So, I’ve got a question for American liberals in the age of Obama (and this question, given a change in specifics, could just as easily apply to Labor supporters in the UK, French socialists under Hollande or supporters of the NDP in Canada in its latest leadership incarnation). Let me outsource the question to Duncan Black at Atrios.
What would it take to get you to bail on the pres. line on your ballot? What could Team Dem line up on that would lead you to say “Fuck, no!”? I’d say something like reproductive rights, but the Senate Majority Leader is anti-choice.
I can’t say anything related to “national security” because “Yay! Dead bin Laden” and the only people the drones kill are terrorists, and no, we’re not gonna tell you who we killed because the fact we killed them is doubledownsecret, so STFU and get in line.
He goes on to posit New Deal and Great Society social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare would be deal breakers but, of course, Obama already sold those programs down the river in his summer of 2011 deal with John Boehner that the Tea Party torpedoed (thank you!).
Now, I know how Andrew and others on the Left would answer this question. And honestly, I find a good deal of common sense in these critiques of liberals as essentially shock troops of global neoliberalism (only Nixon can go to China, only Obama can implement the Heritage Foundation’s social policy). But I’m a liberal–or always saw myself as such. I have been a lifelong Democratic voter born and raised in the great liberal Commonwealth of Massachusetts; I have believed in the evolutionary, reformist strategy of modern liberalism and its goal to mediate the worst excesses of capitalism with democratic regulation. Though I know and teach Marx, I have always been more a John Stuart Mill type in temperament and as a Soviet historian, I’m very suspicious of the claims that violent revolution would lead to a more just society. My one or two variances with mainline liberalism have been my strong support for union rights which most of my liberal acquaintances have supported only in theory. In practice, I have found most professional liberals to be suspicious of unions using the stereotypes of Teamster thuggishness and public-employees’ union gold-bricking that conservative republicans deploy (most of which I write off as liberals, mostly college-educated white collar employees or professionals, never having pushed a broom or loaded trucks for a living). My support for grad-student unionization efforts always got me a few odd looks from even highly liberal colleagues, for instance. Perhaps because I liked punk music when I was growing up and didn’t like cops pushing its fans around for no reason, I also tend to be more radical than most liberals on issues of the socially marginalized and didn’t understand why liberals were aghast at Gavin Newsome’s brave stand in allowing marriage equality in 2004 (not politically pragmatic, think of Ohio!) or consider “three strikes” laws an abomination, for example. So, I ask this question as someone who is a self-identified, if increasingly disillusioned liberal.
What is your deal breaker? When do you say, like Bartleby, “I’d prefer not to”?
And please, be honest.
Certainly, liberals do not consider militarism and secret government deal breakers because “Drones–BYOTCHES!” If the horrors of our drone war, literally terrorizing whole districts of countries, as detailed in this report, don’t disturb liberals, than let’s be honest–a full bore invasion of Iran with millions dead, as long as Obama is the Commander-and-Chief, is unlikely to move them. Hell, why not Syria, too? I’m also with Atrios in being suspicious that the breaking point is women’s reproductive rights because those rights were cynically sacrificed in the Stupak amendment (although this seems unfair to liberals, who don’t and never seemed to care about reproductive rights for poor women). Nor do I think the breaking point concerns racial equality because, you know, 14% unemployment among African-Americans produces only yawns (since the college-educated unemployment rate is less than four per cent). In fact, liberals tend only to notice the jobless crisis when it affects their own children and there the response seems to be, I kid you not!, that we have too many graduates. As for union rights, let’s not kid ourselves. Unions were all great and grand when they could be used as a partisan stick to beat GOP governors like Kasich and Walker, but when unionized teachers (what thugs!) had the audacity to strike against a Dem power-broker like Rahm Emmanuel, well then the liberal shock and horror was pretty palpable. Waiting for Superman! or some such crap. I’m pretty sure prison sentences for union organizers and sweat-shop labor conditions for teachers are not deal-breakers for liberals because that was pretty much what they were proposing during the Chicago teachers’ strike. Or, mass firings.
Don’t talk to me about the social welfare programs of the New Deal and Great Society because Obama is visibly salivating at the prospect of a “grand bargain” in which he’ll slash those programs significantly to get his sacred (and largely symbolic) 4% increase in the top marginal income-tax rate. So what is the deal breaker for liberals?
What could possibly get Libs in the US to check the Jill Stein box? In my view, literally nothing. They have made themselves “lesser-of-two-evils” pragmatists and hoped that the good Daddies and Mommies in the Democratic Party will reward them for their loyalty (fat chance, see “Reform Health Care”) and, not incidentally, hold off the hillbilly hordes of Sarah Palin fans. In the process, they have made themselves political eunuchs. There is no deal breaker for liberals and therefore Obama is waaaaay more interested in assuaging the political anger of Latinos and gay people, who in 2010 proved they had deal breakers.
Liberals have settled and they will continue to settle under some sort of delusion that Obama and his administration have anything but contempt for them. In fact, Obama admitted what was obvious to all in a recent interview with Bob Woodward for his latest inside the beltway tome, saying, “I am a blue dog. I want fiscal restraint and order.” Now, to be fair, Obama has said this over and over again, to the genuine incomprehension of American liberals who pretend to consider Blue Dogs their natural enemies, yet insist on seeing Obama as some sort of pwogwessive. Hell, even British Tories see him as much more one of them than any type of liberal. When Boris Johnson thinks you and he are working on the same team, you sure aren’t working for team liberal.
All this means the great American liberal tradition, the powerful political force that thought FDR was our greatest president and not a commie symp, which attended in all its millions to the oracular statements of the New York Times’ columnists, made up the tote-bagging hordes of NPR listeners and found cable bliss with the unveiling of the Rachel Maddow show, is dying out. Truly, most Libs have to admit that they are Rockefeller Republicans at heart and don’t really have that much of a problem with the policies of the Nixon Administration, since Tricky Dick was to the left of Obama on most of his policies (and, of course, both administrations agree on the efficacy of ”secret” wars and covert operations to overthrow governments). Some few will become radicalized and seek political solutions further to the left, but I doubt many will. American liberalism and progressivism is a spent force, subsumed in the sort of Rubinite centrism that has eaten Democratic machine-politics from the inside, like malignant cancer, since the days of Carter. I think this is a very, very bad thing since I don’t really believe there is a workable left in America (hippie-punching is such a hallowed tradition in American political life that it is hard for me to imagine the hippies punching back). I certainly expect, from the response of liberal Democratic mayors to Occupy Wall Street, that the political establishment will unleash horrific levels of state violence against any real insurgent politics in this country. Salvation, if it comes at all, will come from the bottom and largely ignore liberal pieties. As I said, I think this is a shame for there is much of worth in the liberal political tradition and it is one I call my own. But liberals’ canine fealty to the exigencies of partisanship means that as long as the jackboot stomping on society’s face has a “D” tattooed on the heel, liberals will at best hand-wring and at worst lace up their own pair of Doc Martens.
Finally, I’d like to be proved wrong here. I’d like to think that the Nick Kristoff’s and Matt Yglesias’s of the world would not be the first to throw insurgent anti-establishment forces under the bus. But you know what? I’m an historian and, to give it a down-home Southernism, the past gives you previews. The liberals argue for a “politics of the possible”, and brand those who disagree as “purists” who are more interested in their own ideological purity than the sufferings of others (since the GOP would certainly make life harder for lots of people). But Liberalism’s “possible” sucks and means the same sort of suffering but only in a much more normalized way. I think the insight that liberals are essentially Tories is right and that their Burkean allegiance to the status quo is a form of political sterility.
I am a liberal and I am not voting for Barack Obama. I hope other liberals vote against the man as well and fight to push the Democratic Party to the left out of its sterile centrism. But of that, I have little hope.
Cue the “lesser-of-two-evils” defense in three, two, one . . .