A national farce

In many ways, it is hard to imagine a more ideal speech for Barack Obama to give than the State Of The Union address he gave Tuesday night. As is his wont, whenever he wants progressive support, he said many fine, fine things. But many of the programs he called for have very little chance of gaining support from a Congress that is incomprehensibly hostile to him.

So Obama can say these fine, fine things with absolutely no fear that they’ll actually be enacted. And there is very little question at this point that he is playing Congress, making it out to be the bad guy. Dominated by Republicans, their obstructionism will support the idea that the G.O.P. is to blame for much of what is wrong in Washington.[1] This in turn supports the notion that progressives should support the Democratic Party because the other guys are worse.

All in all, this was a perfect opportunity for Obama, one he clearly relished, and one he clearly took advantage of. Ironically, however, he also said,

You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America – but a United States of America. . . . Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. . . . I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.[2]

I’m actually becoming a bit curious about this divisiveness. There is a hyperbolic conservative antipathy toward Obama that, to some degree, defies reason. If you’re a functionalist conservative, he has been very, very good for Wall Street, and you should be pleased.[3] If you’re a neoconservative, we have returned to Iraq;[4] extended our war in Afghanistan;[5] spread Special Operations deployments, including exercises in friendly countries, to 150 nations;[6] expanded drone attacks; preserved domestic spying; and protected torturers and war criminals from prosecution.[7] Again, you should be very, very happy. If you’re a capitalist libertarian, neoliberalism remains the unchallenged political paradigm. One of the few things Republicans and Obama can expect to work together on is so-called ‘free’ trade.[8] And again, you should be very, very happy.

Now that doesn’t cover the entire conservative spectrum. The most hyperbolic opposition, even in Congress, seems to be authoritarian populist (in its present guise, the Tea Party). But traditionalist conservatives and paleoconservatives represent narrow slices of that spectrum. That leaves social conservatives, who repeatedly embarrass themselves with views that seem rooted in the early Middle Ages on anything even remotely connected to religion or sex, whose ability to deliver votes may always have been exaggerated, and who have certainly been eclipsed since 2008 by the authoritarian populists. It’s enough of the spectrum, however, that one would think the hyperbole ought at least to have been dialed back a notch.

What’s clear to me, however, as I work on my dissertation and analyze what I see as a despicable hatred aimed at subaltern people in general is that we are indeed a profoundly divided country. Amidst a Spiegel commentary pointing to U.S. decline are “the questions that have dominated this long election year [2012], and have long sharply divided the country into two hostile camps, roughly equal in size: Does America need more or less government? Are higher taxes the right approach to fairly distributing collective tasks, or are they infernally un-American?”[9] How you answer those questions, and questions about fairness, and questions about the environment likely determine whether you are on the political left or the political right. And if we have seen anything over the last six years, it is that these are indeed sharply divided hostile camps.

Within these camps, there are further divisions. Many on the left, especially Obama’s apologists, believe that the system can be reformed from within, or at least that working within the system is the only option. Many are basically okay with capitalism. Many are basically okay with the status quo, but maybe would like to see a bit more attention to fairness and the environment. But not all. Certainly not me, especially after nearly six years of unemployment and apparently no hope of ever being employed again.

On the right, there are all the divisions I pointed to above, but most prominently, conservatives are divided between functionalist conservatives, concerned with governing and preserving their position, and authoritarian populists, who believe that the elites—including academic, scientific, Wall Street, and Washington, D.C.—are messing up their simple, ordinary, homogeneous world.[10]

But Obama’s approach seems to be to try, even going to absurd lengths, to sweep these divisions under the rug. To some degree, national politicians must do this. Whether on the left or on the right, they too often speak of “Americans” and claim to speak for “Americans” as if “Americans” all agreed. This is obviously ridiculous, but to acknowledge the very real differences among people in the U.S. would be to undermine the hallucination that this country is united and that the national government presides over a unified people.

National governments do this. Ruling over agglomerations of many peoples, often conquered by force, they often deny or suppress minorities. Difference becomes something more than distinction: It becomes, in nationalist eyes, treason.[11] It is a reminder that sovereignty is in fact illegitimate.

And so we have this theater on a national stage, where nothing can ever really be resolved because we can’t admit to differences and where a president revels in the opportunity to promise everything, knowing he’ll be held accountable for none of it. The question is how long it takes for people to recognize the drama as farce.

  1. [1]Jonathan Bernstein, “Obstruction will ruin GOP,” Salon, May 18, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/18/obstruction_will_ruin_gop/; Eliza Newlin Carney, “Hate Congress? Blame the (Sharply Divided) Voters,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, September 9, 2013, http://blogs.rollcall.com/beltway-insiders/hate-congress-blame-the-voters/; Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem,” Washington Post, April 27, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/lets-just-say-it-the-republicans-are-the-problem/2012/04/27/gIQAxCVUlT_story.html
  2. [2]Barack Obama, “Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery State of the Union Address,” White House, January 20, 2015, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/20/remarks-president-barack-obama-prepared-delivery-state-union-address
  3. [3]Thomas Frank, “Cornel West: ‘He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency’,” Salon, August 24, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/08/24/cornel_west_he_posed_as_a_progressive_and_turned_out_to_be_counterfeit_we_ended_up_with_a_wall_street_presidency_a_drone_presidency/
  4. [4]Tim Arango, “U.S. Forces, Returning to Iraq, Encounter the Things Their Comrades Carried,” New York Times, January 6, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/07/world/middleeast/us-forces-returning-to-iraq-unearth-the-things-their-brethren-carried.html
  5. [5]Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “In a Shift, Obama Extends U.S. Role in Afghan Combat,” New York Times, November 21, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/22/us/politics/in-secret-obama-extends-us-role-in-afghan-combat.html
  6. [6]Nick Turse, “The Golden Age of Black Ops: Special Ops Missions Already in 105 Countries in 2015,” TomDispatch, January 20, 2015, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175945/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_a_shadow_war_in_150_countries/
  7. [7]Ben Emmerson, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism,” Just Security, February 28, 2014, http://justsecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Special-Rapporteur-Rapporteur-Emmerson-Drones-2014.pdf; Conor Friedersdorf, “UN Drone Investigator: U.S. Must Explain Civilian Deaths,” Atlantic, March 11, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/03/un-drone-investigator-us-must-explain-civilian-deaths/284337/; Ewen MacAskill and Owen Bowcott, “UN report calls for independent investigations of drone attacks,” Guardian, March 10, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/10/un-report-independent-investigations-drone-attacks; David Meyer, “UN human rights report blows apart governments’ pro-surveillance arguments,” Gigaom, July 16, 2014, http://gigaom.com/2014/07/16/un-human-rights-report-blows-apart-governments-pro-surveillance-arguments/; Reuters, “Edward Snowden should not face trial, says UN human rights commissioner,” Guardian, July 16, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/16/edward-snowden-should-not-face-trial-un-human-rights-commissioner-navi-pillay; Jonathan Turley, “United Nation’s Report Condemns The United States For Human Rights Violations, Including Blocking Prosecution Of Those Responsible For Torture,” March 28, 2014, http://jonathanturley.org/2014/03/28/united-nations-report-condemns-the-united-states-for-human-rights-violations-including-blocking-prosecution-of-those-responsible-for-torture/; Matthew Weaver, “US human rights record chastised in UN report,” Guardian, March 27, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/27/us-human-rights-record-chastised-un-report
  8. [8]Annie Lowrey, “Obama and G.O.P. Facing Opposition to Trade Pacts,” New York Times, January 30, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/31/business/reid-pushes-back-on-fast-track-trade-authority.html
  9. [9]Ullrich Fichtner et al., “Divided States of America: Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation,” Spiegel, November 5, 2012, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/divided-states-of-america-notes-on-the-decline-of-a-great-nation-a-865295.html
  10. [10]Chip Berlet, “Taking Tea Parties Seriously: Corporate Globalization, Populism, and Resentment,” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 10 (2011): 11-29, doi: 10.1163/156914911X555071; Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (New York: Metropolitan, 2012); Kim Messick, “Modern GOP is still the party of Dixie,” Salon, October 12, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/10/12/modern_gop_is_still_the_party_of_dixie/
  11. [11]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006).

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