Sid Shniad | 15 Feb 02:35 2014
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Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals -- Adolph Reed Jr. in Harper's

*http://harpers.org/archive/2014/03/nothing-left-2/
<http://harpers.org/archive/2014/03/nothing-left-2/>Harper's       March
2014 issueNothing Left The long, slow surrender of American liberalsBy
Adolph Reed Jr.*

For nearly all the twentieth century there was a dynamic left in the United
States grounded in the belief that unrestrained capitalism generated
unacceptable social costs. That left crested in influence between 1935 and
1945, when it anchored a coalition centered in the labor movement, most
significantly within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). It was
a prominent voice in the Democratic Party of the era, and at the federal
level its high point may have come in 1944, when FDR propounded what he
called “a second Bill of Rights.” Among these rights, Roosevelt proclaimed,
were the right to a “useful and remunerative job,” “adequate medical care,”
and “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness,
accident, and unemployment.”

The labor-left alliance remained a meaningful presence in American politics
through the 1960s. What have become known as the social movements of the
Sixties — civil rights activism, protests against the Vietnam War, and a
renewed women’s movement — were vitally linked to that egalitarian left.
Those movements drew institutional resources, including organizing talents
and committed activists, from that older left and built on both the
legislative and the ideological victories it had won. But during the 1980s
and early 1990s, fears of a relentless Republican juggernaut pressured
those left of center to take a defensive stance, focusing on the immediate
goal of electing Democrats to stem or slow the rightward tide. At the same
time, business interests, in concert with the Republican right and
supported by an emerging wing of neoliberal Democrats, set out to roll back
as many as possible of the social protections and regulations the left had
won. As this defensiveness overtook leftist interest groups, institutions,
and opinion leaders, it increasingly came to define left-wing journalistic
commentary and criticism. New editorial voices — for example, *The American
Prospect* — emerged to articulate the views of an intellectual left that
defined itself as liberal rather than radical. To be sure, this shift was
not absolute. Such publications as *New Labor Forum, New Politics,
Science & Society, Monthly Review,* and others maintained an oppositional
stance, and the Great Recession has encouraged new outlets such as *Jacobin*and
*Endnotes.* But the American left moved increasingly toward the middle.

Today, the labor movement has been largely subdued, and social activists
have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons
accordingly. Within the women’s movement, goals have shifted from practical
objectives such as comparable worth and universal child care in the 1980s
to celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and
challenging the corporate glass ceiling. Dominant figures in the antiwar
movement have long since accepted the framework of American military
interventionism. The movement for racial justice has shifted its focus from
inequality to “disparity,” while neatly evading any critique of the
structures that produce inequality.

The sources of this narrowing of social vision are complex. But its most
conspicuous expression is subordination to the agenda of a Democratic Party
whose center has moved steadily rightward since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Although it is typically defended in a language of political practicality
and sophistication, this shift requires, as the historian Russell Jacoby
notes, giving up “a belief that the future could fundamentally surpass the
present,” which traditionally has been an essential foundation of leftist
thought and practice. “Instead of championing a radical idea of a new
society,” Jacoby observes in *The End of Utopia,* “the left ineluctably
retreats to smaller ideas, seeking to expand the options within the
existing society.”

The atrophy of political imagination shows up in approaches to strategy as
well. In the absence of goals that require long-term organizing — e.g.,
single-payer health care, universally free public higher education and
public transportation, federal guarantees of housing and income security —
the election cycle has come to exhaust the time horizon of political
action. Objectives that cannot be met within one or two election cycles
seem fanciful, as do any that do not comport with the Democratic agenda.
Even those who consider themselves to the Democrats’ left are infected with
electoralitis. Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency
that precludes dissent or even reflection. For liberals, there is only one
option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost,
whichever Democrat is running. This modus operandi has tethered what
remains of the left to a Democratic Party that has long since renounced its
commitment to any sort of redistributive vision and imposes a willed
amnesia on political debate. True, the last Democrat was really
unsatisfying, but *this* one is better; true, the last Republican didn’t
bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will. And, of
course, each of the “pivotal” Supreme Court justices is four years older
than he or she was the last time.

Why does this tailing behind an increasingly right-of-center Democratic
Party persist in the absence of any apparent payoff? There has nearly
always been a qualifying excuse: Republicans control the White House; they
control Congress; they’re strong enough to block progressive initiatives
even if they don’t control either the executive or the legislative branch.
Thus have the faithful been able to take comfort in the circular
self-evidence of their conviction. Each undesirable act by a Republican
administration is *eo ipso* evidence that if the Democratic candidate had
won, things would have been much better. When Democrats have been in
office, the imagined omnipresent threat from the Republican bugbear remains
a fatal constraint on action and a pretext for suppressing criticism from
the left.

Exaggerating the differences between Democratic and Republican candidates,
moreover, encourages the retrospective sanitizing of previous Democratic
candidates and administrations. If only Al Gore had been inaugurated after
the 2000 election, the story goes, we might well not have had the
September 11 attacks and certainly would not have had the Iraq War — as if
it were unimaginable that the Republican reaction to the attacks could have
goaded him into precisely such an act. And considering his bellicose stand
on Iraq during the 2000 campaign, he well might not have needed goading.

The stale proclamations of urgency are piled on top of the standard
jeremiads about the Supreme Court and *Roe* v. *Wade.* The
“filibuster-proof Senate majority” was the gimmick that spruced up the 2008
election cycle, conveniently suggesting strategic preparation for large
policy initiatives while deferring discussion of what precisely those
initiatives might be. It was an ideal diversion that gave wonks, would-be
wonks, and people who just watch too much cable-television news something
to chatter about and a rhetorical basis for feeling “informed.” It was,
however, built on the bogus premise that Democrat = liberal.

Most telling, though, is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration as a
halcyon time of progressive success. Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if
anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of
political debate and the limits of political practice. A recap of some of
his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to break through the
social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of “ending welfare as we
know it”; in office he both presided over the termination of the federal
government’s sixty-year commitment to provide income support for the poor
and effectively ended direct federal provision of low-income housing. In
both cases his approach was to transfer federal subsidies — when not simply
eliminating them — from impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor,
real estate developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime
bills that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the
prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing
disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over
strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He
temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would
tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican takeover
of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. He
undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing
Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

Notwithstanding his administration’s Orwellian folderol about “reinventing
government,” his commitment to deficit reduction led to, among other
things, extending privatization of the federal meat-inspection program,
which shifted responsibility to the meat industry — a reinvention that must
have pleased his former Arkansas patron, Tyson Foods, and arguably has left
its legacy in the sporadic outbreaks and recalls that suggest deeper,
endemic problems of food safety in the United States. His approach to
health-care reform, like Barack Obama’s, was built around placating the
insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and its failure only intensified
the blitzkrieg of for-profit medicine.

In foreign policy, he was no less inclined than Reagan or George H. W. Bush
to engage in military interventionism. Indeed, counting his portion of the
Somali operation, he conducted nearly as many discrete military
interventions as his two predecessors *combined,* and in four fewer years.
Moreover, the Clinton Administration initiated the “extraordinary
rendition” policy, under which the United States claims the right to
apprehend individuals without charges or public accounting so that they can
be imprisoned anywhere in the world (and which the Obama Administration has
explicitly refused to repudiate). Clinton also increased American use of
“privatized military services” — that is, mercenaries.

The nostalgic mist that obscures this record is perfumed by evocations of
the Clinton prosperity. Much of that era’s apparent prosperity, however,
was hollow — the effects of first the tech bubble and then the housing
bubble. His administration was implicated in both, not least by his signing
the repeal of the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act, which had established a firewall
between commercial and investment banking in response to the speculative
excesses that sparked the Great Depression. And, as is the wont of bubbles,
first one and then the other burst, ushering in the worst economic crisis
since the depression that had led to the passage of Glass–Steagall in the
first place. To be sure, the Clinton Administration was not solely or even
principally responsible for those speculative bubbles and their collapse.
The Republican administrations that preceded and succeeded him were equally
inclined to do the bidding of the looters and sneak thieves of the
financial sector. Nevertheless, Clinton and the Wall Street cronies who ran
his fiscal and economic policy — Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Alan
Greenspan — are no less implicated than the Republicans in having brought
about the economic crisis that has lingered since 2008.

It is difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been
much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda. Indeed, Clinton made
his predilections clear from the outset. “We’re Eisenhower Republicans
here,” he declared, albeit exasperatedly, shortly after his 1992 victory.
“We stand for lower deficits, free trade, and the bond market. Isn’t that
great?”

Taking into account the left’s disappearance into Democratic neoliberalism
helps explain how and why so many self-proclaimed leftists or
progressives — individuals, institutions, organizations, and erstwhile
avatars of leftist opinion such as *The Nation* — came to be swept up in
the extravagant rhetoric and expectations that have surrounded the
campaign, election, and presidency of Barack Obama.

Obama and his campaign did not dupe or simply co-opt unsuspecting radicals.
On the contrary, Obama has been clear all along that he is not a leftist.
Throughout his career he has studiously distanced himself from radical
politics. In his books and speeches he has frequently drawn on
stereotypical images of leftist dogmatism or folly. When not engaging in
rhetorically pretentious, jingoist oratory about the superiority of
American political and economic institutions, he has often chided the left
in gratuitous asides that seem intended mainly to reassure conservative
sensibilities of his judiciousness — rather as Booker T. Washington used
black chicken-stealing stereotypes to establish his bona fides with
segregationist audiences. This inclination to toss off casual references to
the left’s “excesses” or socialism’s “failure” has been a defining element
of Brand Obama and suggests that he is a new kind of pragmatic progressive
who is likely to bridge — or rise above — left and right and appeal across
ideological divisions. Assertions that Obama possesses this singular
ability contributed to the view that he was electable and, once elected,
capable of forging a new, visionary, postpartisan consensus.

This feature of Brand Obama even suffused the enthusiasm of those who
identify as leftists, many of whom at this point would like to roll up
their past proclamations behind them. Here was a nominal progressive who
actually could win the presidency, clearing the electoral hurdle that Jesse
Jackson, Ralph Nader, and other protest candidates could not. Yet few
acknowledged the extent to which Obama’s broad appeal hinged on his
disavowals of left “excesses.” What kind of “progressive” pursues a
political strategy of distancing himself from the left by rehearsing
hackneyed conservative stereotypes? Even granting the
never-quite-demonstrated assertion that Obama is, in his heart of hearts,
committed to a progressive agenda (a trope familiar from the Clinton
Administration, we might recall), how would a coalition built on reassuring
conservatives not seriously constrain his administration?

The generalities with which Obama laid out his vision made it easy to avoid
such questions. His books are not substantive articulations of a social
program but performances in which his biographical narrative and identity
stands in for a vaguely transformational politics. Sometimes this
projection has been not so subtle. In an interview with the journalist
James Traub a year before the election, Obama averred: “I think that if you
can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a
grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister
who’s half Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going
to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives
and in our country. And they’d be right.”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there is little with which to disagree in those
books. They meant to produce precisely that effect. Matt Taibbi
characterized Obama’s political persona in early 2007 as

an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology,
geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can’t run
against him on issues because you can’t even find him on the ideological
spectrum. Obama’s “Man for all seasons” act is so perfect in its
particulars that just about *anyone* can find a bit of himself somewhere in
the candidate’s background, whether in his genes or his upbringing. . . .
[H]is strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of ideological Universalist,
one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes
the validity of all points of view, and conversely emphasizes that when he
does take hard positions on issues, he often does so reluctantly.

Taibbi described Obama’s political vision as “an amalgam of Kennedy,
Reagan, Clinton and the New Deal; he is aiming for the middle of the middle
of the middle.” Taibbi is by no means alone in this view; others have been
more sharply critical in drawing out its implications, even during the
heady moment of the 2008 campaign.

Nearer the liberal mainstream, Paul Krugman repeatedly demonstrated that
many of candidate Obama’s positions and political inclinations were not
only inconsistent with the hyperbolic rhetoric that surrounded the campaign
but were moreover not even especially liberal. When in a June 2008
issue of *The
Nation* Naomi Klein expressed concern about Obama’s profession of love for
the free market and his selection of very conventionally neoliberal
economic advisers, Krugman responded rather waspishly, “Look, Obama didn’t
pose as a *Nation*-type progressive, then turn on his allies after the race
was won. Throughout the campaign he was slightly less progressive than
Hillary Clinton on domestic issues — and more than slightly on health care.
If people like Ms. Klein are shocked, shocked that he isn’t the candidate
of their fantasies, they have nobody but themselves to blame.” As early as
2006, Ken Silverstein noted in these pages that the rising star’s extensive
corporate and financial-sector connections suggested that his progressive
supporters should rein in their hopes. Larissa MacFarquhar, in a 2007 *New
Yorker* profile, also gave reason for restraint to those projecting
“transformative” expectations onto Obama. “In his view of history,” she
reports, “in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world
can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply
conservative. . . . Asked whether he has changed his mind about anything in
the past twenty years, he says ‘I’m probably more humble now about the
speed with which government programs can solve every problem.’ ”

These and other critics, skeptics, and voices of caution were largely
drowned out in the din of the faithful’s righteous fervor. Some in the
flock who purported to represent the campaign’s left flank, such as the
former SDS stalwart Carl Davidson and the professional white antiracist Tim
Wise, denounced Obama’s critics as out-of-touch, pie-in-the-sky radicals
who were missing the train of history because they preferred instead to
wallow in marginalization. This response is a generic mantra of political
opportunists. Some who called for climbing on the bandwagon insisted that
Obama was a secret progressive who would reveal his true politics once
elected. Others relied on the familiar claim that actively supporting the
campaign — as distinct from choosing to vote for him as yet another lesser
evil — would put progressives in a position to exert leftward pressure on
his administration.

Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments
made on the candidate’s behalf by their children. We were urged to marvel
at and take our cues from the already indulged upper-middle-class Children
of the Corn and their faddish, utterly uninformed exuberance. And it was
easy to understand why so many of them found Obama to be absolutely new
under the sun. To them he was. A twenty-five-year-old on November 4, 2008,
was a nine-year-old when Bill Clinton was first elected, ten when he pushed
NAFTA through Congress, thirteen when he signed welfare “reform,” and
sixteen when he signed the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999,
which repealed Glass–Steagall.

Obama’s miraculous ability to inspire and engage the young replaced
specific content in his patter of Hope and Change. In the same way that he
and his supporters presented his life story as the embodiment of a politics
otherwise not clearly defined, the projection of inspired youth substituted
a narrative of identity — and a vague and ephemeral one at that — for
argument. Those in Obama’s thrall viewed his politics as qualitatively
different from Bill Clinton’s, even though the political niche Obama had
crafted for himself only deepened Clintonism. Of course, perception of
Obama’s difference from the Clintons and other Democratic contenders past
and present was bound up in his becoming the first black president, the
symbolic significance of which far outweighed the candidate’s actual
politics. Thus, for instance, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, usually not a
faddish enthusiast, proclaimed just after the 2008 presidential election
that

Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary
struggle for a majority, with all the pragmatic calculations and
manipulations that involves. It is a sign of something more. . . . Whatever
our doubts, for that moment [of his election] each of us was free and
participating in the universal freedom of humanity. . . . Obama’s victory
is a sign of history in the triple Kantian sense of *signum rememorativum,
demonstrativum, prognosticum.* A sign in which the memory of the long past
of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates; an event which
now demonstrates a change; a hope for future achievements.

Nevertheless, Obama could not have sold his signature “bipartisan”
transcendence so successfully to those who identify as leftists if Clinton
had not already moved the boundaries of liberalism far enough rightward.
Obama’s posture of judiciousness depends partly on the ritual validation of
bromides about “big government,” which he typically evokes through resonant
phrases rather than through affirmative argument that might ring too
dissonantly with his leftist constituents. He can finesse the tension with
allusions because Clinton, in his supposed “New Covenant” from a “New
Democrat,” had already severed the link between Democratic liberalism and
vigorous, principled commitment to the public sector.

Obama also relies on nasty, victim-blaming stereotypes about black poor
people to convey tough-minded honesty about race and poverty. Clinton’s
division of the poor into those who “play by the rules” and those who
presumably do not, his recasting of the destruction of publicly provided
low-income housing and the forced displacement of poor people as “Moving to
Opportunity” and “HOPE,” and most of all his debacle of “welfare reform”
already had helped liberal Democrats to view behavior modification of a
defective population as the fundamental objective of antipoverty policy.
Indeed, even ersatz leftists such as Glenn Greenwald, then of Salon.com,
and *The Nation*’s Katrina vanden Heuvel defended and rationalized Obama’s
willingness to disparage black poor people. Greenwald applauded the
candidate for making what he somehow imagined to be the “unorthodox” and
“not politically safe” move of showing himself courageous enough to beat up
on this politically powerless group. For her part, vanden Heuvel
rationalized such moves as his odious “Popeyes chicken” speech as
reflective of a “generational division” among black Americans, with Obama
representing a younger generation that values “personal
responsibility.”*Perhaps, but it’s noteworthy that Obama didn’t give
the Popeyes speech to
groups of investment bankers.

** In a 2008 speech to a mostly African-American audience in the city
of Beaumont, Texas, Obama scolded *
*
his listeners about feeding junk food to children: “Y’all have Popeyes
out in Beaumont? I know some of *

*y’all you got that cold Popeyes out for breakfast. I know. That’s why
y’all laughing. . . . You can’t do that. Children have to have proper
nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in
school.”*

Obama’s reflexive disposition to cater first to his right generally has
been taken in stride as political necessity or even applauded as sagacious
pragmatism. Defenses of Obama’s endorsements of the likes of John Barrow, a
conservative Democrat from Georgia, and the Republican turncoat senator
Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania over more liberal Democrats rest on the
assumption that Democrats can win only by operating within a framework of
political debate set by the right and attempting to produce electoral
majorities by triangulating constituencies. At least since Bill Clinton’s
1992 campaign, “serious” Democratic candidates have insisted that, because
appealing to the right’s agenda is necessary to win, the responsible left
must forgo demands for specific policies or programs as quid pro quo for
their support. As its reaction to left criticism of his approach to
health-care reform illustrated, the Obama Administration defines as
“responsible” those who support it without criticism; those who do not are
by definition the “far left” and therefore dismissible. To complete the
dizzying ideological orbit, this limitation has been sold as evidence of
the importance of subordinating all other concrete political objectives to
the project of electing *more* Democrats, on the premise that the more of
them we elect, the greater the likelihood that a majority will be amenable
to embracing a leftist program.

Anticipation of jobs and “access” — the crack cocaine (or, more
realistically, powder cocaine) of the interest-group world — helps to make
this scam more alluring, especially among those who have nurtured their
aspirations in elite universities or the policy-wonk left or both. Such
aspirants can be among the most adamant in denouncing leftist criticism of
the Democrat of the moment as irresponsible and politically immature.

But if the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the
Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the
right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a political
left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has
occurred. If the right sets the terms of debate for the Democrats, and the
Democrats set the terms of debate for the left, then what can it mean to be
on the political left? The terms “left” and “progressive” — and in
practical usage the latter is only a milquetoast version of the former —
now signify a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the
existing social order. Because only the right proceeds from a clear,
practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean little more than “not
right.”

The left has no particular place it wants to go. And, to rehash an old
quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any
other. The left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that
one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of
political agency (youth/students; undocumented immigrants; the Iraqi labor
movement; the Zapatistas; the urban “precariat”; green whatever; the
black/Latino/LGBT “community”; the grassroots, the netroots, and the
blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat; Occupy; a “Trotskyist”
software engineer elected to the Seattle City Council) to another. It lacks
focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating
solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages”
to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the
oppressed.

This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat
and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging
power or influencing policy. So the left operates with no learning curve
and is therefore always vulnerable to the new enthusiasm. It long ago lost
the ability to move forward under its own steam. Far from being
avant-garde, the self-styled left in the United States seems content to
draw its inspiration, hopefulness, and confidence from outside its own
ranks, and lives only on the outer fringes of American politics, as
congeries of individuals in the interstices of more mainstream institutions.

With the two parties converging in policy, the areas of fundamental
disagreement that separate them become too arcane and too remote from most
people’s experience to inspire any commitment, much less popular action.
Strategies and allegiances become mercurial and opportunistic, and politics
becomes ever more candidate-centered and driven by worshipful exuberance
about individuals or, more accurately, the idealized and evanescent
personae — the political holograms — their packagers project.

As the “human cipher” Taibbi described, Obama is the pure product of this
hollowed-out politics. He is a triumph of image and identity over content;
indeed, he is the triumph of identity *as* content. Taibbi misreads how
race figures into Brand Obama. Obama is not “without” race; he embodies it
as an abstraction, a feel-good evocation severed from history and social
relations. Race is what Obama projects in place of an ideology. His racial
classification combines with a narrative of self-presentation, including
his past as a “community organizer,” to convey a *sensation* of a politics,
much as advertising presents a product as the material expression of
inchoate desire. This became the basis for a faith in his virtue that
largely insulated him from sharp criticism from the left through the first
five years of his presidency. Proclamation that Obama’s election was, in
Žižek’s terms, a “sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and
the struggle for its abolition reverberates” was also a call to suspend
critical judgment, to ascribe to the event a significance above whatever
Obama stood for or would do.

In fact, Obama was able to win the presidency only because the changes his
election supposedly signified had already taken place. His election, after
all, did not depend on disqualifying large chunks of the white electorate.
As things stand, his commitments to an imperialist foreign policy and Wall
Street have only more tightly sealed the American left’s coffin by nailing
it shut from the inside. Katrina vanden Heuvel pleads for the president to
accept criticism from a “principled left” that has demonstrated its loyalty
through unprincipled acquiescence to his administration’s initiatives; in a
2010 letter, the president of the AFL-CIO railed against the Deficit
Commission as a front for attacking Social Security while tactfully not
mentioning that Obama appointed the commission or ever linking him to any
of the economic policies that labor continues to protest; and there is even
less of an antiwar movement than there was under Bush, as Obama has
expanded American aggression and slaughter into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia,
and who knows where else.

Barack Obama has always been no more than an unexceptional neoliberal
Democrat with an exceptional knack for self-presentation persuasive to
those who want to believe, and with solid connections and considerable good
will from the corporate and financial sectors. From his successful wooing
of University of Chicago and Hyde Park liberals at the beginning of his
political career, his appeal has always been about the persona he
projects — the extent to which he encourages people to feel good about
their politics, the political future, and themselves through feeling good
about him — than about any concrete vision or political program he has
advanced. And that persona has always been bound up in and continues to
play off complex and contradictory representations of race in American
politics.

Particularly among those who stress the primary force of racism in American
life, Obama’s election called forth in the same breath competing impulses —
exultation in the triumphal moment and a caveat that the triumph is not as
definitive as it seems. Proponents of an antiracist politics almost
ritualistically express anxiety that Obama’s presidency threatens to issue
in premature proclamation of the transcendence of racial inequality,
injustice, or conflict. It is and will be possible to find as many
expressions of that view as one might wish, just as lunatic and more or
less openly racist “birther” and Tea Party tendencies have become part of
the political landscape. An equal longer-term danger, however, is the
likelihood that we will find ourselves with no critical politics other than
a desiccated leftism capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing,
administering, and making up “Just So” stories about dispossession and
exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of
disparity and diversity. This is neoliberalism’s version of a left.
Radicalism now means only a very strong commitment to antidiscrimination, a
point from which Democratic liberalism has not retreated. Rather, it’s the
path Democrats have taken in retreating from a commitment to economic
justice.

Confusion and critical paralysis prompted by the racial imagery of Obama’s
election prevented even sophisticated intellectuals like Žižek from
concluding that Obama was only another Clintonite Democrat — no more, no
less. It is how Obama could be sold, even within the left, as a hybrid of
Martin Luther King Jr. and Neo from *The Matrix.* The triumph of identity
politics, condensed around the banal image of the civil rights insurgency
and its legacy as a unitary “black liberation movement,” is what has
enabled Obama successfully to present himself as the literal embodiment of
an otherwise vaporous progressive politics. In this sense his election is
most fundamentally an expression of the limits of the left in the United
States — its decline, demoralization, and collapse.

The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to
admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to
create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding in
a vibrant labor movement. Labor may be weak or in decline, but that means
aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task for the American left.
Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless. There are no
magical interventions, shortcuts, or technical fixes. We need to reject the
fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a mass. We must
create a constituency for a left program — and that cannot occur via MSNBC
or blog posts or the *New York Times.* It requires painstaking organization
and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable
leftist groves. Finally, admitting our absolute impotence can be
politically liberating; acknowledging that as a left we have no influence
on who gets nominated or elected, or what they do in office, should reduce
the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial,
biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races. It is long past time for
us to begin again to approach leftist critique and strategy by determining
what our social and governmental priorities should be and focusing our
attention on building the kind of popular movement capable of realizing
that vision. Obama and his top aides punctuated that fact by making
brutally apparent during the 2008 campaign that no criticism from the left
would have a place in this regime of Hope and Change. The message could not
be clearer.

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