Saturday, January 24, 2009

Barack Obama, Ideologue-In-Chief? or What Centrists Fail to Understand

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
So-called 'pundits' such as John Freehery, founder and CEO of the Freehery Group, 'a boutique strategic advocacy firm' in Washington DC, and blogger at The Hill's Pundits Blog, understands this to be the most important line from Obama's inaugural address for Republicans, for it is them for whom the ground has shifted. They now face a huge challenge to reposition themselves. The background to this interpretation is what could be called the archetype of the core centrist credo:
We are a centrist country with conservative leanings. And if you don’t appeal to the vast middle, especially that part of Middle America that lives in the suburbs, your party loses seats, influence, access to money, and perspective

The center revolted against the partisanship of the last 20 years. They threw their lot in with Obama because he talked to them, appealed to them, excited them and promised them a post-partisan world where all would work together for a more perfect union.

Who could possibly be against that ideal?

Obviously all those who don't share that 'ideal' to begin with and question the whole concept of 'centrism,' such as Thomas Frank below.

At the other end of the political spectrum, further to the left, Victor Navasky, along with many others, 'prefers to believe' that Obama might be 'a liberal wolf in centrists sheep's clothing.' The formulation 'prefer to believe' betrays a classic case of projection that sill seems all too common among progressives today. It's wishful thinking.

The reverse seems to make more sense: Obama appears to be 'a centrist sheep with a rather thin progressive veneer.' If this is the case, the key challenge for left-liberal progressives is to develop a strategy that allows them to nudge Obama to the left.

The above line from Obama's speech only needs to be slightly modified to more accurately describe what really has happened in the US and the world in the past 30 years and to begin to make sense and become politically useful for left-liberal progressives. For the ground that has shifted is nothing less than 'reality,' primarily in its economic and environmental dimensions, less so in its politics:
What the centrists fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments of centrism that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
Progressives such as Glenn Grennwald, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, George Lakoff, Christopher Hayes, Guy Saperstein, David Sirota, and Rick Perlstein - just to name a few - have argued for a long time that centrism is a sham. Reich explicitly did so back in 2004 in his book Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America, in chapter 5, Winning: It Will Take More Than Reason, in the section appropriately named 'The Sham of Centrism,' (pp. 196-201). 'Centrism' is a particularly pernicious form of political ideology, precisely because it passes itself off as 'the reasonable and sensible middle,' or these days as 'pragmatism.' Plus, it is shifting all the time, and the right very successfully has shifted it in its direction. For the same reason, 'leading from the center' doesn't make sense, because picking people up where they are supposedly at, is the opposite of leadership.

According to Politico, Obama wants 80 Senate votes for his recovery plan. Given that there are 58 Democrats in the Senate now, why does he want an additional 22 Republicans? In order to get them, and all the Blue Dog Democrats, he will have to make a number of centrist/conservative concessions. In addition, this will likely delay the adoption of the bill, during a daily deepening crisis where time is of the essence. Why would he do that? Why doesn't he instead 'act like he won'?

Today, Obamaian 'pragmatism' and 'post-partisanships' are just new words for 'centrism,' which is now obsolete, having been surpassed by developments around the world. As Glenn Greenwald recently documented, 'centrism' is anything but new. In fact, this is what most Democrats have been doing, ever since Dukakis in 1988, who said 'this election isn't about ideology. It's about competence.' Greenwald explains:
The central tenets of the Beltway religion -- particularly when a Democrat is in the White House -- have long been "centrism" and "bipartisanship." The only good Democrats are the ones who scorn their "left-wing" base while embracing Republicans. In Beltway lingo, that's what "pragmatism" and good "post-partisanship" mean: a Democrat whose primary goal is to prove he's not one of those leftists.

Whatever else one might want to say about this "centrist" approach, the absolute last thing one can say about it is that there's anything "new" or "remarkable" about it. The notion that Democrats must spurn their left-wing base and move to the "non-ideological" center is the most conventional of conventional Beltway wisdom.
In his excellent column at the Wall Street Journal, 'Obama Should Act Like He Won,' Thomas Frank presents one of the best definitions and critiques of centrism that I have read in a long time. It is scathing and right on target:
There is no branch of American political expression more trite, more smug, more hollow than centrism. [...]

Centrism is something of a cult here in Washington, D.C., and a more specious superstition you never saw. Its adherents pretend to worship at the altar of the great American middle, but in fact they stick closely to a very particular view of events regardless of what the public says it wants.

And through it all, centrism bills itself as the most transgressive sort of exercise imaginable. Its partisans are "New Democrats," "Radical Centrists," clear-eyed believers in a "Third Way." The red-hot tepids, we might call them -- the jellybeans of steel.

The reason centrism finds an enthusiastic audience in Washington, I think, is because it appeals naturally to the Beltway journalistic mindset, with its professional prohibition against coming down solidly on one side or the other of any question. Splitting the difference is a way of life in this cynical town. To hear politicians insist that it is also the way of the statesman, I suspect, gives journalists a secret thrill.

Yet what the Beltway centrist characteristically longs for is not so much to transcend politics but to close off debate on the grounds that he -- and the vast silent middle for which he stands -- knows beyond question what is to be done

As this should remind us, the real-world function of Beltway centrism has not been to wage high-minded war against "both extremes" but to fight specifically against the economic and foreign policies of liberalism. Centrism's institutional triumphs have been won mainly if not entirely within the Democratic Party. Its greatest exponent, President Bill Clinton, persistently used his own movement as a foil in his great game of triangulation.

And centrism's achievements? Well, there's Nafta, which proved Democrats could stand up to labor. There's the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. There's the Iraq war resolution, approved by numerous Democrats in brave defiance of their party's left. Triumphs all.
Essentially, 'centrism' is a political ideology that combines and articulates neoliberalism and 'liberal' interventionism. It is all the more powerful the more it succeeds to delude people with its pretension that it is 'post-ideological.'

It cannot be repeated enough: 'Post-ideological' and 'post-partisan' politics is utter and dangerous nonsense. I am just waiting for the Obamaniacs to push it further and start talking about 'post-politics.' It is a myth, but a very powerful myth, that has served 'centrists' exceedingly well. It is high time to burst this pretentious bubble, especially right now that it is being vigorously reinflated.

Likewise, there is nothing 'radical' about the 'radical middle' or 'radical centrists.' And today more than ever the 'third way' is a deadend street, a slow-motion trainwreck, given the economic and ecological crises facing us. 'Centrism' means sustaining the unsustainable. It tends to reduce democracy to technocracy, a tendency that critical theorists have critiqued for decades, foremost among them Juergen Habermas.

Christopher Hayes, drawing pragmatist philosophy in his recent reflection on what kind of 'pragmatist' Obama might turn out to be, put it really well:
Dewey's pragmatism was reformist, not radical. He sought to ameliorate the excesses of early industrial capitalism, not to topple it. Nonetheless, pragmatism requires an openness to the possibility of radical solutions. It demands a skepticism not just toward the certainties of ideologues and dogmatism but also of elite consensus and the status quo. This is a definition of pragmatism that is in almost every way the opposite of its invocation among those in the establishment. For them, pragmatism means accepting the institutional forces that severely limit innovation and boldness; it means listening to the counsel of the Wise Men; it means not rocking the boat.
These two kinds of pragmatism, what I would be tempted to call the 'fake,' so-called 'common sense' pragmatism of the establishment, and the 'real' philosophical and historical pragmatism, are opposed to each other. Obama has staffed his administration almost exclusively with members of the now discredited ancien regime of neoliberalism and interventionism. His early positions on a whole range of issues, from the 'bailout' to 'entitlement reform,' and from Pakistan to 'clean coal,' also reflect these obsolete approaches. Many of his other policies represent only a return to the historical norm. Some progressives may be forgiven, after these exceptional eight years, for mistaking these changes for genuine progress. Doing less harm is not the same as doing good.

One can make the strongest case for the argument that for the US to adequately address not only its current crises, but also the ones that will be the defining challenges of the 21st century, it needs to radically change many of its major policies in a quasi-revolutionary shift to a sustainable environment, economy and society. Conservatism and 'centrism' have proven to be failures to even begin to address these challenges, only making them worse. Progressivism is the only viable alternative left that at least stands a chance of beginning to respond semi-adequately to systemic challenges such as catastrophic climate change, peak oil, a hyper-militarized foreign policy and an utterly unsustainable world economy, that threaten the very foundations of human civilization. This is how much the ground has shifted.

Even such a corporate outfit as the World Economic Forum, in its latest report, 'Global Risks 2009,' now acknowledges that global risks today are so 'interlinked,' that they necessitate much more coherent and effective global governance, which of course is a form of collective action at the highest level that, if anything, only progressivism can achieve, with its systematic emphasis on the need for more coordination, cooperation and integration.

Thomas Frank concludes his column by quoting from former House Majority Leader 'the hammer' Tom DeLay's 2007 memoirs that Republicans under his leadership learned 'to start every policy initiative from as far to the political right as we could,' thereby moving 'the center farther to the right.'
President-elect Obama can learn something from Mr. DeLay's confession: Centrism is a chump's game. Democrats have massive majorities these days not because they waffle hither and yon but because their historic principles have been vindicated by events. This is their moment. Let the other side do the triangulating.
Something tells me that Obama knows all this already. So why doesn't he act accordingly? The 'chump's game' of 'centrism' should insult both his intellect and his seriousness, assuming that he actually is serious about finding workable solutions to critical problems, and not primarily concerned with keeping if not expanding his majority in the 2010 midterm elections and getting re-elected in 2012.

And here's the rub: The crises we are facing now, and will continue to face in one form or another for the rest of the 21st century, can only be adequately addressed through radically changed policies, which must be consistently applied for decades. But in a political system that is geared towards winning elections every two to four years, this is almost impossible to achieve. But saying that we are already doomed and that it is too late to change guarantees that nothing will be done, and thus this assessment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Obama just got elected President in this political system, which will continue to severely constrain his actions, no matter how brilliant and well-intentioned he may be. It is for this reason that progressives must develop a strategy that allows them to change both the structure of the political system and the ideology that supports it.

In short, politics is inescapably ideological, 'centrism is for phonies,' and 'post-partisanship' is bogus. At least for the next four years, Obama will be, not Pragmatist-In-Chief, as he and others would like us to believe, but unavoidably Ideologue-In-Chief. If progressives don't manage to develop and act on a strategy that allows them to at least nudge him to the left, early indications are that he will turn out to be yet another triangulating Centrist-In-Chief, and the results cannot possibly be better than some version of Clintonism 2.0. Given the enormous challenges, they are almost guaranteed to be worse. The stakes could not be higher.

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