The liberal blogosphere has gone decidedly bi-polar in the Great Transition. On one side are the believers, betrothed to an image they conjured between the lines of conventional centrism, a group that is beginning to think that President-elect Obama is going to leave them waiting at the altar. They wait for their progressive swain among a growing sea of centrist appointments, foreign policy hawks, and leaked favorites from the last Democratic administration.
On the other side are the cynical pragmatists - just as personally progressive as their heartsick brethren - but decidedly less ambitious in their perception of the Obama promise; this latter group tends to know their Democratic Presidential history and is likely to own a copy of Dennis Perrin's brilliant and instructive Savage Mules.
In the end, the history-reading cynics (and count me as a card-carrier) may end up happier with President Obama.
One of the lasting mysteries of the historic election cycle just concluded was the mass migration of Democratic liberals to Obama, the careful centrist Senator out of the old-school clubhouse organization of Chicago, Illinois. There were serious progressive mainstream (non-Kucinich) choices in the pack: John Edwards and Hillary Clinton stood to Obama's left on domestic policy, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson took their place on international issues.
On any given issue - from Iraq to healthcare to tax policy - Obama always had a major rival on his left. Even when the race narrowed to a long a bitter slog with Clinton, Obama remained to the right of the New Yorker on key issues like national healthcare reform. Yet it was Obama who had a monopoly on iconic cover stories in The Nation, Obama who excited the pacifist anti-war Democrats, Obama who inspired allusions to the famed socialist organizer Saul Alinsky.
Part of it was his evident political mojo, part of it was his Iraq stance compared to Clinton's, and part of it was a strong remnant of 90s era anti-Clinton bias among progressives. But almost none of it was policy or specific promises. Says Glenn Greenwald, leader of the cynical pragmatists:
So many progressives were misled about what Obama is and what he believes. But it wasn't Obama who misled them. It was their own desires, their eagerness to see what they wanted to see rather than what reality offered.
Now that Obama is the President-elect after a brilliant and highly-disciplined campaign, there is a manic near-panic among the believers about his cabinet and White House staff picks - which are dominated by experienced, conventional, mostly centrist politicians and technocrats...and which pretty much fulfill the candidate's explicit promise to build a competent, functioning, non-ideological government after the long Bush nightmare. Over at The Nation, Chris Hayes is not happy - promises, it seems, were perceived:
Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one. Remember this is the movement that was right about Iraq, right about wage stagnation and inequality, right about financial deregulation, right about global warming and right about health care.
And he's not alone. Chris Bowers dislikes the Obama team. And this post on Alternet by FDL regular bmz asks whether "Barack Obama is screwing the netroots?" And at The Progressive last week, Matthew Rothschild asked angrily: "When is Obama going to appoint someone who reflects the progressive base that brought him to the White House?"
Yet, Obama's moves so far are exactly what he promised - "change" was regime change, a new style, and the involvement of more Americans in the promise of the republic. The coalition government - even the "team of rivals" - were explicit promises; you didn't need to somehow perceive them. Moreover, Rothschild's complaint belies a problem with perception: Obama certainly had the progressive base, but he made it no promises whatsoever. As Jane Hamsher says, her expectations fully adjusted for inflation:
Many people managed to convince themselves that Obama was a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool progressive at some point during the primaries. For no reason as far as I could tell -- his voting record in the Senate was pretty much identical to Hillary Clinton's, and the people he surrounded himself with weren't exactly "outsiders." But in the midst of the pie fights, that hardly seemed worth dwelling on for the pointless vitriolic arguments it would have engendered.
And then there's Digby - yet another progressive voice who takes a more pragmatic view of the Obama policy promise:
Liberals took cultural signifiers as a sign of solidarity and didn't ask for anything. So, we have the great symbolic victory of the first black president (and that's not nothing, by the way) who is also a bipartisan, centrist technocrat. Surprise. . . . Obama said repeatedly that he wasn't ideological, that he cared about "what works." I don't know why people didn't believe that. He's a technocrat who wants to "solve problems" and "change politics." The first may actually end up producing the kind of ideological shift liberals desire simply because of the dire set of circumstances greeting the new administration. (Hooray for the new depression!) The second was always an empty fantasy --- politics is just another word for human nature, and that hasn't changed since we were dancing around the fire outside our caves.
Nowhere did many progressives deceive themselves more than in foreign policy - and on no subject are they more outraged; in some cases, this is simply because of Obama's recruitment of Clinton as Secretary of State. But it's also because of a blind spot of longstanding on the left - a bit of self-deception that many Democrats indulge in every four years or so.
As far as I'm concerned, Dennis Perrin has contributed the masterwork in the scholarship on the Democrats' strange relationship with militarism. Savage Mules: Democrats and Endless War tackles the historic dichotomy: a hawkish left that occasionally tries to brand itself as spiritually opposed to war. Savage Mules is a brilliant rant, really - it traffics in hypocrisy and rides the wave of Perrin's evident anger and stylish writing. If somebody's pissed off about this, I'm glad it's Dennis, a gifted weaver of the tale. The book (short and pungent) is filled with episodes we know, from the hateful Andrew Jackson to the check-in tables at the YearlyKos convention, and neatly threaded with steel prose skewers that penetrate our gauzy images of FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ, Bill Clinton and even (especially) the human rights warrior Jimmy Carter, "America's most underrated imperialist."
Perrin is that rare liberal of 2008: he opposes Obama, openly. Indeed, the iconography around the President-elect is an opposing polar force, driving Dennis to denounce hypocrisy and false left-wing optimism. I felt the sting a couple of weeks ago when celebrating the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as a no-nonsense chief of staff. "Oh, to be in a Gaza camp today," commented Dennis. "Imagine their excitement with this appointment!"
In Perrin's Democratic Party, the still-living myth of a JFK as the peace-loving president whose tragic murder led to a cruel and deeper involvement in Vietnam (the Oliver Stone hagiographic view) has inhabited, in turn, the personal life mythology as two successors: Bill Clinton and his famous snapshot at the White House of Camelot, and Barack Obama as the modern version of a young, handsome, masculine liberal ushering in a new and optimistic era.
Bloggers wringing their hands over the imagined abandonment of an imagined liberalism should read Savage Mules:
American political life has always been a feeding frenzy of delusion, uplift, and fantasy. Things that ought to be, are, and become so depending on the number of people agreeing to a particular concept and the need for that concept to be True.
It seems clear that along with going "long and deep" - in Rahm Emanuel's words - on public policy, especially in rolling back some of Bush's structural conservatism in the Federal government, Barack Obama is banking on experience and pragmatism in his administration. The election is over, of course; and Obama will probably never call on the left to do again for him what it did in the winter of 2007-2008. He only faces one more election in his life (as an incumbent), and as Glenn Greenwald noted, liberals probably overrate their contribution to his victory:
It's impossible to quantify, but I think the vast majority of Obama supporters were perfectly clear-eyed about what he is and voted for him for the standard unremarkable reasons -- that they perceived him as better than the alternatives. But there is no question that Obama has inspired among many Democrats a type of deep and intense loyalty that is personal to Obama rather than grounded in policy issues, that many see him as much more than a politician who will make good political decisions.
Still, the dismay seems to be growing. Some is the poisonous and personal (and often, sexist) dislike of Clinton. But of it seems to evidence the earnest quality of those who really, really expected something entirely different. In Mother Jones this week, Kevin Drum wrote about some of the open-mouthed progressive response to Obama's foreign policy and security team (as leaked thus far):
Obama never pretended to be some kind of Noam Chomsky acolyte. He's a mainstream liberal American president.
Well, replace "liberal" with "Democratic" and he might well be on to something.