jimsleeper.com » The Obama Chronicles, 2008 – 2012

The Obama Chronicles, 2008 – 2012

Jim Sleeper’s Obama Chronicles

The year-long civic-republican revival rally of 2008, and the challenges of 2011.

If you’re writing a book or a journal article or an address to a conference (or to the nation) about Barack Obama’s presidency, you’ll want to have read this chronicle and assessment of his 2008 campaign, which I followed as a columnist on several websites.

I began writing about Obama with my “civic-republican” pen in 2007, tracing the arc of his rise, travails. and accomplishments. My assessments of him evolved, as you can see by reading these columns, which I present here almost exactly as they were posted during the campaign. I’ve edited only grammatical problems and, in a few cases, factual errors. Other than that, this is a true record of the insights and opinions I published during Obama’s year-long ascent to the White House.

At first, I saw him as a Harvard-trained neoliberal, wiser and more alluring than many others of the breed. But would he become a strong President of the United States? I grew to admire him personally, and I still do. But by 2011, during the debt-ceiling crisis, I became disillusioned with his leadership because I’d come to believe that the country needed (and still needs) a leader who can persuade millions of Americans to name and challenge boldly the global and national regime of casino-like-financing, corporate-welfare, and consumer-bamboozling that’s draining America’s civic-republican vitality and millions of its people’s self-confidence and basic material security, all this in ways I describe elsewhere on this site.

In 2008, Obama staged a year-long, civic-republican equivalent of a religious revival rally whose promises dissipated soon after he entered office. Partly that was due to Republican obduracy and right-wing obfuscation, but his failures also had something to do to his own aloofness, if not passivity, in the mosh pit of politics.

The bitter irony in Obama’s presidency is that even as his very election seemed temporarily to sideline American racism as an obstacle to economic justice, racism not only persisted but became more openly aggressive, culminating in the election of his successor. The economy also changed for the worse in ways that Obama didn’t fully confront, other than through his invaluable if imperfect Affordable Care Act.

Obama found his civic-republican voice again for the 2012 campaign, and I’ll always credit him with maintaining his personal dignity and with “getting race right” by leaning against racial “identity politics,” which dims civic-republican hopes in ways that I’ve described in two books and in many of this site’s posts, including, most recently, in a summary, for Commonweal magazine, of my argument against making ethno-racial identity a central organizing principle of our civic life and politics.

The enormous, countervailing forces that a president must face do constrain what he can say and do. But there’s a difference between being prudent, as Obama was, and being the great communicator and strategist that a society needs. He stopped short of being that, losing his balance, or never quite attaining it, in the mosh pit. The last thing he needed was “cover” from Washington Beltway pundits who, fancying themselves great realists of national power-brokering, leapt to discredit others’ urgent criticisms of his leadership, as I showed in column that adapted the classic German word for “worldview” – Weltananschauung –to coin the term Beltanschauung for Washington Beltway insiders’ myopic apologetics for Obama. (No one from America’s chattering classes and phantom public picked up that one!)

The following Obama Chronicles record my early skepticism, growing support, dogged criticism, and disillusionment. They also record some of my assessments of other columnists and of Obama’s Republican opponents. These chronicles present all of my columns on Obama’s pilgrimage from January, 2008 through the January, 2009 Inauguration and his first months in the White House. Then I present a few columns from 2011-2012, when he was running for re-election.

Almost all of these columns were posted at Talking Points Memo Cafe, which lost or deleted every one of them, along with other writers’ columns from that section, in 2009. TPM’s editor-in-chief, Joshua Micah Marshall, proved unable or unwilling to restore them or to explain why he couldn’t. A few of the columns had been picked up and re-posted by other sites, and some of the columns prompted interesting comments and discussions on Daily Kos, the New York Times Opinionator, and other sites; I reproduce a few of those discussions here below. But mainly it’s only because I saved all of these comments from TPM’s Orwellian Memory Hole that you’re able to judge them for yourself and, perhaps, for the historical record.


If I Vote for Obama, It’ll Be Because,…

January 8, 2008

(Written the morning after the New Hampshire primary, in which Obama finished second to Hillary Clinton)

By Jim Sleeper

The preacherly cadences in Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech last night in Nashua deepened his two greatest symbolic promises: Domestically, he makes being an American beautiful again because, in him, it makes achievable what is still incredible to many — a 400-year-old hope that we can untangle the race knot we’ve tied ourselves in since 1607. “It’s not something he’s doing,” Dartmouth Professor Joseph Bafumi told the New York Times; “it’s something he’s being.”

Internationally, therefore, Obama reminds multitudes of what has fascinated them about America – not just its wealth and power, which are trashy and brutal even when irresistible, but a folksy universalism that disposes Americans to say “Hi” to anyone rather than “Heil” to a leader, to give the other person a fair shot, and, out of that kind of strength, to take a shot at the moon.

Our wealth and power often subvert what’s best in us. But because Obama knows that human failings make this more complicated than either conservative moralism or leftist anti-capitalism alone can explain, his promise runs deeper than the poetry of campaigning. But can that promise really become the prose of governing? Can we take his symbolism for substance?

Obama says “Yes we can!” arguing that the movement his campaign is building will sustain him as president against countervailing powers. But a campaign isn’t a movement, and experiences of the 1960s taught some of us that even a swelling movement is no substitute for sustainable, organized power in a political party or coalition of parties, and in unions and churches that can mobilize disciplined multitudes in support of a program.

Many have been elected who could not govern. At David Dinkins’ inauguration as New York City’s first black mayor in 1990, the audience teared up as the Rev. Gardner Taylor of Brooklyn’s Concord Baptist Church intoned, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears.“ But those high sentiments foretold little about what they would accomplish, not mainly because racists crawled out of sewers to help elect Rudy Giuliani. That wasn’t the main reason why Giuliani defeated Dinkins in 1993.

Hillary Clinton, Obama’s chief opponent now for the Democratic nomination, has endured and overcome a great deal, but she knows what governing from a executive position actually entails, and it’s unfair to say, as some do, that she knows too much about it because of all the baggage she carries from her husband’s presidency.

Obama doesn’t yet know enough about governing to discredit Bill Clinton’s argument that electing Obama would be a roll of the dice. Voting for JFK was a roll of the dice, too, but in consequence we got the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam disaster, and Kennedy and his brother Bobby had to learn civil rights on the job, as neither Barack nor Hillary will have to do. Still, Barack’s learning curve is at least as steep as he is smart.

His really impressive personal struggle and the profound intuitions it has given him about public rights and wrongs are refreshing in a politician, much more so than anything was in candidate Jack Kennedy. And Obama’s American self-becoming has made him the catalyst of a campaign that, while it is not yet a movement and may never be a governing coalition, has nevertheless earned him a strong claim to Americans’ critical support.

His campaign confirms many Americans’ yearning to believe again that, unlike that of almost any other nation in history, the national identity of the United States was founded not on myths of primordial kinship, of “blood and soil,” but on a more universal experiment that enjoins all Americans, “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government through reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” as Alexander Hamilton put it.

Claiming one’s identity as an American, therefore, means standing up personally as well as politically for this daunting civic-republican challenge, against exclusionary racial, religious, and other strains that have persisted alongside and within our republican framework.

That is what Rosa Parks did, and it is what Obama is doing — first by being what he has made of himself as a man, and second by running for president. And I must say, as one who has argued for years that Americans must let race go as an organizing principle of even progressive politics — because too much of even what passes for anti-racism only ends up recapitulating racism itself — I can’t help feeling that Barack is everything I’ve hoped an American could be.

But Hillary’s claim to be doing some of this American heavy lifting is deep and credible, too. If I vote for Obama, it won’t be because I discount Hillary Clinton’s symbolic and substantive leadership but because my yearning to get beyond race will be strong enough to impel me to try this roll of the dice.

(One of the many posted comments on this column and my response:)

On January 9, 2008 – 11:11am ______ said:

Just a guess (Jim Sleeper will correct me if I’m way off), but the challenge he’s talking about is less Obama’s being black than the reaction and response from “the rest of us” to the participation and leadership that black folk can bring to our civic culture.

My reply

On January 9, 2008 – 12:08pm Jim Sleeper said:

The challenge we need to face down is the temptation to essentialize race – so that people continue to think that having a skin color means having a “culture” because that’s what white supremacists and oppressed blacks made of racism, for obvious reasons, across 400 years. The challenge is not only racism itself, in other words, but a lot of what passes for anti-racism – the presentation racial identity as somehow redemptive of personal  and public justice.

This is a difficult argument to make well, because blacks, trapped in the race-box whites have kept them in, generally have had no option but to embellish and deepen a protective black racial identity, in ways that are sometimes perverse.

But there is another side of the story.  Precisely because most African-Americans were abducted and plunged wholesale into the American experience at no initiative of their own and with scant material or cultural resources to fall back on, they have had the greatest possible stakes in the American republic’s living up to its stated creed. Blacks have been among the most eloquent champions of the republic’s promises but also among the most nihilist of its assailants, for obvious reasons.

I argue in “The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (Norton, 1990)and in “Liberal Racism” (Rowman & Littlefield,2002)that the long struggle of countless blacks to join and champion the republic is “the most powerful epic of unrequited love in the history of the world.” Moreover, even if every broken heart could be mended and every theft of property and opportunity redressed, still there would be a black cultural community based on the memories and virtues of survival in adversity.

But that’s not the same thing as saying that having a color should automatically mean having a culture. That’s reductionist and, at a certain point, it depletes individual dignity more than it enhances it. We all — blacks, whites, including white racists and white liberals who dote on race — have to get over the hump of denying that race should and will recede in importance to the point that it carries no more power in determining your prospects than, say, a difference in eye color among whites.

But to get over that hump of denial about race, we will need transitional figures like Obama, who both embodies and has worked his way through what I am talking about. In Bakke, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that before we can hope to get beyond race, we must first take more account of it, not less. The question is what we mean by “first” — how long and in what ways. Obama strikes that balance perfectly, at least as a campaigner. He is faithful to the collective cultural memory without making it determinative of his and others’ prospects.

I should probably add that I wrote the two books just mentioned after ten years’ immersion in inner-city black life and politics, in Brooklyn. I sketch this in the introduction to The Closest of Strangers. That book and Liberal Racism are available from Amazon, etc, and in libraries. 


Why it Will Be Obama vs. McCain

February 2, 2008

By Jim Sleeper

Mario Cuomo drew the distinction between “the poetry of campaigning” and “the prose of governing” in 1982, but he embodied it a bit too well: He electrified the Democratic National Convention of 1984 but never made his own bid to govern nationally.

That has made Barack Obama the first likely liberal-Democratic nominee to tap the mystic chords of memory and destiny since 1980, when Ted Kennedy, conceding defeat in the primaries, vowed, “The cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Kennedy has endured, but even if his passing the torch to Obama last week propels the latter’s nomination, we’ll be only halfway to the convergence of mythic currents that would have occurred in 1980 had Kennedy faced that other poet of the republic, Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter did that, but even as an incumbent he was no more a poet than is the quasi-incumbent Hillary Clinton.

Two great American crosscurrents — of liberal communal provision, without which conservative individuality can’t flourish, and of conservative personal responsibility, without which even the best liberal social engineering produces clients, cogs, or worse – can converge only if John McCain and Barack Obama face off.

It will be an Oedipal struggle, too: a national father-figure reminiscent of Dwight Eisenhower facing an upstart national son, like candidate Jack Kennedy, a keeper of some traditions but breaker of others, a child of the new world which conservatives can’t quite admit that their own investments have made. Old Ike and young Jack never faced off, but our hunger for such a reckoning now makes it likely that McCain and Obama will.

McCain is no poet, but his endurance amid disaster and sloughs of despond is poetry in action that most Americans warm to. Only the un-American among us don’t get it — religious zealots and global capitalists who’ve made very clear by now what their piety, governing ability, and business acumen can offer.

It was against them that McCain — without money, priestly blessings, or pundits– went door to door to the American people. He wavered in 2004, wrapping George W. Bush, whose campaign had smeared him four years earlier, in a bear hug that left my heart cold. But while his pilgrimage was flawed, anything like it was wholly inconceivable to the operatic and invincible Rudy Giuliani and to the moneybags, mountebanks, and blowhards, and most Americans recognized the difference.

The good things about America that Ronald Reagan played to perfection in movies and photo-ops, John McCain has played with his life. Reagan gave us the theater of our yearnings, his “Morning in America” a glorious euthanasia to a fading civic-republican hopes; McCain has slogged on. Americans who once thought themselves Reaganites have recognized that difference, too.

No less than McCain, Obama has reached deep inside himself and gone door to door, and he embodies something America represents to itself and the world – a capacity to vindicate those who enter the golden door tired, poor, and yearning to breathe free, even when they come here despised.

Obama’s shucking off ancient blood feuds and fears offers something inestimable to blacks: Precisely because they were abducted, stripped of cultural coordinates, and plunged into an endless nightmare of non-recognition here, African Americans have had the highest stakes imaginable in the republic’s living up to its creed and have nurtured its most eloquent champions.

Because their struggle to belong fully is also the most powerful epic of unrequited love in the history of the world, some have also been America’s most nihilist assailants, sometimes refusing even “yes” for an answer. Obama vows, “Yes, we can,” with a faith as compelling as McCain’s.

But is either man’s faith enough?

While McCain has brought character and faith to legislating, he’s as confused as Reagan about how to help those who aren’t quite so heroic or dreamy. Courage and generosity haven’t yet shown him what they showed Eisenhower – the real costs of our military-industrial juggernaut in a world where corporations are becoming so much more powerful and corruptible than governments that the real dangers to liberty are no longer taxes. Trapped in making war for laissez faire, conservatives can’t reconcile their yearnings for a sacred, ordered liberty with their obeisance to every whim of a global capitalism that is abandoning America and republican institutions. Can McCain reconcile these strains?

Can the poetic Obama bring his character to governing at all? He remains untested against the dark dominions that surround any executive lacking a coalition and inner circle stronger than the electoral majority or plurality that sent him. Can this fine orator, community organizer, and lawyer — and, yes, a great listener and learner – govern a coalition of fractious constituencies that is no beloved community?

Liberals like Obama who’ve done well by what they once called “the system” have not seriously addressed the inequities it is now spawning between blacks and blacks and women and women, let alone between the cool and the tools. They haven’t found it in themselves to defend “the system” wholeheartedly, either.

Instead, they grasp at compensatory, symbolic gestures and grace notes, including support for Obama himself, a Ivy alum who (unlike most of them) took his Columbia core humanities curriculum seriously enough to go down and out in Chicago. In a crisis, he might even redistribute some of this cohort’s unearned income and second homes. Or he might not.

Cuomo was right to warn that poetry isn’t prose; in office, McCain or Obama would lose many of their supporters. But both have lived in ways that make them strong enough to expect that, and, unlike Cuomo, to run, anyway.

So let poet confront poet; let the mythical crosscurrents converge; let distinctions between them blur in the mythmaking. And, for now, at least, let the ranters, ravers, and know-it-alls who have given us so much grief look as foolish as they truly are.


February 6, 2008

Obama’s Biggest Weakness

(The Chronicle of Higher Education commended this column to its readers with the following note. headlined Obama and the Politics of Moral Gesturing’) FEBRUARY 7, 2008

Jim Sleeper supports Barack Obama’s candidacy, but he is troubled by the upscale, young, white demographic that is flocking to the campaign of the Democratic senator from Illinois. In a searching, provocative post, Sleeper — a lecturer in political science at Yale University — questions the political commitment of these “cool young whites.” Sleeper writes:

By Jim Sleeper   

As Obama rose toward the nomination, the veteran political operative and observer Ken Baer posted a warning:

We need to take seriously that outside of those cutting very cool YouTube videos and packing unbelievably large rallies, there is a significant silent — at times — majority of working-class whites, Latinos, seniors, and women who like Hillary Clinton and will vote for her. For Obama, he has upscale whites and African-Americans…”

Obama must have been making that same observation while watching the returns, for his own exhortation of the night turned on a moving account of his early commitment, as a community organizer, to fight for low-income people. Yet precisely because it came from his personal experience on Chicago’s poor, black Southside, it underscored Baer’s caution about who Obama’s strongest constituencies are. Those of us who are old enough can remember that liberal Democrats have been here before and have paid dearly for it.

Yes, he carried other constituencies in states like North Dakota, Alaska, and Kansas that have few upscale whites and African Americans. But Democrats won’t carry those states in November, and Obama is in trouble if – and I’m not yet sure about this — too many of his famously small $20 and $30 contributions come not from the people of the lower-middle and working classes whom Ken mentioned but mainly from people like the up-and-coming young white writers and journalists with whom I watched one of the recent Democratic debates from the tony (but not too tony) New York neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights.

Every time John Edwards mentioned broken workers in mills he’d known, the young crowd watching the debate hooted derisively, “The mill!, The mill!” Every time Hillary Clinton mentioned her 35 years of experience, they hooted, too. Sure, the candidates’ mantras had become tiresome. But the hooting got so annoying, too, that finally I quipped, “Don’t you have to be at least 35 years old before you can make fun of 35 years of experience?” I bit my tongue rather than ask if anyone present had ever been to a mill.

Like other fence sitters, I finally decided to vote for Obama, for reasons I’ll explain. And I still support him, but with reservations that I’ll explain, too.

I fear that too many young whites with bright prospects have no really serious intention of redressing the growing inequities which the neoliberal world that employs them is spawning, not just between themselves and poor blacks on the Southside but, these days, between blacks and blacks, and women and women, let alone between cool young whites like themselves and the declasse, lumpy white and Latino workers all around them.

Not that my young friends defend wholeheartedly the system in which they’re prospering. To their credit, it makes them uncomfortable. But they grasp at mostly symbolic gestures of a politics of moral posturing that relieves racial and class guilt and steadies their moral self-regard with smallish contributions to Obama, an Ivy alum whom they trust to help those people on the Southside without dragging them too deeply into it; without reconfiguring how we charter our corporations and re-construe the private and public investments that employ upscale young whites and well-behaved non-whites; and certainly without redistributing their own bright prospects and future prerogatives and second homes.

Some of the people I watched the debate with are too young to imagine themselves even wanting second homes. Yet redistributing their prospects and more is no small part of what we’d have to do in the coming world economy if any Democrat,– including Hillary Clinton — ever did win an election with a coalition of the long-dismissed and misdirected constituencies Ken reminded us about.

Unlike some of his supporters, Obama took his Columbia College humanities courses seriously enough to go down and out in Chicago before Harvard Law School and to wrest a fine book from his entrails. Even more important, he felt and thought his way through and out of a lot of racial displacements and deceits, with a personal and public courage most of us whites can admire but will never be called upon to emulate and demonstrate as he has.

Those are reasons enough to support him, and I do. But they are not reasons to have hooted at John Edwards or even, heaven help her, at Hillary Clinton.


February 13, 2008  

Obama, Crowds, and Power

By Jim Sleeper               

(Written just after the “Potomac Primaries”)

As a political movement gathers what seems to be irresistible force, it rides currents of anger as well as affirmation. How it balances and channels those currents determines its fate. A movement can be fired up by outraged decency, but it will come to little — or worse — if its participants spend more time and energy venting the outrage than advancing the decency.

Barack Obama understands this unusually well. But how will he help his supporters understand it, when the going gets tough? Answering that question requires knowing a little history, knowing Obama, and knowing ourselves, whether we are his supporters or not.

Outraged Germans had legitimate grievances in the early 1930s, but those grievances were rebuffed by the powers of the time, then stoked and perverted by a movement that became irresistible but was doomed because it subordinated its affirmations to its fears and rage.

Outraged African Americans had pent-up grievances then, too. But in the 1950s and early 60s the civil-rights movement did not subordinate its affirmations to its rage. When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery and young men in clean shirts sought service at a lunch counter in Greenville, they did so with the disciplined dignity of citizens lifting up American civil society, not trashing it as inherently racist and damned. Their movement became irresistible, but because it emphasized positive liberty, it also endured against fierce crosscurrents and undertows that emerged against and even within it.

In the late 1960s, in another movement, outraged young Americans of all races had legitimate grievances against the Vietnam War, and many of us petitioned for redress of those grievances at first with a kind of innocent nobility that perhaps only young white Americans of the time could expect to sustain. But our movement imploded when some among us forgot the activist Norman Thomas’ admonition not to burn the American flag but to wash it and tried, instead, to “Bring the War home” against a republican spirit of trust that should have been our strongest defense against powers that were otherwise greater than ourselves.

Outraged pro-lifers, aggrieved by the violation of their belief that life is a sacred, intergenerational thread that must not be broken by individuals or states, sometimes practiced the dignified civil disobedience of the best anti-war and civil-rights activists. But some acted like the other movements’ most nihilist renegades, making demagoguery and murder seem more irresistible than faith and moral witness.

Finally, outraged Americans had compelling grievances against terrorism after 9/11, but our yearning to bond and be worthy of the courage we were witnessing in New York was swiftly misdirected against the wrong targets in an orchestrated storm of fear, intimidation and lies. This time, no anti-war movement destroyed the balance of anger and decency; it was the Iraq warmakers themselves, and their cheerleaders, who did that.

They made the war seem irresistible during the run-up to it late in 2002 and early in 2003. Yet Barack Obama resisted it, in part because he had good reason to know that it was doomed. He knew this, because he had let Rosa Parks and Norman Thomas teach him why and how to balance anger with disciplined love, something the pro-war movement wasn’t even trying to do. And his recognition of that bodes well for the political movement he is now trying to build.

That he still has some dark forebodings about what he is trying to build bodes well for it, too. The morning after the New Hampshire primary he warned supporters that harsh, underhanded attacks were coming. Two nights ago, on winning the Potomac primaries, he warned, “Change is hard” and sketched the odds against undoing the failed politics of recent years — the politics that protects CEOs’ bonuses rather than pensions, for example.

But Obama hasn’t said much about the inevitable temptations to self-congratulation and self-righteousness that also come with success, the almost irresistible seductions of power that accompany cascades of money and applause. Overcoming such temptations will test his faith and prowess and his supporters’ character in new ways.

The ancient historian Thucydides is often touted by the grand strategists who are destroying this republic in their misguided efforts to save it by stampeding Americans into wars and other mobilizations of a national-security state. But Thucydides cautioned Athenian democrats that

“The idea that fortune will be on one’s side plays as big a part as anything else in creating a mood of over-confidence for sometimes she does come unexpectedly to one’s aid, and so she tempts men to run risks for which they are inadequately prepared. And… each individual, when acting as part of a community, has the irrational opinion that his own powers are greater than in fact they are. In a word it is impossible… for human nature, when once seriously set upon a certain course, to be prevented from following that course by the force of law….”

That is the secret of any movement’s irresistible power, but also the secret of its great peril to its members’ and others’ dignity. It is no small point in Obama’s favor that he knows this secret and has declined to trade cynically on illusions of power in crowds: “Cynicism is a sad kind of wisdom,” he said, almost offhandedly, in his speech the other night. Would that fear-mongering neoconservatives were secure in themselves enough, and sophisticated enough, to understand that..Would that they could understand columns like Michael Tomasky’s beautiful “The Wisdom of Crowds,” just posted at The Guardian online

Now Obama will have to teach the secret of the dangers of collective power to his supporters, and they to one another. His movement needs teachers, mentors, and lieutenants who can strengthen it in a faith deep enough to transcend power’s illusions.

A movement’s and a republic’s power lies not only in its armies, lawyers, and wealth, indispensable though they are, but, ultimately, in the very vulnerability a republic sustains in a canny ethos of trust. That’s what people have managed to sustain in the successful movements that have gone before. If they can’t do it now, what seems irresistible in the movement of this moment will not endure, and what seems powerful in it will not leave its supporters free.


February 27, 2008

Obama in a Valley of Insinuations and Lies

By Jim Sleeper

I’ve spent a lot of time around serious scholarship and even more around real journalism– the kind that, in print or online, requires “leg work,” climbing tenement stairs the second time or making that last phone call or watching the expression on the campaign manager’s face as you pop your question. Sometimes there’s no substitute for going there to get the story, even if you think you’ve already figured it out or heard it all before.

Real scholars uphold equivalent standards, but in today’s New Republic, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz shows us only the arrogance and opportunism of a man who’d hoped to be the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of a Hillary Clinton Administration. Here, he treats one of his forays into journalism as slumming to help his side and mess up Barack Obama’s effort by spinning charges that Wilentz doesn’t trouble to substantiate with interviews or research of his own.

Wilentz plunges Obama into a hall of mirrors and insinuations by stringing others’ reports to accuse him of accusing the Clintons of accusing him of calling them race-baiters. Got that? I get it, having written a lot about racial politics for The New Republic myself, not to mention for the New York Daily News, where I had many black readers.

I know how to expose charming black impresarios of the kind of racial street theater and common-room put-downs that freeze white liberals in their seats. Even in supporting Obama, I’ve expressed reservations here in posts like “Obama’s Biggest Weakness” and “If I Vote For Obama, It’ll Be Because…” Not only that, I’ve never disparaged Hillary Clinton, whom Wilentz thinks he is defending.

But I do recognize attitudinizing and pulling rank, academically or streetwise, when I see them, and I know that someone has gone off the deep end when he ends 5500 words of endless pirouetting with a pompous polemic like this: “[T]here is a long history of candidates who are willing to inflame the most deadly passions in our national life in order to get elected. Sadly, that is what Barack Obama and his campaign gurus have been doing for months — with the aid of their media helpers on the news and op-ed pages…. They promise to continue to until they win the nomination, by any means necessary.”

That might be a stirring peroration to a series of devastating revelations, but most of what preceded it reads like this:

“His string of victories in caucuses and primaries… gave the Obama campaign undeniable momentum. But Obama and his strategists kept the race and race-baiter cards near the top of their campaign deck — and the news media continued to report on the contest (or decline to report Obama’s role as instigator) as if they had fallen in line.”

The evidence, please? it never came.

Wilentz claims repeatedly that the Clintons are unfailingly gracious and astute but that Obama and his minions spin the Clintons’ benign observations to stir black paranoia and stampede voters. But read Wilentz yourself and tell me if you find anything in it, anywhere, that’s more than a parody of Talmudic exegesis gone wrong, a tangle of arguments by assertion. Does Wilentz even want to meet the kinds of people who might actually pick his stuff up and run with it?

He accuses an always-unspecified “media” and “press corps” of falling into line with Obama’s “race-baiter card” strategy. I take second place to no one in scourging “the media,” but why are all of Wilentz’s own sources recycled from the same media and press accounts of what candidates or their spokesmen have already said? He tells us repeatedly that “the Obama campaign” did this or that. But who, exactly? He never says.

Wilentz has operated this way before. He doesn’t so much take positions as look over his shoulder in two or three directions before positioning himself as an arbiter of what is safe and appropriate just now for progressives to say.

Sometimes he lurches into histrionic poses, as when he instructed a congressional impeachment committee that “history will judge” them — a pronouncement sufficiently snooty to remind even from those who agreed with him that history will judge Sean Wilentz, too, for shifting burdens of his own responsibility onto others.
Obama is shrewd, and no doubt he’s not pure; but if Wilentz has something to show us, let him show it, not pass off his speculations as charges sanctioned by the judgment of history.

His attack on Obama is too clever by half to persuade anyone who isn’t already cheering Wilentz on. The piece reads as if written in an exciting evening of phrase-turning in Princeton after a nice, long chat with someone from the Clinton campaign. The result is embarrassing to Wilentz, embarrassing to the New Republic, and offensive to those of us who’ve staked our credibility on wresting truth from storms of racial intimidation, insinuations, and lies.




February 28, 2008

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who has been vociferous in his support of Hillary Clinton throughout the Democratic primary season, has caused quite a stir with his latest foray into the realm of presidential punditry. In an acerbic essay that appeared on the Web site of The New Republic, Wilentz charges the Obama campaign with cynically exploiting the issue of race by “deliberately, falsely, and successfully” portraying the Clinton campaign as “unscrupulous race-baiters.” 

Wilentz continues: “A review of what actually happened shows that the charges that the Clintons played the ‘race card’ were not simply false; they were deliberately manufactured by the Obama camp and trumpeted by a credulous and/or compliant press corps in order to strip away her once formidable majority among black voters and to outrage affluent, college-educated white liberals as well as college students.”

Wilentz’s essay is brimming with other such sharply worded accusations. Not surprisingly, it has stirred a vigorous response. As of this writing the piece has generated 440 comments on The New Republic’s Web site. And Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, has entered the fray, accusing Wilentz of writing a bitter rant fueled by his (maybe?) dashed hopes of being the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of a Hillary Clinton administration.

Wilentz’s piece “reads as if written in an exciting evening of phrase-turning in Princeton after a nice, long chat with someone from the Clinton campaign,” Sleeper writes. “The result is embarrassing to Wilentz, embarrassing to the New Republic, and offensive to those of us who’ve staked our credibility on wresting truth from storms of racial intimidation, insinuations, and lies.”


March 4, 2008 (Just before the Texas and Ohio primaries)

Has History Cancelled Farrakhan’s Endorsement?

By Jim Sleeper

The gravely ill Louis Farrakhan’s endorsement of Barack “Hussein” Obama was so rightly buried in the avalanche of commentary anticipating the vote in Texas and Ohio that I’m speaking almost out of turn in educing one more reason why it was stupid to try to tie part of the Jewish community in knots over this story.

But I doubt we’ve seen the last of such efforts. Even though Hillary Clinton looked silly pushing Obama about the Farrakhan endorsement in the last debate, and even though John McCain may well not mention it himself, it’ll be back, in some form, as long as Obama remains a contender. The irony is that something about Farrakhan’s Million Man March of 1995 in Washington, DC.  showed the folly of black vs. white race-card playing as nothing had before.

In 1995 hundreds of thousands of black men turned Farrakhan’s march into something he hadn’t intended or been known for. It left his Nation of Islam disoriented and on the defensive, where it has been ever since, especially since 9/11, for reasons even those who enjoy scaring themselves with bogeymen should have enough of what Jews call “sey-khel” (call it mental acuity) to understand.

The danger of Farrakhan was always that, abetted by our sensationalist media, he would shatter a taboo on public expressions of anti-Semitism even more vile and protean than the kind in the Nation of Islam’s loopy cosmology.

Yet there was also something “retro” about Farrakhan’s rants, redolent of the days when Jews had been classic urban intermediaries between elites and the black, inner-city poor. If you were black in Chicago, New York, and not a few other American cities in the 1950s and early ’60s, it was often Jewish shopkeepers, landlords, teachers, and social workers who decided whether you could get a job, credit at the store, an apartment, a passing grade in school, or even an acquittal.

Most such encounters weren’t unfriendly, as the late black Brooklyn newspaper editor Andrew Cooper told me years ago for my The Closest of Strangers. But they were bound to grate, and every so often some aging urban black leaders like Farrakhan — or like the City College of New York Prof. Leonard Jeffries, who ranted in the 1990s about Jews running the slave trade — usher black listeners of a certain age back into a psychic landscape flickering with old, familiar demons.

The rest of the world seldom cares, and the Million Man March showed that most African Americans don’t care much anymore, either. Sure, that weekend there was a televised hate fest of Malik Al Shabazz, Amiri Baraka, and other souls frozen in time, but they had to stage their implosion not at the march itself but, the night before, at a public high school to which they’d been shunted. The multitudes of black men who’d come on long bus rides to Washington never heard them.

At the march itself, Farrakhan delivered an anti-Semitism-free skein of non-sequiturs and Masonic-like numerological divinations so stupefying that, when cameras panned the crowd, it was obvious he’d lost his audience. They’d come to bond as fathers and sons, brothers and strangers, and to claim, with a quiet poignancy, the credit blacks deserve for having built and died for the grand marble monuments all about them in Washington.

Immediately after 9/11, Farrakhan gave the most patriotic speech of his life, and no wonder: Suddenly, ” an entity called “The Nation of Islam” wasn’t a cool place to be. American flags flew all over black neighborhoods, and, in a burst of American bonding across race and class, many blacks sought a kind of reprieve: For once, no one could blame blacks for what had gone wrong. If anything, the burden was shifted to Islamicists.

That reminded me of something a Jewish community relations representative had told me in 1990 during an acrimonious, sometimes violent black boycott of two small Korean groceries in Brooklyn. Apologists for the boycott portrayed its ugly name-calling and intimidation as the understandable response of a black neighborhood to price-gouging outsiders. But the “neighborhood” was far less involved than a notorious crew of racial street-theater impresarios who roamed the city in those days staging passion plays of archetypal black suffering for their own extortionist and dubiously therapeutic purposes.

“Whaddya think?” I asked the Jewish community-relations man, a genial, rumpled peacemaker in his mid-50s who’d weathered many such storms over the years.

‘Oh, s’wonderful, s’wonderful,” he murmured.

“S’wonderful? Why?”

“Look, the merchants aren’t Jewish anymore, so they’re not taking potshots at us there. The mayor isn’t Jewish anymore, so they’re not taking potshots at us there. We can be like the Quakers now. We can mediate!”

Well, maybe not, and my interlocutor knew that very well. Yet he had a point: Times change, and so do horizons.

How much sey-khel should it take to see that if the day ever came when a man stood on the Capitol’s South Portico intoning, “I, Barack Hussein Obama,” do solemnly swear….,” it would be a victory for the American promise that we need not stay trapped in our pasts, a promise whose fulfillment in this case would leave more than just Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam in the shadows?

Not everyone can or even should let go of the past. Yet only the same failed Americans who also worried that the Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger was a Nazi could worry now that Obama is a danger just because a dying, perhaps even somewhat repentant Farrakhan tried to glom onto him in the end. And only people who are still too fearful to affirm what’s best in this country would believe them.


March 18, 2008

In Philadelphia, Obama’s Historic Challenge

By Jim Sleeper

“The Speech of a Lifetime,” Charles Kaiser is calling Barack Obama’s address on race this morning over at RadarOnline, and I’m inclined to agree. But here’s why:

As a demonstration of grace under immense pressure, his performance in Philadelphia will be a classic study for orators. As an act of moral witness and prophecy for a trans-racial America, the speech was straightforward yet profound in an inimitably American idiom that few partisans and pundits, soused in stale pieties and rancid evasions, comprehend.

He’s gambling that most Americans will comprehend him anyway. Here’s hoping. Let me explain what I think Obama accomplished with a story I’m sure he’d appreciate, an experience I had 15 years ago with Brooklyn’s equivalent of Obama’s pastor and mentor, Jeremiah Wright.

In the fall of 1993, as Rudolph Giuliani was challenging New York City’s first African American mayor, David Dinkins, Al Sharpton’s long-time pastor and mentor, the Rev. William Jones, was reported to have denounced the Giuliani campaign as “fascist.” What happened next anticipated much of what Obama is responding to now, and it shows how well he has responded.

There was no video of the Rev. Jones like the ones we have now of Obama’s long-time pastor and mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Accounts of Jones’ remarks were unclear and contradictory. That didn’t stop political operatives and pundits from heaving themselves and the city into convulsions over Jones, of course.

Even though I leant toward Giuliani at the time, I held my tongue about Jones and went to see him.

I knew that Jones, a former president of the National Black Pastors’ Conference and the pastor of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s gothic Bethany Baptist Church, was a magisterially angry leader of blacks in their ‘50s — a cohort, sketched by Obama in his Philadelphia speech, that followed men like Obama’s Pastor Wright and sometimes the even angrier Louis Farrakhan or the City College of New York Prof. Leonard Jeffries. These were African Americans of a certain age who’d come of age when northern cities’ racism was as rigid and enraging as their opportunities were bedazzling to recent arrivals from the South.

In Brooklyn, Jones had mentored not only Sharpton but the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, a leader of much the same exemplary community organizing Obama later undertook in Chicago. Jones, a former colonel in the Army Engineers and the first black graduate of the University of Kentucky, might have been a Colin Powell had he been born two decades later. Instead, he’d come to Bedford-Stuyvesant with a doctorate from Crozer Theological Seminary, in 1962, a complicated, formidable man.

So I waited one Sunday in 1993 as Jones pronounced the baptismal formula in stentorian tones, lowering infants into the water with strong arms, as his father had done before him in the Kentucky bluegrass country’s oldest black congregation.

I listened as he told his congregants, brooding high in his pulpit, “Anybody who portrays me as a purveyor of slurs doesn’t know me and is perverting grossly what I said. I have been the victim of the worst ethnic slurs all my life, and I know better, by experience and professional training, than to portray anybody as less than human. I am a free man in a free pulpit, proclaiming freedom’s story. The easiest way to upset people in power is to tell the truth.”

As we sat together later, I asked Jones why he’d said that Giuliani’s backers include “elements that can best be described as fascist.” “As I move about the city,” he replied, “I sense a deliberate distortion of reality to demonize Dinkins. It’s a storm-trooper mentality. You needn’t be Mussolini to have it. You can be a [radio talk-show host] Bob Grant. There are black fascists — Roy Innis,” a well-known New York conservative demagogue at the time.

Jones had written what Wright and many other blacks of their generation believe: that a true black Christian is a race man. “Though not a racist, the race man is the embodiment of racial pride and has absolute distaste for the system. He begs no favors from the establishment but demands justice for his people.”

Like Wright, Jones had joined at times with Jesse Jackson to pressure white businesses in black communities to hire blacks. But he wrote also of “an interim ethic of black asceticism,” in which blacks withdraw from white society psychologically and culturally to plumb their own history, arts, and religion, “a step in the movement from [being] property to pride to power.”

It’s easy to imagine how thinking like this can take wrong turns, and Obama cautioned in his speech that “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism [but] that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.”

It’s a bit harder to understand why the purse-lipped, finger-wagging scolds we’ll be hearing from can’t acknowledge that men of offended dignity such as a Jones or a Wright might talk sometimes as if the racist world they knew in their formative years hadn’t changed — and that younger blacks like Obama might listen to them but move on.

It’s especially hard to understand why certain Jews — of all people – can’t acknowledge this and, in fact, actually emulate the worst of it by peddling or succumbing to fears of an anti-Semitic Obama that are far more fanciful than a black preacher’s fears of, say, a racist Republican leader or two.

The answer is that some Jews, rather like Jones and Wright, can’t get beyond memories of having been classic urban intermediaries between urban elites and the black poor. In New York and Chicago in the 1950s and early ‘60s, Jews often decided whether blacks could get credit at the store, a job, an apartment, a passing grade, an acquittal. But those Jews, too, were struggling and vulnerable; they were white folks whose skin blacks could get under, the first to take alarm at black rage.

No wonder that every so often, some Jews, no less than Wright, Farrakhan, Jeffries, or Jones, usher listeners of a certain age into a psychic landscape flickering with old, familiar demons. No wonder that neither side admits that Louis Farrakhan has been in eclipse since 9/11 made “The Nation of Islam” a difficult place to be, and, indeed, since 1995, when hundreds of thousands of black men turned his Million Man March into a poignant manifestation of hope unlike anything he’d intended or understood.

For those who can’t notice or acknowledge how times are changing, Obama was never more effective in Philadelphia than when he put partisan strategists and pundits on the spot by listing the ways they flash race cards on the pretense of responding to someone else’s having done it.

It’s one thing for a white writer on urban racial politics like me to criticize black demagoguery and to draw some distinctions in connection with a Jones, Leonard Jeffries, or Louis Farrakhan. It’s something else for a black man do that, as Obama did in Philadelphia on Monday. That he did it was historic, his observations towering above the nit-picking and rumor-mongering which the speech will prompt as surely as every true call for hope has always done.

Anticipating all this, Obama confronted his listeners with a choice:

“We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

“We can do that.”

“Or….. we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children…. about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care… about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life…. and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.”

These words were addressed in no small way to a lot of journalists I know. Let’s watch what they do. And let’s also start talking about them if they find choices like the one Obama offered so scary that they leap to scare the rest of us with a Bill Jones or a Jeremiah Wright instead.


March 26, 2008

Billary’s One-Two Punch Has Changed the Game

(How Bill and Hillary Clinton became a part of American democracy’s problem, not the solution. A few unfortunate phrasings left this one open to both innocent and willful mis-readings. Please read it with “Obama, Crowds, and Power,” here below, and with “The Campaign We Really Need,” above.)

By Jim Sleeper

The latest one-two punch from Billary has done it: I hereby call for a third campaign, one that can endure through the general election.

Relax, but just a bit: I don’t mean a resurrected John Edwards or a third-party bid like Ralph Nader’s or, in fact, any campaign with an actual candidate. I mean a campaign called “The Real Firestorm,” a tight, flying wedge of citizen volunteers who, like the best early civil-rights demonstrators, will physically face Bill or Hillary — or any wayward Obama surrogate or Republican swift-boater or journalist who’s helping to gin up the latest “firestorm” or “uproar” – and chant at them, at a photo-op moment, “There you go again! There you go again!”

Ronald Reagan immortalized the charge in a 1980 jab at Jimmy Carter. Here, it would mean, “There you go again, subverting the civic-republican truths and trust we need, not as Democrats but as Americans.”

This campaign will need funding and a few charismatic leaders, “conservative” as well as “liberal.” But most of all, it’ll need strategy and troops capable of waking up enough other people to shame Bill and other Swift-boaters into silence. Here’s why, and a bit about how.

The one-two punch that brought me to this was, first, Hillary’s pronouncement that we can’t choose our relatives but we can choose our pastors – another slick truism, typically (that is, badly) calculated to be just behind the Jeremiah Wright curve she hoped to ride; second, there came Bill’s comment that he and Hillary aren’t “quitters.”

I hear you, Bill, but here’s the thing, old Buddy: Every time you’ve opened your mouth this year, you’ve made me want to quit you and Hill, with a tear in my eye, as I never expected I’d have to do.

See, Bill, you just keep on reminding us that your way of not being a quitter has a certain shameless, Jack-in-the-Box quality to it that the commentator Jack Beatty calls your “tumescent narcissism.” It just keeps bouncing back at us, again and again, with a silly grin on its face, just like the Wall Street Journal’s gelatinous sleuth-pundit John Fund.

It’s gotten so bad, Bill, that you’ve made me revive my own thought that there ought to be a “There you go again!” campaign against Republican swift-boaters and their neo-con covers such as David Brooks, who, for all his seemingly post-partisan prevarications, is just positioning himself to reel readers in for McCain, when he’ll come in for the kill on the Democratic nominee.

You know all about these types, Bill, but now you yourself remind me of them. You make me remember what I told the Washington Post on January 15, when your camp started shuffling the race-card: “Every time these people open their mouths and engage race,” I said, “they are greasing the skids for the Republican Swift-boaters and reminding voters of the Democrats’ indulgence of racial squabbling.”

It got so bad that I had to caution your camp’s other shameless Jack-in-the-Box, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, Hillary’s Arthur Schlesinger Jr.-in-waiting, for his breathtakingly underhanded assault on Obama’s people as race-baiters. And now you’ve even got Hillary — who we all hoped could control you — into the act herself, trying to keep the Rev. Wright round-robin going.

That does it, Bill. Herewith, an open letter to George Soros and to… Well, I might have said Bill Buckley, were he still with us, but surely some other worthy conservative will step forward.

Please fund a campaign, called something like “The Real Firestorm,” that stages photo-op protests that even our perverse and fickle news media can’t ignore. Nothing as bad as what the Republicans staged at the Miami Board of Elections in November, 2000, mind you. But almost. Recruit and train thousands of ordinary citizens to show up, physically, and chant “There you go again!” at progenitors of swift-boating and its media enablers.

No matter whether those progenitors are Billary or the new Karl Roves of either party, or the Limbaughs or Drudges, or –and this is important – the supposedly more moderate reporters and columnists, like TIME’s Joe Klein or NEWSWEEK’S Evan Thomas and their more plodding emulators in city rooms and bureaus who fan “firestorms” and “uproars” based on little more than press releases or leaks that involve mainly just the players and the journalists.

George Soros himself proposed the “There you go again!” slogan, on a panel I caught on C-Span, very much as I’d proposed it two weeks before him here at TPM.

The purpose of such a civic campaign, as its charismatic public leaders would have to say again and again, would be to make very clear that millions of Americans are gagging on having their politics degraded with these tactics, that we’re sick and tired of being stampeded by operators who goose the fears and hatreds latent in most of us.

True enough, it works. I know it rather well. Most Americans, stressed and distracted, can easily be induced to behave as Walter Lippmann said they do in “Manufactured Consent” back in the 1920s: They’re easily bum-rushed into “uproars” of one kind or another. At best, Lippmann complained, they’re like playgoers who enter a theater during the second act, decide who’s the villain and who’s the hero, and leave before the final curtain, set in their conclusions.

But Lippmann’s insight is exactly the reason we should have this campaign. The country can just as well have a counter-“manufacturing” of consensus about who the villains truly are as it can the stuff we’re getting now. With enough backing and strategy, Americans can remind one another, in an effective, well-grounded way, that we’re better than those whom “The Real Firestorm” campaign would target and burn, the people who, as consultants, campaign operatives, horse-race political reporters, and power-columnists, are targeting the public for personal interest and/or profit more than for anything else.

When Americans are reminded how much better they want to be, they sometimes do become better. Examples in living memory begin with the early civil-rights movement, which also reminded us that even the best “grass roots” movements require leadership and planning by people with enough resources, savvy, and discipline to revive and mobilize other people’s wounded faith.

Too much money and planning is going into the worst alternatives. Yes, Obama’s campaign means to be just what I’m calling for. But it can’t be. Its preeminent endgame has to be winning institutional power, in a zero-sum game. Obama’s deeper end-game — a better politics for all — is real, too, but captive to the first goal, inevitably so.

That’s where others come in. In a republic, making public life go well has to be some people’s primary goal, even beyond winning. The counterintuitive truth here is that Americans find and fulfill themselves best — as members of the early civil-rights did — by upholding certain values that aren’t rewarded in zero-sum games and that, in fact, are degraded and ground under foot there.

The civil-rights demonstrators looked almost foolish at first, or at best, hopeless, in standing by those values against the powerful and sophisticated. So might this campaign: There have been “campaign-fairness” commissions before; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have been calling for that, sincerely even if only secondarily, in his pursuit of other agendas. Not much comes of them.

What all such efforts have lacked is troops and a strategy at least as good as that of the nation’s founders, So, let’s appeal to Soros or whoever is ready to play Samuel Adams or Gouverneur Morris or Alexander Hamilton: Set up the damned website, already; assemble the strategists, sign up the volunteers, and start taking names of the campaign’s targets — the political operators and journalists who fan the false firestorms in order to keep us from clicking the remote or, indeed, from straying too far from their conglomerate masters’ agendas.

Find them. Confront them, as peaceful civil-rights demonstrators confronted Bull Connor and subtler, more charming purveyors of oppression. Insist on crediting them with more decency than they’ve shown and ask them why they can’t show it.

Surround Hillary on the stump, or Sean Wilentz crossing the Princeton campus, or the neo-con New York Sun publisher Seth Lipsky at his hangout at the Harvard Club of New York, or any number of reporters and columnists who are stoking this perversity. And chant, “There you go again!” Help them and everyone who’s watching to understand what’s at stake in your doing this. Film it. Make these failed Americans the targets of the only “firestorm” or “uproar” we need more of right now.


March 28, 2008

The Campaign that America Really Needs

By Jim Sleeper

I misspoke.

Not only don’t we really need “flying wedges” of demonstrators to “physically surround” and shout at all the creepy journalists, consultants, and campaign surrogates who are peddling phony “firestorms” and “uproars” in the 2008 race; we don’t even need George Soros and a conservative counterpart to fund and recruit “troops” for a campaign called “The Real Firestorm.”

Those phrases summoned specters of the New Left’s worst excesses, and of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and of Republicans who stormed the Miami Board of Elections in 2000 or sent “ballot security” patrols to heavily black polling places. I should have substituted my cautionary column of Feb. 13 on “Obama, Crowds, and Power.” I should have re-read it myself.

But we do need a campaign, beyond any one candidate’s, to fight the dark forces that are generating new reactive excesses like those I’ve just mentioned. So mea culpa, but let me try again.

Last May, I joined in calling for a campaign to “stand against the agit-prop and brass knuckles of the Right… by calling it out for what it is, loudly and clearly and repeatedly in terms so unmistakable that they slice through the media filters and reach into the culture. That means controversy, riding it out, getting beyond it, and changing the terms of the debate.”

That the Clintons, and surrogates like Geraldine Ferraro, Sean Wilentz, and James Carville have grown brass knuckles in reaction only underscores that all of us can become part of the problem. Obama, too, could become a casualty and even a carrier of the corruption engulfing us.

Most rioting and crime in America today comes from a pathological, multi-problem overclass of Enron-style managers, Wall Street “free market” traders, the welfare queens who head investment banks, the creators of mercenary armies, and blowhards like Fox News’ Nick Cavuto, who actually yells at decent public leaders like Dick Durbin, Obama’s Senate colleague from Illinois, in the guise of interviewing them.

What we are up against is the erosion and willing abdication of a republic’s “fundamental allegiance to getting along, specifically to handling losses without developing longstanding grudges,” as another TPM commenter, Sphealey, put it here last year.

He noted that that allegiance is vital not only to politics but to any neighborhood pick-up basketball game or tournament like some he’d played in. These “could be undermined if a small group ever got together and made an agreement to subvert the system and behave destructively in a coordinated manner,” he noted. By the time “the rest of us figured out what was happening, our only alternative would have been to terminate the system. If trust had been destroyed, it could not have been replaced.

“Strong as our Constitutional system is,” Sphealey concluded, “I don’t think it was ever intended to resist a large-scale, long-term, tightly organized effort to subvert it from within. Obama thinks he can wave a magic wand of charisma and everyone (including the [conservative] Radicals’ base) will fall under the spell and agree to play nice again. I don’t see it happening.”

That’s why the whole country needs a campaign — disciplined, well-trained and well-targeted as the early civil rights movement – to confront the corruption’s most thuggish enforcers and its subtlest, most charming enablers. Its disarming message: “You’re better than this. We know you can do better by America than you’re doing now.”

The civil-rights activists had no illusions. They delivered their message with a coercive but non-violent power of gentle public shaming. That’s what I was trying to say in urging that we make Ronald Reagan’s gentle admonition, “There you go again,” the mantra of a campaign combining the best of toughness with the best of the civic witness. But I got a little too angry myself.

A commenter yesterday reminded me that “Harry Truman used to say: ‘You don’t have to give the Republicans Hell. Just tell the truth about them and they’ll think it’s Hell.’ Just tell the truth, everyone. We’ll all do just fine if we do.”

I love Truman’s quote, and I wish that we’d be fine if we just told the truth. But the lesson of 2000 and 2004 is that we need something more, something that no one candidate can deliver.


April 1, 2008

Obama’s Racial Wisdom vs. Holdouts Left and Right

By Jim Sleeper

In December, just before the presidential primary season, the conservative black writer Shelby Steele published A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. The book proved instructive in ways he didn’t intend: It showed the dangers of trying to shoehorn recent developments into paradigms that may have illuminated circumstances of 15 years ago but obscure the real opportunities and challenges now before us.

Academics and some belletrists are especially prone to this danger, perhaps even more so if they’re on the left and have made their careers creating, promoting and defending certain paradigms in conference after conference, as the world rushes by. Yesterday’s liberation becomes tomorrow’s dead hand. Just look at what became of romantic “third worldism” that celebrated “people’s liberation movements” but found itself tongue-tied by 9/11 and has gone to Gaza to die.

And look at what’s become of some leftist wisdom about race in America, right alongside Steele’s wisdom about the left. I wrote a couple of books about all this long enough ago for them, too, to bear reassessing. I’ve done that recently on a new website, but the interesting and fruitful discussion here of Obama’s recent speech prompts me to add a few observations now.

Steele was right in the 1990s to note that many racial remedies promoted by anti-racist liberals – from cookie-cutter “diversity” in higher education to congressional districting along race lines – were exercises in what he called “iconography,” by which he meant feel-good symbolism over substantive gain.

Democratic justice in education and elections in a republic requires incredibly heavy lifting in early schooling and in voter registration. It does not gain from racial “rotten boroughs” (whose voter turnouts are notoriously low) or number-fudging in college admissions that embarrasses and thereby segregates too many of its intended beneficiaries.

Steele understood this. He noted that upscale white liberals who’ve done well in the corporate capitalist dispensation have no serious intention of tackling its deepening inequities; yet they can’t bring themselves to defend them very wholeheartedly, either. So they grasp at a politics of moral posturing and tokenism that makes them feel better but doesn’t curb inequities that, thanks partly to their dodging, now divide blacks from blacks as well as blacks from whites, and women from women as well as women from men.

As a conservative, Steele wasn’t going to do anything about these inequities besides urge blacks to burn the midnight oil and vote. Yet the more glaring these inequalities became, even in the 1980s and 1990s, the more that liberals and facile leftists – the latter ideologically inclined yet daunted by the challenges of class more than of race — cut class (as in “economic class”) to wave colorful banners of racial and sexual identity, thereby offering fat targets to tongue-clucking conservatives more partisan than Steele.

In gilded liberal precincts such as Michelle Obama’s undergraduate Princeton and Barack Obama’s (and her) Harvard Law School one saw periodic revival meetings where everyone from freshmen to deans swooned gratefully under the rhetorical lash of some iconic black speaker who posed as a tribune for all blacks while tapping vast stores of liberal white guilt and good intentions.

Steele had these racial bargainers’ numbers. He showed how they put whites through rituals of racial penitence before granting them absolution for racism, letting them reassure themselves that they’d once been blind but now could see. In return, whites, in convulsions of gratitude, granted the black bargainer absolution for his or her own painfully obvious inferiorities, which were simply not acknowledged.

Steele observed this not gloatingly, but mournfully. He’d drawn his racial wisdom from his innards, not calculation. In The Closest of Strangers I was glad to quote him on the perils of what he called “integration shock,” which, replacing racial stigma with white friendship, frightens some blacks by holding them responsible for personal shortcomings that had been written off as consequences of “racism.” Fright produced flight or fight, not serious reassessments all around.

Steele was right to warn that the scam of trading grants of white racial innocence for phony certificates of black equality offers no way out of racism. That dishonest bargain openly violates and subtly eviscerates the civic-republican virtues of candor, truth-telling, trust, and tough-minded optimism that true liberation demands but that leftists often rebuff as bourgeois mystifications of oppressive social relationships.

No wonder that Steele was obsessed with Obama, who, as editor of the Harvard Law Review in those days, had all the lineaments of a cosmopolitan leftist racial bargainer.

Not only that; Steele, like Obama, had a white mother and a black father. Moreover, Obama became an organizer in the same Southside of Chicago where Steele had grown up; the maddening irony is that Obama had actually chosen to go there, as Steele never would have, to claim an African American identity that was Steele’s at birth.

You can imagine how Steele thought he had Obama’s number. He would explain Obama’s voluntary immersion in Southside Chicago as calculated preparation for racial bargaining with guilt-ridden whites on a national scale. Steele could shoehorn Obama into that paradigm because, truth to tell, it still reigns officially and unofficially at Harvard and Princeton and among some of Obama’s supporters.

The problem is that it doesn’t reign among most of them anymore. This phony bargaining strategy, still beloved of brainless deans on leafy campuses, has been shed quietly not only by Obama but also by more Americans in their 20s than Steele’s crusty pride in his hard-won (and well-rewarded) wisdom lets him notice or acknowledge.

What Steele’s “iconography” and “racial bargaining” obscure is that Obama has liberated himself in certain important ways from the black identity politics he explored in Chicago. He has done it not by running away from it or dancing around it, or by being trapped in it while denying it, as Steele variously imagines. He has outgrown it by going straight through it with some good old fashioned conservative introspection, making a Pilgrim’s Progress that tested his faith in himself and society in the Slough of Despond, the Village of Legality and of Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and all the seductions of Vanity Fair.

The elephant in the room which Steele’s paradigm obscures is that Barack Obama is running for the most trans-racial job in the country while Steele, by contrast, has written, is writing, and always will write essays about race. It is Steele who has become the racial bargainer, offering whites racial innocence at the conservative Hoover Institution, where he is a fellow and iconic black conservative, and at the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, where, the day after Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race, he published a churlish musing about Obama as the archetypal racial bargainer– an essay that, he acknowledges, was written and locked into print before he’d read or heard Obama’s speech.

As Don Wycliff, a black Chicagoan older than Steele, observed in reviewing A Bounded Man for Commonweal a week before the speech, “Steele sounds… like a man whose head is full of music that he alone can hear…. [I]f anyone is bound, it is Steele himself… to a set of ideas and theories that he formulated in reaction to his experiences in the 1960s. They once sounded like wisdom, but today they tinkle suspiciously like the bells on a fool’s cap.”

I’m sorry to have to add that the same civic-republican standards of candor, truth-telling, trust, and tough-minded optimism that are discrediting both guilt-ridden racial bargaining and Steele’s critique of it are also discrediting certain leftist, racialist critiques of Obama.  Those on the left have mirrored Steele by criticizing Obama for bargaining too readily with whites would be wiser to acknowledge Obama’s constraints as a candidate.

One way to do that is to recognize that the New Deal and even some elements of LBJ’s Great Society were born of political compromises with racists reminiscent of the U.S. Constitution’s original compromise with slavery. To argue, as leftists do, that racism endures and remains ubiquitous and deep is to acknowledge, as some leftists don’t, that it’s not enough to mount barricades — or, more likely, a conference podium — or to rush to court uttering denunciations of racism.

Times have changed, of course, and so can strategies. But it’s important to be realistic rather than self-righteous. At the Constitutional Convention and in the bargaining for the New Deal and Great Society, powerful Southerners had to be placated for a Constitutional provision or statute to pass. FDR had to play ball with “the solid [Democratic] South,” whose representatives chaired important congressional committees.

Well into the 1950s, Senator Jack Kennedy courted and compromised with segregationists; it was Richard Nixon, a member of the “Party of Lincoln,” who was a card-carrying member of the NAACP.

The hope behind the compromises of the 1930s was that some New Deal programs would at least draw into public solidarity the nation’s still fractious, often warring, white-ethnic camps (then still called “races,” as in the Slavic race, the Hebrew race, etc.). In that way, even the “racist” New Deal was arguably a step toward legitimizing civil rights for blacks, especially after the war against Nazi racism.

To understand better the compromises the political situation required of politicians who hoped to deflect it somewhat toward better ends — in other words, to distinguish wise strategies from a futile politics of moral or ideological posturing — some American historians might benefit from the perspectives of the British historian Anthony J. Badger, a lifelong student of the American New Deal and civil-rights movement who comes to both without the hang-ups I’ve been sketching,

Badger doesn’t succumb to the simplifications of the strangely apolitical Marxism or the leftist identity politics that have doomed much anti-racism to defeat after defeat, as in the over-racialization of mandated busing, congressional districting, and heavily subsidized neighborhood “integration,” blunders I chronicled in Liberal Racism.

Stilted academic calls to “deconstruct” even-handed analyses like Badger’s and mine don’t acknowledge that ideologically and self-righteously motivated people wind up helping opportunists who fan racist fears for short-term gain.

The market forces that trap innocent whites as well as blacks are amoral, and the social currents they generate are so swift and deep that it’s folly to challenge them by shouting about racism. Capitalism is proving more subtle, protean and absorptive of race and sex than even its conservative defenders ever expected in the days when leftists were assuring us that capitalism depended on racism and sexism. On the contrary, it is shuffling our racial and sexual decks and shifting the burdens of oppression elsewhere, a frightening subject for another time.

The constraints Obama faces as he struggles to position himself amid these crosscurrents should be appreciated against the backdrop of past progressive blunders. Moral witness, organized protest, and court fiats are indispensable elements of a broad strategy, but if they are brandished in a campaign like this one, they will fail. For Obama, de-politicizing race is not only a necessity but a big tactical step forward toward racial justice. Whether Shelby Steele calls that “racial bargaining” or leftists call it opportunism, I hope Obama will go right on doing it through November.


April 3, 2008

Why Obama’s Leftish Critics are Sputtering

By Jim Sleeper

One of the many merits of this forum on race and politics in the wake of Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech is that it includes scholars on the left who are uncomfortable with Obama because, as Joseph Lowndes warns, he’s not helping Americans to understand that “the deeply lodged problems of racial and economic inequality are inexorably tied together, and must therefore be broached together.”

These critics don’t believe that a candidate or movement can reform or substantially reconfigure American corporate capitalism without confronting, head on, this country’s engrained racism — and the harsh truth, as they see it, that capitalism has always relied on racism and sexism to distract us from its many broken economic and moral promises.

My questions are, Where will the movement they’re calling for come from? After all their and their predecessors’ labors and struggles, why hasn’t it ever truly come, except in their dreams and their books? Why has capitalism reigned through boom and bust, right alongside feminism and the rise of a substantial and growing black middle class? Hasn’t it found new inequities and diversions that the capitalism=racism paradigm can’t quite explain?

The way to honest and illuminating answers runs through an acceptance of certain truths about America that too many academic critics insist on dismissing as lies, thereby dismissing themselves from political relevance even when they’re not wholly wrong and have valuable lessons to teach.

The civic-republican politics Obama is trying to revive is not the velvet glove on the iron fist of capitalist oppression that thoughtful critics such as George Shulman seem to think it is. What Obama is offering within the constraints of a campaign in a liberal capitalist republic is a foothold against capitalist excesses that’s more reliable than anything offered by any scholar of the left I’ve ever read, listened to, or followed into activism.

Obama troubles these thinkers all the more because he, too, has read and listened to them and decided not follow them into politics, useful interlocutors though they may be. He needs to get himself elected, with others’ energetic support, not try to become a prophet, political philosopher, or leader of the insurgency from outside electoral politics which his critics want but haven’t the foggiest idea how to undertake,

But let’s stay a moment with the brunt of their complaint. It’s worth understanding. They insist that no matter how often Obama says, “yes, we can,” he and his campaign can’t transcend race without first confronting a central truth about corporate capitalism — that it needs to marginalize and let down some classes of people while maintaining its legitimacy with the rest. Racist and sexist assumptions about other people serve readily as justifications for marginalizing them without bringing the whole system into moral disrepute.

Obama, say these critics, offers the less jaded and more earnest among us the alluring but false promise of an easy way out of racism and rising corporate abuses: He may have transcended race through his own biracial provenance and introspection, but now he is flying too close to the sun, transmuting his odyssey into a national fairy tale of trans-racial comity through which all is possible. His myth stirs us deeply, say the critics, only because it offers us prompt, temporary relief from having to tackle the injustices we actually live with, within, and on top of, every day.

Even the soaringly eloquent Martin Luther King, Jr. knew better, the critics remind us. King soon realized that justice comes only with jobs. By the time he was assassinated he was leading a Poor People’s Campaign and defending striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Obama, by contrast, say his critics on the left, has no more serious intention of reconfiguring American capitalism than does Hillary Clinton, some of whose positions (on universal health care, for example) may actually be to the left of his.

Certainly Obama is as hard-headed as Clinton. Playing the cards he’s been dealt, he had every good reason to convert his personal story into a narrative of public redemption in order to get elected. But after that, the poetry of campaigning will fade into the prose of governing, and then we’ll understand that his campaign/movement rhapsodized about leaping over racism and capitalism because it hadn’t been organized to confront them.

Thus saith the tribunes of the left, and, since I support Obama, Shulman announces that I am one of the rhapsodists: “Obama… gained Sleeper’s approval precisely because he had avoided race, indeed, divisions of any kind, through a transcendent language of hope and national unity.

Shulman joins Lowndes in calling the rhapsody “the idiom of American exceptionalism, a nationalist language that might elect Obama by positioning him as an immigrant and American, not as a black man, but this language precludes addressing structures of racial inequality and division.”

It also threatens to extinguish the black community as a repository of memory, endurance, and prophetic voice, Shulman warns us, appropriating a concern of Glenn Loury, no leftist, about the danger of black extinction through assimilation. I devoted Chapter 6 of Liberal Racism to this important concern. It was published also as an essay in Harper’s; so I won’t address it here.

In fact, I’ve been saying much of what Obama’s critics say about America for a long time, but with a slight twist:

In “Obama’s Biggest Weakness” here on February 6, for example, I charged that too many of Obama’s enthusiasts are upscale white liberals who expect him to “help those people on the Southside without dragging [elite liberals] too deeply into it; without reconfiguring how we charter our corporations and re-construe the private and public investments that employ upscale young whites and well-behaved non-whites; and certainly without redistributing their own bright prospects and future prerogatives and second homes.”

In the recent post, “Obama’s Racial Wisdom, vs. Holdouts Left and Right,” that prompted some of Shulman’s observations, I added that some anti-racist policies (such as cookie-cutter “diversity” training on leafy campuses) make “feel-good” adjustments for people “who’ve done well in the corporate capitalist dispensation and have no serious intention of tackling its deepening inequities; yet they can’t bring themselves to defend them very wholeheartedly, either. So they grasp at a politics of moral posturing and tokenism that makes them feel better but doesn’t curb inequities that, thanks partly to their dodging, now divide blacks from blacks as well as blacks from whites, and women from women as well as women from men.”

(Footnote: Just last night, in a response to the same post, I got an e-mail from a conservative law school professor taunting, “As a long-time reader of Sleeperiana, I know of no previous suggestion by you that capitalism is anything but a rapacious destroyer of the halcyon world of our childhood. If you can send me refuting passages, I shall happily concede error on this point and call you a balanced critic of capitalism.”)

By the anti-capitalist left’s own logic, a lot of what passes as anti-racist policy in higher education only deepens class divisions: For every Obama who benefits from affirmative action (and even the beneficiary Obama doesn’t please his critics on the left), many more black corporate lawyers and bankers benefit, too. Why else would elite liberals be so passionate in defending this kind of affirmative action if it weren’t saving the system’s legitimacy instead of challenging its structure?

Market currents are so swift and unsparing that capitalism itself has proved more supple, protean, and, through certain kinds of affirmative action, more absorptive of racial and sexual differences than even capitalism’s staunchest conservative defenders expected back when leftists charged that it relied eternally on patriarchy and white supremacy — and that smashing sexism and racism would bring down capitalism.

Guess what? Corporate employment and marketing and entertainment strategies are shuffling the society’s racial and sexual decks as surely as activists are, thereby shifting the burdens of oppression onto all of us, in subtler, more perverse ways. The old capitalism = racism paradigm is crumbling not because the country has become more just, but because corporate America is nimble and amoral, ready and willing to peddle other maladies that sap political will.

A Forbes Magazine ad in the 1970s was headlined: “Capitalism: A Moving Target.” I’ll wring my hands about that right alongside George Shulman and Joseph Lowndes, if only they’ll recognize how true that really is. Obama wouldn’t have gotten as far as he has if it wasn’t.

Of course, the shifts now underway in our racial coordinates are leaving some blacks and white leftists disoriented, with a kind of sensory deprivation. Some of them cling angrily to the capitalism=racism paradigm, taking from it an orientation in the world that enabled Shulman to launch on an attack on my The Closest of Strangers at a forum on the book at the New School in 1990. In his world, it seems, little has changed.

The shift in coordinates has also disoriented conservatives such as Shelby Steele, who are digging in to defend civic-republican virtue against a “liberalism” like Obama’s. But conservatives, who cannot reconcile their keening for a virtuous, ordered liberty with their movement’s obeisance to almost every whim of capital, will eventually find themselves having to defend republican virtues not against the left but against the latest vagaries and convulsions of capital itself.

The capitalism=racism paradigm has propelled many leftists who built their careers on it into many doomed crusades: They flooded the welfare system with demands that were supposed to bring it down and usher in a guaranteed minimum income, but the strategy ushered in Ronald Reagan instead. They won legal battles to draw congressional districts along racial lines to increase black representation, only to find that that whitened the surrounding districts in ways that handed the House to Republicans for 15 years.

They tried to ram busing and neighborhood integration down the throats of working-class whites whose retirement incomes depended heavily on the property values of their little bungalows in neighborhoods so fragile that even progressive organizers like Saul Alinsky cried, “Stop!” The only answer, Alinsky knew, was civic republicanism, understood not as a dodge but as a redoubt of decency from which new responses to capitalism might emerge, as they had, under other circumstances, with Roosevelt and the New Deal..

Had they been around at the time, Shulman and Lowndes would have accused Roosevelt of trying to save capitalism from its own inherent contradictions by compromising with racists. Roosevelt did just that, in ways that imperfectly sustained some valuable constitutional, republican protections of democratic deliberation and will and set the stage for victories later on.

Obama may be no Roosevelt, but then, Roosevelt wasn’t really Roosevelt until he became President amid a Great Depression. Yet Obama’s critics are making the ideologically driven accusations against him like those they would have made against Roosevelt. If they have a better alternative this time than the old left did in the 1930s — if it’s not only a capitalism=racism analysis but an actual political program that can win Americans’ hearts — I have a open heart and open ears.


April 16, 2008

The Ur-Story Behind Obama’s ‘Clint’ Gaffe

By Jim Sleeper

Let me say something so sweatily self-referential and implausible that I had to think awhile before saying it: Barack Obama’s remarks at that California fund-raiser were well-intentioned and decently modulated, and he identified currents I have reason to know are deep, But that’s the problem: Those currents are really deep.

I need for you to do something now that most casual blog readers don’t:  Please click this link now and read a description, written 32 years ago,-of what Barack Obama got himself into by remarking that small-town people “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Read this story of January 28, 1976 — in the Harvard Crimson, of all places (editor-in-chief, Nicholas B. Lemann) — about how I persuaded some young, white working-class Boston guys to go to hear James Baldwin address a heavily black audience of undergrads at Harvard. Thirty-two years later — a few months ago — most if not all of these same men became part of the reason why Obama lost the Massachusetts primary, despite endorsements from Ted Kennedy and the state’s first black governor, Deval Patrick.

As this ancient tale foretold, some working whites’ not-so-hidden injuries of class were rubbed raw by Harvard whites’ preference for elevating selected blacks above themselves. It isn’t just what Obama said; it’s that he said it at an exclusive California fund-raiser to rich whites who spend so little time caring about poor blacks in Oakland or Watts that they’re quick to blame their plight on working whites and want this black Harvard lawyer to lighten their own moral and political responsibilities by balancing things out.

Obama’s remarks about dispossessed small-town whites weren’t as condescending as some would have us believe. He defended the people he was describing against charges of racism. But if you’ve now read what I wrote in 1976, you’ll know why I’ve exhumed it.

It’s about racism, sure enough, but it’s also about how some upscale whites pile less fortunate whites’ racial resentments onto those same whites’ class resentments, clucking their tongues disapprovingly in ways that tend to diminish or distract attention from the class part of the problem.

The Crimson essay of three decades ago is the Ur-story that drove me to write here in February about “Obama’s Biggest Weakness.”  I don’t now believe everything I said in 1976 about the interdependency of capitalism and racism and the viability of a socialist response. There are better, transitional responses. And, for now, Obama’s candidacy is the best of them.

He deserves immeasurable credit, first, for working his own way through coils of racism and racialism that could have constricted and constrained him forever and, second, for immersing himself in an African American community of memory and endurance that most with his options would have danced away from. What he did showed courage and intelligence, not just political calculation.

What he did not do was engage working-class whites very deeply — first, because no one man’s life gives him a chance to do everything, and, second, because a skinny black kid named Barack Obama wouldn’t have gotten far had he tried. He has played the hand he was dealt as intelligently and honestly as anyone could, and, as a senator, has used his prodigious moral imagination to try to compensate for the cards he didn’t hold.

That has left him with some blind spots, and, if you’ve read the Crimson piece, you understand why this one could prove fatal. For all the differences between the working and unemployed guys I knew in Boston and the ones I don’t know in Pennsylvania, the toxic landfill of racial and class resentment is still as deep in the one place as in the other.

The only thing even more toxic and damnable than those resentments is their willful stoking by the former first lady of Arkansas, who has every reason to know that the voters she’s courting this way wouldn’t have invited Obama over for barbecue had he come from Columbia and Harvard to live and work among them instead of among the people in Southside Chicago. In her desperation, she has made the moral burden of Obama’s supposed “condescension” hers as much as his.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How Republicans Gamed the Pennsylvania Primary

 (Written while that primary was still underway)

By Jim Sleeper 

For six weeks, as Democrats’ hope of unity rode on Barack Obama’s hope that Pennsylvanians would prove his national lead to be more than a wish, press critics ignored breathtakingly cynical Republican news-media ploys to keep Dems bitterly divided.

Few pundits wondered, for example, why 160,000 Pennsylvania Republicans switched registrations — most in order to vote for Clinton, if demographics are a guide. That strategy — promoted by right-wing Clinton scourge and sudden “supporter” Richard Mellon-Scaife and his Pittsburgh Post-Tribune — is to keep the Dems divided and just maybe to give them the nominee whom Scaife has more reason than most to believe Republicans can demolish this fall.

Few commentators questioned why Clinton didn’t reject Mellon-Scaife’s endorsement, as she’d challenged Obama to reject Louis Farrakhan’s. Few asked why she instead actually courted the Machiavellian funder of a “vast, right-wing conspiracy” that had implicated her in Vincent Foster’s murder and more.

Clinton’s desperation was one thing, her abdication of all dignity was another. Yet journalists who’d scrutinized Obama’s handling of Farrakhan indulged her collapse into Mellon-Scaife’s arms. No prissy New York Times op eds parsed whether she, like Obama, ought to have “denounced” or “renounced” or “rejected” the come-on.

TPM has reported Big Bill Clinton’s even-more amazing appearances on Rush Limbaugh’s show to urge Ditto-heads to vote for Hillary, even though Clinton knew they’d do so only for Mellon-Scaife’s set-up reasons. Now, there’s desperation for you, and, in Bill’s case, we needn’t even mention lost dignity. I wouldn’t say that the Clintons are Stalin and that Mellon-Scaife is Hitler, but show me how this mesalliance is any less cynical than the Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939, and I’ll show you a bridge to the future I have to sell.

Not all Republican-leaning media agree that Clinton’s the one they’re most likely to beat. Republicans do have “new” dirt on the Clintons, but Americans are gagging on these tactics, effective though such ugliness remains. Obama will be easier to take down, reason the post-Rove Republicans, because, often, they can stand back and, with a wink and a nudge, let racism do its work in the privacy of the voting booth.

That’s certainly the strategy of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, which actually endorsed Obama for the Democratic nomination and showed that when it endorses someone, it delivers! The paper has turned every tabloid trick to slant its coverage toward Obama, no doubt endearing itself to blacks I’ve watched perusing the paper on the subway. Today’s primary-day headline: “Hill’s ‘Osama’ Scare Tactics.” The Post even ballyhooed the fact that the voter who loudly protested Obama’s observations about “bitter” small-town Pennsylvanians is a life-long resident of New Jersey!

The paper’s intended message to politicos of all persuasions: Always kiss the ring of Rupert and forget his imported editors and their mini-con minions have turned the once-liberal Post into a daily reminder that Australia was founded as a penal colony. They are now busy turning the Wall Street Journal into the Voldemort of big dailies.

When Obama is nominated, the Post’s editors will announce soberly that upon agonised reflection they’ve decided that McCain is the man America most desperately needs. After a suitable pause, they’ll begin tearing into Obama on non-racial grounds (his latte liberal backers, his weakness on defense, etc.) while promoting McCain relentlessly and relying on racism to do the rest as they keep their hands clean with New York’s multiracial populace.

Come to think of it, that’s what New York Times columnist David Brooks has already done, as I predicted he would long ago: “Brooks has pretended to admire Obama so much… that you expect him to swim over to the Democrats. Don’t count on it….” He was merely accumulating credibility with liberal readers for giving Obama a serious chance before reeling in as many as he can for McCain. Brooks turned that corner pre-emptively last week, ahead of the Post , either to “help” Clinton or to look smart himself by being the first to show how to champion John McCain, hero of Selma and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, against Obama, that deracinated Hyde Park liberal.

I’ll say more about these conservative journalistic ploys soon, but for now it’s worth emphasizing that few commentators have noted how corrosive the cynicism and duplicity of Mellon-Scaife, Murdoch, and Brooks have become of the very civic-republicanism, virtue, and freedom they claim to defend.

The philosopher George Santayana noted that Americans are “inexperienced in poisons,” owing to their forthright civic-republican candor and courage in controversies, no matter how bitter and partisan. No more. Unless, that is, as I dearly hope, Pennsylvanians carry Obama strongly enough tonight to discredit the poisoned Clintons and their new Republican pushers.


April 23, 2008

Obama’s Way Out of the Race Trap

(After losing the Pennsylvania primary, Obama had to re-connect with working-class whites. I suggested that calling for class-based affirmative action would turn a lot of heads and gain a lot of ground electorally and for social justice.)

By Jim Sleeper

It’s refreshing and disconcerting that not once in Ed Kilgore’s fascinating post below comparing Barack Obama and George McGovern — and not once in the 14 astute comments that follow it as I write — is there any mention that Obama is black. (One commenter notes that Obama took 90% of the black Pennsylvania primary vote, but that’s it.)

It’s refreshing because Obama’s self-understanding and his campaign give race its appropriate place while pointing beyond it. But it’s pretty strange to see no mention of race in a discussion of Obama’s prospects just after Pennsylvania reminded us of racism’s depth and obstinacy among working-class whites in industrial states — an obstinacy I illustrated here shortly before the primary.

Nixon carried the industrial states against McGovern in 1972, except Massachusetts, not only because he was the incumbent but because too much was being made of race then, in the streets and in McGovernites’ color-coding of the Democratic convention. Subtle appeals to racist backlash worked. And McGovern wasn’t even black.

The Clintons have made a lot of race this year, too, reminding everyone that Obama is black — from Bill’s bringing up Jesse Jackson’s past South Carolina victory when Obama won there, to Sean Wilentz’s falsely accusing Obamaites of playing the race card, to Hillary’s jumping into the Rev. Wright loop a week late, and so on.

But there’s a way that Obama could turn what the Clintons and some Republicans consider a winning issue into a cornerstone of his own strong victory.

So writes Richard Kahlenberg, who has long campaigned for a shift from race-based affirmative-action to class-based preferences that might mitigate the growing inequalities that have left working whites, as someone put it, bitter.

In the current (April 25) Chronicle of Higher Education, Kahlenberg reprises some racial history to argue that Barack Obama’s candidacy could show “how to remedy the history of discrimination.. without creating new inequities and divisions. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a strong supporter of race-and gender-based affirmative action preferences and has shown little openness to new ideas on that front.

“By contrast, Obama… emphasizes [as did Martin Luther King, Jr.] common ground among races…. Nothing would galvanize white working-class voters more than a rejection of… racial preferences in favor of King’s Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.

“Obama appears open to that approach. In his Philadelphia speech,…. he observed: ‘Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race…’ Their resentment builds ‘when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed.’ He warned against seeing those resentments as ‘misguided or even racist’ without understanding that they are ‘grounded in legitimate concerns.’

“Moreover, in response to a reporter’s question last May, Obama said that his own relatively privileged girls don’t deserve affirmative-action preferences, but poor minority and white students do. Emphasizing class would remove such preferences for upper-income members of minority groups — treatment that Obama concedes makes little sense — and would, for the first time in 40 years, benefit the vast majority of working-class black people who have been helped little by affirmative action programs….

“It also would be politically popular: While racial preferences are strongly opposed by Americans, income-based preferences are supported by a two-to-one margin. The move would be transformative,” Kahlenberg concludes, “recapturing not only the colorblind character of King’s vision but also its aggressive assault on class inequality.”

But if Obama holds the views Kahlenberg reports, why don’t working-class whites know it?

One reason they don’t is that some can’t see far enough past Obama’s blackness to hear anything he’s saying. But another is that Obama hasn’t spoken all that clearly against racial preferences. No surprise there: He has to play the hand he’s been dealt as a black man running for president: He needs to avoid igniting racial controversies. He’s understandably reluctant to descend to what might seem like pandering to racists, drawing the inevitable assaults from black Clinton “race industry” loyalists and the worst of the so-called civil-rights establishment.

Another reason whites haven’t heard Obama on this is that the Clintons do remind whites that he is black, and they don’t take issue with him on racial preferences. After all, the more openly the Clintons defended racial preferences, the more white votes Hillary would lose.

They’d rather remind us that Bill stagily rebuked Sister Souljah (who deserved it) and Jesse Jackson while styling himself a “New Democrat” in 1992. That worked for them then, too, even though no one black was running.

The Clintons’ very real racism is the underside of their penitential, preferential color-coding — a highly symbolic, cheap, and hypocritical handling of race that Obama opposes. The irony and tragedy is that, as I showed yesterday, playing the race card puts Clinton hand-in-glove with those Republicans who endorse her now only because they want to have her to demolish in the fall.

It’s a reasonable risk now for Obama to flush her out on this issue of preferences and compulsive color-coding. No one could do it more truthfully or eloquently than he. Whites would hear him, for sure. Blacks wouldn’t desert him, because they’d catch every nuance in his presentation.

He might lose a few upscale white liberals who like to indulge racial symbolism in order to feel good about their privileged selves far more than they’d like to make the sacrifices and do the heavily lifting that equality of opportunity really requires. But it’s unlikely they’d desert him for Clinton now, and he’d gain tremendous credibility among working-class whites for being substantively trans-racial, in ways that actually benefit them, rather than symbolically trans-racial in color-coded gestures that make the pursuit of equality seem a zero-sum game.


(Comment, posted by Chris G):

I agree with the premise that Obama needs to add something to his message that working class voters can relate to, but why not simply put up the positive policy of income-based preferences? no need to contrast it with affirmative action, it might not be wise to rely on black voters picking up “nuances”

working-class black and white Americans alike share the experience of economic oppression, and Obama has a deep background working on that issue, e.g. jobs training.

he needs to put that experience front and center with his message of change. he talks about it, but not enough IMHO. everyone knows Edwards is the son of a mill worker. I don’t think everyone knows Obama’s connection with the pain working class communities have felt in the past few decades.


Chris G’s comment above hits an important nerve in terms of both policy and “message,” I think.

Someone should correct me if I’m wrong, but he closest that Obama has come to class-based affirmative action, I think, is his proposal that prospective college students who need tuition help should get it (presumably based on a big federal program) in return for performing national service. (The national-service part intersects with McCain’s call to expand Americorps.)

I think that Obama should come out and say, of affirmative action, “We promised to mend it, not end it, but we didn’t really mend it” — an obvious dig at the Clintons.

Then he should explain, gently but eloquently, what’s gone wrong with racial preferences, at least in some sectors. (In colleges, where admissions officers fall all over themselves to admit qualified non-white students, we don’t need enforced racial preferences; in the construction industry, for example, we still do.)

And then he should propose new initiatives. But, of course, class-based affirmative action could be far more expensive (the Republicans would cry, “socialist”) than race-based.

As for his message, I noted above in the post that he has already, in his Philadelphia speech, explicitly credited the indignation of working-class whites who feel that racial preferences were disadvantaging them unfairly. This was a difficult thing to acknowledge in a phrase or even a paragraph, as he did there, especially when others leapt to drown it out by harping on Rev. Wright.

I want to commend this old piece again, which I linked a week ago, that describes my first encounter, 32 years ago, with the enduring, obdurate racism any prominent, “Harvard” black person like Obama is still up against:


April 29, 2008

Obama in the Wilderness

(As Obama staggered under the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s preening shortly before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, I offered some historical and religious perspectives.)

By Jim Sleeper

Now maybe you can understand why I wrote Liberal Racism: After 20 years in inner-city Brooklyn, I’d had it watching too many black people and too many white liberals and radicals indulge self-styled “race men” like Jeremiah Wright.

Certainly I was exasperated by the race men themselves – by Johnny Cochran, Hosea Wilson, Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Alton Maddox, Vernon Mason, Leonard Jeffries, even Derrick Bell, and sometimes Cornel West, and countless other smart, brave, sometimes grand, but also wounded, raving, preening narcissists who cried “Racism Forever!” Some of them styled themselves prophets of white doom and black resurrection, reaping an adulation seldom enjoyed by real prophets, who are heard mainly after their time.

These men weren’t all bad. More than once, as I recounted here recently concerning Brooklyn’s Rev. William Augustus Jones, I personally gave them the benefit of the doubt and stood up for them. And, sometimes, they did not disappoint. On the contrary, their forbearance and fortitude taught me how deeply the world had disappointed them. Yes, I understood “God Damn America!,” but not from those who shouted it for the roar of the crowd.

The more I understood the difference between feeling it and shouting it, the more I despised the shouters for massaging poor, downtrodden people’s broken hearts on the way to their wallets, and for drawing in still others whose bitterness, more fine-spun, sought something like relief in rhetoric that came with a simulacrum of erudition. Yes, watching Wright at the NAACP takes me back to the many demonstrations I witnessed of imagined racial solidarity in self-doom.

But I reserved a special circle in Hell for guilt-ridden white liberals and opportunistic leftists who supported this sad writhing and the politics of racial paroxysm that gripped this country in the 1980s and 1990s. These supporters’ own “white” emotional and ideological effusions delivered nothing to poor, upright, faithful blacks, whose souls were rested only when their feet were tired from marching, who spent years on their knees not in church but scrubbing white people’s floors to give their children a better chance.

And now there is another circle, this one reserved for those who are gloating and smirking over Obama’s pastor’s self-immolation.

Given the odds most blacks have faced through most of American history, it would be wrong to say that some didn’t, in fact, get better chances thanks to the Wrights and even the Farrakhans – to those who ran religious institutions that provided services, solidarity in oppression, and some discipline and hope. But sometimes this happened almost despite the iconic leaders (think of Farrakhan’s Million Man March, which transcended him.)

So spare me Wright’s bloviations about “the prophetic tradition” of “the” black church. As the historian David Chappell, author of the remarkable A Stone of Hope, reminded me this morning, “the” black church is not “prophetic,” claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

The only thing “the” black church is… is black. It has had its prophets but also its imposters and parasites, as has the Roman Catholic and every other prideful church whose supercelestial claims belie some subterranean morals.

Wright himself is a strong, smart, wounded, angry — and, yes, now perverse — man. He did not carry his pain very well. Then again, who among us in similar circumstances would do better? Look at the maunderings of the sonorously judgmental, such as the worldly (and wordy) Obama-bashing Leon Wieseltier, who was caught at it and rebuked interestingly by Bernard Avishai. Or look at the historian-cum-Clinton sycophant Sean Wilentz, and others who are smirking or gloating right now over Obama’s travails at Wright’s hands.

Obama’s “Yes we can” speeches summoned memories of those women scrubbing floors, of those scared black churchgoers marching into sunlit Southern courthouse squares, dressed in their Sunday best , shivering in the heat, assured of no safety from federal marshals or God.

Somehow, they found the faith-based courage to reenact the Hebrew Exodus myth against the dogs and mobs: “[T]heir very indifference to the issue of success or failure provided the stamina which made success possible,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1952 of earlier struggles. “Sometimes the heroes of the faith perished outside the promised land.”

Niebuhr hadn’t yet heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had recently been a student absorbing Niebuhr’s own admonition that “[t]his paradoxical relation between the possible and the impossible in history proves that the frame of history is wider than the nature-time in which it is grounded. The injunction of Christ: ‘Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul’ (Matthew 10:28) neatly indicates the dimension of human existence which transcends the basis which human life and history have in nature.”

That faith made the protests uncanny and unsettling. King and others opened the hearts of astonished Northern Protestants and Jews whose ancestors had made history of the same Exodus narrative in ages past. Suddenly, it was poor Southern blacks who knew best what the others had forgotten: that the story would unfold only across years of wandering in the wilderness, worship of golden calves, brutal conquests and other perfidies — including sophistry and charlatanry.

Where in that epic does Jeremiah Wright stand? Even his glib detractors must grant that he would have been marching into the desert away from the fleshpots of Egypt, and it is that side of Wright that Barack Obama came seeking after college.

But even as Obama found what he came seeking, he saw the other side, the man who had become embittered in the wilderness. And now, the dead hand of that past lies like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Obama will survive those, like the tragic Wright, who now would kill the soul if not the body. But whether the rest of us and the American republic will survive those who are smirking and gloating remains to be seen. I’d like to think that since countless blacks stood up to dogs and mobs, we who support Obama can find in ourselves the faith to withstand his cankered, middling detractors.


June 4, 2008

Obama in the Straits

(As Obama claimed the Democratic nomination after the last primaries, a meditation from Istanbul at dawn on the racial dimension of the challenge and the opportunity his candidacy has put before the country and the world.)

By Jim Sleeper

Obama’s primary victory speech came to Istanbul in the early light as muezzins atop minarets stirred the city with their raw and ancient cacophony of “Allahu Akbar” and as Turkey lurches toward a constitutional crisis beyond our scope here but arresting to Jurgen Habermas, Ian Buruma, Benjamin Barber, Seyla Benhabib, and others at a small “Dialogues on Civilization” Conference organized by the International Reset Association.

Circumstances in this hauntingly beautiful, pre-market culture of honor, buffeted by global-capitalist currents, encourage not horse-race handicapping but countercyclical musings about Obama, sown before dawn in writerly furrows at the margins of the American field.

From here, the coming election looks all the more fateful-because he’s trying to ride two swift, distinctively American currents that usually boil against each other yet have converged in Obama’s candidacy and might converge, at last, in the general electorate.

The first current ıs that of our widely celebrated “nation of immıgrants,” our land of fresh starts and clean, civic-republican breaks from ancient homeland blood feuds and cobwebs of tradition whose primordial, ethno-racial territorial claims too often legitimate exploitation. We don’t do that in America, we claim, and indeed Obama is a microcosm of our “nation of immigrants” current, both by birth and maternal vision and will.

But a second, destructive current — of racial destiny, which distorted the nation’s globe-girdling claims by abducting and plunging millions of Africans into its midst — has inundated Obama because color remains its coin, no matter that he was not born to this one at all.

Instead of trying to rebuff or escape it, as mixed-race young people now have every right and even duty to do, Obama chose, extraordinarily, to swim in it awhile, without drowning in it. On Chicago’s Southside he learned that because slaves had had to create new identities for themselves ex nihilo, out of nothing, their long struggle to do it through Christianity and the republican project gave them the deepest stakes imaginable in the latter’s success and made their story the most powerful epic of unrequited love in the history of the world.

No wonder that some African Americans became the republic’s most bitter assailants (see Wright, Jeremiah) and others its most eloquent champions. And because whites excluded them from high society’s opportunities and subtlest corruptions, we grew accustomed to seeing blacks enter the public square bearing only rebellion and rip-offs or the searing, redemptive moral force of a DuBois or King.

Obama chose the latter, but with a twist, owing partly to his birth in the current of immigration, which gave him some perspective on that of abduction: He insisted that to watch blacks enter the public square to run municipalities, military machines, market engines, and even national governments is to watch the angels of blackness withdraw along with the demons. It is to forego racial condescension and solidarity along with contempt. Race, in short, is something we shall have to overcome in our national republican coming of age.

Here in Istanbul, as Habermas held forth against two perils facing Europe — the Scylla of a radically racialized multiculturalism that assumes that merely having a color means having a culture, and the Charybdis of an absolutist, secularistic universalism that arrogantly rejects the ineluctable lure of ethno-racial belonging and the allure of religion — I couldn’t help but think of Obama as an American Odysseus, steering a wise and crafty course between those extremes.

Turkey, whose great city bestrides the narrow straits of mythic memory that separate yet join Europe and the Middle East, may soon prove whether it is ready to steer a course like Obama’s. The fear among Turks here at the conference is that the Turkish republic hasn’t a civic-republican constituency deep or strong enough to steer clear.

But how ready is America, that self-heralding land of clean breaks and civic-republican fresh starts? What signal will we send now to beleaguered Turkish democrats, who are looking not for the Sixth Fleet but for some navigation lessons?


June 13, 2008

Obama: Neoliberal or Civic Republican?

(He seemed to be both, with the capacity to vindicate the Republic against the worst of global capitalism. Whether he could would depend on whether our national economic and social crises deepened — and on what people were ready to hear about that.)

By Jim Sleeper

Cautioning against making war for democracy in Iraq, Colin Powell famously cited the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.

Cautioning against chasing neoliberal prosperity, I’m sorely tempted to warn that the powers driving its transactions will break you, own you, and throw your body into neoliberalism’s iron (if padded) corporate cage and your civic-republican dignity into history’s dustbin.

One mustn’t say that, of course, and it’s certainly not what Francis Fukuyama had in mind in The End of History or Tom Friedman in The World is Flat. But look honestly at America’s decay and face the painful truth which David Brooks helped Harvard neoliberals to avoid facing in Bobos in Paradise: “C’mon,” he purred (I’m characterizing his thesis, not quoting him), “You know that you love your unearned income and real estate and that you’d rather circulate commodities than ideas, and [wink, tickle], that’s okay!”

It’s not okay, and Brooks, moving along now in his political makeover, is beginning to wonder what we’ve paid for it. He won’t take us far toward an answer. Nor, he therefore assures us, will Barack Obama, a Harvard neoliberal, even though he has all the grace notes Larry Summers lacked. From elsewhere on the spectrum, the political philosopher Michael Walzer agrees, telling a conference in Istanbul this month that “leftist economists will be critics from the outside” of Obama’s circle. We are all in the neoliberal cage, it seems, except for a few tenured radicals and union fuddy-duddies.

Progressive economist and Obama advisor James K. Galbraith insists otherwise, but he’s outnumbered, and, given our “winner take all” campaign discourse, expect more straddling by Obama on NAFTA, lobbyists, campaign financing, and the like.

There’s some hope in the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t reveal his intentions while running in 1932, even during a Great Depression that had lasted for three years. That was partly because Roosevelt didn’t really know what his intentions were, as Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter shows in The Defining Moment. Once in the White House, FDR found the courage and flexibility to save American capitalism from itself, enough to fight a war against capitalist monsters elsewhere. And he did so on Keynesian, sometimes even social-democratic, terms that forestalled a post-war depression and produced the Marshall Plan in Europe.

Obama has courage, flexibility, and more intellectual acuity than FDR. But even a Keynesian liberal or a social democrat trying to govern in today’s flat neoliberal dispensation would soon become as desperate as any conservative to fend off the world’s rising economic tigers, even if that means slashing the taxes that fund schools, health care, infrastructure, and, with them, any sovereignty over the rules of the fight.

And what awful rules they are! Our cage-fighting economy fobs the social costs of living like tigers onto the weakest and most fickle among us, through state-sponsored lotteries, the pornification of public space, and deregulation that unleashes predatory lending. You see the casualties lining up for lottery tickets in any gas station or corner store. Can Obama begin anew with gurus like former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and allies like Gov. Deval Patrick, formerly Bill Clinton’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, who is working hard to bring casino gambling to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?

Brooks now laments such practices as if they weren’t consequences of the forces and priorities he’s ridden and rhapsodized for years. He ducks the causes of those consequences, such as massive corporate welfare and the sweetheart deregulation of a conservative “ownership society” that has already robbed millions of Americans of any prospect of home ownership, setting the stage for a frightening “Survivor” politics we can only hope Obama’s leadership might deflect.

Obama may not really know what his own intentions are. Only if the economic and social situation worsens as horribly as some intelligent pessimists predict might he manage to break the taboo on criticizing today’s capitalism, which subverts any Lockean liberation of individual creativity and independence, as well as any credible notion of justice or social felicity. We have the taboo against saying this partly because the old left’s rigid economic determinism and tyrannical ideologizing of all social pain and hope discredited criticism of capitalism and made conservative and neoliberal alternatives seem liberating.

What the latter have delivered is not liberation but escapism into “shop till you drop” consumerism and such compensations as obesity, road rage, empty micro-moralism, and the sexual self-degradations which Brooks described with some bemusement in Bobos, in ways and for reasons I’ve explored.

I’ve just come from Istanbul, whose downtown streets have no wastebaskets but also no litter, because people wouldn’t dream of littering, and where there is almost no violent street crime, and where drivers weaving their ways through incredibly dense human and vehicular traffic seldom honk their horns, and where young male friends who aren’t gay walk down the streets together, arms wrapped endearingly around each other, at least partly because billions of advertising dollars aren’t being spent on inculcating In them sexual insecurities and fears of all sorts.

The point is that Turks have some freedoms we simply don’t have because the consumer-marketing juggernaut hasn’t yet crushed or dissolved their internalized sense of authority, and also because they retain the premises and folkways of Islam, even when not its observances — much as, say, New England in 1950 was still residually Calvinist in ways that sustained civil society without suffocating it.

In downtown Hartford, CT a few weeks ago, a man run over by a car was left to die like a dog by gawking passersby, and a 71-year-old former deputy mayor was mugged and thrown to the ground, prompting the city’s police chief to cry that thirty years ago, “anyone would have helped him across the street.” That is where we are, and we are living accordingly.

In his first book, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, Ross Douthat – whose Grand New Party (co-authored with Reihan Salam) we’ll discuss here at TPM next month — showed that the many modulations of surrender to cage-fighting logic have worked their way into high neoliberals’ rites of passage and thence into their most intimate bonding, habits, perceptions, and symbolic escapes.

At Yale’s commencement this year, for example, President Richard Levin and Class Day speaker Tony Blair urged the graduates (including Blair’s son Euan, who got a master’s degree in international relations), to be “global citizens.” Fine, but would that really mean building global institutions that actually vindicate otherwise-powerless citizens’ rights and legitimately summon their sacrifices for democratically recognized common ends? Commencement rhetoric says so, but Yale and Harvard are creating a global ruling class unaccountable to any polity or moral code, according to former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis.

Many who share Lewis’ and Douthat’s worries about this are looking nervously to writers like Brooks to cue them to new variations on the old theme, “This is the best of all possible worlds,” which many recite these days with a studied irony that barely conceals cynicism.”Cynicism is a sad kind of wisdom,” Obama said almost off-handedly but knowingly the night he won the Potomac primaries.

But what if the only counter to a neoliberal global shell game pitting tigers against tigers is for workers of the world to unite to rein in their trainers? That, ironically, is the very hope which Obama’s looks and his name beam to billions of people who know nothing of his Harvard neoliberal training, leavened though it is by the influence of his visionary mother and by his own youthful forays into community organizing and his encounters with racism’s grinding realities in our political economy.

The purist neoliberal answer is to drop racism and sexism on your way into the tiger cage, there to compete in equal degradation, like the screaming, sweating participants in midday television spectacles and prime-time “reality” shows that eschew racism and sexism in their rush to equal-opportunity humiliation.

Walzer guesses that Obama’s transcendence of such escapism holds “a strong appeal to what may be a minority of the country.” We’ll know soon enough if it’s a minority or majority. If Obama does win, we’ll know whether he and we are ready to transcend not just racism but a neoliberalism graced only with Obama’s signature on Kyoto-type accords and trade deals that gesture feebly toward worker and environmental protections.

The real challenge — which he understands and might in some measure be able to lead if there’s a good wind behind him — is to leave aside conservative free-marketeering, Marxist prescription, and cultural-leftist fantasy and to advance, from straight up the middle, a concerted civic-republican resistance to what today’s global, and Texas Enron, and Merrill Lynch capitalism is making of our lives.

That may require a crisis terrible enough to galvanize a leadership and a movement ready to meet it. But it would also take more than a movement and a leader. It would require a re-weaving of social affirmations and civic norms which no one knows quite how to put back together. It’s something that Obama has done creatively and more than decently in his own life. But he can’t do it for the rest of us.


August 8, 2008

Is Obama as Brave as his Black Memphis Supporters?

By Jim Sleeper

Last night, a 60%-black Memphis congressional district re-elected its one-term white liberal incumbent, Steve Cohen, despite TV ads by his black challenger Nikki Tinker that associated him falsely with the Klan and asked why Cohen would “pray in our churches” while voting against mandatory prayer in public schools.

Cohen had won in 2006 with only 31% of the vote, probably because several black challengers split the remainder. But last night, given two years to prove himself an effective representative, he won 79 – 19%.

Does anyone realize how important, and beautiful, this is? Emily’s List didn’t, until it finally shook off its identity politics and saw that not every female candidate is better than every male. Barack Obama was cagey and quiet on this one, and thereby hangs a tale.

More than a decade ago, in Liberal Racism and this New Republic article, among others, I tried to persuade liberals how important and valuable it was that white-majority electorates in several Southern congressional districts had just elected blacks, in the 1996 elections.

The civil-rights establishment refused to believe that it had even happened. Obama, teaching about racial districting then at the University of Chicago, read my arguments but never mentioned them in class. (Yesterday, belatedly, he did condemn Tinker’s odious ads but didn’t make an endorsement.)

The root of the problem of racial districting that recapitulates racism itself was the defensiveness of voting-rights activists, black and white. Having struggled so bravely to pass the Voting Rights Act in the teeth of the more racist, segregationist America of the 1960s, many still cling to the assumption that people will vote only in racial blocs and that, therefore, no black can go to Congress unless districts are drawn to ensure heavy black majorities.

The original Voting Right Act recognized the hard realities of racism without inflating them to the point of making them worse. Passed in 1965, it stopped white machine bosses (usually Democrats) from dividing up existing, contiguous black communities like Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant that were large enough to hold their own congressional districts. Instead of allowing such districts, the party bosses put pieces of the black community into three or four different mostly-white congressional districts to keep black voters from sending a black candidate to Congress. Thanks to the 1965 VRA, finally a “black” district was created in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which Shirley Chisholm won in 1968.

The 1982 Amendments went too far beyond this. They say, in effect, “If, by any stretch of the imagination, you can link together any black (or Hispanic) enclaves, however small, far-flung, and otherwise unrelated to one another, to concoct a heavily black or Hispanic district, you MUST do so.”

The people packed into these new, convoluted districts often have so little in common with one another — they live in bits and corners of dozens of different school districts, counties, etc. — that the congressional districts really have no unifying public business. Nor surprisingly, their voter turnouts are terribly low, and the incumbents tend to hold onto their seats amid apathy. It is hard for a new candidate from one enclave of these far-flung, crazy districts to get enough traction in the other parts, where he or she isn’t known, to challenge the incumbent, This has only increased voter apathy.

Sure, the incumbent is black, or Hispanic, and installed “forever.” But what, really, is the gain? Some of these districts have become “rotten boroughs,” not centers of empowerment or democratic vitality. I described this in New York City in Liberal Racism.

Worse, the creation of districts like this only whitened the neighboring districts around them, allowing new Republican challengers to replace the white Democrats who’d been moderate because, under the old configurations, they’d had to answer to more than few black or Hispanic voters as well as white ones. Now, they no longer did. Congress got a few more black representatives (not many), and a lot more white Republicans, along with Speaker Newt Gingrich. Congratulations, race industry!

In their ivory towers, law professors like Pamela Karlan who championed these ideologically, penitentially driven recapitulations of racism concluded from the results that racism must be rising — especially when, in 1995, Supreme Court majorities, thanks to Sandra Day O’Connor, invalidated seven of the racially drawn districts as the absurdities they were, thereby forcing their new black incumbents to run for re-election in newly drawn districts that were no longer majority black.

Howls of outrage and prophecies of doom came from many of Obama’s colleagues in the law schools and from his future friend Deval Patrick, now governor of Massachusetts but then Bill Clinton’s assistant attorney general for civil rights.

The New York Times, under editorial-page editor Howell Raines, a penitential Southerner, raged at the Court’s supposed attack on voting rights and invoked the specters of segregation. (Yes, the self-righteous Raines set the Times back on race in more ways than one.)

Then election day came in 1996. Five black incumbents whose districts had been invalidated by the Court decided to run again anyway, in majority white or majority white-and-Hispanic districts, in the South. And they all won.

In those elections, it was white voters who discredited the race industry’s assumptions of racist bloc voting; last night, black voters did the same, for the umpteenth time, but in an especially dramatic way, given Tinker’s ads. They defied both racial demagoguery and the presumptions of their self-appointed caretakers in the race industry, who keep on drawing these districts to allow black voters to elect what the law euphemistically calls, “candidates of their choice.” Well, they did choose. Again. Get it yet?

We’ll see. In 1996, in a series of almost hilarious denials, the black incumbents’ victories were dismissed as flukes by law professors like Karlan (who is still holding out) and by the Times. (Last night’s victory was covered by the Times in a story buried in the Politics Page, not in my print edition, where it didn’t appear at all, but online. Had a white candidate run racist ads against a black candidate analogous to the ones Tinker ran against Cohen, the story would have made Page 1).

The best quick account of how voters defied this absurdity in 1996 is this article I wrote at the time. (The pdf may take a minute to come up, but it’s worth the wait.) The most effective detailed exposition of what’s at stake is Chapter 3. “Voting Wrongs,” of my Liberal Racism.

Finally, some professors and activists are coming around, notably the scholar of voting rights Richard H. Pildes of New York University Law School, who has a short, smart reassessment of the Voting Rights Act’s amendments in the Yale Law Journal.

I don’t suggest that the ubiquity and relentlessness of racism have ended. Part of the problem is actuarial: Obama may lose — or win only in a squeaker — because many whites who are still able to make it to the polls will not, under any circumstances, vote for a black. He could also lose for the subtler reason that even those who consider themselves beyond such racism remain captive to racist stereotypes that help them rationalize the doubts sown by the Republicans’ negative ads.

But Obama would never have become the Democratic nominee at all, especially against the formidable Hillary Clinton, if a growing part of this country weren’t ready for change on this front. Last night’s election in a majority-black district in Memphis confirms this just as fully as Obama’s victory in Iowa did at the start of this year and as five black incumbents’ victories in the South confirmed twelve years ago.

For Obama, an endorsement of Cohen would have been win-win-win: He’d have turned a lot of white heads in the South; he’d have scored big points with Jews who cared that Cohen is Jewish and were outraged by those Klan photos; and he wouldn’t have lost any black votes to speak of, although undoubtedly some feathers would have been ruffled, even among blacks who themselves rejected Tinker and voted for Cohen.

Even so, he’d have picked up more votes than he’d have lost. So I wish that he had shown the courage of black Memphis voters’ convictions by endorsing Cohen against the trapped and odious Tinker, just as he undoubtedly cheered the black incumbents’ victories at white hands in 1996.


August 28, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust

(Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, a Hillary Clinton dead-ender, had to be ushered off the stage the night that Bill Clinton made clear that Barack Obama is ready to lead.)

By Jim Sleeper

As Bill Clinton was squashing most of the media’s hopes for a Clintonista uprising against Barack Obama last night, Charles Kaiser, the veteran reporter and scourge of bad faith in journalism, was up in Newsweek squashing a perverse Clinton dead-ender, the increasingly and pathetically power-hungry Princeton professor Sean Wilentz.

As late as this week, Wilentz was still damning Obama with faint praise in a column – also in Newsweek that reeked of the empty ressentiment of someone thwarted in his desperate bid to be Hillary Clinton’s presidential historian.

Pretending to worry anxiously about whether Obama is ready to lead, Wilentz signaled Newsweek readers that Obama isn’t — just as Bill Clinton was preparing to assure the country that he is. Kaiser deftly shows how many times and ways Wilentz tried to insinuate this, and he knocks him out of the park.

I’d thought that Wilentz had already disgraced himself in February by insisting, at length in The New Republic, that it was Obama who was playing the race card against the Clintons, not that Clinton surrogates were doing it against Obama. It was as if Wilentz figured that to become a presidential administration’s Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., you have to become a presidential hit man first.

His slimy New Republic piece was demolished here and elsewhere – a suitable occasion, I’d have thought, for Wilentz to ponder Allan Bloom’s caution that professors who strain to become counselors to the powerful risk ending up in the power of those they intended to influence.

But for Wilentz, it wasn’t enough to lose his credibility as an historian that way; he seems to have some characterological need to prove himself a loyalist, not a scholarly thinker. Politics needs both, of course. But Wilentz hubristically assumed he could be both, all by himself.

At least what Schlesinger lost in gravitas for becoming an assiduous apologist for John F. Kennedy, he made up in ebullience and bravado, not to mention occasional brilliance. Wilentz is more weasely and posturing, his work “respected” mostly by media types looking for someone to fill the Schlesinger slot. Wilentz has worked a bit too hard to convince them he fills that bill.

For years, Wilentz worked tirelessly to make himself an avuncular arbiter of what was and was not appropriate for progressive young writers to say on any given issue at any given time. His modus was not so much to take a position and develop it as to look over his shoulder in three or four d9irections before positioning himself.

He became a smooth schemer and intriguer. Even now, he’s trying to buff up his tarnished liberal credentials with a cover story in the September Rolling Stone, “How Bush Destroyed the Republican Party.” Reading it, you wouldn’t guess how hard Wilentz has tried to hurt Obama’s chances of defeating Republicans, even since Obama won the primaries — as if his losing the general election would somehow vindicate Wilentz’s anti-Obama screeds of earlier this year.

Now, though, thanks to Bill Clinton and Charles Kaiser, Wilentz resembles the Japanese soldier found on a desert island in 1946 still fighting what he thinks is an unfinished World War. But Wilentz lives in Princeton, not on an island, and since the rest of Princeton’s Clinton-Administration-in waiting has accepted reality, it’s time he did, too. So thanks, indeed, to Kaiser for ushering him off the stage for awhile. Editors and producers might take note and give him a rest.

Footnote on another schemer: Moments after Bill Clinton said last night that the world admires “the power of our example more than the example of our power,” virtually the first words out of David Brooks’ mouth in the PBS skybox were, “I’m not sure that Vladimir Putin admires our example.” Brooks’ reflexive neo-con emphasis on the world’s darkness and cruelty, as an excuse not to worry about the power of our example, was precisely what I attributed to him in my post of just yesterday. That makes it fun to read again now.

Isn’t it time Brooks and other harnessed neo-cons read The God That Failed? Instead, he did something else ridiculously neo-con’ish last night: He announced that Biden’s terrific performance makes it imperative that McCain make Joe Lieberman his running mate. I’d love to see Biden flatten Lieberman in a debate or two, as Kaiser flattened Wilentz.


August 26, 2008

The Neo-con on Your Shoulder

By Jim Sleeper

As Republicans have become more effective at smearing honorable Democrats, from McGovern and Dukakis to Kerry and (they hope) Obama, they’ve spun off some operatives who are more genteel and circumspect, but no less lethal.

These GOP fellow-travelers still loathe liberal Democrats as deeply as do Karl Rove and Fox News. But they’re too intelligent and self-regarding not to feel embarrassed by their own side’s tactics and even by John McCain, who may not be stable or competent enough to be President.

What to do? It depends on how perverse a genteel Republican operative really is. One of them has become so perverse that he reminds me of Vladimir Posner, a smooth, American-born Soviet apologist who popped up on American TV in the 1970s. Posner sidled up to wavering moderates and liberals, offering them his understanding, good fellowship, and sage advice, in a folksy American idiom, at the dawn of a post-ideological era whose solutions lay beyond the stale paranoia about Communist totalitarianism.

Now, Posner’s GOP double similarly heralds a trans-partisan, post-ideological age, but, like Posner, he’s really working not to advance it but to soften up wavering liberals for the kill. This takes a special perversity. Look closely at David Brooks, the Posner of a sclerotic Republican regime he ought to have outgrown and of a neoconservative foreign policy I doubt he’ll ever give up.

On PBS, NPR, and in his New York Times column, Brooks gestures toward reconciliation only to soften up his targets. In 2004, Brooks seemed solicitous toward John Kerry during the party’s convention in Boston — where, you’ll recall, Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama gave terrific speeches. But by September, Brooks had shifted to a genteel but gleeful Swift-boating of Kerry in the New York Times on behalf of George W. Bush.

This year, with Obama, Brooks’ stroke-and-slam game won’t be so easy, because Republicans are more thoroughly discredited and Obama is harder for someone of Brooks’ caliber to dismiss. He’s looking a bit desperate up there in PBS’ Denver skybox with Jim Lehrer and Mark Shields.

But he still has a card up his sleeve, and he’ll play it at the first small sign of Clintonista perfidy on the floor this evening. The card reads, “All would be well with the Republic if only these loathsome, left-liberal Democrats would stop destroying the Democratic Party I once admired and might even have joined.”

All would be well, in other words, if only the authentic Al Gore had been saved from Naomi Wolf et al, and the authentic John Kerry had been rescued from endless lines of Volvo-driving consultants peddling their “message” strategies, and if only the authentic Ned Lamont had shaken off netroots practitioners of what Brooks called a “Sunni-Shiite style of politics,” whose “flamers… tell themselves their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious, too.” And all could be well now, if only the authentic Obama will keep on rebuffing “Santa Monica Machiavellis” who want him to become a Michael Moore or a Michael Dukakis or something else that isn’t himself.

Just this morning, Brooks warned, “The Democrats are in danger of doing to Obama what they did to their last two nominees [Gore and Kerry]: burying authentic individuals under a layer of prefab themes.”

Really? Here was Brooks on the “authentic” Kerry in September, 2004, in a Homeric denunciation of Kerry’s campaign: “Immense is the army of Michelangelos trying to sculpture the melted marshmallow of Kerry’s core. …. And tumultuous is the cry of the strategists, and loud are the furies of the campaign, but in the center there is a silence. For in the beginning all was vacuum and a void…”

This year, similarly, Brooks is giving us not only Obama the “authentic” political leader but also Obama the con man: Just this morning he informed us that when Obama’s campaign was stagnant a year ago and liberal advice-givers converged, the authentic Obama heroically “shut them out. He turned his back on the universe of geniuses and stayed true to his core identity…. At the core, Obama’s best message has always been this: He is unconnected with the tired old fights that constrict our politics. He is in tune with a new era….. He… is authentically the sort of person who emerges in a multicultural, globalized age. He is therefore naturally in step with the problems that will confront us in the years to come.”

Wonderful! But here was Brooks only two months ago on Obama — a characterization you can be sure he’ll give us again this fall: Obama, he wrote in June, “is the most split-personality politician in the country today. On the one hand, there is Dr. Barack, the high-minded, Niebuhr-quoting speechifier who spent this past winter thrilling the Scarlett Johansson set and feeling the fierce urgency of now. But then on the other side, there’s Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who’d throw you under the truck for votes.”

The column tells how Fast Edddie threw the Rev Wright, campaign finance reform, and other hard legislative work under the truck even after proclaiming his dedication to all three. Can this be the same Obama who, “true to his own identity,” as Brooks puts it, has always been “unconnected with the tired old fights that constrict our politics.” ?

I don’t know about you, but I find myself wondering about Brooks’ own identity, until I recall how closely his “core” resembles that of Vladimir Posner. Watch him tonight, with that slit-eating grin, in the PBS sky box with Jim Lehrer and Mark Shields, oozing solicitude for the ideal Democratic Party the Clintonistas are destroying, to his righteous sorrow… and barely repressed glee.

The only thing constant in this constant shifting of veils of concern for the “authenticity” of the candidate he’ll eviscerate on McCain’s behalf in September is Brooks’ unquenchable hatred of those he conceives to be left-liberals. Any actual candidate — Gore, Kerry, Obama — is merely a proxy in Brooks’ own campaign against these liberals. He will portray the candidate as their victim, or collaborator — whatever suits his need to defeat the Democratic Party which he remains convinced is the left-liberals’ captive..

Brooks, August, 2008: “And when Democrats are nervous, all the Santa Monica Machiavellis emerge from their fund-raisers offering words of wisdom. And the subtext of the advice being offered this year is that Barack Obama should really be someone else.”

September, 2004: “…..so long was the line of approaching Volvos that it was visible from outer space. Yet still the message was not honed. King Kerry still did equivocate, hedge and reverse. Of flip-flops there were more than a few. He still did Velcro his principles upon the cathedral door, and change them by the hour.”

Talk about changing by the hour: Is there anything constant in Brooks, beyond his hatred of left-liberals? “I have to admit, I’m ambivalent watching all this,” he wrote as he described “Fast Eddie” ditching public campaign finance. “On the one hand, Obama did sell out the primary cause of his professional life, all for a tiny political advantage. If he’ll sell that out, what won’t he sell out? On the other hand, global affairs ain’t beanbag. If we’re going to have a president who is going to go toe to toe with the likes of Vladimir Putin, maybe it is better that he should have a ruthlessly opportunist Fast Eddie Obama lurking inside.”

There is the constant core beneath Brooks’ shifting veils, guile and darts: what is most authentic in him is his dark, neo-con intimation of a world of Putins, a world too hard and cruel for those loathsome liberals, a world in which one must be even more ruthlessly opportunist than Fast Eddie or Vladimir Posner or even his mirror image, “Darting David” Brooks.

Republicans say they know how dark and cruel the world is, but they have disappointed Brooks because they’re not perverse enough to grapple with it, except for a few people around Dick Cheney, at least one of whom has been among Brooks’ friends: Most national-security-state Republicans, though, are, like Bush, too rigid to be cleverly lethal; or, like McCain, not quite stable enough to trust to pull it off.

That leaves Brooks in a pickle, unlike in 2004. Obama, he acknowledges, is a twenty-first century man who understands that, however dark and cruel the world, it is also too multi-polar to be tamed by the national-security grand strategy and mindset of a Bush or McCain.

Brooks also acknowledges that Obama sees beyond a “free market” system and ideology that have become more a danger than a boon to developed nations themselves. And Brooks knows that Obama isn’t under-informed and impulsive or even explosive, as McCain may be.

Yet Brooks isn’t sure he can trust Obama to be as ruthless with a Putin as McCain seems willing to be. So, should Brooks risk being ruthless but reckless with McCain, or shrewd and flexible with Obama? As the duplicitous neo-con in him struggles against the man who’d dearly like to be better than a Vladimir Posner of the right, you can see him flailing in that skybox, trapped playing the conservative to Shields’ liberal.

[News flash: Sure enough, no sooner had Bill Clinton finished telling the Democratic convention that the world admires “the power of our example more than the example of our power,” virtually the first words out of  Brooks’ mouth in the PBS skybox were, “I’m not so sure that Vladimir Putin admires the power of our example.”]

Brooks will keep trying to soften up liberals for the kill in November, using duplicitous tactics like the following supposedly enlightened standards he claims he’ll apply to the Democratic convention this week:

“I’ll put a plus down every time a speaker says that McCain is a good man who happens to be out of step with the times. I’ll put a plus down every time a speaker says that a multipolar world demands a softer international touch. I’ll put a plus down when a speaker says the old free market policies worked fine in the 20th century, but no longer seem to be working today. These are arguments that reinforce Obama’s identity as a 21st-century man.”

These are also arguments Brooks will shred in the fall as Republicans promise to face down Putin and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to stay the course in Iraq. Or will he? A lot depends on how embarrassing McCain becomes and on how ugly other Republicans become in supporting him.

Brooks has a strong, neo-con stomach for that. But, who knows? Maybe some wise emissary of Obama will whisper in Brooks’ ear that it’s time to give up the game and to back a tough, forward-looking Democratic administration over a leaky Republican vessel that’s wormy with neo-con scheming.


September 6, 2008.

“Yoo Es Ay!” “Yoo Es Ay!” “Yoo Es Ay!”

The Republican Party tragedy that enveloped John McCain’s acceptance speech.

By Jim Sleeper – September 5, 2008, 3:21AM

My father, who served in Europe in World War II in the 277th Battalion Army Combat Engineers, told me that it’s those who haven’t proven themselves who keep on touting militarism. “The biggest blowhards at the American Legion are the ones who spent as much of the war as they could at the PX,” he said.

There was so much of this in the Republican Party last night that, at one point in his speech, John McCain looked annoyed. He knows the difference between flaunting heroism, as some legionnaires do, and making a political decision to showcase it. He and the Republicans overplayed the hero card because they have so little else to run on.

Several times during his acceptance speech, the party’s militaristic id – or is it a guilty conscience? — threatened to erupt. Whenever McCain touched even lightly on a military or patriotic theme, we heard from an unnervingly large contingent of young men whose repertoire of political expression consisted solely of shouting “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

They tried to dominate the rest of the crowd’s reactions even when McCain was sounding poignant or somber, not pugnacious. No matter how subtle, subdued or highly dignified his appeals to patriotism, the rising and sometimes overwhelming response was “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

In a voiceover, Fred Thompson said, “When you’ve lived in a box, your life is about keeping others from having to live in that box.”

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

Someone mentioned how, a year ago, McCain’s campaign was so strapped he’d had to let go of most of his staff, but that he’d come back in New Hampshire thanks to his grit and conviction that he would rather lose an election than see his country lose a war.

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

Sentimentally but not very convincingly, McCain named three different, hard-pressed American families whose problems he’d taken to heart, without making make clear what policies he’d support to help them. He did vow, to a family whose son had fallen in battle and whose bracelet McCain now wears, that he would “make sure their country remains safe.” As the parents grew moist, the crowd cried, “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

To introduce his theme of energy independence, McCain said, “We’re gonna stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much.”

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

McCain said that he respects and admires Senator Obama and affirmed, “Despite our differences, we are all Americans. That’s an association that means more to me than any other.”

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”

I think I recognize some of the guys I saw doing this. Their buffoonish, boorish chanting is only one side of them, not necessarily the dominant one. They haven’t all curdled into fascists, as some liberals might believe. There’s a decency and clueless love in them that’s trying to find a political home, and there’s yearning for something that’s slipping away.

The problem, of course, is that the Republican Party, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are ratcheting up these hurts and pointing them toward war and nasty hatreds of dubious domestic villains. Yes, this is dangerous, and McCain isn’t on top of it.

A couple of times during his speech, lone demonstrators who’d sneaked into the audience rose, shouted out, waved some signs, and were hustled to the exits.

In that vast hall, with the media focusing on the podium, the disruptions were easily minimized – until the guys decided to counter them by chanting, “Yoo Es Ay! You Es Ay! You Es Ay!” They did disrupt McCain’s speech, far more than the demonstrators had. It was then that he looked annoyed, and rightly so.

He deflected the second uproar deftly enough, with a couple of words I haven’t had time to check. But was there any good leadership on the floor? That brings us back to the Republicans’ problem.

Compare McCain, who refused early release from captivity in Vietnam, to George W. Bush, who dodged the same war by getting into the National Guard on a phone call from his Dad and sneaked out of the Guard early. (Perhaps my father’s wisdom about blowhards who never served casts some light on Bush’s swaggering, “Mission Accomplished” flight-deck landing some 35 years after he’d left the Guard.)

It’s almost as loathsome as the Swift-Boating of John Kerry, and it highlights the larger problem: Proportionately, the Republican Party has the most members of Congress and other high officeholders who’ve never served in the military. And its loudest war-mongers, like Rudy Giuliani and, now, Joe Lieberman, haven’t served, either, although both were of draft age during Vietnam War. Neo-con war-hawks, who have battened onto McCain’s campaign, have never served, unless you count their militaristic strategizing and strutting.

Ronald Reagan never served, beyond making war movies Stateside. (George H.W. Bush did serve heroically in combat, which may have something to do with his youngest son’s desperate posturing.)

But the Republicans’ “Yoo Es Ay!” problem is about more than young men’s hormones and older men’s uneasy consciences. It’s even about more than just men, now that Cindy McCain has touted Sarah Palin at the convention as “a pistol-packing hockey mom.” (The Republican Party, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, and the National Rifle Association have all encouraged women to pack heat.)

The Republicans’ real problem is that they have too few other ideas that most Americans still believe in or even want to hear. Desperate for heroes, they don’t even acknowledge that John McCain’s war killed 58,000 Americans and countless others, in vain: After Vietnam defeated us, it entered the neoliberal global capitalist orbit, anyway, as it would have done had we never fired a shot. There’s a war memorial in Washington, but my memorial is a T-shirt on my back whose label says, “Made in Vietnam.”

To his credit, McCain worked to normalize relations with Vietnam. But Republicans are so much in denial about the Vietnam war – and so eager to milk McCain’s sacrifice in it – that they don’t even mention that the war was conceived and conducted mainly by liberal Democrats..

McCain knows, of course, and he and John Kerry once bonded over it years ago in the Senate, despite their diametrically opposite conclusions about what the war had been for. At one point in his acceptance speech, McCain mentioned the vanity of young men like him who’d rushed into war to be “my own man,” and he recounted that his torturers had cured him of it: “They broke me,” he said quietly, to silence in the hall.

“I wasn’t my own man anymore,” he added. “I was my country’s man.” He claimed that his love of America had saved him, and that now “I will fight for her so long as I draw breath.”

It was a difficult, fraught confession, somewhat dissonant and troubling. McCain said not a word – as the young John Kerry had, years before — against the senators and presidents who’d sent them to kill and be killed in a misguided, fraudulent, massively destructive, and futile venture. Its hardest lesson is that the American blood it shed does not retroactively justify, much less sacralize, America’s betrayal by its leaders. One of them, Robert McNamara, understood this and, to his everlasting credit, confessed it.

McCain seems to have drawn a different lesson. “I hate war,” he claimed in his speech, insisting that good judgment and principles are as important as the will to fight. I can believe him and acknowledge that Iraq is not Vietnam. But the Republican convention was desperately, indiscriminately seeking political clarity in fogs of war and bellicosity in all directions, and McCain played to it.

He reaped what he sowed: His account of his brutal transformation in captivity from self-regarding flyboy to selfless patriot deserved strong, voiceless applause from a mature, deeply moved audience.

Instead it got, “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!”


What Sarah Palin Offers, and What It Would Cost

September 4, 2008

By Jim Sleeper

She has a son going to Iraq; Joe Biden has a son going to Iraq. She has a baby with Down’s Syndrome and is raising it with love; Biden lost a wife and daughter and raised his sons as only a truly loving father could have done.

She drives herself to work; he takes Amtrak home at night, not a chauffeured car. Her state is small; his is just as small — even smaller. She is a staunch supporter of the war; Biden was the only Democratic presidential candidate to reject rapid withdrawal and to insist the situation is more complicated.

Yet if you didn’t sense last night how deeply Sarah Palin channeled some of the country’s most powerful currents of pent-up indignation and yearning, you don’t sense the trouble we Democrats are in.

Rhetorically, she was the anti-Obama. She was stirring precisely because she was so artless, matter-of fact, and “American” — with no cadences or grand, historic resonances, but with plenty of mother wit and shrewdness. Credit her as much as the speechwriters.

The two currents she tapped — the ones that roared up from so deep in the crowd that you could feel them riding on love as well as hate — weren’t the ones unleashed by her or Rudy Giuliani’s disparagements of Obama.

They were riptides of deeply wounded pride and groping loyalty, a yearning for vindication of something that is not to be disparaged at all.

The first such riptide was unleashed by Palin’s and Giuliani’s accounts of John McCain’s career-threatening commitment, a year ago, when his campaign was hopeless, to an American military victory in Iraq. Right or wrong — and I think it was wrong — it was a commitment grounded in an uncommon courage that will be dismissed as stupidity only by smart-asses who really want to lose this election.

The second current was tapped by Palin’s own grounded, calm confidence that “ordinary people’s” common sense – her kind, and a lot of other people’s – is what it takes to pull this country through its converging crises.

But if McCain and Palin bring character and faith of a kind which many Americans identify with instantly, they’re also a lot more confused than even Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes were about how to lead a government, and toward what.

For some reason, courage and generosity never showed McCain what they showed Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s — the true dangers of our military-industrial juggernaut in a world where corporations are more powerful and corrupting than states and where the biggest threats to liberty are no longer taxes-taxes-taxes, and the strongest defense of liberty is no longer what now passes for “national security.”

Trapped into making war for laissez faire, conservatives such as McCain and Palin can’t reconcile their yearning for a sacred, ordered liberty with their obeisance to every whim of global capital, which is abandoning Palin’s small-town America and Obama’s urban America. Corporate capitalism’s injustices and consumer palliatives are subverting our republican institutions and character. There is no denying it anymore. The only interesting question is what ways people are going to choose to admit it.

About all this, McCain and Palin haven’t a clue. To find one, their folksy common-sense, defiant courage, and religious faith are more necessary than some of us acknowledge or even understand, and therefore we may lose the election.

But common sense, defiant courage, and faith, while necessary, are not sufficient. That is why, if McCain and Palin win, they will lose the America they mean to defend, as surely as America lost the pointless, vicious war that killed 58,000 Americans and countless others and made McCain a hero.

Comments on the Above Column re: Palin






September 4, 2008,  9:06 am

Riveting, One Way or Another

By Tobin Harshaw

It’s the Morning After, and the reviews keep coming. Let’s tune in to the left side of the dial:

 “Sarah Palin gave a riveting and devastating nomination speech on Wednesday night,” writes Ari Melber at the Nation. “She shared her inspiring story and brave family, while savaging and ridiculing the celebrated life story of Barack Obama, a fellow barrier-breaking candidate, with [withering] attacks on his work as a community organizer, senator, and author. She misrepresented his record and simply lied about her own, claiming to oppose earmarks that she supported, and dissembling on her $1.5 billion tax hike and record of raising sales taxes by 25 percent in Wasilla. By all accounts, Palin faced a huge task in St Paul. She had to prove she was up to the job of commander in chief. She struck out big-time — in a biting speech that showed the only job she was ready for is RNC Chair, another ruthless soldier in Karl Rove’s army.”

Bill Scher at LiberalOasis agrees:

We now know she is ready to guest host The Rush Limbaugh Show on Day 1.

Gov. Sarah Palin can give a speech. She can deliver sarcastic one-liners. She can repeat long debunked misinformation about her opponents and misrepresent herself.

But did she do anything to reassure that she is ready to be Commander-in-Chief on Day 1? Anything to reassure that Sen. John McCain put “Country First” and not “Politics First” when making his first presidential-level decision?

She did not articulate a foreign policy vision and plan to restore our moral authority and strengthen our global alliances. She did not articulate a vision and a plan for revitalizing the economy. She did not even mention the phrases “health care,” “global warming,” “poverty,” “trade,” or “genocide.”

Her fans will say that all Sen. Barack Obama offers is the ability to give a speech as well (as if saying your favored candidate is just as lame as your opponent is a strong argument).

However, Obama has been put through the paces in his presidential job interview all year. Voters have had the ability to learn about his vision and plans, test his knowledge and see

 him function on the world stage. Some will be satisfied with his performance to date, and some won’t. But he at least has approached his job interview with the public with the respect and seriousness the job warrants.

Wednesday night was the beginning of Sarah Palin’s job interview.

But it didn’t sound like she was applying for a position which requires a readiness to be Commander-in-Chief. It sounded like she was applying for a radio gig after this campaign is done in November.

If so, Mission Accomplished.

Closer to center (and, the Opinionator suspects, to use one of the left’s favorite terms, “reality”) is Michael Crowley at the Stump:

Several moderate-Democrat friends of mine have been emailing–few if any would ever vote for McCain–but all agree that Palin was very strong. The more liberal among them are a little panicked.

I completely misjudged how negative she would be. Her lines about Obama were brutally cutting and possibly over the top in places. But she’s a far better messenger than an angry white man. (Note, by the way, how both Rudy and Huckabee employed a tone that was more bemused than angry. That’s the modern GOP’s favorite trick–comedic ridicule in place of outright nastiness.)

Along those lines, the most penetrating assessment comes from Jim Sleeper over at Talking Points Memo:

If you didn’t sense last night how deeply Sarah Palin channeled some of the country’s deepest, most powerful currents of pent-up indignation and yearning, you don’t sense the trouble we Democrats are in.

Rhetorically, she was the anti-Obama. She was stirring precisely because she was so artless, matter-of fact, and “American” — with no cadences or grand, historic resonances, but with plenty of mother wit and shrewdness. Credit her as much as the speechwriters.

The two currents she tapped — the ones that roared up from so deep in the crowd that you could feel them riding on love more than hate — weren’t the ones unleashed by her or Rudy Giuliani’s disparagements of Obama.

They were riptides of deeply wounded pride and groping loyalty, a yearning for vindication of something that is not to be disparaged at all.

The first such riptide was unleashed by Palin’s and Giuliani’s accounts of John McCain’s career-threatening commitment, a year ago, when his campaign was hopeless, to an American military victory in Iraq. Right or wrong — and I think it was wrong — it was a commitment grounded in an uncommon courage that will be dismissed as stupidity only by smart-asses who really want to lose this election.

The second current was tapped by Palin’s own grounded, calm confidence that “ordinary people’s” common sense – her kind, and a lot of other people’s – is what it takes to pull this country through its converging crises.

The question is where those currents will carry us; Sleeper’s answer is unsettling: “if McCain and Palin win, they will lose the America they mean to defend.”

136 comments so far…

  • 35.

September 4th,
11:58 am

Correct, the most penetrating assessment comes from Jim Sleeper over at Talking Points Memo as quoted above.

The GOP candidates know the power of TV and radio to turn reality upside down. If the Dems can’t get smart about that this year, anything short of a demonstrably incipient Depression may not be enough to save them.

— Posted by Rich Turyn 

  •                                                                                                  37.

September 4th,
12:04 pm       Any moderate observer of the election can only skim over the reader comments posted on the NYT these days as they get increasingly nasty and personal (NYT are you really doing your job of screening out abusive comments?). It’s a telling sign, like a deer frightened by a car’s headlight, that they really don’t know what to make of the last week.

A brilliant excerpt of Jim Sleeper’s writing. The NYT should balance up their editorial board with the likes of such a writer. Posted by L. Ngo


September 9, 2008

John Quixote, Sarah Panza, and the Windmills of 2008

By Jim Sleeper

Barack Obama has too many good ideas to choose decisively. John McCain has no ideas but is decisive about them anyway. It’s “Smart but weak” vs. “Dumb but determined.” Both claims are caricatures, of course. But only if you make the second one do people call you an elitist for calling their guy stupid.

Columnist Thomas Friedman got away with that on Monday, though, in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. “You have pretty strong feelings!” the normally unflappable Gross almost gasped after Friedman denounced McCain’s positions on energy as “disgusting” on the grounds that “He’s making people stupid!”

The reasons Friedman got away with it might be instructive to certain pundits who merely insinuate their preferences instead of arguing forthrightly for what they really want us to believe. Few who listen to Friedman’s interview would call him “elitist,” because he was too substantive, and too outraged, to be talking down to anyone. And, wow, did he land his punches.

He said that Saudis or Venezuelans observing the Republican convention’s chant, “Drill, baby, drill!,” must have been “high-fiving each other in their skybox” as McCain supporters trumpeted their continuing addiction to oil in the dawn of alternative energy. It was as if they’d celebrated IBM Selectric typewriters in 1996, he said, by chanting, “Type! Type! Type!,” just when the Internet was retiring all typewriters.

McCain was “making people stupid” especially by touting his proposal for a gas-tax holiday this summer, Friedman said. He noted that McCain had skipped eight Senate votes on a bill to extend existing tax-incentives for alternative energy, including a huge, jobs-creating windmill project in Arizona. I’m tempted to call McCain a John Quixote for tilting at windmills (and against history), but he’s doing it for the oil industry, not as a knight in shining armor.

Amazingly, he’s actually idealistic in doing it, so maybe he is John Quixote, with Sarah Palin as his Sancho Panza. “Fight with me! Fight with me!” he implored the convention, and no wonder: Few there really had a clue on how to fight oil companies — or an inclination.

Former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge urged a fight to make “the federal government… get itself under control and out of our way.” Does that mean getting out of our way as during Katrina, when “we” — the private sector — patrolled parts of New Orleans with armed Blackwater guards? Does getting out of our way mean deregulating predatory lenders and their high-end enablers?

McCain’s dearth of ideas really does subvert his knightliness. Of elected officials who earmark pork-barrel projects, he vowed, thrillingly, “I will make them famous, and you will know their names!,” sounding like a lone gunman ordering everyone out of Dodge. But he didn’t threaten to make famous anyone who drives the private-security boondoggles and predatory lending and buys the very legislators McCain says he’ll expose.

When you think about those legislators, the Republican Party, and, indeed, Washington, McCain’s “Fight with me!” does sound lonely. The cheers at the convention only made it seem for a moment as if, running on guts and decency, he really can rouse millions of citizen-Minutemen to end not just earmarks but the metastasizing corruption of the American Republic by incorporated greed.

If you studied the crowd, you knew that McCain, Palin, Ridge and the manaical Rudy Giuliani weren’t rousing and empowering anyone. They were only channeling lost civic love, wounded pride, and indignation over dispossession, all against wrong but easy targets such as Obama, who is at least considering serious reforms, and against the elite media — like Friedman, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, and countless reporters working to separate fact from fiction — who expose bad leaders, not those who follow them.

“To mobilize the masses of ordinary people in the service of an ideal which they are incapable of upholding is prelude to tyranny,” writes the philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel. McCain’s idea-less idealism could do this country and its political culture so much damage that it’s scary to imagine what kind of leaders might follow him.

That makes his crusade all the more poignant – but, yes, also “disgusting,” as Friedman had the guts to say in protest against how McCain is miseducating his followers.

The lesson of such candor for pundits is that, far from berating or psychoanalyzing “the masses,” they should write more directly about those who mobilize them so badly. If more commentators were substantive and forthright, rather than insinuating and tactical, like David Brooks and William Kristol, the country’s real elitists might get more of what they deserve. 

And, just by the way: If even Tom Friedman can land a punch in this campaign, when will Barack Obama?


October 13, 2008

A Pundit’s Day of Reckoning — and Ours

(As McCain’s campaign became increasingly embarrassing, this column predicted well how NY Times columnist David Brooks, formerly a sinuous McCain supporter, would ride out the election.)

By Jim Sleeper

Poor David Brooks. Really. In 2004 Nicholas Confessore detailed the New York Times columnist’s maddening habit of oscillating between serious commentary and Republican hackery: In one column, Brooks would stroke his chin like a sober savant, purveying credible analysis; in the next, he’d gyrate shamelessly for ideologues and Bush operatives such as Scooter Libby and Karl Rove.

He pirouettes like this constantly to maintain some intellectual self-respect, on the one hand, and his market niche as a conservative Republican apologist, on the other. He has tried to square this circle with forced geniality through Republicans’ Iraq War lies, torture and warrantless surveillance, borrow-and-borrow, spend-and-spend fiscal policy, bottomless corruption, and, lately, national socialism.

But now that John McCain has proved unstable and incompetent as commander-in-chief of his own campaign, not least by choosing his horror show of a running mate, Brooks has been squirming and stumbling more furiously than usual toward a reckoning that should be of some interest to every Times reader and would-be public intellectual.

This time, the choice facing Brooks is too stark and time-bound for his usual gyrations. He can maintain his intellectual self-respect only by breaking openly with McCain/Palin in the next couple of weeks.

I wrote here months ago that I could almost imagine him jumping to Obama, as some conservative Republicans have done because they’ve concluded that more Bush-style governance will destroy both Republicans and the republic. Surely David Brooks, who has made a career of being liberals’ favorite conservative, can do likewise.

Then again, breaking so starkly with Republicans would cost Brooks his comfortable raison d’etre and niche opposite Mark Shields on PBS and E.J. Dionne on NPR. I don’t think that he has enough integrity to renounce decisively what McCain and, more generally, conservative republicans have become. I think he’s gotten himself stuck in that fold.

Brooks can try to dig up new reasons to support McCain/Palin, or he can join neoconservative Field Marshall William Kristol — who is drawing on his tremendous accomplishments with Dan Quayle and Alan Keyes — in calling for a thorough McCain-campaign makeover. But trying to rescue McCain/Palin would cost Brooks the respect even of some neoconservatives and conservatives — from Ed Koch to George Will and even Charles Krauthammer — who’ve actually or virtually endorsed Obama for the sake of the republic.

More likely, Brooks will try to wheedle his way out of making any choice at all. He could resort to his default position as a disinterested observer, emitting ever-loftier platitudes about Obama’s sagacity and Palin’s pugnacity that purport to help us poor partisans see beyond our narrow horizons while leaving him safely up on the hill, watching the battle in the valley below.

That’s not where he was in 2004, a total Bush partisan from beginning to end. And this year’s election, especially, demands a fateful a choice of every citizen and scribbler. The problem facing Brooks is that everything in his record pushes him to guide readers gently and cleverly into the McCain camp, even though that camp now worries and even scares him.

So what has Brooks actually done? Familiar though his see-sawing from Oakeshott to buckshot and back has become since Confessore’s article described it, I’ve had to rub my eyes this past month.

Brooks has gyrated from doubting Sarah Palin’s qualifications (“Why Experience Matters, Sept. 16) to virtually coronating her after her debate performance (“The Palin Rebound,” Oct. 3); to calling her “a cancer on the Republican Party” (in an interview before an Atlantic Monthly audience on Oct. 10); to explaining why Palin, by playing the class-warfare card so falsely and relentlessly. is accelerating the GOP’s self-destruction (“The Class War Before Palin,” Oct. 10).

No one who has said this can still endorse McCain/Palin without making himself an object of bemusement, pity, resentment, and scorn, to say nothing of losing his own self-respect as a thinker.

Nor, however, can Brooks try to be professorial and above it all, or spend the coming days dispensing comic sociology and one-liners, without making himself equally an object of bemusement, pity, resentment, and scorn, to say nothing of losing his own self-respect as a holder of strong opinions and convictions.

Nor can he endorse Obama and expect to be taken as anything but a craven opportunist unless he also renounces most of the people and positions he has shielded or excused for five years.

To appreciate his predicament, consider this sample — from an old American Prospect column — of the shamelessness we can expect.

On March 16, 2006, when New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and retired Lt. General Bernard Trainor published their devastating Iraq War expose Cobra II, Brooks announced that early critics of the war had been right to doubt the rosy scenarios being fed them by butt-covering Bush Administration insiders:

“Everybody denigrates pundits and armchair generals,” he wrote in 2006, “but [when the war had just begun, in 2003] the smartest of them recognized that something unexpected was happening: The US was not in the midst of a conventional war but was in the first days of a guerrilla war.”

Brooks lets you assume that he was among those smartest of early war critics. But not only was he actually peddling Bush insiders’ rosy scenarios back then; he was going out of his way to lambaste the very people he would later call the smartest of the critics.

“C’mon, people, let’s get a grip,” he’d written on April 20, 2004. “This week, Chicken Littles like Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd were ranting that Iraq is another Vietnam. Pundits and sages were spinning a whole series of mutually exclusive disaster scenarios: Civil war! A nationwide rebellion! Maybe we should calm down a bit. I’ve spent the last few days talking with people who’ve spent much of their careers studying and working in this region….”

In other words, he was giving us the wisdom of butt-covering insiders. Brooks might claim that when he wrote this “Let’s get a grip” column, conditions had come to seem more promising than they had a few months earlier, when the early critics foresaw the debacle that is still upon us. But if conditions had really improved by 2004 and if Brooks hadn’t been so caught up in playing the insider, he wouldn’t have had any need to assail “Chicken Littles” and “disaster scenarios.” He wouldn’t have had to write, “Let’s get a grip.”

The question his columns avoided then, the question they have avoided so far this month, is whether Brooks can get a grip on himself now that conditions in the McCain campaign have discredited his prognostications and political positions as surely as conditions in Iraq have doomed his wisdom of a few years ago.

My expectation is that Brooks is condemned by his own poor judgment and character to keep on sliding around in search of an exit. Only, this time, the sliding will be harder to disguise, and it will be more widely disdained.


October 17, 2008

The Neo-con Merry-Go-Round Runs Down

By Jim Sleeper

Neo-conservatives always try to join their Idealism to Power by riding the wrong horses.

They rode the Vietnam War; “freedom fighters” like Angola’s Jonas Savimbi or Afghan’s Mujahideen; Iran-Contra; anti-Communist dictators Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein — recall Rumsfeld’s handshake — and the Argentine junta (because, you see, if Communism triumphed, as in the Eastern Bloc, it would never be defeated by its captives). Neo-cons rode Dan Quayle, Pat Robertson, and Dick Cheney. (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush rode real horses, and neo-cons rode Reagan and Bush, too.)

This year, they tried to ride Giuliani (I helped stop that one) before battening onto poor John McCain. Watching them climb off now is almost as painful as watching Americans evacuate Saigon in 1975.

Neo-cons warn that the world is dark and cruel, and they deride liberals for caring more about morality than reality. But neo-cons too often prize a certain deft toughness over intellectual and moral self-respect. For awhile, they rationalized McCain’s choice of Palin as loyally and ingeniously as their psychological forebears, American Stalinists, rationalized the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. (Read David Brooks, “The Palin Rebound.”).

Once Palin got going, it took an outraged Ed Koch’s endorsement of Obama to shock some neo-cons into thinking, “Maybe there is some stuff I, too, should not eat.” Defections to Obama by high conservatives such as George Will and Christopher Buckley embarrassed them a bit more.

Field Marshall William von Kristol stood firm, but, after all, he had served the last Palin-quality vice president — as Dan Quayle’s chief of staff.

Brooks squirmed into the option I predicted, playing the public savant above the battle, appraising the players’ strengths and weaknesses. To watch Brooks now, you’d never guess how deep he was in the trenches for Bush against Kerry in 2004. His nice-ish words about Obama today are not an endorsement but an ingratiation: He wants desperately to be taken seriously by Obama, until he starts tearing him apart.

(Brooks is right that Obama’s coolness leaves some of us uneasy. When McCain told Obama that he should have run against George W. Bush four years ago, I wondered why Obama didn’t respond, coolly, “Well, John, I’m running right now against a man who bear-hugged George W. Bush in 2004. You gave him your highest praise and support, even though his campaign had just smeared you using operatives you’ve now taken on in your own campaign. You are a continuation of George Bush.”)

The latest big neo-con defection to Obama may not even be one: — today’s surprising endorsement by The Washington Post, reported here by Greg Sargent. Editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt usually joins the Post’s arch-neo-con ranter, Charles Krauthammer, in a delusional foreign policy.

Has intellectual integrity at the Post editorial page triumphed suddenly over neo-con intrigue? Was Hiatt ordered to endorse Obama by Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, who may have learned a thing or two about the follies of her mother Lally Weymouth’s long-time neo-conservatism?

Whatever the case (and I can imagine Hiatt chewing through a few pencils yesterday), today’s Post endorsement is almost as critical of Obama as of McCain, even pausing to praise McCain for his heroic past independence before concluding that he has lost his bearings too much to be president. The Post might have stayed with McCain had he stayed steady at the tiller instead of becoming an unstable, incompetent commander-in-chief of his own campaign.

I’ve knocked the left often enough for its own hapless efforts to tie idealism to power by riding bad horses. (Read the relevant sections in www.jimsleeper.com). But here’s the difference: Conservatives, and even neo-conservatives, are supposed to be attuned to wielding established power because they admire it more than the left does and spend more time in its precincts and on its tab. Since 1980 they’ve certainly had enough opportunities to wield power to learn something about doing it.

The truth is that neo-conservatives — unlike today’s chastened and, let us hope, wiser liberals — really are the psychological descendants of American Stalinists. They’ve carried over the same anti-democratic mental morphology, with its power-hunger and perverse love of toughness; its parched thirst for enemies, at home and abroad, as foils for self-definition; its paranoid, conspiratorial, and Manichaean inclinations.

It is precisely because neo-conservatives aren’t really at home in America and don’t “get” its civic-republican ethos that they resort to bombastic patriotism, fevered support for war heroism (other people’s war heroism) and a national-security state mindset that makes us weaker by the year.

The humiliatingly honor-obsessed neo-con Kagan family is a case in point: Donald, the scholar (and touter) of classical warriors’ honor; Frederick, the great American Enterprise Institute proponent of “the surge” in Iraq; and Robert “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus” Kagan, the historian of what he proudly called our “Dangerous Nation” in a book by that name. (Lately, Robert seems to be getting a better grip, but only time will tell whether intelligence is a match for obsession.)

Simply but sadly, neo-conservatives don’t really understand where a republic’s strength comes from, even in battle against truly evil and intriguing foes. Unable to reconcile their yearnings for ordered liberty and bourgeois success with their uncritical obeisance to every whim of the capitalism that’s dissolving the values and sovereignty they claim to defend, they try all the harder to ride horses of Power to delusional redemptions.

I find it almost as saddening as maddening to watch John Quixote McCain, so vulnerable to these giddy triumphalists because he shares some of their delusions, stagger along toward his deserved end — or toward an ignominious and ultimately Pyrrhic victory on Nov. 4.

Power-obsessed neo-cons imagine that McCain’s shocking incapacity became evident only recently. But I can’t forget his falling into George Bush’s arms, literally, on that stage in Nevada in 2004. The neo-cons have forgotten it because they were right there on Bush’s back, riding him to victory. Who knows what sorry race-horse they’ll batten on to now.


October 27, 2008, 2:21PM

My Almost-Hidden Stake in an Obama Win

By Jim Sleeper

Some people are still wondering whether Barack Obama will be flummoxed on Nov. 4 by the so-called “Bradley Effect.” Maybe, maybe not, but that we’re even debating it shows that much has changed for the better, as I note in a short commentary just posted at “Things No One Talks About,” in Dissent magazine.

What I don’t talk about even there is that some of us were heralding this change even before we’d heard of Obama, way back when some of his biggest current backers were claiming that prospects like his could never materialize, and even that they shouldn’t, because who needs a deracinated neo-liberal? The struggles behind his struggle can be quickly sketched, but they were hard-won, and worth knowing about.

So let’s glance back 15 or 20 years, to when contests involving even only white candidates were shadowed by Willie Horton, Sister Souljah, Tawana Brawley, and O.J. Simpson. Only a few black scholars, such as William Julius Wilson and Orlando Patterson, and white writers, such as yours truly, suggested that the significance of race was declining – and that it should.

Conservatives such as Ward Connerly and Abigail Thernstrom were saying so, too, of course, assuring us that, with free-market prosperity, the only color to count would be dollar green. Leftists such as Thomas Sugrue and George Shulman retorted that racism and American capitalism are inextricable and that only militant anti-racism can dislodge capitalist exploitation.

But it wasn’t conservative or leftist thinking that prompted Wilson, Patterson, me, and others to question the color-coded “identity politics” of racists and anti-racists alike. We even questioned variants of the “diversity” speak of the Ford Foundation, Louis Farrakhan, and David Duke, all of whom presumed that having a color means having a culture.

We insisted, instead, that the best way to dissolve racism’s blighting effects (including some equally blighting non-white racialist responses) is to invest more deeply in a common civic-republican culture that sustains trans-racial heavy lifting in economic stimuli, early education, and, yes, family values.

For saying so we were accused rather bitterly of denying white racism and of chilling black pride and of being Uncle Toms or racists ourselves. Now, though, Obama is saying virtually everything we did. And he is winning.

No wonder that some conservatives dread him and some leftists reject him, as a dissimulating neo-liberal. That’s how they process what he has done – whether they fear that he is undermining Sarah Palin’s America or really only shoring it up.

Others have come around, though, to a more balanced view. I had to smile on Sunday as New York Times columnist Frank Rich inveighed against a mainstream press whose “default setting,” he claims, “has been to ominously intone that ‘in the privacy of the voting booth’ ignorant, backward whites will never vote for a black man.'” In my book Liberal Racism ten years ago, I faulted Rich for using that default setting himself, discerning racism and reactionary politics in white proletarian gatherings like a Christian men’s “Promise Keepers'” rally, whose composition he didn’t notice was 25 percent black and Hispanic!

Times change – as has the Times. Twenty years ago, too few black leaders endorsed or embodied our hopeful consensus. Now, Obama has put that consensus to the clearest, cleanest test any of us could have envisioned. He can do it because he has put himself through the personal struggles I mention in Dissent and that I ruminated about the day after the New Hampshire primary.

No one talks much about his early struggles these days, but from them he has enriched a civic-republican idiom worthy of Lincoln and more, tapping the deepest American currents in African American identity and the indelibly black elements in American national identity.

He hasn’t done it alone. The change he represents has come quietly to many others since the late 1990s: George W. Bush’s elevation of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice to positions of influence and authority was part of a sea-change in the perceptions of many whites and of young blacks orienting themselves to broadening horizons.
Give a little credit even to John McCain, adoptive father of a Bangladeshi daughter, for refusing to tie Obama to the histrionic anti-racism of Jeremiah Wright.

But will Obama’s trans-racial politics really prevail on November 4th, or will the “Bradley effect” be back on our lips?

Racist robo-calls and radio demagogues are stirring up racist diehards and dissimulators, whose fears may be driving state boards of elections to look for ways to stop new and non-white registrants from voting.

Fortunately the Supreme Court, perhaps recalling its own fall from public grace in the election of 2000, has sent a strong signal against sweeping suspensions of new registrants. The Justices know that many Americans who deferred to them in 2000 won’t tolerate a similar gambit on their part this year. And that’s because national thinking about race has changed, fitfully and painfully, for the better.

Obama has done everything a black candidate could to show that this country’s redemption has not and will not come through making race a central organizing principle of our polity and civic culture, let alone a wedge for partisan politics. Decent Republicans and conservatives have stepped forward to show it, too.

Now it’s up to those who claim, as Palin does, that Obama is different from other Americans to admit that he’s different enough from inner-city black youths, too — though similar enough in ways racism has made important — to have turned their heads, raised their hopes, and denied them any cheap racial excuses.

If Obama loses, despite an economic crisis that ought to doom supply-siders like McCain, it will be a body blow to all of us who’ve looked and reached beyond race in American politics. But if he wins by more than a bitter squeaker, I won’t just feel vindicated; I’ll fantasize another possibility, one I haven’t heard any great mentioners mention:

If Obama would consent to be sworn in as “Barack Hussein Obama,” millions of young Muslims’ heads would turn, too. I’d love to watch his American detractors absorb the boost this would give to America’s best civic-republican ideals world-wide, as well as in Harlem, the Southside and Watts.



October 28, 2008

How to Gauge Racism in This Election

By Jim Sleeper

As the polls tighten, Slate’s veteran blowhard press critic Jack Shafer surely knows that sensationalist journalism and racism are two of the biggest reasons. But, as Todd Gitlin notes here, Shafer is training his piercing gaze on liberals in the media, who, he complains, are so enraptured by Obama that they can’t bear to acknowledge his faults and their inevitable disappointments if he wins.

Let me give this sage of journalism something he deserves — a viral e-mail. This one really stopped me. It will help Shafer and all of us, far more than his own commentary does, to tell whether liberal jitters are worth frothing about just now. Ask yourself these simple questions:

What if it had been the Obamas, not the Palins, parading five children across the stage, including a three-month-old infant and an unwed, pregnant teenage daughter?

Would the polls be so tight if it had been Barack Obama who’d finished fifth from the bottom of his graduating class and if John McCain had been president of the Harvard Law Review?

Where would the polls be if McCain had married only once and had stayed married, while Obama had been the divorcee?

What if it was Obama who had been a member of the Keating Five (the U.S. Senators accused of corruption in a scandal that helped ignite the Savings and Loan meltdown of the late 1980s and early 1990s)?

How tight would the polls be if it had been Obama whose military service had included discipline problems and a record of crashing seven planes?

By the way, compare the candidates’ educational backgrounds:

Barack Obama:
Columbia University–B.A. Political Science with a Specialization in International Relations.
Harvard–Juris Doctor (J.D.) Magna Cum Laude

Joseph Biden:
University of Delaware–B.A. in History and B.A. in Political Science.
Syracuse University College of Law–Juris Doctor (J.D.)

John McCain:
United States Naval Academy–Class rank: 894 of 899

Sarah Palin:
Hawaii Pacific University–1 semester
North Idaho College–2 semesters–general study
University of Idaho–2 semesters–journalism
Matanuska-Susitna College–1 semester
University of Idaho–3 semesters–B.A. in Journalism

Sure, more than racism explains the discrepancy between what the polls show now and what they’d show if the candidates’ colors were reversed. Recall what was done to John Kerry’s honorable military record, and compare it to that of George W. Bush, a draft dodger of the same war who entered and left the National Guard thanks to connections and phone calls no other guardsmen could count on. So, no, it’s not all about racism.

But isn’t it a bit late for Jack Shafer’s reverse raptures against racism-obsessed, Obama-worshipping liberals? Shouldn’t he do something to enlarge the public record – and clean up his own?

TPM readers may recall that in January, 2008, Shafer had another of his characteristic seizures about liberals when the New York Times made neoconservative field marshal William Kristol a columnist. Shafer knew very well that Kristol wasn’t qualified, but he ranted against liberals for denouncing Kristol’s appointment.

Commenting on Shafer’s reverse-rapture syndrome then, I noted that many conservatives, libertarians, and contrarians like him, who’d welcomed some of Bush’s initiatives as correctives to liberal folly, had been fooled, but that,

“Embarrassed by what they see in the mirror, some turn away to point fingers at leftists who’ve been too far out of the action to deserve blame or credit for conservative self-destruction.

“Watch Jack Shafer, for example, … point his finger compulsively away from the mirror: ‘Who’s Afraid of Bill Kristol?’ reads the headline of his post. ‘Nora Ephron, Josh Marshall, Jane Smiley, David Corn, Erica Jong, Katha Pollitt, and Nearly Every Liberal With a Blogging Account,’ the headline concludes, answering its own question.”

I shamelessly commend the rest of my comments about this. Can’t Shafer see that the bloom is off the rose of his anti-liberal fixation? Does he really want to be in lockstep with Limbaugh, Palin, and others who live to dine out on liberal blunders? Does Shafer want to end up like Hilton Kramer, forever flailing the ghosts of the 1960s?

Assuming that Obama, that disgraceful Harvard neoliberal, does win, is Shafer warming up for January 21 or even November 21, by which time Obama will surely have done something that lets Shafer resume his liberal-bashing default position with gusto?

For now, his record suggests that since he can’t blame liberal journalists all that much for the mess this country is in, he’s blaming them for getting upset about it.


Dissent magazine

October 27, 2008

Things No One Talks About

Jim Sleeper 

AS PUNDITS dithered late last week over “the Bradley effect” and other racial clouds on Obama’s horizon, the candidate was making a difficult, possibly final, visit to the white mother of his white mother. Few commented on the implications of the fact that while racial identity runs deep in America, maternal bonding runs deeper. But maybe our Hollywood-besotted political culture requires the drama and sentiment in Obama’s farewell visit to “Toot” (the Hawaiian name for “grandma” is “Tutu“) to drive those implications home.

Sarah Palin claims that Obama doesn’t know or represent the real America. That both Obama’s color and his childhood exposure to Muslims are assets to America’s image abroad doesn’t matter much to Americans who are still offended or frightened by racial and religious difference. Image is one thing; intimate fears another. In a small former steel town in Pennsylvania this weekend a 71-year old woman, a Democrat who considers McCain a grouchy old man and Sarah Palin a joke, paused when a New York Times reporter asked her about Obama. “He scares me,” she said finally. “The coloreds are excited, but my friends and I plan to write in Hillary’s name.”

No one mentions that Obama’s biracial provenance and childhood brush with Islam launched him on struggles that have prepared him unusually well to address one of his country’s most daunting challenges: youthful alienation in inner cities where, at least until 9/11, the Nation of Islam held a certain appeal.

Nor have I heard anyone tell Palin that there is no America more “real” than the one Obama embodied last week off the campaign trail in his grandmother’s apartment. John McCain, adoptive father of a Bangladeshi daughter, does understand this, and he hasn’t let Palin make an issue of race—or even to use the outcries of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Obama’s unsought endorsement from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Everybody knows that Obama embraced Wright as a young man while immersing himself indelibly in an inner-city, African-American community. But no one talks about what a daunting and unusual choice this was for a son of transracial Hawaii: Southside Chicago was Obama’s community only by color, not by virtue of his upbringing or childhood culture and the post-racial prospects it had opened. Inner-city blackness was something he felt he had to come to terms with because he understood that the African-American experience runs as deeply within American identity as American identity does within inner-city blackness. 

The unintended irony in Palin’s charge that Obama is different from “real Americans” is that he’s also different enough from many black inner-city youths—yet also similar enough—to have turned their heads, big-time, even more than his supporter Colin Powell has done.

Some of us envision an America where this delicate balancing of differences and similarities won’t always be as necessary as it is now. “The old strategies of accusation, isolation, and containment have broken down,” wrote the late black historian C. Eric Lincoln hopefully in 1995. “If transracial marriage is here, and biracial children are here, can transracial adoptions be far behind?….It is time now to reach for the hand that is reaching for tomorrow, whatever color that hand may be. The evening of today is already far spent.”

Lincoln wasn’t thinking of McCain’s transracial adoption, although he could have been. He was addressing black nationalists as well as white racists and even white liberals. He understood, he told me, that to watch blacks running political and military machines, municipalities, media organizations, and even money markets is to watch the angels of a romanticized blackness withdraw along with the demons of something feared and loathed. It is also to surrender an exotic white condescension along with contempt.

For all of us, it is to acknowledge that this country’s redemption has not—and will not—come through keeping race a central organizing principle of our polity and civic culture, let alone a wedge for partisan politics.

America’s image abroad has been helped, too, by Obama’s readiness to take us a step closer to Eric Lincoln’s promised transracial land.  But the most important gain for this country would be some Americans’ acknowledgment that color is not disqualifying and other Americans’ acknowledgment that the most effective solvents of racism don’t always march under banners that are marked “anti-racism” or that are colored black or blue.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is author of The Closest of Strangers (Norton 1989) and Liberal Racism (Viking 1997). Homepage and feature photography by Bbsrock (wikimedia commons / creative commons).



November 4, 2008

On Casting a Vote in New York City, 6 am

Polling places in New York City open at 6:00 am, and when I arrived at mine at 5:45 a.m. at least 600 people were on line, stretching from the school door near East 33rd Street and Third Avenue back to the end of the block on Second Avenue, and then down the avenue to 32nd Street.

By the time I left after casting my vote, at 6:45 or so, it had grown light out, and there were at least another 600 people waiting on line. Here on the East Side (although not the posh part), there were suited, silk-tied young Republicans (you can always tell by a certain pallor and carriage) who needed to be at work in what’s left of the finance industry by 8 am.

One such couple, young marrieds, stood behind me discussing “Governor Palin’s” clearance on ethics charges by a panel this couple admitted was probably “an inside job.” There were some young black counterparts, their faces composed in calm and inscrutable ways that I nevertheless understood as determined.

My thoughts ran to long lines undoubtedly forming at polling places in parts of North Brooklyn I know well. On E. 33rd Street I didn’t see many of the new, young voters who’ve been registered. But it was only 6 am, and they are young! I did see legions of lumpy, crusty New Yorkers, preternaturally inelegant, indomitable men and women in weathered golf caps, non-descript parkas, and bifocals for whom every election, no matter how minor, is a quiet rendezvous with destiny.

As our line shuffled forward, newly arriving voters passed us on their way to the rear, around the block behind us. A sparrow of a woman in her ’60s hobbled by on a cane. “Are you going to vote?” I leaned out and asked. “Of course,” she said, so I motioned her toward the place in front of me. “No, thank you, I’ll wait my turn,” she smiled, hobbling proudly onward. As I turned back to watch her laboring toward the rear, I caught the appreciative smiles of the two young Republicans behind me. For that instant, we shared a civic-republican bond we could both believe in.

New York will go so strongly for Obama that I voted as much to bear moral witness as to accomplish anything politically. But had I and others stayed home to bear witness only in front of television or a computer, the political consequences would have been real. In politics, as in journalism, there is no substitute for going there and for being there. New Yorkers who vote regularly aren’t given to illusions. We know that Obama can’t stop this country’s immediate prospects from becoming more wrenching and grim. On my way to vote I passed four homeless people sleeping individually in doorways — up from a few years ago, when Commissar Rudolph Giuliani had made sure there were none. There will be more before there are fewer.

What can New York City or any other municipality do about it? I wondered what Times columnist David Brooks, who chided ordinary Americans’ growing “culture of debt” a couple of months ago, would say about it after reading Charles Duhigg’s and Carter Dougherty’s front-page Times piece of Saturday about how even New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and school boards across the nation were drawn into insurmountable debt by advisors who turned them into mini-hedge funds. I wonder what the national-security state-minded, capitalism-touting neoconservatives are thinking as they watch Gordon Brown and the International Monetary Fund going hat in hand to King Abdullah and the People’s Republic of China.

Yes, many of us are voting, without illusions, for a careful Harvard neoliberal whom only a truly dire crisis may drive toward serious structural reform, as the crisis of the 1930s drove another careful, indecipherable, Harvard-trained politician. Yet I voted for Obama not only without illusions but still with hopeful determination on one count that wouldn’t have figured in FDR’s first election. This country will never be capable of undertaking structural self-reform until it can untangle the race knot it has tied itself in since 1607.

Obama is taking us a big step in that direction not only as a political actor but also as a moral witness. “It’s not something he’s doing,” Dartmouth Professor Joseph Bafumi told the New York Times back at the beginning of the campaign season; “it’s something he’s being.” Voting today is a way of being there on that front, too.

The Day After Obama’s 2008 Victory: Don’t Gloat, Organize.

Jim Sleeper ▪ November 5, 2008

BLACK AMERICANS’ struggle to share fully in the American republic’s promises and challenges is the most powerful epic of unrequited love in the history of the world. Barack Obama’s election last night didn’t bring that epic to a close, but it did signal something very new–new not only about Obama, but new also in what’s around him.

That was evident in his magisterial dignity in reaching out not just to those who rejoiced and wept but also to those who were disoriented and in despair over his color or his politics–or both. Can we who supported him reach out that way, too?

Perhaps the most encouraging and telling thing about his victory was that Obama did far better than John Kerry in 2004, not only among white voters generally, but also in the “red” states and counties he lost. He lost them more narrowly than the white Democrat Kerry did four years ago. That’s even more important than winning Virginia and Florida, two of the old Confederate states, where demographics have changed significantly.

Obama made inroads even in areas still dominated by the “good old boys,” thanks to the bad economy and to his own credibility as a contender, but also thanks to the quiet ways the coordinates of our political culture have been changing. Old racial paradigms have been crumbling around him on both the racist right and the identity-politics left.

What about those millions of voters who opposed him? When Obama’s odds looked iffy at the end of the summer, some of my friends who supported him said that if he lost, they’d feel as if they were living in someone else’s country.

But hadn’t we also felt that way, I asked, when bombs were falling on Vietnam under Nixon and gung-ho flyboys like John McCain? Or when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980? Or when Bill Clinton was impeached? Or during eight years under the current Flyboy-in-Chief?

This time is different, my friends insisted, because this time the American people are even scarier than their misleaders. But now that Obama has won, many of those “scary” Americans feel that they’re the ones living in somebody else’s country.

And not all of these conservatives are any scarier than liberals can be themselves–especially if a liberal feared that the republic would be lost to McCain. Some of the people who opposed Obama are feeling that way right now, and, for some of them, there’s as much pained love in their despair as there would have been in yours.

But aren’t the people who’ll consider President Obama an alien imposition only the rich and their corporate minions, the bought politicians, the petty-bourgeoisie, the clueless racists, the intellectually evanescent evangelicals, the rabid ideologues, the “extreme-fighting” lumpenproles, and, of course, the neoconservatives and demagogues who exploit them?

Not quite. I wouldn’t mind, of course, if the kinds of people just mentioned felt that they were living in somebody else’s country and moved somewhere else. But Obama’s own campaign supporters included Louis Farrakhan and other unreliables, not to mention political procurers, panderers, go-betweens, and others whose motives are mixed and who you wouldn’t want to have lunch or a beer with.

I’m thinking, though, of the millions of Americans who I hope, as Obama hoped last night, can feel that this is their country even though they opposed him. Some backed McCain because their fragile but dearly held traditional networks of meaning and support are being shredded and they are blaming the wrong people–not because they’re corrupt or demented but because they’re desperate and have been misled.

And I’m thinking also of Americans who do detest what the Republican Party has become but have such deep reservations about Obama that they decided not to vote at all, or voted for Ron Paul, Bob Barr, Chuck Baldwin, or even Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader.

Consider Rod Dreher, an honorable conservative author and editor, who wrote in the Nov. 3 issue of the American Conservative magazine, “This will be the first year since I was old enough to vote that I will not cast a ballot in a presidential election.”

He couldn’t have voted for Obama, he explained, because he considers life a sacred, inter-generational thread, not to be broken by the state or by individuals exercising “choice.” But Dreher felt he couldn’t vote for McCain, either, even as a “brake on runaway liberalism,” because McCain would have put the country “at significantly greater risk of war” and his campaign “made me even more uneasy.”

Obviously Dreher is consistent in his pro-life beliefs. I don’t share his assessment of the principles and risks, but I respect him for holding to them. We both support a republic that can mediate our differences through non-violent civil disobedience–a place in which conscientious citizens break the law in order to uphold the rule of law, and in which they disrupt civil society, as Rosa Parks did, to redeem it, not trash it as evil. (Without such civil-disobedience in the 1960s, last night’s victory would never have come.)

Consider also Scott McConnell, until recently the American Conservative’s editor-in-chief. So strongly does he oppose the neoconservative foreign policies McCain embraced that he actually voted for Obama. McConnell isn’t inspired by Obama, and he despairs over his domestic policies as much as anti-capitalist leftists do.

But McConnell believes that saving conservatism’s honor from McCain and the neo-cons is so important that he went to southwestern Virginia to work for Obama in the last days of the campaign. I’d never feel at home with the American Conservative magazine, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a country where Dreher and McConnell felt they no longer belonged, and I doubt that Obama would, either. And I doubt that Dreher and McConnell would rejoice at my feeling dispossessed had Obama’s long-ballyhooed “slam dunk” turned into a slough of despond.

The republic needs solutions beyond some of its current partisan and “movement” loyalties. Those of us who won last night must do more than just turn the tables. Like the heroes of the American civil rights movement, who found it in themselves to love their enemies, we have to engage those who are as fearful now as we have been. Don’t gloat; extend a hand.

Links to the Dreher and McConnell articles.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is author of The Closest of Strangers (Norton 1989) and Liberal Racism (Viking 1997).

Nov. 9, 2008.

‘I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear…’


(Why he should use his middle name at the inauguration, and how his full name vindicates what is still exceptional about America. Yale Daily News)

By Jim Sleeper

Even as we move today from symbolism to substance, I hope that everyone appreciates the symbolic as well as substantive rewards of Obama’s being sworn in as “Barack Hussein Obama.” Yes, I’ve said this before. But now is surely the moment to explain why again.

During the campaign, neo-conservatives such as Daniel Pipes and others of Obama’s detractors thought it smart to highlight his paternal Muslim roots and associations. But now that he’s won, you’d have to be as naive as a neo-con to miss the nobility and world-historical gains this country would achieve if, having overthrown a bad Hussein, it installed a good one — not in Baghdad, but in Washington.

Sure, the mind reels. “Hussein” is a title of honor applied to metaphorical descendants of the prophet Mohammed. An American president bearing that name, even only residually, would enact what philosophers call a transvaluation of values — a wicked case of cognitive dissonance for millions of people like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, and for millions in the Muslim world who are not like them at all.

Islamicists, confronted with a Hussein in the White House, will rage that the Great Satan has stolen and polluted a holy name. But where were they when Saddam Hussein, an admirer more of Stalin than Mohammed, was butchering millions? Unlike the rule of that Hussein and of oil sheiks, mullahs, and the Taliban, the very prospect of our Hussein’s inauguration is raising millions of young Muslims’ democratic hopes even higher than America has raised their material and sensual ones. (And, given present economic circumstances, it’s telling that just when Obama’s election was about to reflect Western democracy’s deepest strengths, the iconically Western Gordon Brown was begging the Saudis to aid the International Monetary Fund.)

Notice, too, the symbolic and substantive impact Barack Hussein Obama is having on African American youths’ already waning attraction to the Nation of Islam, whose leader Louis Farrakhan lives a stone’s throw from the Obamas in Chicago’s South Side. Farrakhan endorsed Obama with a kind of desperation last summer, only to be rebuffed. That tells us all we need to know, as I explained here then, successfully, to nervous Jewish voters.

Still other ironies in Obama’s name are rich beyond measure. Barack is Arabic for the Hebrew Baruch, meaning “blessed” in both tongues — another of the many achingly poignant intimacies between the two languages and religions. The most famous Jew to bear the name was the 17th – century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who crossed Christian and Jewish lines, blurring them in order to transcend them.

Obama’s story draws all three lines of Abrahamic religion — Christian, Muslim, and Jewish – into a convergence more promising than that drawn more than a century ago by the Rev. George Bush, a Presbyterian scholar, brother of our president’s fifth-generation lineal antecedent, and the first teacher of Hebrew, Arabic, and other Semitic and ancient languages at New York University in the 1830s. In 1844, the Rev. Bush wrote The Valley of the Vision, or The Dry Bones Revived: An Attempted Proof of the Restoration and Conversion of the Jews, which interpreted the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel to prophesy Jews’ return to Palestine from all over the world in what Bush insisted was the not-distant future.

I doubt that our departing president has read his ancestor’s exegesis, and if he doesn’t know the Book of Ezekiel, Barack Obama certainly does. In his speech on race in Philadelphia last winter, Obama recalled that, for his black Congregational Church in Chicago, “Ezekiel’s field of dry bones” was one of the “stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope” that “became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears.”

Not incidentally, the Rev. Bush, who imagined the Jews’ return to Palestine as a prelude to Armageddon, also wrote the first American book on Islam, a Life of Mohammed, declaring the prophet an imposter. That’s two additional reasons why America’s Christian, Jewish, and Muslim prospects are brighter with Barack Hussein Obama than with any of the George Bushes we’ve known, not to mention with Karl Christian Rove.

Obama may be no more a messenger of God than Rove or “W” are, yet at moments his campaign did flash intimations of the awful sublimity of the Hebrew God’s thundering in history; of the Christian pilgrim’s exalted, arduous journey; and of the Muslim ummah’s bonds of communal faith.

And he does understand — as did an Abraham who was called Lincoln — that this republic should keep on weaving into its tough, liberal tapestry the threads of intrepid Abrahamic faith that have figured so strongly in its beginnings and triumphs. That Obama draws this understanding from intimacies with Ezekiel and Indonesia and the South Side makes him providential enough.


Comments on ‘I, Barack Hussein Obama…’

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/1/20/14037/7545 DAILY KOS: Hussein – a very good name by NBBooks Tue Jan 20, 2009 at 11:00:37 AM PST

Jim Sleeper delivers one of the most appropriate commentaries on this magnificent, historic Inauguration Day, by reminding us that Barack Obama’s middle name Hussein is a title of honor applied to metaphorical descendants of the prophet Mohammed. But more than just noting how Obama’s middle name greatly discomfits conservative deadenders, Sleeper more importantly and more joyfully explains how our new President’s full name “draws all three lines of Abrahamic religion — Christian, Muslim, and Jewish – into a convergence” of the “awful sublimity of the Hebrew God’s thundering in history; of the Christian pilgrim’s exalted, arduous journey; and of the Muslim ummah’s bonds of communal faith.” Excerpts below the jump · NBBooks’s diary :: :: I urge you to follow the link; it is a much better read in its entirety. For people who are unfamiliar with Jim Sleeper, I count him among the most learned and talented writers and insightful observers in our country. A great Sleeper classic, from Janaury 2006, is Behind the Deluge of Porn, a Conservative Sea-Change, in which Sleeper observes, In fact, though, conservative moralists won’t begin to seriously address what is happening in our society until they take on the very market capitalism and consumerist culture they uphold and promote.

I offer this longer and more difficult read of Sleeper’s on this day to help fellow citizens of our republic to begin engaging in the deep, thoughtful deliberation of public issues, including culture, that is required to understand and overcome the challenges we face.

COMMENTS: This diary is nicely written (borrowing great words from Sleeper). by Timaeus on Tue Jan 20, 2009 at 11:12:43 AM PST o My Guess (0+ / 0-) and I may be wrong, is that using the middle initial only at that point in the proceedings is standard. We may just have noticed it more because Obama’s middle name has been such a big fucking deal.

by Oaktown Girl on Tue Jan 20, 2009 at 11:28:07 AM PST [ Parent ] · it is a good piece… (1+ / 0-) but I’ve never heard of Hussein as a title for descendants of Muhammad. Sharif is the only title I’ve heard. Let all those who do justice and love mercy, say Amen.

by gooners on Tue Jan 20, 2009 at 11:12:59 AM PST o Hussein was the grandson of the prophet through (2+ / 0-) his wife Fatima. He was a great favorite of the prophet, and he was famously martyred. Especially to the Shias he is a centrally revered figure.

by Timaeus on Tue Jan 20, 2009 at 11:19:02 AM PST [ Parent ] § Excuse me, (2+ / 0-) typing too fast on everything today, too hyped up from the Inauguration. Fatima was the prophet’s DAUGHTER, and Hussein was her son. I’m saying the prophet, because there are so many different ways to spell Muhammad in English.

by Timaeus on Tue Jan 20, 2009 at 11:20:23 AM PST [ Parent ] § right, I get that.. (1+ / 0-) I’m talking about this: Hussein is a title of honor applied to metaphorical descendants of the prophet Mohammed I’m not sure what a metaphorical descendant is either. Let all those who do justice and love mercy, say Amen.

http://www.danielpipes.org/blog/2009/01/bara ck-obama-and-islam-an-ongoing-saga.html “Barack Hussein Obama”: Jim Sleeper, an Obama acolyte, explains ‘Why It’s ‘I, Barack Hussein Obama…’, along the way sideswiping me (and, as liberals tend to do, getting wrong what I have been saying).”


Three years later: Obama’s 2012 leadership crisis:

Debt-crisis Greedheads, Fountainheads, Godheads, Airheads, and the rest of us.

By Jim Sleeper – July 21, 2011, 12:51PM

Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981 marked the debut of a strategy to “starve the beast” of big government by ballooning its deficits and the national debt. That would generate a crisis severe enough to force drastic rollbacks of Social Security, Medicaid, and other programs that most Americans had come to regard as foundational to a healthy society. Conservatives were determined to uproot that consensus, which Franklin D. Roosevelt had consolidated half a century earlier, in ways that had come to seem irreversible; “We have come to a clear realization,” FDR had said in 1944, “that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” Quoting an English common-law dictum that “‘Necessitous men are not free men,’” Roosevelt warned that “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

But people who only fear becoming hungry and unemployed can become that “stuff, “too, as supporters of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Glenn Beck, and other demagogues who’ve been sprouting like mushrooms make clear. They’re a godsend to conservatives who’ve dreamed since 1932 of “starving the beast,” as the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist reminded us by quipping that he’d like to shrink government “to a size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

But why has this strategy won so many millions of reasonably intelligent people’s support, or at least acquiescence? Let’s sideline for a moment the familiar explanations of class warfare or false consciousness and consider two others:

First, certain personality types are drawn to such appeals, even though they’re fairly prosperous and smart. Second, deep undercurrents in America’s political culture have always inclined even political moderates to share conservative aspirations, as Reagan showed by striking those mystic chords so effectively for so many.

The Gipper and his successors also transformed their Republican Party from a champion of fiscal restraint into a pusher of fiscal profligacy. They displaced despised Democrats’ “tax and tax, spend and spend” policies with “borrow and borrow, spend and spend” policies, accelerated by crowd-pleasing tax cuts, all to create the emergency that would require us to do drastically to the administrative state what we wouldn’t do rationally and moderately.

By the time George W. Bush left office, any new taxation was verboten and the country had embarked — with collaboration from market-chastened Democrats — on expensive new tax cuts, unnecessary wars, a huge Medicare prescription boondoggle for Big Pharma, and the virtual de-regulation of finance that has ballooned public deficits, too.

All this was accelerated by an intimidatingly strong conservative noise-machine that, thanks to the deregulation of media ownership and of corporate “speech” which the First Amendment was never intended to protect, became adroit at touching the raw, jangling chords in stressed, angry citizens. So we’ve had Tea Party eruptions, stagey rollbacks of public and private workers’ security, and the elections of dozens of members of Congress who’ve held the federal debt ceiling hostage to more rollbacks. They have neither the intention nor the civic courage to resolve the crisis they’ve created by substituting more balanced approaches, as Barack Obama, one of their hostages, and Joe Biden have been importuning them to do.

What kind of people have made themselves impervious to Obama’s and Biden’s appeals? Here are some of the types they represent, although I should emphasize that any politician who seems to incarnate a particular one of these types, he or she probably shifts back and forth among more than one of them.

Greedheads and Opportunists. Most obvious (and, to me, the least interesting) are people who’ve become rich or richer dishonestly and destructively but legally, thanks to the deregulation of finance, war-profiteering and other public boondoggles, and to massive tax cuts. They’ve been reenacting the Gilded Age, constructing gargantuan, arboreal castles and estates and funding lavish, elitist preparatory schools, some of which were founded in the 1880s to secure the prerogatives and graces of a plutocracy that fancied its sons Platonic Guardians of the republic.

“To serve is to rule,” reads the motto of the Groton School, whose alumni loathed fellow graduate Franklin D. Roosevelt as a traitor to his class. Today, the Koch brothers, graduates of the kindred Deerfield Academy, are among many who’d have loathed FDR, too. (That these schools, sometimes despite themselves, also did produce Roosevelts, Harrimans, Kennedys, and Vances is an irony that I’ve assessed here but that few care to hear anymore, much less ponder.)

It’s hardly necessary to name current exemplars of the Greedhead/opportunist strain — the Goldman-Sachsers and Citi-Groupers and hedge-fund hustlers who are in and out of government management posts — or to identify the cash-and-carry lawmakers who take these people’s instructions even when they’re giving them or forging grand bargains.

Fountainheads. This group is named for The Fountainhead, the perennial best-selling novel by the libertarian zealot, Ayn Rand. They aren’t in it just for the money. From Margaret Thatcher and Alan Greenspan to Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor, they’ve been true believers in Rand’s doctrine that human dignity is a lonely, Lockean-in-the-wilderness achievement and that “society” must constantly be pared back to liberate it.

Aristotle considered humans the noblest of animals with politics and the most depraved of beasts without it, but Fountainheads think that government, with its rational social engineering, is the beast. They think that society’s foundations are pre-political — divine or ordained in Natural Law — and that much of what passes for democratic and republican politics violates those foundations and is depraved. Their vociferous populism disguises their conviction that most people are barely fit to govern themselves as individuals, let alone one another: Only Nietzschean, or at least Randian, generators and facilitators of wealth are fit to govern them.

Godheads. Close to Randians in some ways, but not as assuredly libertarian, are religious conservatives who emphasize the divine inspiration behind individual materialism. Listen to James Lucier, an assistant to conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms in 1980, talking to Elizabeth Drew just after Ronald Regan’s election:

“The liberal leadership groups that run the country — not just the media but also the politicians, corporate executives … have been trained in an intellectual tradition that is … highly rationalistic. That training excludes most of the things that are important to the people who are selling cars and digging ditches. The principles that we’re espousing, have been around for thousands of years: The family …, faith that … there is a higher meaning than materialism. Property as a fundamental human right … and that a government should not be based on deficit financing and economic redistribution … . It’s not the ‘new right’ – people are groping for a new term. It’s pre-political.”

To keep on believing this, you really need to have God at your elbow, or you’ll need beliefs in ethno-racial destiny on sacred soil that were potent and wildly popular in the deranged Europe of the 1930s, when Woodrow Wilson’s liberal-nationalist imaginings had collapsed into capitalist exploitation and when godless Communism was baring the ugly underside of a universalism that hadn’t reckoned deeply enough with nationalist and religious yearnings.

When Americans curb such fantasies of ethno-racial or dialectical materialist destiny, it’s quite often by turning to God; even Martin Luther King did that, as Glenn Beck reminded everyone at his big rally at the Lincoln Memorial. But this religious turn can become idolatry, as too many Republican candidates demonstrate every day. Who’s to decide? The only way out is to diffuse and displace such currents. But how? And with what?

The Liberal Conundrum. FDR’s answer was that a healthy society, like a healthy person, walks on two feet: The left one is the foot of social provision (public education, health care, retirement insurance), without which the values that conservatives say they cherish couldn’t flourish: It does take a village to raise a child. The right one is the foot of irreducibly personal responsibility without which even the most assiduous social engineering (and, indeed, especially that) would turn persons in to cogs, clients, or worse.

The problem with this dichotomy is that each side emphasizes its favored foot until it swells, hobbling the other foot’s and, with it, the society’s stride. Fountainhead Paul Ryan thought that our safety net had become a hammock, lulling people into complacency and dependency. Yet he and other true believers, and the Greedheads and opportunists who back them, can’t reconcile their calls for individual and family virtue with their obeisance to every whim and riptide of capitalism that’s dissolving everything they mean to defend. (“All that is solid melts into air, everything holy is profaned,” as an observer of capital put many years ago, but never mind….)

Faith in God or Rand can’t deliver anyone from the growing irreconcilability of spiritual and material values in our present dispensation. Nor can the targeting of scapegoats that always accompanies conservatives’ failures to deliver. Their course becomes so hard and confused that Greedheads, Fountainheads, and Godheads become Airheads, or they’re supported by airheads — by the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans (and an astonishingly large number of other women, such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Linda McMahon, and Marjorie Taylor Greene), who’ve been standard-bearers for the Absurd in several elections.)

One of the saddest truths of human history is that delusional escapes become stampedes, in ways that some conservative zealots who foment them anticipate more clearly and cynically than liberals who are caught by surprise and rendered speechless by surges of Greedheads, Fountainheads, Godheads, and Airheads, whether in Monkey trials, McCarthyism, “Bomb ’em Back Into the Stone Age” war-mongering, or sanctimonious authoritarian, “pre-political” pronouncements.

A republic depends on citizens resisting such impositions and rising above the rats-in-a maze scramble for individual security and distinction into which they’ve been driven by a casino-finance, corporate welfare, consumer-marketing juggernaut that presses them to buy more guns and burglar alarms and to hire more private tutors, leaving them clueless about how to cultivate public safety and wisdom. A republic depends on citizens who know how to advance enlightened self-interest and achieve their highest and best selves by finding their personal advantage in pursuing a common good.

Not all citizens need to do this, and not even a majority need to. Some will always commit their energies to generating wealth or contributing to religion, art, entertainment, and recreation. But in a healthy republic, a critical mass of citizens will indeed advance a common good by setting standards, a tone, and an idiom of mutual obligation, respect, and reasoned deliberation that dampens the allure of empty rhetoric and brutal actions.

Republics need citizens who are committed to exercise public virtues, because, unlike monarchies, theocracies, or ethno-racial tribal societies, republics have “no other adhesives, no bonds holding themselves together, except their citizens’ voluntary patriotism and willingness to uphold some public authority,” as the historian Gordon Wood put it.

American Quirks. Conservatives are quite right to insist on the importance of that right foot of irreducibly personal autonomy responsibility: The voluntarism in republican self-sacrifice can’t be coerced by the state or incentivized by markets. It’s what makes a republic free. An American republican ethos has embodied such voluntarism well enough at times to inspire and sustain it with a mix of pragmatism, faith, and fakery that’s better exemplified by Jack Nicholson than by John Roberts. Some of its voluntarism came originally from Protestantism, common-sense moral reasoning, and Enlightenment affirmations of Natural Law. The American, wrote the early 20th Century philosopher George Santayana, is “an idealist working on matter…. There is an enthusiasm in his sympathetic handling of material forces which goes far to cancel the illiberal character it might otherwise assume.” Such an American was “successful in invention, conservative in reform, and quick in emergencies.”

Santayana added that because the American is an individualist, “his goodwill is not officious. His instinct is to think well of everybody, and to wish everybody well, but in a spirit of rough comradeship, expecting every man to stand on his own legs and to be helpful in his turn. When he has given his neighbor a chance, he thinks he has done enough for him; but he feels it is an absolute duty to do that. It will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America.”

Santayana’s American — like many Americans I grew up with in an old, residually Puritan, western Massachusetts town — favored not much redistribution of the material but lots of inner renewal of the spiritual to temper self-aggrandizement with social obligation and to re-centering oneself in commitments to society. “This linkage of American material productivity with an outpouring of the spirit over the whole world, of material with spiritual blessings, is and remains the key to American self-justification,” wrote Sacvan Bercovitch, a scholar of the Puritan mission.

The very fragility of republican voluntarism’s reliance on cooperative rather than coercive power is its strength, as Jonathan Schell shows in his book The Unconquerable World: Because cooperative power grows from give-and-take in everyday interactions that organize and reorganize themselves informally, it’s too elusive for enemy armies to destroy, too independent of markets for their wealth to buy off.

A Hunger for Myths. A society enhances its capacity to sustain trust by generating strong, shared ideas and story lines that sift the deluge of infotainment and inspire citizens to find themselves in an ever-evolving common good. A gnawing hunger for spiritually deep myths has driven young Americans to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, which teach courage and loyalty to friends and to a higher, common good in adversity. But both of these were literary creations, first as novels whose creators drew some of their inspiration from English mythic wellsprings whose pre-market depths and expressions were still widely, intimately shared. Even as they became corporate investments in publishing and then in films, they held power for myth-starved young American moviegoers,

But “Symbols control sentiment and thought, and the new age has no symbols consonant with its activities,” as John Dewey warned in the roaring 1920s, a decade whose widespread frenzy, disorientation, and loss we’re recapitulating. The story lines or myths of a shocked and stressed society may sour and metastasize into something alien and frightening to citizens who are still trying to keep the civic faith. If such a society loses its humane consensus, its words and deeds part company, as Hannah Arendt warned, leaving words empty and deeds to become unguided missiles, advancing no commitments a people can trust enough to trust anyone to be faithful to them.

Without a more wholesome consensus and trust, a polity is vulnerable to manipulation by the few who are filled with passionate, factional intensities. The left as well as the right flirt with the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt’s expectation of decisive, sovereign actions that cut through liberal democratic dithering. Widening gyres of violent, directionless infotainment unleash more shouts and undercurrents, driving public deliberation into a vortex from which ever-starker mis-leadership springs, promising clarity and security and reaping millions of people’s swooning desperation to obey it.

The more demagoguery, surveillance, police and prisons a society deploys, the less civic oxygen it has and the weaker it is, because it can’t depend any longer on commitments that people feel motivated to keep even when no one’s looking, motivated by irreducibly personal responsibility and by a love of society cultivated in a way of life that seeds and nourishes trust, thereby eliciting it.

The faith, arts, and disciplines of such cooperative power are being undermined by conservatives and liberals alike who confuse today’s casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-marketing juggernaut with the Lockean capitalism and free markets they imagine they’re defending. The more often they get this wrong, the more they become Greedheads, Fountainheads, or Godheads, ending as Airheads in the public forum, which they destroy as their numbers grow. That’s the real cost of the three-decade-long campaign that conservatives waged and that liberals accommodated and often abetted.

The people who’ve seeded and deepened this crisis haven’t the intention or the civic courage to resolve it through the “balanced approach” which most Americans would support decisively if only they had a chance to see it in action and to think about it. But how can they think about it in any decisive way if the court of public opinion has been disbanded and is no longer capable of reaching consensus and decisions?

The Capitalization of Communication is critical here. The determined minority that I’ve mentioned has deprived Americans of chances to think by trading shrewdly on many people’s disinclination to think much in the first place. The real scandal in Rupert Murdoch’s communications empire isn’t its obvious political and moral corruption; it’s his news outlets’ relentless drive to make citizens fear and mistrust one another, drip by drip, deploying excellent “production values,” that disassociate increasingly empty slogans about self-governance from increasingly brutal images of mob-like behavior. This willful, systematic degradation of public discourse, which turns a society from cultivating cooperative power to legitimizing and glorifying coercive power, hasn’t been seen on a scale like Murdoch’s since the 1930s, except, perhaps, in the worst excesses of Cold War anti-Communism.

Essential to this transformation has been deregulation of the massive invasion of the republican deliberative processes by the supposedly protected “speech” of incorporeal (and, increasingly, un-American) “speakers” in election campaigns, in legislative drafting sessions, and, of course, in every television commercial and virtually every highly visible debate forum, including those staged by media conglomerates themselves. News organizations break “news” as bread-and-circus entertainment for audiences assembled and re-assembled on any pretext whatever – erotic, ethno-racial, ideological, nihilist — solely for the production of maximum profit. See this website’s section, “News Media, Chattering Classes, and the Phantom Public.”

Although the digital revolution has expanded everyone’s ability to break news, as in the video of George Floyd’s murder, it has also deranged our capacity to break and sustain ideas that are good enough and shared widely enough to make sense of the deluge of “news” and entertainment that’s separating us from one another and thereby plunging us into ourselves in troubling ways.

During the Iraq War, the columnist Paul Krugman noted that although 60 percent of Americans believed wrongly that Iraq and Al Qaeda were linked, that W.M. D. had actually been found, or that world public opinion favored the war with Iraq, only 23 percent of PBS and NPR audiences “believed any of these untrue things, but the number was 80 percent among those relying primarily on Fox News…. [T]wo-thirds of Fox devotees believed that the U.S. had ‘found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.’”

When deliberative democracy is sidelined like this, it won’t be long before the determined, powerful few can administer more shocks and palliatives to an atomized body politic that’s too frightened to challenge them and that, indeed, becomes disposed to embrace them.

In a moment of pique, Obama called the debt-crisis mongers of 2011 “hostage takers” for refusing to approve even six months of unemployment benefits in exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts. But Obama himself exhibited a hostage’s Stockholm syndrome by praising his captors’ patriotism even though, in their own mystical confusion, they are actually serving powers and patrons foreign to any republican polity or moral code.

A civic republican alternative? For decades after Roosevelt’s 1944 speech about what is required for “necessitous men” to achieve freedom, the non-rational, “pre-political” currents in American political life that James Lucier characterized were sublimated, and even elevated, by liberal education and assiduous civic-republican pedagogy. Against the darker currents of McCarthyism and Cold-War anti-Communist hysteria, they became something worth cherishing but seldom understood or appreciated by Marxist or post-modernist leftists any more than it is by Paleolithic, religious, and proto-fascist conservatives.

Can the small-“r” republican center hold? The conservative strategy to direct the capitalization of irrational undercurrents that too many liberals have dismissed has become the context or straight-jacket within which Obama has been trying to renew FDR’s reasonable, evolving balance between a left foot of social provision and a right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility and dignity.

If liberals don’t acknowledge the right foot, they’ll never regain power or deserve to regain it. And if conservatives can’t sideline their Greedheads, Fountainheads, Godheads, and Airheads enough to give the left foot its turn, they’ll keep turning the right foot into a staggering, suppurating limb that drags the republic to its doom.


August 18, 2011

Fareed Zakaria’s Problem — and Ours

By Jim Sleeper

Many people defer to Fareed Zakaria’s virtuosity and sheer ubiquity as the neo-liberal consciousness-shaper of the moment. An Indian Muslim by background whose parents have been prominent in Indian politics and news media, he owes a lot of his credibility as a journalist to American civic-republican premises and a generosity of spirit that had some force in undergraduate life at Yale when Zakaria was a student there. (He graduated in 1986, then earned a PhD from Harvard). But now that America’s civic-republican premises and practices are waning, Zakaria’s own recent behavior makes me wonder how well they ever “took” with him in the first place.

At age 28, he was managing editor of Foreign Affairs; later, as editor of Newsweek International, he began hosting his Emmy Award-winning CNN program “GPS,” where he holds forth now while writing for Time magazine. Certainly, he has given America a lot, though often by dishing out more “wisdom” than he takes in return as he weans us of what he considers our democratic naivete.

Steely in command of his facts and allusions, he’s as deft as he is disciplined: Asked to assess the Iraq War this year at an inaugural convocation of Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs (home now of Stanley McChrystal), he said that while “it’s clear now that costs outweighed benefits and that anyone who says he’d do it over again is not being honest or is not in command of the facts,” we must remember that South Korea, too, seemed “a big mess, a brutal dictatorship, until the 1980s,” when it stabilized and became hospitable to Western values as well as investments. All the same, he added, we should try to “re-balance American foreign policy away from these crisis centers that are riven by 15th-century feuds.”

That strikes me as an example of how Zakaria manages to eat his cake and keep it, too, when parsing the movements of the powerful if myopic titans whose policies he so often and so smoothly defends. So it was something of a surprise to see him lose his cool and his command of the human prospect last week, on the Charlie Rose show, in an id-like eruption over the political psychologist Drew Westen’s darkly prophetic, potentially game-changing New York Times essay“What Happened to Obama?”

Like the 13th chime of a clock, Zakaria’s arrogant outburst not only surprised; it cast doubt on the previous 12 chimes of the centrist, high-Democratic bloggery and flummery that he sometimes superintends as concert master of our national orchestra of high-minded liberal opinion.

Understand first what’s at stake in all this. During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama – a kindred spirit of sorts to Zakaria (though not an immigrant or a Muslim like him, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding) — was photographed boarding a plane holding Zakaria’s best-selling The Post American World. That book had followed another best-seller, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, and both have been translated into 20 languages.

CNN’s “GPS” stands for “Global Public Square,” but Zakaria is a Global Positioning System by himself, a one-man Davos for the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-bamboozling wrecking ball whose directors, grand strategists, investors, and apologists brandish pennants of their “diversity” as talismans against having to answer to any actual polity or moral code, national or otherwise.

He sits on the governing corporation of Yale University, a career-networking center and cultural galleria for the new global elite so memorably (and scathingly) depicted by Chrystie Freeland in The Atlantic. (Yale is just now establishing a whole new liberal-arts college in Singapore, a city-state that, as Maureen Dowd noted, thinks and acts more like a global corporation than a republic.)

Although Zakaria is also a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission, he considers himself enough a Democrat — and democrat — to tell the masses, via CNN and Time, why the neo-liberal dispensation of Obama, Bernanke, Geithner, et al is inexorable and inescapable and why, with public acquiescence to the judgments of such experts, it’ll probably be all for the best, or at least better than any alternative.

He assesses that dispensation’s costs, benefits, and (limited) opportunities for democratic mitigations in the style of a grand-strategic memo-writer, his rat-a-tat-tat diction issuing in firm, clear judgments graced with felicitous apercus. If he rests, it’s because he’s disarmed all intellectual and moral resistance, at least for the moment.

The New Republic’s American-politics blogger extraordinaire, Jonathan Chait, teamed up with Zakaria on the Charlie Rose show in a show of force against Westen, who is himself the author of a best-seller, The Political Brain. Zakaria and Chait deferred to and praised each another more often than they actually addressed Westen, whom they dismissed as an ivory-tower moralist with no political experience. They dispensed Beltway realism about the filibusters and the fiscal-crisis constraints that supposedly moot Westen’s demand for a President who’ll tell Americans more of the truth about the crisis they face, in an empowering, explanatory, narrative in the manner of FDR, Martin Luther King, Jr., or even Harry Truman.

Rose opened the show with a clip that showed Obama falling well short of the standard that Westen invokes, the President blaming Congress and not the larger powers to whose tunes it dances. “This downgrade you`ve been reading about could have been entirely avoided if there had been a willingness to compromise in Congress,” Obama said. “See, it didn`t happen because we don`t have the capacity to pay our bills. It happened because Washington doesn`t have the capacity to come together and get things done. It was a self-inflicted wound. There is nothing wrong with our country. There is something wrong with our politics.”

Westen counters that Obama’s account isn’t enough of the truth to be even credible: There’s “something wrong” not just with our politics but with that global juggerrnaut that’s distorting and, indeed, dissolving it.

For example, manufacturers that have outsourced their jobs and/or closed their plants were doing fine with, say, a 15% rate of profit before their new, publicly traded conglomerate owners demanded, say, a 22% rate of return. By what God given or natural right? By no right besides a long train of decisions by the corporate bought-and-paid for Congress or the courts and by global market pressures that no polity is permitted to challenge.

That Obama won’t say this clearly is a point of Westen’s essay. Drawing not just on his knowledge as an academic psychologist — as his critics suggest disparagingly — but also from history, anthropology, and his own substantial experience as a Washington political consultant, Westen writes that:

“The stories our leaders tell us matter… because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be…

“When Barak Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters…. Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end….”

Westen tells the story he thinks Obama should have told: “This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out…..”

He sketches the parameters for a solution that Obama should have proposed: “We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back into the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets…”

Such a story, he claims, would have “inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two-and-a-half years of failed government, idled factories, and idled hands. [It] would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities on both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country…. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism and the deficit – a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

“And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative,… that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

“But there was no story, and there has been none since,” Westen writes.

This was all too much for Jonathan Chait, who told Rose that Westen’s is “a dramatic overestimation of the power of rhetoric to affect policies in Congress and to affect public opinion. There`s just not a lot of evidence that it has that kind of effect, anything like the effect that — that he says.

“I think liberals have a hard time holding on to power and being comfortable with power and the compromise is held with power,” Chait continued. “I think it`s something in the liberal psyche…. I am not the psychologist here, but liberals turn against every single Democratic President with regularity. That was what the whole Nader campaign in 2000 was about, this fury that Clinton was a sell out.

“Now we`ve had a President who`s been vastly more successful in advancing the liberal agenda through Congress and you`ve got liberals angry again…. But the anger at Obama to me is just sort of baffling.”

Zakaria, no slouch at reductio ad absurdum in combat with liberals — and a near-screecher whenever he has to talk about leftists — outdid Chait, even while siding with him:

“Jonathan is entirely right but he doesn`t go far enough for my purposes. As Jonathan says in a very brilliant blog post, [Westen’s] is the version of the American presidency you get from Aaron Sorkin in [the movie] “The American President”: The President gets up, and makes this incredibly moving speech which is, of course, deeply liberal. The entire country cheers and all of a sudden all the problems that are — that he encounters are waved aside.

“You remember, in the movie, of course, it was gun control and environmentalism that was the big problem. Now, the idea that if Barack Obama were to give a speech on gun control, suddenly he would be able to, you know, wave aside the Second Amendment and the — settled convictions of a large percentage of Americans is — is we would recognize nonsense.

“The reality is that Obama is working within a very constrained political environment,” Zakaria continued, citing Obama’s accomplishments against great odds; “I`m a little hard pressed to see what the great liberal betrayal has been other than from some kind of fantasy version of liberalism where the American — you know, finally a Democratic president comes in and America becomes, I don`t know, Sweden.”

Little of this had anything to do with Westen’s argument, and as the discussion got down to political specifics, Chait and Zakaria went on about the filibuster and the self-interest of members of Congress, blaming them and the American people, not the President.

Finally, Rose asked, “….Yes, [Obama] had a difficult Congress to deal with, but if he had a different set of skills and was less of a conciliator, might he achieved more? That`s the question that Drew raises.”

Chait: “I don`t think that`s right. He only had four months in which he had 60 votes in the Senate. Other than that period, Republicans were committed to blocking his entire legislation no matter what, pretty much even if it included ideas that they had once endorsed. The President just has very limited tools at his disposal….

Rose: Drew?

Westen: “Well, I will say that I have more empathy for the President now after feeling like what it`s like to have a filibuster proof super-majority of two against one.”

Then Westen disposed of the filibuster argument: “President [George W.] Bush never had the size of the Senate behind him that President Obama had when he walked into office and that he then had three months later.

“And President Bush ….got through ‘No Child Left Behind,’… tax cuts …. heavily weighted towards the wealthy. He got through an unfunded Medicare plan that gave lots of money to Big Pharma. He got through an unfunded Iraq war, an unfunded Afghanistan war. And where was the screaming about the deficit then? Where was the screaming about the filibuster?

“By January of 2009, when [Democrats] could have changed the rules in the Senate, [they] chose not to…. They knew who they were dealing with. Obama certainly knew who he was dealing with after the first couple of times of banging his head against the wall and realizing, wait a minute, these are not Rockefeller Republicans. So why didn`t they change those rules? Why didn`t he push them to change those rules?”

Zakaria changed the subject, going back to blaming the people. “Look, the American people… they want jobs. They want the budget deficit cut. They, by and large, don`t want much taxes, many new taxes other than on the very rich. They don`t want Medicare cut, they want Social Security preserved, they don`t want the interest deduction on mortgages to be taken away but they want many large cuts. You know, this is a conglomeration of incompatible desires.

“And, to Drew`s point again, why is Obama worried about this? …. We have a budget deficit that is 10 percent of GDP. It`s the second-highest in the industrialized world. We have a gross national debt that will approach 100 percent in three or four years. So, you know, we`re not in the 1930s when — when government debt was minuscule in comparison. We can`t just say let`s spend $5 trillion jump starting the economy and see where that gets us.

“[This] does not show that Obama has been captured by bankers, He is properly concerned that there is some outer limit about how much you can spend and therefore a long-term deficit reduction plan is the right thing….. : I think sometimes being a conciliator is being a leader, particularly in a divided country.”

Westen: “Do you really think, though, that what we need right now, when we`ve got a Tea Party dominating the House, is someone who`s trying to conciliate people who you`ve just said a minute ago can`t be conciliated?”

Zakaria: “Drew, Drew, the stimulus package, such as it was, passed by one vote. The idea that if you had added on another $400 billion it would have sailed through, I mean this is what he could get through…..”

Westen: “Well, I actually was asked by the leadership of the Senate to help out… with Wall Street reform. And one of the things that [we] said was, “Look, do what the Republicans did to you: call votes. If you`ve got 59, call a vote, and … you say, look, we`ve got us voting for Main Street, we`ve got them voting for Wall Street.”

“Harry Reid did that, I think, three days in a row and the 60th vote was there [because some Republicans, frightened by the public criticism, defected.] That was what could have been done… with the stimulus, but was not done.

“And in fact, at that point the President had 80 percent popularity of the American people… He had 57 sure votes in the Senate,… an overwhelming majority in the House. ….I never thought I`d ever say anything good about George W. Bush — but you do what George Bush did,… you go over the heads of members of Congress….

“And you say to [the moderate Maine Republicans] Susan Collins and…. Olympia Snowe, ‘Listen, the story is that 750,000 people a month are losing their jobs right now. I want to show you… a picture of a little girl who just lost the room in her house that was taken away from her. If you`re going to vote against this stimulus package, I`m going to make sure that when we get 58 votes or 59 votes tomorrow, the American people are going to hear about why it is that they`re still losing 750,000 jobs a month.’

“And I`ll bet you it would have taken three votes that he would have gotten the stimulus package he wanted.”

It was at this point that Zakaria, seeing that he wasn’t going to crush what he’d thought was an ivory tower moralist, lost his composure. “Look I — what I would say, and I`m not going to get into the what-ifs of a professor, you know, who has never run for dogcatcher advising one of the most skilful politicians in the country on how he should have handled this. It`s a – “

Rose intervened, saving Zakaria from himself: “The former would be you and the latter would be President Obama? “

Zakaria, deft on the uptake, trying to right himself, said, “Yes, exactly. The whole idea that all of us who`ve never run for anything have you know, have — can brilliantly explain how to maneuver another $400 billion through the Senate. You know, maybe. Maybe.

“But I will say. maybe we would all agree [that] it isn`t clear what you can do. You are facing a very serious economic crisis….. a very deep jobs crisis…. It`s happening because of globalization: It`s happening because of technological change that is causing companies to be much more productive. It`s happening because of a degradation of educational skills of the American work force. It`s happening because of this huge de-leveraging that`s taking place which is making all businesses less risk-seeking…..

“So I`m also a little uncomfortable with people who have facile answers if only he would have waved his magic wand. “

Oops, again.

Rose, again: “I don`t think anybody`s arguing that there`s a magic speech to be made. I do think people can make a legitimate question, which is, Did this president exhibit the kind of skills that he may or may not have that would have produced a different result at various stages in his presidency? These have to do with leadership skills….”

* * *

A day after the show, Zakaria scrambled to cover his gaffe in two blog postings that tried to slam the lid down on it. At 6:35 am on the Saturday after the Thursday night show, he posted on his CNN blog, under the headline, “What Liberals Fantasize About”:

“Thursday night I was on Charlie Rose talking with Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University and Jonathan Chait, a senior editor with The New Republic.

“Drew wrote a provocative article in the New York Times called ‘What Happened to Obama?’ It’s a scathing critique of President Obama’s leadership. Then, in a brilliant blog post, Jonathan Chait called Drew’s argument a fantasy…

“Here’s a lightly edited excerpt of our conversation where I discuss the fantasy of liberals and why many need to grow up.”

But Zakaria edited his transcript of the show heavily, dishonestly. His excerpt is 1588 words long; the actual Rose transcript of the same portion of the show is 5700 words. Zakaria’s version obliterates Westen’s arguments about the missed opportunities in Congress and other political specifics, along with Zakaria’s own condescending response to the professor who’d never run for dog-catcher. In the last half of Zakaria’s version, he and Chait end up talking to each other as if Westen weren’t right there on the show. “Visit CharlieRose.com for the full video,” Zakaria advises piously in a note at the end of his post, knowing that few who’ve read his version will bother.

In another blog post, this one for Time, Zakaria frets that “The air is thick with liberal disappointment. In the days after the debt deal, liberal politicians and commentators took to the airwaves and op-ed pages to mourn the agreement. But their ire was directed not at the Tea Party or even the Republicans but rather at Barack Obama, who they concluded had failed as a President because of his persistent tendency to compromise.

“As the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait brilliantly points out, this criticism stems from a liberal fantasy that if only the President would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his poetry. In this view, writes Chait, ‘every known impediment to the legislative process–special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion–are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.’”

Again, Zakaria compounds Chait’s own reductio ad absurdum and contempt for what Westen has actually argued: “The disappointment over the debt deal is just the latest episode of liberal bewilderment about Obama,” Zakaria writes, characterizing Westen as “confused over Obama’s tendency to take ‘balanced’ positions”. Zakaria argues, falsely, that Westen suggests “that his professional experience– he is a psychologist –suggests deep, traumatic causes for Obama’s disease. Let me offer a simpler explanation. Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good.”

Zakaria then intones that “while banks need better regulations, America also needs a vibrant banking system, and that in a globalized economy, constraining American banks will only ensure that the world’s largest global financial institutions will be British, German, Swiss and Chinese.” He writes that Obama understands “that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are smart people who, in long careers in public service, got some things wrong but also got many things right.”

This seems to have been written by someone a bit too defensive and full of himself to respect his readers’ intelligence. Sure enough, Zakaria pulls out the elite card:

“Obama’s temperament was eloquently expressed by the late Bart Giamatti, a former president of Yale and former baseball commissioner, when he urged students not to fall prey to ideology from the right or left… ‘My middle view is the view of the centrist,’ he said, before quoting law professor Alexander Bickel, ‘who would … fix “our eyes on that middle distance, where values are provisionally held, are tested, and evolve within the legal order derived … from the morality of consent.’” To set one’s course by such a centrist view is to leave oneself open to the charges, hurled by the completely faithful of some extreme, of being relativistic, opportunistically flexible, secular, passive, passionless … Be of good cheer … To act according to an open and principled pragmatism, to believe in the power of process, is in fact to work for the good.’”

Ah, well. I understand the temptation to wax a bit nostalgic about the wisdom of the Yale president of one’s undergraduate years, as Zakaria has done here. I’ve sometimes done that myself in praising Kingman Brewster, Jr., a descendant of the minister on The Mayflower, who gave a Yale honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964, when that was a very controversial, not centrist, thing to do. (Giamatti got his own real doctorate the same day).

If it’s enlightened “centrism” we’re looking for, Brewster bucked more than a little alumni resistance when his gesture helped to draw King into the center of his time, a center that otherwise might not have held. Now that our own center is imploding, what would Zakaria do about it?

He and other apologists for the Democratic Party’s neo-liberal paradigm probably haven’t expected to end up looking like the “old Blues” who protested Brewster’s honoring King. But they’re beginning to sound like charter subscribers to the Beltway dog and pony show’s crackpot “realism,” its feints toward an American pragmatism that has succumbed to the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-defrauding premises it no longer questions.

Some dimensions of philosophical pragmatism may actually weaken or distort civic-republican affirmations like Westen’s and, with them, real movements for social justice. What, for example, is pragmatism’s defense against those like Zakaria who confuse the hubbub of free-markets with democratic deliberation and celebrate global capitalism itself as pragmatic, anti-absolutist, inherently democratic, and historically liberating?

The American historians Christopher Lasch and Jackson Lears have warned that the wealthy and powerful sometimes cling not to the old racist, nationalist, or religious nostrums that most people associate with power but to swift market currents that assume the benign mantle of pragmatism even as they destroy the communities and values on which many people depend.

What Zakaria hails as “centrism” becomes, in his hands, little more than an excuse for elites who are wreaking such destruction and are seeking desperately to rationalize it. (No one lamented this more, by the way, than Zakaria’s hero Giamatti, who described a university president’s life as that of a fund-raising song-and-dance man).

Sometimes, adopting such rationalizations does involve telling national governing elites certain hard, “pragmatic” truths that do have to be reckoned with. At Yale’s Jackson Institute, Zakaria told his audience that “A billion people now do jobs that American middle class and workers, blue and white collar, used to do.” And he doubted that either political party could do much about it. Once, Americans had all the capital and the know-how, he said, but, now, other peoples “have the resources, and they know how.”

The audience was silent in gloomy acquiescence, but why? Zakaria’s interlocutor on stage, Yale President Richard Levin, an economist, opined that a bigger stimulus might have a more redemptive multiplier effect on the economy than Zakaria allowed, and that is only the beginning of what ought to have been said. Neither man questioned the rules of the game under which corporations have evolved, not only on their own initiative but through decades of jurisprudence that amounts to an extended lie the United States has been telling itself about the nature of its economy and of itself a republic.

That’s a story for another time; suffice it to say here that an alternative narrative — even a “centrist” one that Giamatti and Brewster might have endorsed — would ask whether and now the rules of global capitalism need to be rewritten.

In other times and places, people with the integrity required for such a challenge led unarmed, seemingly powerless, yet deeply sensible and well-organized movements that, against all expert and elite expectations, brought down vast-national security states anchored in injustice — apartheid South Africa; the segregationist regime of the American South that even Clarence Thomas called “totalitarian;” the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe with a minimum of armed conflict: “How many divisions has the Pope?” Stalin once quipped. When Pope John Paul II stepped off a plane in Warsaw, greeted by a million unarmed Poles, Stalin’s successors got their answer. The best explanation of this kind of power is in Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World. I commend it to Zakaria and Chait for a long, slow reading.

One of the places it worked was, of course, British India, two decades before Zakaria’s birth. But is there a nerve or bone in his body that responds sympathetically to such movements?

“When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice,” Westen writes, “he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend….. He… knew that whether a bully hid behind a [policeman’s billy]club or a poll tax, the only effective response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true and repugnant face in public.”

As Zakaria spoke darkly about the professor who’d never run for dog-catcher and who thought he could wave a magic wand, I thought I saw the face of a bully’s consigliere. Our one-man Davos, usually so camera-ready and composed, morphed into something almost cadaverous, a caricature of a bewigged Tory chiding Levelers. He did it again on his own CNN program, telling “liberals” to “grow up.”

What Westen wants is — in his own words, in the Times essay that deserves re-reading at the end of this discussion — is “a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative,” one that explains “that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so that they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.”

It would be heartening to see Zakaria, Chait, and other writers — who have more freedom than presidents, yet who seem driven to defend the corporate state and the Democratic Party in their present forms — form their own mouths around the following words:

The global casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-bamboozling juggernaut may feel inexorable and inescapable to most of us. But for that very reason it is becoming illegitimate and is unsustainable. Our responsibility as writers is to help to develop public narratives that pose the right questions and possibilities.

Westen’s courageous essay is especially

gratifying to me because, when he was a freshman in a Harvard expository writing class I taught in 1976, he recounted a story, worthy of the movie “The Insider,” about his own father’s brave but suppressed efforts to get the tobacco company where he worked as a research scientist to come clean about the health risks of its products. I can’t help wondering if Zakaria would have overlooked or minimized those risks had he been around at the time when Westen’s Dad was trying to air them.

Obama himself has written of his debt to “the prophets, the agitators,… the absolutists…. I can’t summarily dismiss those possessed of a similar certainty today.” Why can’t Zakaria and Chait write that, too, especially when the “agitator” is as reasonable and sophisticated as Drew Westen? What drives them to portray him as some kind of naif or crank? Was it the long list of talking-points rebutting Westen that the White House reportedly issued the morning his essay appeared?

The pundits have circled their wagons, but “Thought is not, like physical strength, dependent on the number of its agents,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. “On the contrary, the authority of a principle is often increased by the small number of men by whom it is expressed. The words of one strong-minded man, addressed to the passions of a listening assembly, have more power than the vociferations of a thousand orators….. Thought is an invisible and subtle power, that mocks all the efforts of tyranny.”

And of tyranny’s deniers and obfuscators, too.

Dear Fareed, Jonathan, Barack: What seems inexorable and inescapable to you ma seem illegitimate and unsustainable to millions before long. The more that reasonable truth-tellers like Drew Westen take their stand against it now, the fewer cranks, agitators, and absolutists you’ll have to contend with later.

I really suggest re-reading Westen and, instead of nit-picking and deriding, connecting with the arc of justice as other unlikely but transformative movements in history have done.


From The New Republic’s list of ‘overrated thinkers’:

FAREED ZAKARIA  is enormously important to an understanding of many things, because he provides a one-stop example of conventional thinking about them all. He is a barometer in a good suit, a creature of establishment consensus, an exemplary spokesman for the always-evolving middle. He was for the Iraq war when almost everybody was for it, criticized it when almost everybody criticized it, and now is an active member of the ubiquitous “declining American power” chorus. When Obama wanted to trust the Iranians, Zakaria agreed (“They May Not Want the Bomb,” was a story he did for Newsweek); and, when Obama learned different, Zakaria thought differently. There’s something suspicious about a thinker always so perfectly in tune with the moment. Most of Zakaria’s appeal is owed to the A-list aura that he likes to give off—“At the influential TED conference ...” began a recent piece in The New York Times. On his CNN show, he ingratiates himself to his high-powered guests. This mix of elitism and banality is unattractive. And so is this: “My friends all say I’m going to be Secretary of State,” Zakaria told New York magazine in 2003. “But I don’t see how that would be much different from the job I have now.” Zakaria later denied making those remarks.


August 30, 2011

Bluster in the Beltanschauung: Why Obama’s neoliberal apologists in the Washington Beltway are Letting Him Down

Siding with Drew Westen and others of Obama’s left-of-center critics against Fareed Zakaria and other neo-liberal apologists for Obama’s leadership failures, I argued apostles of Washington Beltway thinking have a world-view, or Weltanschauung, all their own — hence, Beltanschauung. We critics of the Beltanschaunng won the debate, at least insofar as Obama changed course in the direction Westen urged: to be more forthright and feisty about what Republicans are doing to the economy and the country. Whether or not Obama will follow through is an open question, though, because it’s not clear that he doesn’t ultimately share his apologists’ neo-liberal premises and politics.

September 4, 2011

Great Orations vs. Great Obfuscations HuffingtonPost, Great Orations Vs. Great Obfuscations | HuffPost Latest News I managed to say in 499 words what it had taken me 4300 words to say in the longer posts: That Obama’s critics on the left aren’t urging him to give a magic speech, as his Beltway apologists self-servingly imagine, but to…. Well, it’s only 499 words, so click and read it yourself.

I often enjoy and benefit from Maureen Dowd’s columns, but today she’s fallen off her wagon of arch and noble punditry into the smallish world-view, or Beltanschauung, of the Washington Beltway’s sophisticated chattering classes. These worthy purveyors of Capitol-corridor realism believe — or find it quite necessary to pretend — that President Obama’s critics on the left expect him to vanquish his political enemies and the country’s economic crisis with a Great Oration.

Thus Dowd, in “One [Speech] and Done?,” lampoons Obama and his strategists — who’ve been spurred, perhaps, by critics to their left into trying to reenact his 2008 campaign — for “suffering from the Speech Illusion, the idea that he can come down from the mountain, read from a Teleprompter, cast a magic spell with his words and climb back up the mountain, while we scurry around and do what he proclaimed.”

Here Dowd echoes Fareed Zakaria’s claim that critics such as Drew Westen expect the president to “wave a magic wand” and bring change. She also echoes (as Zakaria himself did) another Beltway realist‘s jibe that leftish critics think “every known impediment to the legislative process — special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion — are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.”

But that’s not what Obama’s enlightened critics, from Westen to Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, Jared Bernstein, Robert Shiller, and many others, are saying. Rather, it’s Washington’s self-protective mis-characterization of what they’re actually saying. Obama’s critics are saying that he should give a big speech, followed by others, that

  1. actually begins a hard fight for substantive programs (like those mentioned in today’s Times editorial on the jobs crisis), knowing full well that his opponents will vote them down and that he’ll then have them clearly on record doing so; and that
  • then lambastes the do-nothing Congress and tells Americans the truth about what the global casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-defrauding juggernaut that controls this Congress has been doing to their jobs.

This isn’t Adam Smith’s “free market” capitalism anymore. And the critics of the present economic anarchy such as those I’ve named a few paragraphs above aren’t utopians, Communists, or magic-wand wavers.

And this isn’t “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” as the favorite medley of the orchestra of high-minded Beltway opinion assures us. It is, rather, a wrecking ball that will have to be grasped and guided somehow by republics and trans-national bodies with some democratic base, and not always guided as financiers and CEOs and even bond-holders want it to be.

“A President can’t say that!”, the Beltanschauung realists cry. But his chances of being able to say just that — in other words, to tell the truth — would be greater if Beltway writers would tell it themselves, instead of sounding increasingly like what C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realists,” obsessed with putting down those who are telling it already.

As Obama Mishandles the Economy, Pundits Misjudge the Politics | HuffPost Latest News

As Obama Mishandles the Economy, Pundits

Misjudge the Politics

HuffPost, Nov 8, 2011

About bare-knuckled politics, Beltway commentators have little to say. Ezra Klein gives us the inevitable, inexorable, crippling worldview in which the people don’t exist, except in Pew polls.

By Jim Sleeper lecturer, political science, Yale

The least bad assessment of Obama’s failure that has come so far from the blinkered Washington Beltway pundits’ worldview (or Beltanschauung, as I immortalized it here in an essay that launched a thousand links and that everyone in the political chattering classes read under the bed covers with a flashlight and pretended not to have seen) comes from Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein’s “Obama’s Flunking Economy: The Real Cause,” in the current New York Review of Books.

Klein flunks, too, in the end, but not before illuminating more of what’s wrong with the Washington consensus than Ron Suskind, Fareed Zakaria, Jonathan Chait, and other Beltanschauung habitues have done. Klein is reviewing Suskind’s book Confidence Men, which he quite rightly finds flawed because its histrionic, summary judgments of key executive branch and Federal Reserve players obscure their good sides and the obstacles they faced, not so much in themselves or in Obama as in the Republican Congress.

For instance, while Lawrence Summers may well be the con man Suskind says he is, Klein shows that Suskind’s own reporting proves counter-intuitively that Summers rightly fought to nationalize Citibank and to advance a large stimulus package, but that this supposed Svengali failed because the administration’s political realists, including Obama himself, decided that such initiatives were non-starters in Congress.

But what if Congress is itself the non-starter, in ways that the American people can actually change, as they’ve done when truth-telling presidents have roused them to do it? That’s not a possibility that Klein or any other Beltway pundit can take seriously. “[W]hen the economy gets worse, you’re simultaneously in charge and out of options,” writes Klein, insinuating himself imaginatively (and also forgivingly) into Obama’s supposed worldview. “You came to Washington promising change and now you’re begging for patience. It’s a crummy situation, and there’s no combination of policy proposals or speeches that can get you out of it. But this is the vise that has tightened around Barack Obama‘s presidency.”

“Vise” is a nice metaphor, but does it really excuse the presidential inaction and Washington pundits’ apologetics for it? Drew Westen posed that question last summer in a game-changing New York Times essay, “What Happened to Obama?”, that brought the wrath of the Beltanschauung down upon him, as I showed in the essay linked above.

An academic psychologist whose best-selling The Political Brain drew him into political consulting with Senate Democrats on the Hill, Westen didn’t need to be the brightest bulb in the firmament to have posed his question about the emperor’s new clothes. If you’re really in a political vise in Washington, as Klein insists, and you can’t get anything done, anyway — if, indeed, “the fundamental constraints on the administration’s leaders have not been economic or conceptual, but political,” as Klein puts, it — why not do what politics demands everywhere else but in the Beltway?

Why not get out of Washington for a month or two, as Harry Truman did in 1948, and work the country against what he called the “do-nothing Congress”? If you’re Barack Obama, why not tell the people, as he should have done relentlessly last summer, “Look, I appealed to you and you elected me on certain assumptions and expectations. Here’s what I’ve learned about the obstacles we face. Send me a Congress that isn’t part of the problem and that can help me finish the job.”

Why not deploy the right subordinates and advisers in a full-court press along such lines? Why not revive the network of supporters that you created in 2008 and that you promised but failed to sustain as a political organization?

Klein doesn’t ask any of this. The administration’s top players “know they need to act,” he writes. “But they can’t act…. at the scale necessary to really change the economic situation. Republicans won’t let them. Between 2009 and 2011, Senate Republicans launched more filibusters than we had seen in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s combined. ….” Should the administration have assaulted the filibuster itself? “I don’t consider this plausible,” sniffs Klein.

Yet Westen, in a debate with Zakaria and Chait on Charlie Rose that I cited in “Fareed Zakaria’s Problem – And Ours,” showed that instead of assailing the filibuster directly, it was both plausible and effective to call the votes under it — and lose them, thereby getting Republicans on record and letting the whole country know that they’d actually come out against certain popular initiatives.

About such bare-knuckled politics, Beltway commentators have little to say. Klein gives us the inevitable, inexorable, crippling worldview in which the people don’t exist, except in Pew polls. Meanwhile, the spread and unexpected resiliency of Occupy Wall Street has come out of nowhere on the commentators’ horizons and has changed the debate about the political economy.

Obama knows he should have been part of that change this summer, not as one of the Wall Street occupiers but as a truth-teller who could have clarified the challenges they’ve posed. The president himself told Suskind that “leadership in this office is a matter of helping the American people feel confident.”

Yet Klein insists otherwise, suggesting that Obama overreached in promising to give the American people confidence in 2008. He concludes his review by warning, in the classic Beltanschauung “seen it all” manner, that “the president needs to do more than lead. He needs to govern. And when he has so convinced the American people of his leadership that their expectations for his term far exceed his – or anyone’s capacity to govern, disappointment results. That’s when they go looking for another confidence man – one whose promises aren’t sullied by the compromise and concessions made in the effort to deliver results – and the cycle begins anew.”

What mean “they,” white man? Beltway pundits know that they’ll be around for the next presidential confidence man. That is their idea of taking the long view, in which presidents come and go, but keepers of the republican flame like themselves remain.

This seems a bit skewed, in that the enduring question of Obama’s presidency may well be one they’ve refused to pose: Why didn’t the man who roused so many Americans in 2008 by offering what seemed a credible narrative of their discontents and at least some credible strategic parameters for confronting them, come back to them when it mattered? Wouldn’t that have been at least as “plausible” as staying stuck in the Beltanschauung’s vise?


Guess Who Obama Was Channeling in his Populist Kansas Speech?

Dec. 8, 2011

You really can’t get more egg on your face than Barack Obama‘s neoliberal Beltway apologists have after his big speech in Kansas. That’s because a portion of the speech reads as if the president were channeling the pundits’ nemesis, the political psychologist and consultant Drew Westen. It was a terrific vindication of the political psychologist Drew Westin, whose criticisms of Obama I’d been defending against Obama’s Washington apologists. Obama’s Kansas speech showed he’d gotten Westen’s message (and Occupy Wall Street’s message). Huffington Post, Guess Who Obama Was Channeling In Kansas | HuffPost Latest News Alternet

Last August 7 Westen’s essay, “What Happened to Obama’s Passion?,” landed in The New York Times like “a rhetorical nuke dropped on ground zero in the liberal heartland,” wrote the blogger Andrew Sprung at the time in a post titled, none too gently, “A Lover of Fairy Tales Casts Obama as Villain in Chief.”

Sprung’s title encapsulated the reaction to Westen by keepers of the neoliberal Beltanschaunng, or Beltway worldview, such as Fareed Zakaria and Jonathan Chait, who, as I showed at length right here, mocked what Chait called “Westen’s lengthy, attention-grabbing… parody of liberal fantasizing.”

Deriding appeals by Westen and me for presidential storytelling as potent as Teddy Roosevelt’s against de-regulating capitalism, they singled him out for imagining that, as Chait sneered, “every known impediment to the legislative process–special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions,…. [the] settled beliefs of public opinion–are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.”

“Americans pay hardly any attention to what presidents say, and what little they take in, they forget almost immediately,” explained Chait, too young, perhaps, to recall the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan. As recently as November 20, in “When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?” he was still fretting about “Drew Westen’s attention-grabbing, anguished New York Times essay” and accusing Westen of making claims he’d never made.

The savants were especially merciless on Westen for suggesting some lines he thought Obama should have delivered in his inaugural address or during the debt-ceiling crisis or this fall.

Well! Guess who has now delivered the very speech that Westen proposed? Here are some of the lines that Westen suggested in his essay last summer. Following them are the ones Obama delivered this week — in the very town where Teddy Roosevelt gave his “New Nationalism” speech in 1910.

Westen last summer on what Obama should say:

“Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results…..”

Obama last week::

“Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. ‘The market will take care of everything,’ they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes — especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger…. It’s a simple theory – one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government…. Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It’s never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible post-war boom of the 50s and 60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.”

Now that it’s clear who was totally right about the value of presidential speech-making and who was totally wrong, it has suddenly become very, very important to those who were wrong, those who took to the airwaves and commentary sites so furiously last summer to denounce Westen, to pretend that he never existed. They need to make him a prophet without honor in his own country. That, after all, is precisely what high priests have always done to prophets.

So now, here is Chait quoting Obama’s speech (though not the lines Westen suggested) — and neglecting, for a change, to remind us how pointless and counterproductive such speech-making would be. Now, Chait finds the speech “an expression of a Rooseveltian belief in regulated capitalism, a progressive income tax, and shared prosperity rather than runaway inequality. But,” he can’t resist adding, “not to be too low-minded about it — it also reads like a frame for a campaign to contrast himself with Mitt Romney.”

Well, that makes it okay then! It’s time to leave the prose of governing for the poetry of campaigning! The Beltway understands!

But maybe, in Obama’s case, a shift to campaign poetry is really all it is, Those of us who’ve been urging it on him while he was still governing (or not) were deeply disgusted by his paralytic holding back as a truth-teller — not because, as Chait and Zakaria insisted, we had a psychological need to undercut him but because we knew that Obama and his Beltway apologists were undercutting his own and the country’s prospects.

Thanks to the “atomic bomb” of Drew Westen’s essay, Obama got the message and has given an atomic bomb of a speech. No, Washington won’t change because of it. But if he keeps delivering it and backing it up with a few of the right vetoes and real confrontations, voters will be far more likely not only to re-elect Obama but to give him Congress he can work with.



In The Persistence of the Color Line, Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy explains why a politics of racial grievance and paroxysm won’t hit the moving target of plutocracy. I was glad to review this book for The Nation (“False Comforts,” Dec. 19, 2011)