The Narrowing of the Field: Barack Obama and the Death of Progressivism

As the two rival mobs make their last pushes for control over our territory, the most meaningful aspect of their competition is what our reaction to their theatrics says about us as a society and our potential for civilized, intelligent progress. There is little meaning to the outcome of the election itself, other than elements of tone and velocity. For the children of northwestern Pakistan, there will be no respite from the terror of the American drones that call in deadly Hellfire missile strikes at the whim of CIA agents sequestered in a Colorado mountain bunker (the very real Death Panel no conservative seems to care about). For the Earth’s atmosphere, there will be no perceptible difference in the volume of pollutants destroying its delicate balance. For the billions of animals living and dying in horrific conditions in American factory farms, there will be no mercy. For the undiscovered plant and animal species in the rainforests of South America and Indonesia, there will be no escape from the saw and the blazing torch of progress in the name of free trade. For the plutocrats who own much of our world, there will be merely marginal effects on the rate of their additional acquisitions. But for the people of the United States, there will be one further, irredeemable step toward attainment of uncontested status as a Bullshit Nation.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

The easy case for the political degeneracy of the United States – that Mitt Romney was almost universally declared the winner of the first presidential debate and received a handsome dividend in the polls – deserves only a passing mention. A relatively intelligent letter in Saturday’s Leesburg Daily Commercial, lent additional credibility by the two adjacent examples of hysterical right-wing nonsense,1 wondered how President Obama could possibly debate an obvious phony who would say anything, anytime to win the “role of a lifetime”:

I watched the presidential debate and was amazed at what a wonderful actor Mitt Romney is. He looked straight at the camera and spewed out lie after lie.

The problem is that I cannot trust someone with my life who is insincere, constantly changing, constantly lying and basically unreal.

Apart from the problem that this line of argument makes excuses for Obama, who, as we are about to explore, does not deserve them, it states matters far too politely. Surely the question is not whether Barack Obama could have debated Mitt Romney, but whether he could have First Presidential Debate 2012successfully portrayed Mitt Romney, not as a mere calculating flip-flopper, but as the insufferably arrogant, morally repugnant bully that he is (several examples here for those who really need them) without immediately dropping ten points in the polls. Even if Obama had wished to do so, the task would have been tricky, for while our glorious empire splatters the blood of children on far-away soil and exports its artery-clogging junk food to previously healthy cultures, it insists on a certain level of politeness in the observance of its civic rituals. State-sanctioned murder and commercial exploitation are fine; rudeness simply won’t do. Even at the lower-stakes level of the Vice-Presidential debate, Uncle Joe’s accusation that the wunderkind‘s position was “a bunch of malarkey” made headlines in the Daily Commercial. Strong stuff, indeed. I’m sure similar words were uttered by the Reuters journalists in Baghdad who were ripped apart by a trigger-happy Apache gunship just for carrying a camera tripod. But who cares about that real-world use of our borrowed dollars? It was never on the network news anyway, so it can’t have been important. All that matters is that we have a tight race on our hands. Isn’t it exciting?

Barack Obama’s Tightrope Act

The failure of the media to expose the hollowness of our supposedly democratic process was given a particular piquancy by the pundits on the President’s side. The obvious discomfort of MSNBC personalities like Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz betrayed not just a universal obsession with the handicapping of the horse race – a race in which very superficial impressions appear to count above all else – but a far greater failure to understand their own candidate. Barack Obama’s seeming inability to respond to Mitt Romney’s ludicrous shape-shifting and blatant plutocratic propensities was chalked off as a conscious decision to avoid alienating independents by coming on too strong. Or the President was distracted by his desire to take Michelle out for an anniversary dinner. Or he underestimated Mitt Romney’s seriousness (a mistake made by The Nation magazine, when it asked – with an air of presumptive schadenfreude that they may now regret – whether Mitt Romney really wanted to be president). Or he just had a bad night, and will do better on the stump and in the next debates. Yet all this liberal hand-wringing completely missed an obvious explanation: Barack Obama cannot respond effectively to a Republican opponent because he is not a progressive.

For a genuine progressive, Mitt Romney is the stuff dreams are made of. From his rapacious tenure at Bain Capital, which included willing acceptance of help from the federal government when Bain itself needed a bailout, through his notorious 47% speech to the people he really cares about, to his brazen and kaleidoscopic policy apostasy to appease the right-wing of his own party and secure the nomination, Romney offers enough targets to sate a redneck bow hunter at the start of deer season. But Barack Obama is not a progressive. He is a moderate Republican in all but name, and has governed as such. No matter how sincerely he expresses admiration for Ronald Reagan; no matter how frequently he fills key White House staff positions with Wall Street alums; no matter how inexcusably his Justice Department fails to prosecute the greatest financial crime in history; no matter how aggressively he wages George W. Bush’s War on Terror; no matter how relentlessly he pursues whistle blowers like Bradley Manning in order to suppress free access to information; no matter how predictably his “negotiations” with Congress end up extending the Bush tax cuts (especially the preferential treatment of capital gains); no matter how obviously the big insurance corporations participated in the composition of his so-called signature achievement; no matter how cravenly he avoids confrontation with the NRA, they still don’t get it.

Obama FundraiserBarack Obama has pulled off a great con, and his marks – Democrats – remain largely oblivious and impotent. Unlike their polar opposites on the right-wing of the Republican Party, who have flexed their muscles to great effect, genuinely progressive Democrats allow their fear of Republican domination to suppress any misgivings that threaten to rise to the level of conscious awareness. Thus, an incumbent President who deserved a robust primary challenge for being, as one Counterpunch book offering puts it, Hopeless, didn’t even face the token intramural resistance met by Lake County’s Bible-bashing, pedophile-pursuing Republican Sheriff, Gary Borders. (Whoops. I suppose we’d better be careful what we say about our Gary, lest his gun-toting goons come knocking on the door at 1:30 AM, shooting first and asking questions later.)

The skill of Obama’s tightrope act, therefore, is hugely under-appreciated. A corporate neoliberal, Wall Street tool, eager imperial warmonger, and permanent embarrassment to the Nobel Prize committee, he somehow manages to keep his own flock in line without throwing them anywhere near as much red meat as Mitt of the Month regularly throws to conservatives. (They got a pronouncement on gay marriage that won’t make any difference to anything that really matters. Like dogs eating flavored garbage, they wagged their tails approvingly.) Rather ironically, part of the reason for the success of this act – other than the meekness of the progressives who should be baying for Obama’s blood, and his calculating, laser-like focus on ensnaring just enough independents to prevail in the general election – is the right-wing media’s relentlessly ridiculous misrepresentation of who he really is. For when the loudest voices in the room proclaim him to be a socialist who wants to turn America into a Marxian utopia, or a Muslim seeking to impose Sharia Law, the quieter voices that question his progressivism have even less chance of being heard. It is, in a sense, a beautiful piece of choreography, as impressive as a pack of killer whales hunting a seal trapped on an ice floe. And just like that gruesome sight in the far-off waters of Antarctica, few Americans are able to appreciate its macabre magnificence, for their attention is never in the right place.

The Oppression of Commercialized Ignorance

If the Democrats themselves don’t understand the President, it is scarcely surprising that those who drink the saccharine swill of the overt plutocrats exhibit still greater cognitive deficits. The letters to the Leesburg Daily Commercial this weekend were, as usual, full of the delusions of addled minds whose votes, rather depressingly, count just as much as those of someone like Noam Chomsky (who has assumed the undisputed mantle of America’s greatest political savant since the death of Gore Vidal). Take, for example, the reliably crotchety Sonny Henninger, who treated us to this howler:

The old adage, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” may be true for some things but not for politics.[…]

Except for FOX news [sic.] and Glen Beck’s new news channel, The Blaze, Americans will not hear two sides of an issue. For liberals, there can only be one side.

I would advise Mr. Henninger to read Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky’s timeless account of how the “mainstream media” – among which his beloved Fox must certainly be counted – serve the interests of the corporate oligarchy, but it would be as lost on him as the Geneva Conventions were on Dick Cheney. It’s too late for him; he’s gone.

Slightly more interesting was the featured column from Don Magruder, who happens to be (though the Daily Commercial failed to disclose this) the CEO of Ro-Mac Lumber and Supply2, and obviously blames Barack Obama for the decline in his fortunes since the collapse of Florida’s unsustainable construction boom:

President Obama was elected and governs from the extreme left wing of the Democrat Party, and American history proves that presidents which [sic.] govern more in the center are the most effective.

Unless Mr. Magruder is making a highly sophisticated argument that Barack Obama’s failure to prosecute Wall Street’s casino capitalists embodied a socialization of risk that amounted to a form of socialism (a bitterly sarcastic point that was actually made by The Economist at the time the bailouts began), then he has just revealed himself to be utterly clueless as well as illiterate. Instead of intoning the Republican mantra that the economy is struggling due to a lack of trust, confidence, and certainty – conditions which, with typical patriotism, the Republicans have worked tirelessly to undermine – he would be far better served to take a truckload of lumber and a crew of unemployed carpenters up to New York City and build a nice shelter in Zuccotti Park for the Occupy Wall Street kids who correctly identified the real villain in our national picture show. Yet Magruder’s letter does raise one extremely salient question: Where exactly is “the center,” anyway?

Since the center is inherently relative, its location is obviously a matter of perception. For Don Magruder, the center appears to be somewhere in the middle of the Republican Party – a spot that John Boehner has had a little trouble finding. This attitude is typical of Lake County Republicans, obsessed as they are with the contemplation of their own navels and their own bank accounts. But it reflects a general narrowing of the field of political ideas, an impoverishment of the range of possibilities for our society. And this is the ultimate victory of the plutocracy that will linger on, largely unheralded, no matter what happens on November 6th. While it is obviously tempting to blame much of this narrowing on the growth of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire – of which his local Fox affiliates are every bit as damaging as the more notorious Fox News or the predictably plutocratic Wall Street Journal – much of the rest of our corporate media are equally culpable, filling our heads with the completely bogus idea that the country faces a major choice between two very different parties.

Genuine progressivism, to the extent it ever existed at all, has been off-limits for quite some time. The howling of the wolves, the reactions of the sheep, and the candidacy of Barack Obama ensure that it will stay that way.


  1. What happened to Saturday, anyway? For a while there it was looking like “token liberal” day, with regular offerings from Marvin Jacobson, Choice Edwards, and Robert Wesolowski.
  2. Long-time readers of the Daily Commercial may also remember him as author of The Sour Orange, a nasty little column that is now found only on his own, rather crude website.

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