How the left learned to be helpless
On the first day of December last year, Barack Obama stood before the assembled Corps of Cadets at West Point and announced his decision to send another 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan. The president’s nationally televised address was, in many ways, the most honest speech made to the American people by their leader in a generation. Obama conceded that our client state in Afghanistan “has been hampered by corruption” and “has moved backwards.” He told us he had rejected “a more dramatic and open-ended escalation” of the war because that would require setting “goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.” He called on the nation to restore “the connection between our national security and our economy,” since “our prosperity provides a foundation for our power,” which means therefore that “our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended—because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”
It was as if the president were walking back half a century of American overreach and hubris in foreign affairs, back past John F. Kennedy’s inaugural declaration that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Now Obama was finally conceding that there were limits. It was an argument in the very best tradition of American democracy: educational, unshirking, and honest; grounded in history; cognizant of physical realities and limitations but no less cognizant of humane and democratic principles. Had Obama delivered these words soon after he took office, as a prologue to making a major change in our foreign and military policies, they would have justified every hope his liberal supporters had for him.
Instead, of course, these words were merely a coda, a belated attempt to reassure us that the policy of escalation Obama had just announced was nothing of the sort. The decision stood: 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. After stating the case for standing down in the most deliberate, accurate, and insightful words possible, our president went ahead and did the wrong thing anyway.
How could this be? It was the question that Obama’s most fervent supporters had been asking themselves for months, as their candidate discarded almost every vision of a new America, a new world, that he had described during his campaign. By the time of his West Point speech, health-care “reform” had already been transformed into yet another scheme to transfer wealth to the richest corporate interests in the country. The stimulus program had been botched, the promised money delayed and diverted from badly needed public projects into unhelpful tax cuts. The banks had been bailed out but not the people, and any significant proposals for repairing our infrastructure, addressing climate change, re-regulating the financial markets, or rebuilding New Orleans were generally acknowledged to be dead letters.
Now, with the president’s decision on Afghanistan, our foreign policy settled back into its familiar pattern of endless war for unknown purposes. To people who had been clamoring for real change in how we work and consume, how we live in the world and with one another, this retreat to the failed policies of the recent past was stunning. No other president in our history had so thoroughly spurned his political base in so short a time.
To understand how this could have happened, it is instructive to pay less attention to what Obama said in his West Point speech and more to where he said it. That is, in front of the designated heirs to an officer class that in recent years has accrued unprecedented influence over policies once thought to be the exclusive domain of elected officials. Obama’s choice of venue provided the perhaps-too-liberal president a reassuringly martial podium, and in doing so it assured the Pentagon of an outcome its officers had in good part already determined by means of their own scandalously insubordinate intelligence leaks, and a recasting of history that assigned themselves sole credit for whatever “victory” was won in Iraq.
The president had undertaken a similar act of obeisance a few months earlier on Wall Street, where he had gone to plead for the cooperation of the financial sector and was faced with an even less enthusiastic audience of stone-faced officers. Two weeks after the West Point speech, the heads of some of the largest bailed-out banks failed even to show up for what was billed as an important White House conference on loosening lending restrictions and creating jobs, pleading “inclement weather.” And all the while, Republicans were stonewalling the health-care bill that was meant to be the cornerstone of Obama’s legacy.
Despite such receptions, the president continues to press for “bipartisanship” and elite consensus. One of the most charismatic politicians of his time, a man who was able to raise the most money and draw the biggest crowds in American political history has apparently decided that his new job is to fluff up the generals and bankers and politicians who not very long ago were in panicked disarray. Armchair psychologists from the Maureen Dowd school of political commentary like to analyze this conversion in terms of the elusive personality of Obama himself. Others prefer to dwell on the surprising ineptitude of his administration. And some simply accept his about-face in terms of the political exigencies of an essentially conservative nation, concluding wistfully that Obama is confronted by so many barriers to change—Republican obstructionism, the treachery of this or that Democratic senator, the nature of the Constitution itself—that the country is now ungovernable.
All of which may be true. But it only skims the surface of a greater tidal shift, one that has little to do with Obama himself and in fact has inundated the whole of our democratic process. This shift, which is subtle and has been many years in the making, might best be understood by considering a design underlying many of the interrogation techniques we employ at the (still-unclosed) prison at Guantánamo or at the black sites we still maintain, wherever they are. That is, bringing about the state known as learned helplessness.
The expression dates from a famous set of experiments by Martin Seligman some forty years ago, in which he found that dogs exposed to repeated and seemingly random electric shocks eventually stopped trying to escape those shocks, even when they could very easily do so. This insight gave rise to “no touch” torture, pioneered in large part by the CIA, whose efforts to “break” prisoners involved all manner of techniques, from the unsavory to the absurd, such as depriving prisoners of sleep for weeks on end, bombarding them with ear-splitting noises, exposing them to extreme heat and cold, shackling them in “stress positions,” tying bras to their heads, making them bark like dogs, and waterboarding them. There is no evidence that such practices enhance the odds that prisoners will provide more useful information to interrogators. It is well established, though, that they will make prisoners docile, and so the techniques remain popular.
For decades now, as our public discourse in general has become more scattered, random, and irrational, Republicans—funded by corporate and other elites in the private sector—have stunned Democrats with absurdist attacks that have proved to be effective at garnering votes and, more important in the long term, at hampering Democrats even when they hold the majority. Democrats have been reduced to a state of psychological helplessness, one in which any political obstacles—ranging from the prevarications of stalking horses like Senators Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, to the plaintive cries of the tea-baggers out in the streets, to the sterner demands of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Big Pharma—are transformed into insurmountable organic obstacles.
We have learned to be helpless. And in this state of political depression, it no longer matters how many elections liberals win for the Democrats, or how badly Republican, right-wing policies fail or how much damage they do to the country or the world. There is simply no way to do anything differently.
Such hapless fatalism is, of course, in direct opposition to every tenet of American liberalism, which is rooted in the idea that human agency is still possible in the modern world—that democratic action can make a difference when ranged against vast, impersonal forces and supposedly immutable “laws” of human society. Liberalism’s antecedents lie in one nineteenth-century rebellion after another—against laissez-faire capitalism, patriarchy, slavery, Social Darwinism, and other efforts to transmute political dispositions into irrefutable “social science.” American voters of the time were regularly assured by authoritative voices that “hard money” was an indispensable economic principle; that women, people of color, and many varieties of European immigrant were inherently inferior; that any attempts to regulate the “natural” workings of the economy, even private charity, would thwart human progress because they interfered with the culling of those who, in Herbert Spencer’s description, were not “sufficiently complete to live.”
Crusades against these self-serving philosophies of the wealthy and the powerful were waged in a series of determined grassroots movements—from abolition, universal suffrage, and women’s rights to the first revolts of working men and women in the cities and the mills—that were the essence of the democratic idea. They presumed that ordinary people, learning from their own experiences, could challenge and overcome the superstitions powerful elites used to oppress them. And in so struggling, they would free not only themselves but many others, so that they, too, could contribute to the progress of the human enterprise.
The first attempt to fashion this idea of agency into an enduring, broad-based political movement was Populism, which began in the 1870s as an agrarian uprising. American farmers, who still made up the majority of the population, were confronted with a monetary system that depressed crop prices and gave financiers a near monopoly on capital. Many families were forced deeper into debt with every harvest, even as unchecked financial speculation regularly set off Wall Street “panics” followed by devastating depressions lasting anywhere from several months to several years.
The farmers had come to view both major parties as hopelessly unresponsive. Elections tended to be colorful festivals, often decided on the basis of personality or gaffes endlessly harped on in the outrageous, highly partisan media of the day. It was the time of the “Mugwumps” and “the Plumed Knight”; “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!,” and “James G. Blaine, the Continental Liar from the State of Maine”—phrases that mean as much to us today as “Borking,” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” and “swift-boating” will to Americans a century from now.
Candidates appealed to voters mostly by appealing to their ethnic and social identities, “waving the bloody shirt” to remind their audiences of the treasonable crimes the other side had committed during the bitter culture wars of the Sixties—the 1860s, that is. No matter who won, the local and federal governments were understood—with good reason—to be the wholly owned creatures of corporate entities whose enormous wealth dwarfed that of the governments themselves. When offices changed hands, the new group of political professionals and their sponsors were the only people likely to benefit. Any and all appeals to the court system were useless. Just thirty years after it had supported a federal income tax to fund the Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the very practice unconstitutional, an “assault upon capital” and the start of “a war of the poor against the rich.” In 1886, the Court wielded the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the rights of freed slaves, as a shield against the regulation of big business, ruling that corporations were now somehow the same as people.
But the farmers had not yet learned that they were helpless in the face of such corruption. In September of 1877, a small group of men met at a farmhouse in Lampasas County, in the heart of Texas. They called themselves the Knights of Reliance, and though that name was soon changed to the Southern Alliance, their original appellation reflected their determination to rely on themselves and no one else to alter their situation. By 1890, they were the National Farmers Alliance, with some 500,000 members in the South and another 100,000 in Kansas alone. Gathered under the banner of the People’s Party, and inviting input from everywhere, the Populists quickly assembled a host of solutions and formulated ways to get them done—perhaps the most imaginative and genuinely grassroots political movement in American history.
The leaders of the People’s Party organized a circuit of thousands of farmer-lecturers who spoke to audiences about problems they knew, in terms they understood. The Populists had ideas for dealing with every obstacle—many of them amazingly sophisticated and effective. In the halls of the nation’s legislatures, they demanded the public ownership of railroad, telegraph, and telephone infrastructure; a graduated income tax; the direct election of U.S. senators; recall provisions; the secret ballot; laws to allow labor unions to organize; an expanded money supply; and a “sub-treasury” system of storing crops so that farmers could not only wait for the most favorable conditions before putting their goods on the market but in the meantime could draw credit from that reserve rather than from Wall Street.
All of these ideas and more were promulgated in the Populist lectures, which were attended by as many as 2 million people in forty-three states. These meetings provided some of the most poignant moments ever recorded of American democracy in action: Wagon trains six miles long heading out to the prairie to listen to brass bands and lectures on currency reform. Fourth of July “Alliance Day” rallies drawing as many as 20,000 people to learn about the “money trust” and the gold standard. Suppers, box socials, and sing-alongs, all dedicated to providing a useful airing of complicated political ideas that might improve the life of every participant. And when their demands and petitions were not enough to budge the leaders of the major parties, the Populists went into electoral politics.
Despite widespread and often illegal voter suppression by the major parties and a less-than–enthralling candidate (the largely forgotten James Weaver), the Populists captured four states outright and more than 8 percent of the overall presidential vote in 1892. Over the next four years, the People’s Party regularly drew 25 percent to 45 percent of the vote in some twenty states. The Populists were serious about taking power. In the South, they crossed the great racial divide to make alliances with black farmers. And when electoral fraud threatened to rob them of the State House of Representatives in Kansas, they briefly took control of that chamber by force of arms.
The ineluctable problem the Populists faced, though, was that they represented a class in steady decline. Theirs was at heart a nostalgic movement, trying to revitalize a receding agrarian order through radical new methods. Despite their support for unions, they had trouble making any inroads in the fast-growing cities, which they distrusted in the first place. Amid their frustration, some retreated into purest fantasy (Congressman Ignatius Donnelly, for one, was an Atlantis enthusiast), while some gave themselves over to paranoia about immigrants and about Jews on Wall Street, thereby tainting the entire movement. In the South, the Populists’ occasional interracial alliances provided an excuse for white supremacists to wage a campaign of mass violence and electoral fraud against them.
Most of the movement was lured into the Democratic Party by William Jennings Bryan in 1896. The Populists had seriously considered nominating the socialist labor leader Eugene Debs as their candidate for president, which might have cemented an alliance between workers and farmers and dramatically altered the course of American history. But Bryan was young (thirty-six) and charismatic, and he had electrified the farmers with his “Cross of Gold” speech, in which he advocated the coinage of silver to increase the money supply and solve the farmers’ credit problems. The Populists knew their failure to throw in with the Democrats would have meant an immediate victory for a thoroughly corporatized Republican Party, and so they relented. As it happened, Bryan lost by a narrow margin, 51 percent to 47 percent, despite an overwhelming Republican advantage in money, and the People’s Party dissolved in the wake of the election. The Populists had cracked open the American political system for participatory democracy. But they had also begun to learn about the limits of that system.
The Republicans themselves, even in victory, could not ignore the growing demand for government accountability. The standard of reform was taken up by the Progressives, almost all of whom were current or former G.O.P. members. The Progressives were far more in step with their times. They tended to be prosperous citizens of towns and cities. For a soapbox, they offered not a formal lecture circuit but a newsstand full of stylish magazines printing muckraking articles with such catchy titles as “The Treason of the Senate,” “The Shame of the Cities,” and “The History of the Standard Oil Company.” They were savvy enough to get some of the Populists’ best ideas passed, and they contributed a few of their own, including potent antitrust laws; the regulation and public ownership of utilities and mass-transit systems; clean-food, drug, and water regulations; nature conservation; and a larger civil service.
The Progressives rebutted the past century’s conservative “social science”—which had proposed another kind of helplessness, in the guise of biological destiny—with the new philosophy of pragmatism, then being espoused by the likes of John Dewey and William James. The pragmatists rejected notions of destiny and refused to take anything on faith. They insisted on testing assumptions and preferred the authority of statistics and experience to the claims of ideology. They believed fervently in education, in self–improvement, in man’s ability to alter his environment, and in the necessity for government to level the playing field and provide a safety net. Whereas the Populists had tried to reform a dying social order by democratizing it, the Progressives would invigorate the new world of the cities and the suburbs by giving its citizens, many of them immigrants, the tools to better themselves—to tap the immense human potential that was everywhere amid that astonishing collection of strivers, tinkerers, and questioners known as the American people.
Once in office, though, the Progressives often acted as elitists, trying to impose their own ideals of behavior on the people they ruled. Like the Populists, they were predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestants who needed to win the support of a population that was increasingly made up of new Catholic and Jewish immigrants. Time after time, Progressive coalitions overcame the formidable power of the urban, usually Democratic machines, winning elections when municipal corruption got out of hand—only to perform what that old Tammany sachem George Washington Plunkitt called “the sky-rocket act” and plummet back to earth. Rather than concentrate on the material needs of the urban masses, Progressive reformers wasted their mandates on ancillary or irrelevant issues, such as halting purely political appointments, balancing municipal budgets, and “sabbatarianism”—making sure that theaters and saloons were shuttered on Sunday, the one day most working people had to enjoy any such form of recreation. Again and again, Progressives went down to resounding defeats after single terms.
By the 1920s, “Progressive” was an almost meaningless term, much as it is today. Conservative politicians, including Calvin Coolidge, were happy to appropriate the label, even as corporations snapped up progressive-sounding ideas and terms—much as they attach themselves to “green” ideas and terminology today—creating such ostensibly liberal institutions as “company unions.” Worst of all for the Progressives, many of them had lined up behind the most egregiously awful, imposed idea of their time: Prohibition. Swayed by health statistics, and the thought of all the money the poor would save by not indulging, even such laudable public servants as the community activist Jane Addams and the conservationist Gifford Pinchot found themselves joining an unfortunate assemblage of interest groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, in support of the war on liquor.
Prohibition was the first great issue on which liberal elites would display what was to become their greatest vulnerability: letting the reforming impulse slide over into unrealistic plans to reshape not just society but human nature, and refusing to acknowledge the particular class interests that produced that impulse. Such Progressive tendencies begot deadly political caricatures that would be flung at all liberals—quiche eaters, limousine liberals, bobos, etc.
As is usually the case, it was the liberals themselves who cleaned up the mess, undoing Prohibition in 1933. And under the immense pressure of the Great Depression, it was liberalism as a whole that came into its own, fusing reformist impulses into a single movement grounded in practical, urgent reforms. The liberals of the New Deal implemented the nation’s Social Security system, pushed through a steeply graduated income tax, and provided immediate relief that kept people eating and working, in their jobs and on their farms. They also made fundamental changes in the nation’s power relationships and reversed disastrous economic policies. Finally subsidizing crop prices as the Populists had agitated for, they halted, then healed, the catastrophic climate change of their time—the soil damage that had reduced the Dust Bowl to near desert and sent enormous clouds of dirt swirling across the country and out to the Atlantic. With the Tennessee Valley Authority and the creation of other public power authorities, they provided consumers throughout the South and West with a “public option” that checked private utility costs and provided millions of people with electricity. They extended public infrastructure. They built new dams, bridges, schools, hospitals, even entire towns.
Beyond all of this, however, what the New Deal did was to liberate whole new classes of the American people and bring them into the democratic process. The support of government liberals for labor was critical to creating the modern union movement and giving millions of Americans some control over their working conditions. Farmers, too, got a say in what they would grow, and when. Urban reform movements had backing from Washington. For the first time, a liberal coalition in New York was able to last for more than one term. Its leader, Fiorello La Guardia, might be considered the embodiment of the liberal ideal: uncouth, urban, and from the streets; Protestant and Catholic and Jewish in background and belief; uncompromisingly honest and dedicated to good government and willing and able to do things that improved the day-to-day existence of working and poor people.
There was no longer an impregnable upper class in the United States; the path to improvement was now open to all. That is to say, everything that might have been granted before as a privilege—by the city political machines, by wealthy philanthropists, or by the noblesse oblige of the old Wasp order—was now available as a right.
For a generation, liberals learned from their successes. In gaining control of the federal government at nearly every level, liberalism became at times an almost perfect perpetual–motion machine for the reformist impulse. It is stunning, for instance, to recall how popular, crusading books of the 1960s were debated and translated into congressional hearings and then into effective government programs, whether they concerned poverty (as did Michael Harrington’s The Other America), environmental degradation (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), or consumer safety (Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed). Grassroots citizen movements such as the campaign to end atmospheric nuclear testing received almost instant attention from the Kennedy Administration, which then concluded a test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Labor leaders were regularly invited to the White House and to political conventions, where they served as major power brokers.
This period marked, in many ways, the apex of the open society. Thanks to the new pressures of the Cold War, a highly fluid party structure in which both of the major parties now had liberal and conservative wings, and the practical political skills of Lyndon Johnson (who grew up not far from Lampasas), a staggering variety of reforms was passed. Programs such as Medicare significantly reduced poverty, increases in financial aid made college available to many American families, and an array of environmental regulations salvaged our water and air quality. Liberals went to the courts—which were now on their side—to guarantee defendants a lawyer, pull down censorship laws, and establish “one man, one vote” as the law of the land. In Congress, in the White House, and in the streets, liberals got behind the next great wave of liberation movements, ending almost all legal discrimination against women and ethnic minorities and helping gay Americans out of the closet.
But with such success came, inevitably, corruption and reaction. The “Great Society,” Lyndon Johnson insisted, the very first time he used the term in public, “is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.” Yet no society can go on ceaselessly challenging itself, any more than it can “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship.” Protestors became radicalized beyond their ability to be accommodated or appeased by the state. Unions became complacent and (though this was grossly overstated) corrupt. Above all, liberal constituencies began to resent solutions imposed by courts or bureaucrats, even when they provided necessary programs or broke societal logjams. These conflicts paralyzed the Democratic leadership and fueled the suspicion—growing even within the liberal base—that liberalism itself was helpless.
As the New Deal coalition began to unravel, another political movement was growing in force, one that, in its appropriation and inversion of Populist rhetoric, themes, and methods, is best described as counter-Populism. The father of modern counter-Populism was George Wallace, who over the course of four presidential campaigns perfected the language to cloak his racial appeals in the guise of anxiety over rising drug use, crime, sexual and gender liberation, urban decay, and societal disorder; who spoke to the growing fear that the world was beyond the control of working people, or at least white working people. It was Wallace who delighted in exposing the hypocrisy of elite liberals and raised the question of why wealthy Northerners should trouble themselves over the rights of black people in the South. His counter-Populism harked back to a mythologized past when the social order was firmly authoritarian.
Wallace’s South was whole and complete, disturbed only by the attempts of mysterious, “pointy-headed bureaucrats” from Washington to stir things up. Similarly, his working-class followers were also whole and complete. There was no need for self-improvement, or to acknowledge the intrinsic problems of the world and devise ways to fix them. Instead, human agency consisted in blue-collar whites giving their votes to Wallace, so that he could make all the bad things go away. Ironically, his strategy was such that he even ended up suppressing violent resistance in Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement, using the state police apparatus to help root out some of the most psychopathic resisters to integration. Popular protest of any type was to be channeled exclusively into his own political campaigns.
The Republican Party got the message. The G.O.P.’s move to the right was not simply one of racial demographics, the much-vaunted “Southern strategy”; it was, as well, a notable change of rhetoric and of posture. Conservatives would abandon the discredited principles to which they had clung for decades—the eternal verities of hard money, balanced budgets, classical economics, and an elitist social order—in favor of a corporatist economics complete with whatever deficit-busting state subsidies were necessary, fundamentalist “low-church” religion, and the idolization of the white working class. It was a new variation on counter-Populism: voters would be courted with continual praise for their ethnic and cultural superiority while a large and intrusive state was turned over solely to the ends of corporate elites, thereby ensuring a steady flood of campaign money.
Republicans had considerable success with such appeals, but they got their biggest boost from what should have been a tangential issue when the Democrats managed to bog themselves down in Vietnam. This was the ultimate Progressive example of listening to impractical theorists and imposing a solution that was workable only in theory. Somehow, even as the Nixon Administration continued to bungle the war, it seemed to prove everything that the right was saying about liberals in every sphere. The Vietnam quagmire split the old liberal coalition decisively, betrayed the trust of many patriotic Americans who had been assured of both the war’s necessity and its viability, and sent the economy into a brief but unsettling tailspin.
And yet, bad as it was, the debacle in Vietnam discredited the Pentagon and Cold War hawks as much as it did Washington liberals. The backlash, as with that over civil rights and the other liberation movements, was severe but short-lived, and when it was over the right still seemed to be at a cultural standstill. Women were not going back to the kitchen, gays were not going back to the closet, black people were not going back to the back of the bus. Throughout the South, interracial coalitions elected moderately liberal Democrats to state and city governments in the middle and late 1970s. Liberal philosophies, liberal convictions, and liberal standards of civil society were now predominant and often unassailable. Even the mightiest icons of the right wing, such as Governor Ronald Reagan in California, did not seriously challenge the basic assumptions of the liberal state. Six years after his last presidential campaign, George Wallace, again running for governor, was publicly apologizing for his racial demagoguery and appealing to black voters. When Richard Nixon admitted about the same time that “we are all Keynesians now,” it could as easily have been said that “we are all liberals now.”
Once the United States regained its footing at the close of the Vietnam War, and looked back on all the progress that one wave of determined reform movements after another had brought over the past hundred years, the next question should have been: To what new heights will we now ascend? Even if decades of political dominance had turned some liberal professionals and bureaucrats toward reaction and obfuscation, and even if some liberal interest groups were deeply suspicious of others, the fact remained that the power of the state could still serve as an invaluable tool in bolstering populist movements and passing critical legislation.
The trouble was that—much as the Populists had been folded into the Democratic Party under William Jennings Bryan—liberalism had now been folded into a Democratic Party that, in considering only its short-term institutional needs, was about to disembowel itself. It turned out not to be necessary for the right to actually become Populist. Absorbing the old cant now constantly echoed by an intimidated or captive mass media—that liberals are naive, impractical, “out of the mainstream”—Democratic leaders fell for the idea that the right represented the true will of the people, and acted accordingly.
The most incredible expression of this trend was the internalization by Democratic leaders in the 1980s of the Republican charge that the Democrats were the party of “special interests.” Suddenly, the myriad individuals liberalism had helped to liberate—union members, African Americans, gay people, women—were illegitimate political actors, no better (or even worse!) than corporate lobbyists. It was ludicrous, but it worked, in large part because it shifted the balance of power not just to Republicans but also to the whitest, wealthiest, most conservative Democratic elites. Assuming a posture of helplessness before the Republicans’ fraudulent Populism, the Democrats acquiesced to and assisted in bundling up the nation’s industrial base and shipping it overseas—a policy that shut down the working-class escalator to a better life, gutted the unions, and deprived liberals of their main source of political power.
The liberal political system had relied in large part on maintaining American cities as self–perpetuating economic engines, where industrial and postindustrial economies existed side by side. People of all kinds could work at unionized blue-collar jobs that paid well enough for them, or their children, to make the leap to the white-collar jobs of the future, right next door. When liberals and conservatives alike rushed to embrace the new ethos of “globalization,” a basic power relationship was reversed. America’s business leaders no longer had any stake in the success of the national project, and they accelerated the shipment of both jobs and capital overseas.
The government began to lose—indeed actively to toss away—the chance for true human agency that liberals had fought so hard for in the preceding decades. Instead of building constituencies as counterweights to the rapid consolidation of power by global corporations, politicians in both major parties now had to spend nearly all their time going hat in hand to the leaders of those corporations, trying to raise money. Even as Democrats worked to give up power, they also made sure to ostracize any persons deemed embarrassingly radical—women and people of color in particular—with arranged “Sister Souljah moments” in which party members competed to see who could display the most “independence” by insulting core constituencies.
Working people now faced the same hard choice the Populist farmers had faced a hundred years before. Told relentlessly that they represented a dying class from the “Rust Belt” past, they were instructed to fall in with one major party or the other. Presidential primary campaigns became extended bouts of purging and self-criticism, in which Democrats fell over one another to swear fealty to the paradoxical goals of higher military spending and balanced budgets. Candidates donned duck-hunting gear, grabbed shotguns, and made elaborate displays of assumed folksiness. Party leaders began hunting for self-financed millionaires to run for office, and New York City, once the laboratory for all that was successful about the liberal project, ended up simply electing the richest man in town mayor.
This abasement reached its nadir in 2008, with Obama and Hillary Clinton’s bowling and shot-drinking competitions. Democrats had completely unlearned the lessons of coalition building that had served them so well, and learned a new lesson: candidates with the audacity to be black or female could attract the sympathy of blue-collar white men only by condescending to them. Yes, working people have been known to enjoy a whiskey and a few frames after a tough day. They also invented folk music and the blues, like to watch Shakespeare and read the Bible, formed the world’s great unions, and came up with ingenious plans to get a few cents more for their crops. But a political class that has learned helplessness must spread it among the people; it’s the only way it knows how to survive. Patronizing any group is the first step to ignoring it entirely.
And so we arrive at the present moment, in which the people are not asked to do anything. The fine words and able presentation of Obama, whether delivered at West Point or on Wall Street or in the well of the House of Representatives, obscure the fact that they are subtle parodies of a century of liberal argument. Whereas the Populists’ soapbox lecturers or the Progressives’ magazine exposés or FDR in his radio “fireside chats” explained the way of the world to the people and argued for why and how that way must change, Obama—like most Democratic leaders—concedes that the way of the world is wrong but tells us why it must stay that way because, some time in the past, powerful interests decreed it so.
Thus we are told that single-payer or a public option may be a good idea but that private insurance companies are simply too well–ensconced for reform. Afghanistan may be hopeless, but we have already committed to it. The power of the people is never activated, nothing much is asked or required of us, even as thugs overrun congressional town-hall meetings.
Instead, the party that claims to represent all progressive interests in this country proceeds with its impervious, self-interested agenda. The administration’s stated priorities for the near future are to balance the budget before a deep recession has abated and to commit the nation to a long-running war in a dysfunctional Asian country that we neither understand nor care about—thereby promising to repeat, simultaneously, the two worst mistakes made by liberal presidents in the past seventy-five years. As for the long term, the White House will form a commission bent on cutting “entitlements,” such as Social Security and Medicare, that are the bedrock of retired Americans’ prosperity.
Obama is an adroit politician and, like the last adroit Democratic president, he may be able to secure another term in the White House. Perhaps he will even be able to keep a Democratic majority in Congress, though this now seems unlikelier by the day. But to treat this as a triumph of activism is to say that a prisoner retains free will because he is able to stay in his cell. Obama, the congressional Democrats, and most of our politicians at every level now maneuver within political confines defined by financial and military interests they cannot conceive of challenging. Perversely, our ruling elite today is one of unparalleled diversity, and includes unprecedented numbers of women, minorities, and individuals who have worked their way up to power on brains and determination alone, usually without having inherited connections or wealth. It is a meritocracy much like the one long envisioned by many liberal reformers—and it has decided to capitulate, reap its considerable rewards, and draw the ladder up after it.
Who will challenge this shining fortress upon a hill? The right-wing pseudo-Populists who have devoured the Republican Party may win some victories in the short run. But the Tea Party and its fellow travelers have already become a jointly owned subsidiary of News Corp. and the likes of Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks lobby. (To understand just how fraudulent the movement is, one need only look at the $549-a-seat price tag for tickets to its first convention, and the $100,000 speaker’s fee paid to Sarah Palin. So much for box socials and sing-alongs.) Right-wing Populism is anyway inherently contradictory, a demand that the state recede to a size that will leave its citizens utterly defenseless against the gigantic forces at loose in the world today. No one is going to abolish the Federal Reserve, or the income tax, or Social Security and Medicare; if they did, small businesses and working people would be trampled beneath the corporate entities bent on their exploitation. The counter-Populism of the right is the prisoner’s last, despairing option, to move from learned helplessness to suicide.
Coming to power when he did, with the political skills and the majorities he possesses, Barack Obama squandered an almost unprecedented opportunity. But it is increasingly clear that he never intended to challenge the power structure he had so skillfully penetrated. With the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations are, once more, people, American democracy has snapped shut again—the great, forced opening of the past 130 years has ended. There is no longer any meaningful reformist impulse left in our politics. The idea of modern American liberalism has vanished among our elite, and simply voting for one man or supporting one of the two major parties will not restore it. The work will have to be done from the ground up, and it will have to be done by us.