jimsleeper.com » Can Obama Keep the Republic?

Can Obama Keep the Republic?

By Jim Sleeper. TPM Cafe, Dec. 3, 2009, after Obama spoke at West Point

Barack Obama is the wisest American president of my lifetime, which began during Harry Truman’s presidency and includes John F. Kennedy, who might have outdone Obama had he lived, and Bill Clinton, who as president was terrifically clever but not so wise. Obama is wise in the ways a loving, seasoned sage is wise. And he’s a canny strategist, playing a series of long, slow games against daunting odds and against time.

But time and those odds are not on the side of the republic he swore to preserve, protect, and defend. To say so, as I have just done, is not to underestimate or betray Obama; it is to try to face a predicament that won’t be improved either by the fretting now rampant among his erstwhile supporters or by sagacious (and rather orotund) appreciations of him.

It’s not about him. It’s about the republic, as Benjamin Franklin put it to a bystander in the words that form the title of this possibly ill-starred post. Let me try to explain why I see it this way.

Last night I posted a response to Obama’s West Point speech that some people took as the fretting of an unreconstructed Marxist, circa C. Wright Mills, and others took as the preening of a defeatist. Perhaps they were projecting.

Or maybe it was my title – “Commander-in-What?Years as a columnist have taught me that even intelligent, busy people do not draw much from an essay beyond whatever its title seems to convey, especially if they’re already worried about its subject. I fear that my title failed in its intention to emphasize the “What” over the Commander.

Or maybe it was this sentence: “‘States hover like crows over the nests that nations make,’ wrote the historian Robert Wiebe, and by the time Obama faced the state’s gray ranks of cadets last night as their commander in chief, the crows of national security statism and free marketeering had cannibalized so much of the republic’s strength that Obama found himself in command of the wreckage and Orwellian newspeak they’ve left behind.”

When I wrote ‘wreckage,” by the way, I didn’t mean the cadets and their instructors, who put many of us to shame. I’ve visited with them at West Point. Those I met are deeply thoughtful and brave. To my way of thinking, that adds up to being noble. How “thoughtful” are they? Well, West Point has hosted such lecturers from the “left” as Seyla Benhabib, Jeffrey Alexander, and Noam Chomsky. Think about that for a minute.

The West Point instructors’ and cadets’ craving to hear viewpoints alternative to those coming from the Bush White House – even when they rejected those alternatives — was so poignant during my own visit there that I felt unworthy even just to watch it and to listen to their questions and sense their keen attentiveness to the answers.

Few of us are as open as those cadets were to hearing what we may not want to hear and to facing hard truths. Then again, few of us are so driven by the nature of our work to take hard truths into account. According to a report by Amy Dockser Marcus in Wall Street Journal, students from Yale’s pretentious Grand Strategy program who visited West Point to discuss George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate with cadets “decided not to record the discussion because they did not want to have ‘views expressed in the spirit of intellectual debate be used against them at a Senate confirmation hearing’ some day, said Minh A. Luong, the program’s associate director.”

So here we have West Point cadets, who’ll defend as well as exercise the American right to speak one’s mind, hosting Yale undergraduates who are learning to run the country by cultivating careerist habits of networking, intellectual corner-cutting, and secret-keeping that don’t belong in a liberal education at college. Arguably these habits don’t belong in the democracy their West Point hosts defend by talking with Noam Chomsky and by risking not just their careers but their lives.

Daunting odds like the miscarriage of civic-republican leadership training which I’ve just described threaten the republic. These odds are set not conspiratorially, but often mindlessly, and yet systemically, by immense concentrations of power that are dissolving republican habits and dispositions by penalizing them.

They are doing this not only by accelerating the material dispossession of the republic’s middle and working classes, but also by promoting escapism and careerist self-protection like that of the young grand-strategists at Yale. Whether in the name of free market consumerism or national security, something awful is being insinuated into Americans’ most intimate viscera and desires.

Just look around. Or look at a long assessment I wrote – “Behind the Deluge of Porn, a Conservative Sea Change” – for the quarterly Salmagundi that, tellingly, was taken up by the conservative Dallas Morning News.

Other daunting odds include the rules and premises that govern the presidency and which Obama hasn’t proved willing or able to change. Whether these rules and premises concern surveillance and civil liberties, or the predatory operations of finance capital, or the exorbitant costs of profiteering in health care, they remain formidably entrenched and debilitating of our society and economy.

The power of the presidency remains primarily the power to persuade, and Obama sometimes seems little more than a Don Quixote, tipping his lance at the windmills of the national-security state, finance capital, and health-care profiteers — concentrations of power that someone will have to reconfigure.

At other times, he’s less than Quixotic — or more, but not necessarily for better: He has taken the great powers’ representatives and apologists  into his administration with what we hope, but have yet to see, is a brilliant strategy to induce them to enlighten or adjust their interests to help stop society from breaking down before our eyes.

To see that breakdown, most TPM readers and contributors would have to travel less than ten miles from wherever they’re sitting, and stay there long enough to get a hard knock or two. It’s not about taking a field trip. It’s about doing what might wound one’s moral imagination, not just satisfy one’s curiosity or sense of omniscience.

To suggest, as I have, that Obama isn’t powerful enough because he lacks a strong push from what some people persist in calling the left (but what I would call a civic-republican majority) is not to criticize him. It is to indicate his predicament.

FDR may not have been wiser or tougher than Obama, but he did get a big push from militant labor and, equally important, in my estimation, from tough liberals like my distant cousins Jimmy and Nancy Wechsler (who dined with FDR, by the way, as I noted in this post.) Speaking to tens of thousands at Madison Square Garden in 1936, Roosevelt said that the bankers of America hated him. “And I welcome their hatred,” he thundered. Obama isn’t made that way; the times and the polity aren’t made that way, either.

Most people, whether for materially self-interested or purely temperamental or characterological reasons, aren’t inclined to stare predicaments like Obama’s in the face. We prefer to think ourselves canny realists even when we’re really just sliding around cold realities and the heartbreak they bring. Sometimes we resort to ideological simplifications, wishful idealism, or rank decadence — anything but face too much of the truth.

Sometimes it takes great literary fiction to puncture our “realistic” evasions, but fiction can become an escape, too, and most people now prefer entertainments that reinforce their presumptions and prejudices. Decadence often thinks itself liberating, but it’s fooling itself, and it shows this by having its taboos! It designates things one simply cannot say if one wants to be listened to ever again. (See the Salmagundi essay I mentioned above.)

The same is often true of idealism: If you brook it, you’re accused of bad faith or defeatism or some other self-indulgence. In politics, Ivan Turgenev wrote, the honest man will end by having to live alone. Victor Serge’s novel Unforgiving Years drives home the tragedy of the political with a force that terrifies even the novel’s own heroes into decadence or wishful thinking.

Let me mention two taboos, especially strong among Obama’s defenders as well as detractors these days, that cannot help him and cannot save the republic.

The first is the taboo against deconstructing seriously what corporate and finance capital have become and what they are doing to us.

Even Dwight Eisenhower warned (although only in his presidential farewell address) that a military-industrial-academic complex imperils the republic. But the Marxist left and new left made such a brutal and ludicrous hash of that civic-republican warning that a generation of liberals and former leftists remains embarrassed to utter the words “corporate state.” They’re so desperate not to resemble what they’ve outgrown that they don’t notice that global capital has outgrown them, seducing or wrenching them away from everything they hold dear.

In the Salmagundi essay, I envisioned David Brooks’ sidling up to such penitent leftists in their summer homes, purring, “C’mon, you know that you love your real-estate and your unearned income, and that you love circulating commodities more than ideas…. And (wink, tickle)… it’s okay!” Only nerds and unreconstructed ideologues keep fretting about the corporate state. Just look back over other people’s writings and their lifestyles, at least until 2008.

By late in 2008, it did begin to seem that perhaps it was time to begin to undertake some consideration of the possibility that corporate capitalism, like the once-beloved British monarchy well into the 1770s, no longer made as much social sense as we had been seduced or chastened into thinking it had. Tom Paine urged American colonists to bring their actual experience of the monarchy to the “touchstones of nature,” to look at what their society was becoming, and to recognize, “‘Tis time to part.”. He warned against sleepwalking into tyranny.

But maybe Paine was histrionic, even a little deranged. Maybe monarchy wasn’t really the problem. Certainly, few people had any idea what should replace it, and, for more than a decade, they blundered. Canada, which didn’t replace it, did alright, but we think that that’s mainly thanks to us.

Maybe so, or maybe Canadians were wiser, or maybe it’s a mix. But do we have the right mix of boldness and wisdom now? I don’t see it yet, and the likelihood that Obama is trapped — or has trapped himself – into taking measures that are too little, too late haunts me everywhere I look, not least at West Point, whose paradigms are trying to catch up with realities its graduates must face more fatefully than the rest of us.

Another taboo I want to mention keeps many people from looking very deeply into liberalism’s reliance on the virtues and beliefs that liberal states and markets themselves can’t nourish or defend, because they have to value individual autonomy to an extent that makes it hard for them to distinguish bold, free spirits from free riders.

The counterintuitive lesson of this essential liberal dilemma is that leaders and citizens of a republic have to be nurtured somehow all the more intensively, outside of markets and the state (including the military). This takes us back to matters of faith that don’t go away.

For what it’s worth, I wish we could appreciate what the Puritans — who seeded the republic, almost despite themselves, by staking politics on inner integrity — actually got right in their otherwise failed efforts to balance liberty with authority, positions of power with demands of personal conscience, capitalism with community, and “carnall lures” with other rewards and restraints. For anyone who’s interested, I’ve sketched out an argument here. It does nettle some people.

Our problem isn’t Obama. It’s these swift, dark undercurrents of material gain and of faith or bad faith, running below the strategic and tactical battles in politics, which tries to sluice or ride them, depending on what the politics itself is made of.

These undercurrents can disrupt the promises of a republic like ours, which gets no security or freedom from trumpeting a “blood and soil” patriotism or multi-culturalist belongings. Its only lasting hope lies in a thicker civic culture that Obama embodies so well. But only a tremendous amount of pressure from people who are wise enough not to be too clever all the time can help him to summon and deploy that civic culture’s virtues and faith against those who would exploit it or evade it because – in quasi-Puritan terms – they aren’t up to keeping it.