The Obama victory is a cause for reflection, and there will be plenty of it in the two-month limbo which is the Bush regime’s last gasp. I here draw attention to one curious aspect of the post-election hubbub—some of the comments from left-wing and progressive voices that don’t buy into the “mainstream” political narrative. I count myself as one of those voices, albeit a small one, so what I have to say can be taken in a sense as self-criticism.
More than one writer has referred to Obama’s supporters as “cultists”—brain-dead enthusiasts with no understanding of their candidate’s adherence to establishment views on the economy and foreign policy. When it comes to policy, a critical stance is a very good thing. But when generalizations about the people who supported Obama are made with the language of contempt, I suspect that there’s something wrong going on psychologically.
Alex Jones went so far as to say that Obama would be much worse than Bush because the positive consensus, the perception of a mandate, would give Obama more power to take away our freedoms by consolidating a police state. By that logic, the less popular a President is, the better—which amounts to saying that the worse President is better because he will more effectively galvanize the opposition. This is a fallacy. The more the government is inclined to rightist, neo-fascist ideology, the less chance there is for successful progressive action. I know, I know: Alex Jones is not a good example of “leftist” thinking, but this particular idea is revealing of a certain very specific, and wrong-headed, way of looking at American politics.
One can become so obsessed with the criminal actions of the government, and the corruption of the political system, that one’s energy and motivation become trapped in what I call “enemy mind.” Instead of being fueled by a passionate love for human beings and their rights, we can end up stuck in a place of hatred for enemies. From years and years of being marginalized, progressives can become used to not making a difference—become inured, in other words, to an emotional condition of angry futility.
There were a lot of people who were celebrating after this election. I was one of them. Rather than look dismissively on this as the enthusiasm of “cultists,” couldn’t we just acknowledge the valid reasons for celebration? The media focused on the fact that Obama will be the first black President, and that’s certainly momentous. But I really don’t think that was the main reason people were celebrating. For me, there was a huge sense of relief that the right-wing Republican electoral strategy, personified in recent years by Karl Rove, had been defeated. There was relief that McCain, this year’s personification of rightist mendacity, had been denied, putting an end to the Bush-Cheney nightmare. Instead of an insane bloodthirsty criminal, we elected someone who can actually think, can conceive that there is such as thing as the public good and not just another opportunity for looting.
On the positive side, Obama signals that at least some effort will be made to deal with the tremendous problems that the world is facing. There is the possibility of actually getting out of Iraq. Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, or Souter can safely retire without being replaced by another right-wing fanatic. We have a chance to reverse the subversive actions against our Constitution represented by Bush regime torture, rendition, military tribunals, Patriot Act insanity, and Gitmo.
We need to celebrate progress once in awhile. This is part of the energy that keeps us going. Five years ago, I never would have thought that we could have come this far. People at the grassroots made this happen, and are making a lot of other things happen that are not as well known.
The least encouraging aspect of Obama is, of course, his adherence to the idea of empire. Making Rahm Emanuel his chief of staff is not a good sign when it comes to foreign policy. It signals more of the old “support the government of Israel at all costs” approach to the Middle East which is our perennial dead end. But to conclude that there won’t be any difference between Obama and Bush on foreign policy is to overstate the case. The so-called Bush doctrine could drive the world over a precipice—it is a doctrine of unabashed criminal aggression coupled with contempt for diplomacy. The traditional foreign policy establishment is still imperialist, but less dangerous. We’ve got a long way to go before the people of the United States force the state to relinquish empire. At least there’s more of a chance for survival under Obama.
Jim Hightower, speaking in my home town this summer, pointed out that FDR was not a leftist, and that his election was not in itself a transforming event. Instead, it was an opportunity for more progressives to get involved in the government and to influence American policy. The same is true in this case. The answer to the old question from the 1960s of whether one should work within “the system” or outside of it always seemed obvious to me—we should do both, of course. Change isn’t going to happen just because some writer for Counterpunch or The Nation maintained his ideological purity. It will happen gradually, in the messy and imperfect world of grassroots politics.