The latest desperate strategy of Obama’s spin-meisters highlights the rot at the core of the Democratic party: the heavy handed use of identity politics as a cover for neoliberal policies that betray the very groups the party purports to represent.
As Obama’s poll ratings continue to deteriorate, Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science at Tulane, argued that the reason white liberals were abandoning him was racism. (Earth to Obama: trying to make your base feel guilty, particularly when YOU are the one who ought to feel guilty, is not going to do you any good).
She doesn’t even bother to make a real argument. She starts by citing some studies on voter bias which have no connection to Obama’s situation, and with a straight face tries to fob off this astonishing thesis:
I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected.
Oh, come on. You call yourself a political scientist? When Clinton got in big time trouble in the polls, he took aggressive corrective action, firing staffers (including Hillary as co-president), changed many of his policies, and became fixated on job creation. The economy was beginning to boom in 1996 when he was up for reelection. Whether you attribute that to dumb luck of how Presidential elections mapped against economic cycles versus sound policy moves, Clinton faced voters when most had reason to think their personal prospects were on the rise.
By contrast, as Obama’s economic policies have failed to pull the economy out of its crisis-induced deep malaise, he has done nothing different save get more pissy and double down on his failed strategy of selling out the middle class. His recent, and no doubt desperation-induced effort to rekindle the support of his badly abused base via gestures like a millioniares’ tax, are likely to go the way of past promises of change: they will be watered down to thin gruel so as not to ruffle his moneyed backers. It is remarakbly disingenuous for Harris-Perry to contend that dissatisfaction with Obama results from racism, as opposed to (among other things) ineffective policy responses to substantial and widespread economic stress.
Although this article is not worth taking seriously on its (de)merits, it has nevertheless created a bit of a firestorm, proving that the scurrilous use of the race card is an attention-getter. A good drive-by kneecapping comes from Corey Robin:
[I]it occurred to me that there are five facts that Harris-Perry needs to establish that she nowhere establishes. I’d be satisfied if she could establish at least some of them, but she doesn’t establish any of them. These are the facts that need to be established:
1. White liberals are significantly less supportive of Obama than they used to be.
2. The drop in white liberal support for Obama at this point is significantly greater than it was for Clinton at a comparable point (or frankly at any point) prior to his reelection.
3. The drop in white liberal support for Obama is significantly greater than the drop in black or Latino liberal support for Obama.
4. The differential among liberals between white and black or Latino support for Obama is significantly larger than the differential, if it existed, between white and black or Latino support for Clinton.
5. That larger differential, if it exists, is a reflection of declining white support for Obama rather than increasing or persistent black or Latino support for Obama.
Again, I’m not asking that she establish all of these facts, but having failed to establish any of them, it’s hard to see whether or not there’s even a problem here that needs to be analyzed.
Jon Walker at FireDogLake gives a very good treatment of Robin’s point 3, which is everyone is unhappy with Obama. His poll numbers are flagging in every demographic. It might behoove Harris-Perry to explain why the Black Agenda Report has been a critic of Obama since 2007, or why Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have moved into open opposition more recently. Under increasing attack, Harris-Perry then issued an unsatifactory rebuttal, in which she argued that it difficult to prove the intent behind discriminatory behaviors. But she never established that any such behavior exists.
Noted political analyst Andy Borowitz offers this assessment:
According to a new poll of likely Democratic voters, if a primary contest were held today between the Barack Obama who ran for President in 2008 and the current Obama, the Old Obama would beat the New Obama by a margin of three to one.
While the numbers reflect the enduring popularity of the 2008 Obama, they spell big trouble for the 2011 Obama, who is seeking reelection in 2012.
Most troubling for the President, a significant number of voters — nearly twenty-five percent — no longer believe that the 2008 Obama and the current Obama are the same person.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney attempted to silence the skepticism of the so-called “Differenters,” the growing movement of people who believe that the 2008 Obama and the current one are two completely different men.
“The President has said that he is willing to submit to a DNA test and he will be releasing a Certificate of Authenticity later this week,” Mr. Carney said. “Beyond that, we’re just going to have to take his word for it.”
If anything, the fact that it took his diehards this long to figure out the Obama bait and switch is a proof of white liberal guilt, not bias.
But let’s back up. Why was Harris-Perry’s obviously ridiculous assertion even allowed to see the light of day? The Nation included it in their print edition. Just because someone is one of your regular writers does not mean you give them a free pass when they submit junk.
The left is obsessed with what ought to be peripheral concerns, namely, political correctness and Puritanical moralizing, because it is actually deeply divided on the things that matter, namely money and the role of the state. The Democrats have been so deeply penetrated by the neoliberal/Robert Rubin/Hamilton Project types that they aren’t that different from the right on economic issues. Both want little regulation of banking and open trade and international capital flows. Both want to “reform” Medicare and Social Security. Both are leery of a welfare state, the Republicans openly so, the Rubinite Dems with all sorts of handwringing and clever schemes to incentivize private companies that generally subsidize what they would have done regardless (note that Americans have had a mixed record in providing good social safety nets, but a big reason is our American exceptionalism means we refuse to copy successful models from abroad).
The powerful influence of moneyed interests on the Democratic party has achieved the fondest aims of the right wing extremists of the 1970s: the party of FDR is now lukewarm at best in its support of the New Deal. Most Democrats are embarrassed to be in the same room with union types. They are often afraid to say that government can play a positive role. They were loath to discuss the costs of income inequality until it became so far advanced that it is now well nigh impossible to reverse it. After all, that sort of discussion might sound like class warfare, and God forbid anyone on the mainstream left risk sound like Marx.
The right has no such need to paper over yawning gaps in policy priorities. Its cohesiveness came out of a civil war between the Reagan Right and the old Rockefeller/Javits Republicans. Once the Republican Mensheviks were turfed out, it was possible to present a reasonably unified front and manage tensions. The right pretends to stand for as little government/taxes as possible, save for the military. In reality, it likes a government apparatus just fine so long as it transfers income and wealth to the top and there is not much dissent on the nature of the nominal game v. the real game.
So the Democratic party (and remember, our two party system makes the Democrats the home by default for the left) pretends to be a safe haven for all sorts of out groups: women, gays, Hispanics (on their way to being the dominant group but not there yet), blacks, the poor. But this is stands in stark contradiction to its policies of selling out the middle class to banks and big corporate interests, just on a slower and stealthier basis than the right. So its desperate need to maintain its increasingly phony “be nice to the rainbow coalition” branding places a huge premium on appearances. It thus uses identity politics as a cover for policy betrayals. It can motivate various groups on narrow, specific issues, opening the way for the moneyed faction to get what it wants.
It took most people far too long to get that Obama was a phony because the presumption that a black man would be sympathetic to the fate of the downtrodden is a deeply embedded but never voiced prejudice (and this bias is exploited successfully by the right in depicting Obama as a socialist). Other elements of traditional Democratic associations played into the Obama positioning: his Administration is chock full of technocratic Harvard wonks, and the last time an Administration was so dominated by technocrats was under Kennedy, the last Democratic Administration to have a strongly positive (indeed romanticized) image. (Yes, the Clintons also liked fancy resume types, but they also placed a very high premium on loyalty, and with the result that long-standing supporters often wound up in surprisingly senior roles).
These traditional iconic symbols of liberalism – secular urban elitism, blackness, technocratic skill, micro-issue identity based political organizing groups – have been fully subverted in the service of banking interests. Obama is the ultimate, but not the only, piece of evidence that these symbols are now used simply to con the Democratic base out of their support and money. The task of moving forward will require rebuilding the symbolic vocabulary of the defenders of the middle class. It will probably also require a similar intellectual civil war within the left, against people like Melissa Harris-Perry. Those engaged in that effort need to become skilled in dealing with these liberal McCarthyite identity smears.