Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Sam Smith

With his expansion of the Af-Pak war, Barack Obama has now fully established himself as the Bernie Madoff of change and hope. He had been well on his way, what with all those billions for banks and so little for troubled homeowners and small businesses; his continuation of Bushic unconstitutional assaults on civil liberties; and the convoluted corruption of the health care issue. But a war that he can not explain or defend with any modicum of logic pretty well seals the deal.

While those of us who thought he was a con man from the start no longer find ourselves so lonely, there remains the problem of what to do about it.

My sense is that the infatuation over Obama was based on much larger problems including the iconization of politics, an excessive infatuation with words over deeds, as well as naive assumptions of what having the first black president would be like. Few recognized that true equality among ethnicities includes a balanced dispersal of sins and weakness as well as virtues.

Most of all, however, Obama represented a triumph of a generation of liberals dramatically different from their predecessors, most markedly in their general indifference to issues of economic as well as ethnic equality.

This heavily professional liberal class never once - in the manner of their predecessors of the New Deal and Great Society - took the lead in pressing for economic reforms. It wasn’t that they opposed them; they just never seemed to occur to them.

They, after all, had risen in status even as much of the rest of the country was slipping. Over a quarter of a century passed and the best the liberal Democrats could come up with was to slash welfare and raise the age for Social Security.

Obama was the epitome of this new generation: well educated, well connected and well toned in rhetoric. But far distant from the concerns of so many.

So it is small wonder that the O'Reilly, Becks and Palins rose to the fore. They simply hijacked the populist tradition of the Democrats and turned it into a rhetorical toy with which they could play in any manner they desired.

It wasn't the first time it had happened. Germany's willingness to accept Hitler was the product of many cultural characteristics specific to that country, to the anger and frustrations in the wake of the World War I defeat, to extraordinary inflation and particular dumb reactions to it, and, of course, to the appeal of anti-Semitism. But, bearing in mind all the foregoing, there was also:

- A collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.

- The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs, and rising property taxes. Many of the actions were taken in the name of efficiency, an improved economy and the "rationalization of production." There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a hyped version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.

- The collapse of the country's self image. Thomas Childers points out that Germany had been a world leader in education, industry, science, and literacy. Much of the madness that we see today stems from attempts to compensate for our own battered self-image.

This is only a caution, not a prediction. But without a strong populist progressive movement, based on the economic and social well being of all Americans, we run a serious risk of further disintegration.

The first thing that needs to happen is for there to be a clear distinction between smug, self-serving liberalism contemptuous of so many Americans and a populist progressive movement that seeks unity with those many liberals prefer simply to condemn.

The magnets for this unity are such obvious yet ignored issues as the creation of jobs, the preservation of pensions, decent treatment of endangered homeowners, an end to credit card usury, respect for local decision-making, and, yes, a healthcare plan based on providing financial assistance, not bureaucratic nightmares.

Such a movement would have to be formed issue by issue. It can not rely on empty icons or over-packed ideology. If one agrees on how to handle foreclosures but disagrees on abortion, leave the latter for another day. It is by working together on the things upon which we agree that both respect and power are gained.

Such principles were almost a given in much of the best organizing of the 1960s and 70s, but they have become obscured in a time when one's political identity is so tied to the ego and so indifferent to real progress.

We need to return to issue politics. To get out of the comfortable church of our own ideology and on the street with reality and real people. In the words of one populist of long ago, "we need to raise less corn and more hell."

Obama has had his chance. He blew it. It's our turn now. If we don't take it, we'll have far more than Afghanistan to worry about.