“Are We There Yet;” Really?
January 21, 2013
Here is a link to a column written by a guy named Robert O. Self, professor of history at Brown University, which is very difficult to respond to. In all honesty, I am unsure of what to say in response because his argument seems to me to be so delusional.
The question as Self presents it is whether Obama’s presidency represents a fundamental “political realignment,” like the presidencies of FDR and Reagan where “Their triumphs consolidated political transformations that had been building for some time and allowed their respective parties to reset the nation’s political center of gravity.” Leaving aside the question whether this is an accurate description of FDR or Ronald Reagan, I have to say that I can find little basis for even suspecting that Obama’s presidency has any of the characteristics of a fundamental political realignment.
There are indications in this column that Self is aware of the paucity of evidence for putting Obama in the Roosevelt/Reagan class of presidents. For example, Self spends very little time talking about policy or policies and even seems to understand that Obama represents not so much a break from the politics of the Shrub administration but a continuation: “Taken together, his health care reform and his cautious rejection of most of the policies of George W. Bush may well be judged by future historians as a meaningful adjustment.” Of course, my interpretation is being kind to Self, as his words here illustrate. But I do so because Self does not specify which policies of Bush he, Obama, has “cautious[ly] rejected.” And I would add that this is not surprising insofar as it is exceedingly difficult to find such rejections. After all, Obama just agreed to a “deal” that included making the Bush tax cuts permanent for almost all Americans! And it would be next to impossible to find any rejection, cautious or otherwise, of Bush’s foreign war making and domestic surveillance predicated on threats to our national security.
I suspect that Self’s column and his obvious desire to find that Obama or some president, someday would represent a fundamental political realignment is the result of a desire to think that our political system actually functions in a healthy way by responding to the need for change with change. I think why the column is weird then is that Self, in trying to make the case that Obama at least squints in that direction, illustrates just the opposite. As Self wrote: “A directionless politics prevails instead. At the national level, there is no political will to address long-term problems like soaring health care costs, climate change, infrastructure decay and prison overpopulation.”
The problem I have with this argument is that Self fails to understand the our current politics is not “directionless.” It is, rather, quite directed, viz., at preserving the status quo and the rule of the current oligarchs in both the Republican and Democratic parties. [As an aside, I would argue that one can make at least a plausible argument that Reagan’s presidency served the same purpose after the debacles of Vietnam and Watergate threatened to bring down the rule of the then leading oligarchs in both parties. Just as the status quo was threatened then, so too it is threatened today after the debacle of the Bush presidency and the “great recession.”] It is not in fact a lack of “political will” that leads to the failure to “address long-term problems.” Rather, it is political will that leads to this phenomenon and it is not, in the eyes of the current political class, a failure. It represents success because it keeps them in power.
But Self’s column also illustrates that there is change afoot – just not in Washington D.C. but in the states. “Meanwhile, states like Michigan have further eroded labor and reproductive rights, while others, like California, with its Democratic supermajority, seem poised to safeguard the same while increasing spending. As the left-wing political activist Michael Harrington said in 1976, the country is “moving vigorously left, right and center, all at once.”
Self might also have mentioned the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, which are indications that people are fed up with the national war on drugs, as well as the legalization of gay and lesbian marriages in some states which are indications that the people reject the regime of DOMA as perpetrated by D.C. It will come as a surprise to many liberals perhaps that real change is now taking place in the states, not in Washington, given that for decades now it has been taken for granted that the states are “reactionary” while the government in D.C. is “progressive.” Apparently, sometimes real change comes vis-à-vis D.C. and sometimes it comes vis-à-vis the states. These days it would seem that real change is taking place in [some] states and not D.C.
This, of course, makes us Anti-Federalists happy as we have argued for a long time that government is better, safer and freer, when done at the state and local levels rather than at the national level. Note I did not say that such government is “more powerful,” because it is not. Note too that I did not say that such government can reclaim “America’s greatness,” because it won’t. But then power and greatness were not the goals sought by the Anti-Federalists, but rather liberty and goodness. So long though as we await “political realignment” from Washington D.C., just so long will the lessons the Anti-Federalists tried to teach be lost.