Hope AND Change? Or Hope FOR Change?

Kyle’s post, “What Hope and Change Really Mean“, is a beautifully written and crafted synopsis of the Obama Pitch, and is also most likely a pretty good summation of his (Obama’s, not Kyle’s) appeal. The fact that it’s both wrong-headed and at the same time amounts to little more than wishful thinking and generational warfare shouldn’t undercut the importance of having these sentiments out in the open where they can finally be addressed.

Kyle begins by acknowledging that there is some (minor) justification for cynicism on the part of critics but then promises that “there is reason to believe, reason to hope, that this time, it’s different.” And what reason would that be?

“We can change.”

Well, yes, but what reason does he have for thinking we will? You know, the reason he promised to provide? Of that there is nary a trace. He claims toward the end that:

…this is the kind of change that Barack Obama represents.  It is a change that is at once idealistic in its hope for unity, but pragmatic in the understanding that we are at our strongest when we compliment and suppliment each other, that those who oppose us can make us better, can help us succeed where we would alone fail.

So, after knocking critics for claiming Obama is all rhetoric and no substance, Kyle responds by invoking…Obama’s rhetoric. But he has no substance to offer. If we take that rhetoric away, what makes him think Obama represents any sort of change at all? He doesn’t say, maybe because he can’t. As Paul Street wrote last year in “The Obama Illusion“, (via the incomparable eRobin at Fact-esque), Barack has a long history that we ignore at our peril.

Never mind, for example, that Obama was recently hailed as a “Hamiltonian” believer in “limited government” and “free trade” by Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks, who praises Obama for having “a mentality formed by globalization, not the SDS.” Or that he had to be shamed off the “New Democrat Directory” of the corporate-right Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) by the popular left black Internet magazine Black Commentator (Bruce Dixon, “Obama to Have Name Removed From DLC List,” Black Commentator, June 26, 2003). 

Never mind that Obama (consistent with Brooks’s description of him) has lent his support to the aptly named Hamilton Project, formed by corporate-neoliberal Citigroup chair Robert Rubin and “other Wall Street Democrats” to counter populist rebellion against corporatist tendencies within the Democratic Party (David Sirota, “Mr. Obama Goes to Washington,” the Nation, June 26). Or that he lent his politically influential and financially rewarding assistance to neoconservative pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman’s (“D”-CT) struggle against the Democratic antiwar insurgent Ned Lamont. Or that Obama has supported other “mainstream Democrats” fighting antiwar progressives in primary races (see Alexander Cockburn, “Obama’s Game,” the Nation, April 24, 2006). Or that he criticized efforts to enact filibuster proceedings against reactionary Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

Never mind that Obama “dismissively” referred—in a “tone laced with contempt”—to the late progressive and populist U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone as “something of a gadfly.” Or that he chose the neoconservative Lieberman to be his “assigned” mentor in the U.S. Senate. Or that “he posted a long article on the liberal blog Daily Kos criticizing attacks against lawmakers who voted for right-wing Supreme Court nominee John Roberts.” Or that he opposed an amendment to the Bankruptcy Act that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent. Or that he told Time magazine’s Joe Klein last year that he’d never given any thought to Al Gore’s widely discussed proposal to link a “carbon tax” on fossil fuels to targeted tax relief for the nation’s millions of working poor (Joe Klein, “The Fresh Face,” Time, October 17, 2006). 

Never mind that Obama voted for a business-friendly “tort reform” bill that rolls back working peoples’ ability to obtain reasonable redress and compensation from misbehaving corporations (Cockburn; Sirota). Or that Obama claims to oppose the introduction of single-payer national health insurance on the grounds that such a widely supported social-democratic change would lead to employment difficulties for workers in the private insurance industry—at places like Kaiser and Blue Cross Blue Shield (Sirota). Does Obama support the American scourge of racially disparate mass incarceration on the grounds that it provides work for tens of thousands of prison guards? Should the U.S. maintain the illegal operation of Iraq and pour half its federal budget into “defense” because of all the soldiers and other workers that find employment in imperial wars and the military-industrial complex? Does the “progressive” senator really need to be reminded of the large number of socially useful and healthy alternatives that exist for the investment of human labor power at home and abroad—wetlands preservation, urban ecological retrofitting, drug counseling, teaching, infrastructure building and repair, safe and affordable housing construction, the building of windmills and solar power facilities, etc.? 

While that piece is a year old, there is nothing in Obama’s recent performance (remember, we’re not talking rhetoric now) to suggest anything has fundamentally changed in his outlook. Despite howls of protest, he nevertheless enthusiastically supported Bush’s terrible anti-worker, anti-environment, pro-corporate trade deals with Panama and Peru, the latter over the strong objections of Peruvian labor leaders, and that was a bare two months ago.

What Kyle’s argument, passionate and eloquent as it is, boils down to is that Obama says he wants us to change and we are capable of change and therefore we will change. But he must know there’s more to it than that. What kind of change? To what end? What can we actually, realistically expect? It is one thing to hope, another for that hope to have a legitimate basis. What Kyle is asking is not just for us to have faith, but for us to have faith that compromise can finally be made to work.

What Kyle – and much more dangerously, Obama himself – completely fail to acknowledge is that the radical GOP’s idea of  “compromise” and “bi-partisanship” is “My way or the highway”. They have not and will not budge one iota from their extremist agenda. Why should they? If they stand firm they know they can count on the Democrats to “compromise” by giving them everything they want. That’s what they’ve been doing for 12 yrs and for 12 yrs it has been a winning strategy thanks to the Dems’ Blue Dog conservative coalition.

The “cynicism” that Kyle so glibly dismisses is the result, as cynicism always is, of continuously disappointed hopes and consistent betrayals. Kyle’s – and Obama’s – fantasy is that there is some mystical, magical “center” where everyone can meet and where everything could be worked out by reasonable men and women if those damn hardline progressives would just get out of the way and STFU. In this view it is partisanship itself that’s the problem.

There’s still a laundry list of stances on issues, and if you don’t agree, there’s something terribly wrong with you.  I don’t disagree with disagreement upon principle, but there is something disturbing with how hardline some of these folks can be.  They will sacrifice progress for the sake of being progressive; any compromise on any issue is a de facto failure.  A selling out of our liberal or progressive values. 

With all due respect Kyle, do you have any idea what you’re talking about? Progressives and liberals have done nothing for the past 25 yrs BUT compromise. We have sacrificed progress on virtually every front in the name of “getting something done” only to see our own representatives betray their supposed beliefs in order to pander to corporate sponsors and their Beltway pundit-supporters in the conservative press. Welfare “reform”, NAFTA, GATT, the slicing-and-dicing of social programs until even the bones are picked clean, the disemboweling of education funding, worker protections, environmental protections, labor rights – do I really need to go on? Because I could. For pages.

What you and Obama are asking sounds good on tv but it is seriously unrealistic. Neither party can be trusted to let the cat in at night, no matter how pretty their words are. Worse, they are consummate scam artists, selling soap with poison in it. What you are asking us to do is “trust” people who have shown by their actions that they will distract us with snake-oil pitches and pie-in-the-sky promises while the hand we’re not watching picks our pockets. Again.

Why would we do that? Why would anyone smart enough to get out of bed in the morning do that?

Enough. We’ve been screwed too often, betrayed too often, lied to too often. It stops here.

And one more thing.

Thus we are faced with this strange paradox where progressives often seem uninterested in actually making progress, and are instead more concerned with the idea that their soldiers hold the line.

That’s also called “having the courage of your convictions” and “fighting for what you believe”. Where we are after 25 yrs of Pub rule and Dem “compromise” is on that line, fighting to hold together what little is left of the social contract, fighting to keep any more children from starving or dying of curable diseases because they don’t have food or health insurance, fighting to keep the air and water clean, fighting to keep corporations from callously killing workers in order to save a little $$ on safety equipment, and on and on and on.

If being willing to fight for those things makes me an uncompromising extremist, then so be it. I don’t think I care for the price the “center” is willing to pay to avoid that fight.

6 Responses to “Hope AND Change? Or Hope FOR Change?”

  1. No, Mick, I have no clue as to what I’m talking about.

    How long have you been fighting this battle? Seriously, how many years? And how far have you gotten with that?

    What’s really happened is simply that Democrats have capitulated, while the hardcore base abandons them largely in favor of slamming their heads against the same damn wall, over and over again.

    All due respect, you’ve been fighting your way into a corner the whole time, and I’m not really amped on that strategy.

  2. eRobin says:

    I agree with everything you wrote (what a surprise). We’re in lesser evil territory this year. I’m going with Obama b/c I think he is that lesser evil – or at least the unknown quantity (presidentially) I’m willing to roll the dice on – but as I commented at Kyle’s post, no matter who wins – even if Edwards miraculously took office – the burden will be where it always is, on us, to see what needs to get done get done.

    The thing about change this year is that you have people talking about changing the system and people talking about changing policy. I think you and I are talking about changing policy by using the system like a bludgeon b/c there ain’t going to be any changing the system. The same system that has us believing that Carter was a failure b/c of his policies instead of the system that killed them, the same system that allowed Reagan and BushCo to make huge policy gains and kept Clinton in a moderate GOP box AND still tried to destroy him just because he had a D after his name – that system will not melt away before Obama’s awesomeness. It will be waiting to crush him and force him to accommodate the same policies that are currently destroying the country. That leaves us alone to be our own champions and to pressure Obama or Clinton to do the right thing. It’s daunting and depressing but it’s also exhilarating I suppose. No, it’s mostly depressing. But we still have to do it.

    Oh – did you see that the stim pack is marginally less horrible today? I’m hoping the food stamps will still make it up from the floor. I haven’t posted about it yet but if I can get to it, I’ll drop the link here.

  3. eRobin says:

    What’s really happened is simply that Democrats have capitulated, while the hardcore base abandons them largely in favor of slamming their heads against the same damn wall, over and over again.

    I don’t think they’ve capitulated. How does it go? They didn’t sell out, they bought in. Here’s how I remember it in very broad strokes: Reagan did a lot of damage to the establishment left, which was fragile at best anyway. While he was killing the poor and undermining the middle class, the Dems were dazzled by his electoral success and, not being original thinkers and having been traumatized by the Iranian hostage crisis, figured that they’d join a winning team. So you ended up with the DLC. Those assholes are all Reagan Democrats, which is to say they are low-information Republicans whose voting interests are rooted in greed and fear.

    After the looting and tax shifting of the Reagan years, we had the predictable economic slump and when it came time to have the Dems come in and clean up, the DLC were right there to enact their Reagan-esque policies. The non-establishment left wrongly figured they had a savior in Clinton and even when they saw him doing bad things, they either didn’t or couldn’t stop him. It was eight years of peace and prosperity, right? Who could complain? Except the loony right took those eight years to test out their new media machine and found out that it worked better than they could have imagined – especially with an administration in place that wanted to keep that big table coalition and their corporate collaborators getting along. And in there maybe Clinton really believed that NAFTA really could be fixed by a President Gore and maybe he really believed that giving in to every one of the global corporatists demands w/o protecting American workers really was the best way to create a tide that lifted all boats. He didn’t strike me as a stupid man but who knows? At least we were all happy and getting along. Except when the right wing noise machine and the establishment media and Congress – including members of his own party and of his administration – were conspiring to destroy the president, making him vulnerable to every accusation of playing politics with crucial policy decisions to save his skin. You know, except for that we were all reachin’ across the aisle and lovin’ life.

    And so we got people thinking that there’s no difference between Dems and the GOP – b/c there really wasn’t. And we got people thinking that drinking beer with presidents is more important than having a president who fights to protect the economy of the country s/he leads. And we watched Al Gore – no saint, but no BushCo – get savaged by that media machine. And we got eight years of BushCo, eternal war and irreplaceable time lost in the fight to create a new energy economy thrown away with both hands.

    My greatest fear is that Obama (if he can beat McCain, which I doubt) will bring us back to those times and that sort of bi-partisanship that only lets the power elite and their interests have a seat at the mythical table since neither part of the bi-partisan coalition has the interest of working, working poor and poor Americans – or the interests of the American economy – at heart. My greatest hope is that he is talking all this post-partisan nonsense to fool enough people to get elected and that once in office, he’ll become the champion we need. I figure we’ll get something closer to the first option and have to work like heck to move him to the other.

  4. eRobin says:

    Ezra Klein said the same thing much more eloquently. I’m including the Obama love because it’s interesting too – everyone seems to really want to believe that there is meat on his rhetorical bones:

    Obama’s advisers, by contrast, are likely to point you toward his speech at the NASDAQ, which highlighted his desire to transform our economy through the application of moral leadership. There, Obama went before an audience of bankers and stockbrokers and spoke, not of our growth numbers or our credit problems but of our economic values:

    Seventy-five years ago this week, Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt took his campaign for the presidency to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

    It was a time when faith in the American economy was shaken—a time when too many of our leaders clung to the conventional thinking that said all we could do is sit idly by and wish that our problems would go away on their own. But Franklin Roosevelt challenged that cynicism. Amid a crisis of confidence Roosevelt called for a “reappraisal of values.” He made clear that in this country, our right to live must also include the right to live comfortably; that government must favor no small group at the expense of all its citizens; and that in order for us to prosper as one nation “the responsible heads of finance and industry, instead of acting each for himself, must work together to achieve the common end.”

    This vision of America would require change that went beyond replacing a failed president. It would require a renewed trust in the market and a renewed spirit of obligation and cooperation between business and workers; between a people and their government. As FDR put it, “Faith in America, faith in our tradition of personal responsibility, faith in our institutions, and faith in ourselves demands that we all recognize the new terms of the old social contract.”

    Seventy-five years later, this faith is calling us to act once more.

    But when Obama says act, he really means talk. Speak. Inspire. The invocation of Franklin Roosevelt is very telling: Obama does not mention a single program from the New Deal. Rather, he remembers how Roosevelt used the office of the presidency to transform our economic culture, to create a political atmosphere in which progressive economic values would thrive and thus complementary policies would follow. Clinton, as steward, promises to better manage our economic policies. Obama, as moral leader, promises to better our economic politics.

    This is also what drove their argument over Ronald Reagan. Speaking to the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal, Obama said, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Bill Clinton, perhaps predictably, hotly disputed Obama’s claim, but he shouldn’t have. His presidency is perhaps the best illustration of Obama’s argument.

    Clinton, in a sense, was the progressive steward of the Reagan Revolution. Reagan’s great accomplishment was to inject a certain set of economic principles and beliefs into the body politic. Reagan believed, and convinced millions of Americans to believe, in smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets, and the injustice of welfare. But though he enjoyed great success in elevating those ideas, he was far less successful in implementing them. Early on, he cut taxes, but then he had to spend years raising them in order to fund the government. Deficits exploded under his watch, the welfare rolls grew (though not as a percentage of the population), and the government expanded.

    Clinton’s great successes, the ones he and his wife tout on the campaign trail, were really the fulfillment of Reagan’s principles. It was Clinton, after all, who declared, “The era of big government is over,” and was able to back that up with actual decreases in the size of government. It was Clinton who actually balanced the budget, who reformed welfare. Reagan set the politics; Clinton played the steward. This is not, it should be said, an attack against Clinton. He governed in a difficult ideological atmosphere—in Reagan’s America, not his own. And in Reagan’s America, Newt Gingrich and his followers were intent on enacting a far crueler version of Reaganism. Clinton, sensing their threat, smartly co-opted their principles and refashioned them as part of a relatively progressive and unquestionably compassionate agenda. In doing so, he succeeded in making some admirable policy advances (the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, a rise in the minimum wage, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit) and staving off their most dangerous initiatives.

  5. Frank says:

    “It was Clinton who actually balanced the budget”

    Actually he didn’t. Clinton’s balanced budget was based on projecting social security dollars to ten years of future interest, as if benefits wouldn’t be paid. The second Bush took the oath of office Clinton’s “balanced budget” mysteriously disappeared. Two months after Bush took office, before he had proposed his first budget, there was already a recession. Clinton’s policies were still in effect, that down turn was his, and the disappearing surplus disappeared because it never existed in the first place.

    Clinton was not the steward for Reagan. Clinton worked hard to destroy not only Reagan’s principles, but his actions. Clinton weakened national security, raised taxes, increased unemployment, increased welfare handouts, and compromised the integrity of the Presidency. The most compassionate action a person can take is to trust in the abilities of others and to motivate them to act. Reagan’s legacy was trusting in the ability of Americans to fend for themselves. Reagan’s legacy was stepping out of the way, the government burdening people less so they could take care of themselves. Clinton acted for the opposite.

    Handouts motivate people to do nothing but depend on the government, and are based on the idea that people are incapable of achieving and of caring for themselves. The money for “health care for all” comes from the all. Filtered through the government it buys less. But the key thing it buys, key to people like Clinton, is power. The more people depend on government in the name of compassion, the more power that government has over people. Reagan was not about that.

    The costs of a handout society are incredible. Workers are expected to work more and more for the benefit of others. Workers become slaves, seeing less and less benefit while providing not only necessities but luxuries for those who don’t work as hard and don’t achieve as much. Hard work and achievement are penalized on an ever increasing scale. The more you work, the more you achieve, the more your hard work goes for the benefit of others. The only result is discouraging people from working.

    That’s what the Obama-nation represents. Because when you get through the empty rhetoric of “change” and “hope” you get to the policies. Those are higher taxes, more handouts, less defense, and the hardest workers treated more and more like slaves working to benefit others.

  6. I love Kyle’s idealism, but I have to agree with this:

    “Progressives and liberals have done nothing for the past 25 yrs BUT compromise.”

    While I’m not a liberal, I did vote (after I shotgunned two stiff G&Ts to drown my violated sense of principles) a straight Democratic ticket durning the midterm elections because I was trouble by the growth in government spending and — frankly — pissed off and fed up with the Iraq war. The Democratic party talked a good game and seem to be a light at the end of a very long and very dark tunnel, at least when it came to the Iraq war.

    Two years after I did this — where the hell are we on Iraq?

    Well, you can read my vent and disappoint and pessimism here:

    The War & the (Probable) Sad Delusions of Obama Supporters.

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