commitment to economic justice.

Confusion and critical paralysis prompted by the racial imagery of Obama’s election prevented even sophisticated intellectuals like Žižek from concluding that Obama was only another Clintonite Democrat — no more, no less. It is how Obama could be sold, even within the left, as a hybrid of Martin Luther King Jr. and Neo from The Matrix. The triumph of identity politics, condensed around the banal image of the civil rights insurgency and its legacy as a unitary “black liberation movement,” is what has enabled Obama successfully to present himself as the literal embodiment of an otherwise vaporous progressive politics. In this sense his election is most fundamentally an expression of the limits of the left in the United States — its decline, demoralization, and collapse.

The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding in a vibrant labor movement. Labor may be weak or in decline, but that means aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task for the American left. Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless. There are no magical interventions, shortcuts, or technical fixes. We need to reject the fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a mass. We must create a constituency for a left program — and that cannot occur via MSNBC or blog posts or the New York Times. It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves. Finally, admitting our absolute impotence can be politically liberating; acknowledging that as a left we have no influence on who gets nominated or elected, or what they do in office, should reduce the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races. It is long past time for us to begin again to approach leftist critique and strategy by determining what our social and governmental priorities should be and focusing our attention on building the kind of popular movement capable of realizing that vision. Obama and his top aides punctuated that fact by making brutally apparent during the 2008 campaign that no criticism from the left would have a place in this regime of Hope and Change. The message could not be clearer.

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

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