US Progressivism And The Obama Presidency

One project of contemporary historians serves our understanding of both past and present rather well—an examination of the content and uses of memory in modern societies. Were a distinguished scholar like Pierre Nora to attempt an American version of his very substantial work on France, Les Lieux de Memoire, he would have to deal with several major difficulties. As time moves on, historical memories in the United States are increasingly fragmented. They are strongest where local, or the property of specific groups seeking to legitimize claims to attention, reparation, reward.  They are weakest, or in any event most contested, when they portray our common past. One of the more disconcerting experiences  of many university teachers in the social sciences  is to learn that large numbers of students do not have very clear notions of what grand-parents or great-grandparents or antecedent generations experienced.. Their ignorance or lack of clarity is especially pronounced when they are beneficiaries of upward mobility over several generations—as if their families’ struggles against deprivation, poverty or limited income and wealth were embarrasments  or encumbrances, to be kept at a distance..

Moreover, some segments of the secondary school sector excepted, there is a considerable discrepancy between what our academic historians publish and what finds its way into school texts. To some degree, this is the result of ideological policing by vigilantes. One major consequence of this entire complex of causes is acute discontinuity in political memory.. In particular, the groups once bearers of an inter-generational progressive consciousness float, increasingly, in historical space: they lack the intellectual means to locate themselves in American society as it has changed over recent generations. They are prey, therefore, to the serial deformations and untruths propagated systematically by the antagonists of the progressive tradition—and lack the inner  resources to draw upon the alternative world views which are still available in our nation, but which often are stored or confined in places difficult of access.     .

I designate as progressivism the US equivalent of European social democracy. I do so for historical reasons. The term emerged at the beginning of the last century to express the self identification of leaders, movements, thinkers who sought to substitute for the brutality of American industrial capitalism a considerable amount of regulation, and the provision of public goods. Progressivism drew upon Social Catholicism and Social Protestantism, upon large borrowings from European socialist ideas, brought to the US by immigrants, upon American traditions of social reform going back to the Abolitionist movement, upon even older residues of American politics having to do with local self-governance and extreme distrust of economic and political elites. The term progressive reminds us of the self-identification of the United States as a vanguard nation, engaged in the unfinished task of enlarging the autonomy of its citizens. Progressivism joined in a coalition, not without its internal contradictions, Christians and secularists, farmers and workers, older Americans and newer immigrants, often led by what the historian Richard Hofstadter termed “men of the Word,” the educated, distrustful of the culture and power of money.

The political history of the twentieth century, and indeed of the first decade of the present one, is the story of the life, and at times near death, of these ideas and their transformation under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Projects as diverse as the first Roosevelt’s  New Nationalism, Wilson’s New Freedom, the second Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Johnson’s  Great Society drew upon progressivism for moral continuity. Carter’s and Clinton’s Democratic Presidencies are understandable as  compromises with the considerable resistance the tradition of progressive reform engendered—especially when its beneficiaries had acquired, thanks to the reforms, the sense of having become shareholders in the established order.

It is early, of course, to draw conclusions about Obama’s Presidency. Still, it is possible to begin to situate him historically, to consider his responses to the crises he inherited, and to draw some inferences as to the continuing vitality of the tradition of which he is the ambivalent heir. One difficulty is that there is no agreement even within the Democratic Party (or amongst quite competent and detached historians of American politics) as to the criteria of success to be applied to his nineteen  months of office.

It is impossible to delineate, with any precision, a public sphere: definitions of it are themselves politically contested. Let us recur to the judgements provided by television networks, and the purveyors of  thin, even skeletal political narrative  on the staffs of the major newspapers. The  common denominator is very low  but  the message is clear. Obama has failed to impose himself as a President with a clear political project, Insofar as his policies have coherence,  they are retrograde (as if the progressive tradition were still compelling) or strikingly unrealistic in another sense, evoking standards of the public good which are incomprehensible to an alienated electorate and thought derisory by political antagonists and even allies. In short, the President is stumbling, may lose the Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate in the Novemnber elections, and is in considerable danger of not being re-elected in 2012 should he choose to run.

What is clear in the short term is that the progressive tradition,  rather than being  adapted to conditions which are different, has been attenuated—with nothing much to replace it except manouvering, sometimes adept,even elegant,  sometimes crude, but rarely in the service of a long term national project. It is significant  that Obama has presented his two major legislative efforts, on behalf of health care reform and financial re-regulation, as responses to crises rather than in the language of social reconstruction. One understands why:  the intellectual and social bases of progressivism have been constricted, and  its proponents exhibit defensive anxiety rather than aggressive optimism. The American standard of living, for most citizens, has declined as real income has diminished  and inequality has increased.—and that for as much as the past forty years.

Obama has smaller Congressional majorities than the Democratic reform Presidents working in the progressive tradition. His  majorities are divided and we can reckon at the most half of the Democrats as consistent adherents of reforms which would renforce the capacity of the state to control the market, a number which halves again when the issue of redistribution is raised. Further,  the Democratic Senate  majority is so small (fifty-nine  as opposed  to Lyndon Johnson’s sixty-eight) that the anti-majoritarian cloture rule requires the majority to bargain over every legislative resolution. An arithmetic majority of fifty-one of the one hundred Senate seats is as nothing since the rule requires sixty  votes to end debate and bring a measure to a vote. The first American President of Afro-American descent is seriously hampered by a rule originating in the effort by the southern states to prevent discussion, let alone passage, of legislation which would alter race relations in the once segregated American south.

Obama formed his government before taking office  as the economic and financial crisis of 2008 induced (or allowed) the Bush government to use public funding for major grants to the larger banks and investment houses. The Bush  Secretary of the Treasury was Henry Paulson, who had been Chairman of Goldman Sachs—which, in the end was able to escape major damage as its clients  and trading partners (especially the fragile insurance giant, AIG) were saved by state funding. His Democratic  successor is  Timothy Geithner, who as Chair of the Federal Reservce Bank in New York was notable for his close collaboration with the financial industry. Ben  Bernake, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, has been  unstinting in his own deployment of the resources of the central bank—which became a massive  buyer of Federal bonds, maintained historically low rates of interest, and functioned as creditor of last resort when ordinary banking seemed likely to stop. In the background, Robert Rubin (another former Goldman Sachs Chair) who had been Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury , urged the President to follow the advice of Bernake and Geithner. The President’s coordinator of economic policy was Rubin’s successor in  the last year of the Clinton administration, Lawrence Summers and Paul Volcker, who had been Chairman of the Federal Reserve under Carter was a very active advisor too.

This grouping (figures like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman were not consulted and the new officials backed by the trade unions were relegated to the Labor Department where they do not make economic  policy). Obama’s advisors and officials were as assiduous as their predecfessors in  using Federal resources to  rescue the financial industry.None  proposed  to use the de facto if temporary  nationalization of the industry to enlarge the permanent role of the state in banking (the proposals for re-regulation about to be passed by the Congress came later)—or to set limits on the size of single firms and the scope of their operations. They did initiate an immediate economic stimulus program, which the Congress agreed to in the light of rapidly increasing unemployment and the obvious economic distress of many—but the program was, measured against immediate economic needs, rather small  Obama has been unable to obtain a larger rather than a much smaller sequel. No doubt, the bank rescue measures made for the resumption of a certain  amount of normal banking (with credit for smaller firms remaining extremely restricted.) No doubt, too, the economic stimulus package kept unemployment from leaping higher, but at the moment if it is officially at between nine and ten percent, it is realistically at least fifteen percent. The rate of recovery is very, very slow. On account of Democratic defections, the Congress did not renew unemployment benefits for some millions of displaced workers until other cuts in Federal spending were conceded, cuts which will reinforce the downward course of the economy by reducing subsidies for employment in the public sector at the level of the states.  The Democrats in the House of Representatives who blocked the renewal  fear being accused in the fall electoral campaign of reckless spending.

The measures passed in 2009 upon Obama’s taking office had some remarkable public repercussions. For one, a considerable undercurrent of  mixed resentments made its way, noisily, to the surface. Ordinary citiszens complained that their money was being used to rescue the banks and the bankers, whose high incomes  were especially criticised. Since much of the crisis had to do with bank speculation in sub-prime mortgages, a large number of householders directed their rage downward as well as upward. Mortgages had been given (at the instigation  of the redistributionist Democrats, argued the Republicans) to the financially improvident or impoverished, who were neither competent or worthy of trust. To these complaints were added more enduring anxieties about deficit spending, fears of national bankruptcy concretised in predictions that neither the Medicare program of health insurance for those over sixty-five or the universal contributory pensions, Social Security, would remain sustainable. Obama attempted to meet this by appointing a  National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with a mandate to examine the situation and propose long term solutions. An initial effort to remove it entirely from public scrutiny by making its recommendations mandatory on the Congress was rejected. The composition of the commission,  however, combines conventionality and mediocrity, for the most part, in a higher or lower synthesis. Its Republican co-chair, the former Senator Simpson, has already distinguished himself by declaring that  only “the lesser people”  worry about Social Security.  Astonishingly for a nation which spends at least four times more on its military than China and Russia combined, the military budget has been subordinated in the the Commission’s mandate to spending on standard and universal social benefits, Medicare  (health insurance for those over sixty-five), Social Security (pensions for the elderly and retired) most especially.  Much of the public discussion of Social Security rests on falsified statistics and dubious assumptions, the product of purposeful or visceral antagonism to a successful government program.

Obama might have met the crisis, upon taking office, with something like the New Deal Works Progress Administration, and other projects, which restarted the economy and renewed and expanded the nation’s infra-structure. The deficits in Medicare and Social Security could be met by making the rate and incidence of contributions fully progressive.The economists who, like James Galbraith (who was the chief staff officer of the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress in the Reagan years), argue that fears of the deficit are absurdly exaggerated have been  ignored. Instead, the President presented the nation with an exceedingly opaque  project for health care reform  which became the focal point of  opposition to his Presidency and the Democrats.

The plan mandated insurance for every citizen. It left the insurance industry to provide it, and in return for giving it  some forty million new customers, made it impossible for the industry to limit its coverage to the healthy.  The President was conspicuously  reticent about supporting a public insurance option (which he had promised when campaigning for election) and those seeking it in the Congress had insufficient votes to pass it. The leiglsation is complex, will be taking effect by stages, and as it was presented aroused enormous anxieites and hostilities in considerable segments of the public. Most citizens do not grasp the complexities of the new system , and a majority have been persuaded by the Republicans (and Democratic opponents of the change) that they are sure to end up worse off than under their present arrangements. It passed, owing to the votes of a very small number of Republican Senators. The governments of a number of Republican held states have promptly initiated law suits arguing that the compulsory insurance mandate is unconstitutional. It is entirely possible that the Supreme Court will in due course agree, but as the question begins its tortuous journey up the judicial ladder (the Federal judicial system has three levels), it is clear that the health care propsal despite its epochal implications has disappointed many Democrats as well as energizing and enraging the Republican opposition.

Obama did not present the project as an extension of the principles of solidarity embodied in Medicare and Social Security, but as a measure of economic rationalization which would reduce the deficit. Public discussion of it revealed abysmal levels of public ignorance—including ignorance of the fact that Medicare, which is very popular, is a government system with a single payer arrangement.

The debate on health insurance brought to the surface a complex of hatred of  the new President which has several facets. Clearly, the new Presidential majority (as well as the President’s mixed racial identity and his unusual international biography) disturbed a large group of citizens. They dislike having to share power with Afro-Americans and Latinos, and much of their repugnance for immigration is a consequence of their fear of being outnumbered, sooner rather than later, in their own country.  Many  expressed their sense of dispossession by accepting a series of falsehoods. One is that the President was not born in Hawaii but in Kenya, and is therefore ineligible for the Presidency. His birth certificate is deemed to have been forged.  Another is that he is a covert Muslim. For many, it follows that he is working for the destruction of the US. The theme of strangeness  connects with another: he is viewed as so much an advocate of state intervention in the economy that he can be termed a “socialist.”  There is a reference to socialism, of a sort, in his memoir, Dreams Of My Father, written largely before he was elected to the Senate. He describes attending meetings of the American academic left (clearly, the old Socialist Scholars Conference, now renamed the Left Forum) when a student at Columbia University in New York. The entire text makes clear, explicitly and implicitly, his distance—even then—from radical enthusiasm.

Those who consider the President an unacceptable and alien figure, who in effect do not accept the legitimacy of his election, may amount to as many as a fourth of the electorate.

They include the ageing, overweight and white figures who clothe themselves in the costumes of the epoch of the American Revolution and proclaim that they belong to a “Tea Party” (the term used by the colonial subjects of the Crown who threw imported tea into Boston harbour rather than pay taxes upon it.) Quite apart from anxieties of ethnic and racial disposession, what unites these persons is a strong sense of alienation from “government” and a very explicit rejection of taxes. They are frequently quite ignorant of their actual circumstances (they are often citizens of states which are net beneficiaries of the allocation of Federal funds) and are certainly negative about ideas of social solidarity and common responsibility. Homeowners with mortgages, their frenzied denunciations of “government” ignores the fact that two huge public corporations (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) account for ninety percent of the US housing market. Each is now operating under government supervision and with government financial guarantees, the withdrawal of which would precipitate the collapse of much of the US economy.

Consistency is not the strongest point of Obama’s critics.  Many in the states now struggling with the consequences of the oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico voted against the President because he, allegedly, favoured extensive powers for the state—-but they have recently  rent the heavens with criticism of the Federal government for not doing more to assist them, Nearly all of the President’s antagonists exempt military spending (no small part of it wasted) from their strictures on government expenditure. Almost none have a picture of the economy which would encourage them to think in terms of the total allocation of resources over time. Their thinking in terms of simple categories makes them incapable of systematic analysis of the economy. No doubt, they often voice vulgar versions of the views of a certain number of academic economists.

It is striking that the conflict over health care reform legislation seemed to evoke more public interest and involvement than the argument, `its legislative phase concluded in mid-summer,  on the Democratic proposal to re-regulate the financial industry. Arcane details and complex institutional arrangements do not lend themselves to the pathological simplifications evident in the health care debate (with its charges that the President favoured “death panels”.)  Moreover, the banks and the financial services industry enjoy no large public trust: however incohately, an American majority is suspicious of banks and bankers. The argument of the banks, that a return to the regulatory regime abolished under the Clinton presidency would hamper economic recovery by discouraging investment, has little public credibility: the (accurate) public impression is that the banks are not making investment easier. Moreover, although the banks and investment houses have been fighting the new legislation clause by clause, and line by line, they have concentrated their efforts on direct dealings with the legislators—-by bribery (electoral contributions) and pressures (threats to mobilise opinion at local levels, in the legislators’ own districts and states.) The economists and lawyers who work for the legislators (or in the government departments) are subject to other pressures. If cooperative now, they can be employed later by the industry at four to ten times their governmental salaries. That applies to the legislators themselves, who upon leaving office, frequently become lobbyists for the industries they once, as members of legislative committees, nominally controlled.

To a large extent, the industry has clearly decided to accept re-regulation in principle and then to seek to blunt its impact in practise, by reducing the scope of the legislation—or allowing important aspects of the new regime to be decided by regulators who can be influenced case by case. That is, the industry has accepted that it is not popular, and seeks to defend itself by stealth as well as open combat. It can count, too, upon much support from the Federal judiciary,  populated by Republican judges for whom the sovereignty of the market is an item of faith.

Meanwhile, the refusal of the Congress to vote for a large second installment of economic stimulus threatens the  social fabric of the nation. That is a matter not only of the scourge of unemployment, or the fact that about one of every four homeowners may be economically incapable of continuing their mortgage payments. Federal payments to the states to supplement or replace their falling tax revenues asre conspicuous by their absence. That means, across the nation, that normal governmental services ordinarily provided by the Federal states cannot continue. The list includes education at all levels, fire and police work, much health care, the maintenance of material infra-structure like water and sewage services, and of course, roads., as well as public transport systems.

It is possible that a Democratic victory (which means the retention even of reduced majorities in the two houses of the Congress) in the November elections will enable the President to convince the Congress to provide an ample and appropriate second stimulus package. That is possible, but not  probable.  More likely, in the probable event of a Democratic victory, we will see a continuation of the present alternation of advance and immobility. Lenin’s “three steps forward, two steps back” has a contemporary American counterpart: “one step forward, one sideways.”

The distressed condition of the party of progress in the US is a result of several major and closely connected trends. One is the fragmentation of the party into a multiplicity of groups working for specific causes, certainly aspects  of the construction of a more egalitarian, enlightened and rational society, but without an immediately compelling and  visible common denominator. Access to health care, educational opportunity, environmental regulation, freedom from ethnic, racial, religious discrimination, the rights of homosexuals and women compete for attention and energy with larger issues of economic redistribution and security. The question of rights for immigrants merge into larger problems of the nation’s role in the world: aid to development and all the costs of an interventionist military policy. It was simpler when the agenda was mainly comprised of matters of economic justice, organized around extending the scope of the state to contain and reverse the most exploitative and socially destructive consequences of the primacy of the market. The single most effective agency for that struggle was the trade union movement, which had a determining role in the Democratic Party from 1936 to 1968. The decline of the unions (thirty percent of the labor force in 1968, somewhat more than ten percent now) is, then, the single most effective cause of the ideological and political vacuity of the Democrats.

With the union presence in everyday life so diminished, there is no effective educational agency to counter the incessant message of the media: capitalism in its American version is here to stay. One of the more obsessive fantasies of the American right is that schools, and even more post-secondary education, have been seized by cadres of radical administrators and teachers, intent on undermining traditional American values , These are defined  as combining deep deference to authority with obdurate individualism. The readiness of large numbers of citizens to believe the most lurid lies about our President, their ignorance of not only the world beyond our borders but much of American society, suggest that there is something defective about our educational system. It does not appear to include a surfeit of  cultural and intellectual nuance. Meanwhile, much of the media landscape has been occupied by ambitious strivers for whom journalistic careers are high roads to economic and social status. The newer generation has  little in common with those who, in the period of Franklin Roosevelt,  did what they could to voice class antagonism to their own employers, decidedly hostile to the New Deal. They are, too often, ignorant philistines anxious lest they be caught uttering critcial opinions. Most have no serious ground for concern.

The widespread diffusion of internet commentary and news has resulted in a new wave of social criticism, a pluralization of the perspectives of the medium.However, it has been confined  to communities of the like minded. The radio and television commentators of the right, increasingly  uttering thinly disguised calls for violence, can count on internet technologies to multiply their voices many times. A pseudo-democratisation of culture, in which aesthetic and moral standards as well as serious criteria of truth have dissolved, is in process and it is impossible to be optimistic about a good end.

These events take place against the background of an increasingly diverse and divided society. Fourteen percent of the population are foreign born, and in many areas of the country immigration has replaced or rivals  racial differentiation as a catalyst of prejudice. The obvious function of immigrant labor in reducing wages renders a common political front of segments of the labor force separated by culture, by type of employment, and by education and occupational skills very difficult.Some unions have had some success in organizing immigrant labor in the lower levels of the labor force, but a white working class often suspicious of “big government” and redistribution is not ready to practise long term solidarity. Those who a generation ago were antagonistic to government measures for economic equality for the Afro-American citizenry are now open to the anti-immigrant rhetoric which constitutes much of political argument, not only in the states bordering on Mexico and the Caribbean, but throughout the nation. Paradoxically, the intensification of the campaign against immigration has brought more legal Latino immigrants to acquire citizenship and to vote.

In these circumstances, a pervasive process of depoliticization dominates consciousness, interrupted by sporadic bouts of pseudo-politicization. The trivialization and personalization of the media, the restriction of critical thought to the educated enclaves of society, combine with the disintegration of the forms of political mobilisation quite present even a generation ago.  Only fifty-seven percent of the eligible electorate voted in the Presidential election of 2008  and in the November  Congressional elections a very large decline in participation is likely.  It is unclear that Obama can use his standing with large sectors of his original coalition (especially the Latinos and  Afro-Americans and unionists, who failed to vote in the election for Kennedy’s Senatorial successor in Massachusetts and so gave the seat to a Republican champion of the market)   to induce them to turn out again in the numbers which made his  election as President possible. Perhaps matters would be different had he pursued a clearer course with respect to issues of redistribution and social benefits. That was precluded, not least, by his own technocratic set of mind and in that sense, he is an heir of the Third Way.

It may be too early to write of an American disaster, but it is clear that we have a stalemate. Presidential and Congressional majorities differ, and what the social majority may be in a highly conflicted nation alters from day to day, issue to issue. What is striking are certain parallels with Europe, despite the unusual spectacle of  a President severely restricted by his lack of support in the Congress urging on the other heads of government that they continue expansionary spending.

The parallels lie in the depoliticization of citizenries, in the loss of a distinctive reform project which intends the ultimate transformation of large segments of social existence, in the refusal of the socialist and social democratic and social Christian parties to challenge the arrogance and open manipulativeness of capital.  They are to be found in the emergence of new problems, like  the control of science and technology, the co-existence of cultures,   environment, immigration, for which received American progressive and European socialist and social demoratic traditions have no answers, the more so as their resigned acceptance of the predominance of the market is so intellectually passive. It lies, too, in the inner differentiation of the ca[pitalist  societies which have made simple models of class division out of date, The possibility that a new idea of citizenship could be consolidated to overcome these differences remains, but little has been done to achieve it. Above all the inner attenuation of the idea of solidarity,   as well as its relentless denigration from without by the intellectual employees  of capital, has denuded the progressives in the US and our comrades in Europe of a moral project.

It would be absurd to attribute all or even a major part of this to an Asian challenge. We would do well to ask ourselves why, in so many ways, neither the US or western Europe can claim to have social models which others are compelled to follow.

Meanwhile, the question of the durability as well as the quality of American democacyhas been posed . The idea of a nation of laws has been undermined, from the beginning of the republic, by special powers claimed by the Pesidency to meet wartime exigencies.

Beginning with the Korean war, none of our recent wars has been initiated  by a declaration of war debated and voted by the Congress. The Congress has facilitated Presidential war making by funding it, and by general resolutions of varying degrees of specificity. When President Bush, not conspicuous for the elegance of his speech, declared “I am the decider,” he was quite correct. The distinction between thepowers of an  American President and those of, let us say, a Third World dictator, is increasingly tenuous.

Covert action in violation of national and international law was a fixed element of our foreign policy during the Cold War, but its amplification in the so called War on Terror (with terror and the category terrorist hugely elastic terms) has been formalized. The Bush and Obama governments have claimed the right, without judicial proceedings of any kind, to capture, indefinitely imprison, or kill  those suspected of enmity to the US—and to do so whether these suspects are or are not US citizens, and no matter where they may be found. The judicial officials of President Obama have argued for these powers as strenuously as their Republican predecessors, and the Courts have on the whole refused to limit the Presidency.

This is but one of several ways in which the imperial power of the US affects US politics so pervasively. The most pervasive way may well be the least tangible. In a very divided society, a conviction of a special destiny (often  accompanied by the belief that the nation is beleagured, even mortally threatened) unifies citizens who otherwise might focus on their separateness—and its grievances. The US citizenry may distrust much told it by its elites, but it is quite credulous about the supposed necessity for American intervention in countries about which our citizens know, literally, nothing. That the elites may hardly know more has not occurred to many. Of course, the staff of the  Centrtal Intelligence Agency and the Foreign Service officers at the State Department, and many in the military, often have serious academic studies behind them and years of immersion in foreign countries whose cultures and languages they know.  When they attempt to educate their hierarchical superiors however, no pedagogic gifts suffice. Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy has :been complemented in the making of US foreign policy by a process in which the bureaucracy converts historical complexity into vulgar slogans.

In a statement of national security policy, recently, the President insisted on the necessity of the US retaining “military superiority” and on its role as the guarantor of world order.

These are prescriptions for keeping the nation in its present condition, in which it is impossible to distinguish between war and peace—and in which the articulation of  alternatives is discouraged, with the exception of argument for   even more ambitiously hegemonic alternatives. Indeed, political antagonists recur daily to allegations that one or another major political figure or grouping is insufficiently committed to military preponderance and inclined to bargain away  the nation’s interests to achieve illusory surcease from the conflicts forced upon us by adversaries.  The present Chair of the Republican National Committee, a former Deputy Governor of Maryland, is not conspicuous for either profound historical knowledge or scintillating intellectuality, but he did  declare the other day that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. He was promptly attacked from all sides, with the Democrats accusing him of disloyalty to our troops.

They joined the Republicans, further . in voicing the very tired trope of Henry Kissinger, for whom every conflict became a test of US “credibility..” A  military or political  engagement, once begun, can never be ended  except with total victory. In fact, the US since the Second World War has endured a succession of stalemates or defeats, Stirring triumphs in Granada and Panama did not erase uncomfortable memories of Korea and Vietnam, the final result in Iraq is by no means certain, and the President  has been trapped into continuing the Afghanistan campaign, from which our army will be fortunate if it can flee intact.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the President has trapped himself. He was driven by something in addition to  the  political calculation that rationality, restraint, a reflective calculation of costs and benefits, are repugnant to an electorate which prefers   ideological simplifications. In fact, a considerable undercurrents of doubt in the public   about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is quite audible. Iraq remains politically unstable and violent, and the more sophisticated are aware of Iran’s large influence there. The varied and contradictory reasons given for the mission to Afghanistan are increasingly unconvincing in face of the evidence of Afghan resistance to the US presence—and widely diffused reports of corruption amongst those on the US payroll.

What motivates Obama does seem to be in some part a belief in a US obligation to contribute to economic and social development and human rights in those large parts of the world where these are so conspicuously missing. The convenient designation of this belief as “Wilsonianism” is accurate as far it goes. Wilson’s father was a Calvinist pastor and the son was convinced of the righteousness of his policies—from invading Mexico to

teach it good governance to redrawing much of the map of Europe.(He was also a convinced racist and resegregated the nation’s capital city.)  Obama’s version of this belief, shaped by his own extraordinary familial and personal experiences, is extremely nuanced—but still draws upon the religious and secular traditions of American progressivism, a belief in an American duty to construct a new order. Obama, with the more reflective members of the foreign policy elite, is quite aware that the US cannot now do so alone and that new sorts of international cooperation are made necessary by alterations in the global economy.

The most rational of his foreign policy projects (reconciliation with Islam, as in the Cairo speech, and a generalized  return to international cooperation) have incited the most strenuous opposition. Some of it comes from within the Democratic Party, especially  with the President’s attempt to modify the fixed quality of the US alliance with Israel. The President’s initial attempts at even handedness in dealing with Israel and the Palestinians has given way to a creeping restoration of the Israel veto on American policies. The divisions within the American Jewish community on unconditional alignment with Israel are deepening, and many in the foreign policy elite are more openly critical of Israel’s extraordinary influence on US policy than they would have been a decade ago. No fundamental change, however,  is in sight.

A major problem is that the inertia of our institutions makes a a continuation of the struggle for American hegemony the path of least resistance. Nominally, we spend nearly five percent of Gross National Product on our armed forces, although the real figure may be somewhat higher., It is decidedly higher when we think of alternative uses for the funds spent on arms and military manpower. In every Congressional district and state there is a military installation,  an arms factory or a military contractor, a research laboratory or center of research receiving military funds. Obtaining  long term legislative support for the military budget is as important to military planners as obtaining weapons systems adapted to the armed forces’ likely missions. Indeed, the contemporary US equivalent of Keynes’ construction of pyamids is expenditure on grotesquely complex weapons systems often utterly useless for the real missions of the armed forces.

The US had conscription in the Civil War, the Two World Wars, the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Mutiny in the armed forces in the final phases of the Vietnam disaster has induced a different approach. We now have a professional army, many of the ordinary soldiers recruited from Afro-American, immigrant, Latino, impoverished rural and small town whites. The officers corps, quite diversified ethnically and racially as is all public employment, is a channel of social ascent. One striking aspect of American public attitudes is a vicarious bellicosity, more pronounced amongst those who do not join the armed forces than amongst its members. Much of our cuture is saturated with military imagery, history, language.

In the Civil War, the Union Army was saved at Gettysburg by the military skill of a university professor, a classical historian,  at the head of a regiment from Maine. Were he alive today, he would certainly spare himself the tedious necessity of risking his life in an Afghan valley—and spend his time writing opinion articles emphasizing the need for strength. The ideological and political demands of maintaining American empire provide employment for tens of thousands of persons in the academy, the Congress,  government, and the media. To these can be added many more employed by the financial and manufacturing firms with foreign interests. It would be absurd to deny the importance of intellectual conflicts amongst those in these groups who think and write about oiur foreign policy—but these debates do not find a large place in the historically and intellectually impoverished analysis and reportage served to the public by the media.

Meanwhile, the phrase of the late John Kenneth Galbraith comes to mind: “the conventional wisdom.” Most of this intellectual production is devoted to reproducing a few basic ideas on American power in the world which would be extremely vulnerable to serious intellectual scrutiny—were our foreign policy thinkers to dare to voice publicly the doubts many admit in private.

The steady  militarization of American foreign policy is the result. That entails multiple dangers. Intensified US military engagement in many parts of the world has resulted in intensified resistance, which does have the convenient consequence for some proponents of US power of  justifying  yet more engagement.. There is, however, another and  more dangerous potential  consequence. The language of political violence is being spoken with increasing openess and frequency by the President’s bitter adversaries. In the summer of 2008, some legislators returning to their districts renounced open public meetings with their constituents: these were stormed by angry citizens who did not wish to hear uncongenial views. It is possible to imagine a situation (however remote for the moment) in which parts of the armed forces would consider themselves legitimated to intervene to resolve domestic political conflicts. In the meantime ( McVeigh, the man who carried out the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Office Building in 1998, was a disturbed Army veteran) tens of thousands of damaged souls have returned from our overseas wars and constitute a reserve army of the violent in a civil society in  which they have been reintegrated only very partially.

Military intervention to prevent the US from implementing  its progressive legacy to the detriment of corporate capitalism and militarized global hegemony is for the moment unnecessary. The media and the courts, as well as the counter-majoritarian aspects of the Constitution, maintain the present equilibrium. The New York Times has just explained that it eliminated the designation of waterboarding as “torture” in favour of any number of euphemisms at the urging of the Bush government. The courts and especially the Supreme Court have by and large upheld the elimination of rights for those simply accused of being “terrorists” (including American citizens.)  The Supreme Court in a very important ruling declared that the Congress could not limit expenditures by capital in political campaigns—erasing the distinction between market and polity. Money already flows steadily into our political contests, local and national. Strong currents of cash will now become a tidal wave.

The President’s own ambiguious relationship to the Progressive tradition, was  acknowledged by his younger self in his memoir in two critical places. In one, he explains his admiration for the older Chicago Afro-American Pastors he met when working in that city’s poorest sections to organize the poor to political self-help. The pastors, he reflected, knew that they could do little to alter the economic and social situation of the members of their churches. Still, they kept their hopes alive as a way of maintaining their moral coherence. Evaluating what he had learned at Harvard Law School, at the highest level of the society which consigned many of  the Chicago Afro-Americans to misery,  he was no less candid. The function of the law, he wrote, was to legitimize the divisions of society—but sometimes, occasionally, it could be used as an instrument of social improvement. The President, at Occidental College and later at Columbia, was clearly a dutiful student and informs us that he read widely: it is surprising that he mentions none of his teachers and does not tell us which  books and ideas impressed him.

In his appointments and choice of allies and staff, he follows a policy quite adjusted to the ideological and political divisions in the nation. His White House appointees in economic policy are decidedly allies of a partnership between government and the major bearers of power in our version of capitalism, in which financial capitalism has replaced the former prepnderance of manufacturing. Whatever else his officials dealing with international trade may stand for, close coordination with the American trade union movement is not prominent in their profiles. The unions have certainly occupied the Department of Labor and have improved their capacity to make regulatory decisions favouring the unions and the employed, generally. Their influence on the broader movement of government economic policy is, however, small. For the moment, the Obama economic policy group favours stimulus and expansionary spending rather than priority for deficit reduction argued by the Republicans and enough Democrats to block the President’s stimulus programs in the Congress. The President may, in the fall election campaign, speak out strongly for deficit spending—and could connect his argument with a larger one on the nature of the society he seeks to construct. There is a problem: the President sees himself more as senior manager of the nation than as leader of a movement of transformation.

The same pattern is evident in foreign and military policy. The proponents of human rights, of a pervasive demilitarization of our approach to the world, hold positions in the niches of the plethoric governmental apparatus. The generals and political operatives striving to contain the excesses of the apparatus (insofar as possible) hold the senior positions. The self-destructiveness of the Israel government is such that the President may be forced to more severe policies toward Israel than he would wish to adopt, but  in this area he has been very reticent. Above all, he is exceedingly reluctant to liquidate the more recent failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is probable that the contorted movements of his government against Iran are intended to delay the necessity of making a decision about a military attack on that country—but that is hardly a substitute for the alternative he has not chosen, of telling the American people to learn to live with a disturbing and difficult world. The delegation of the routine  conduct of foreign policy to Hillary Clinton as Secretary of  State has worked, from the Presidential perspective, rather well. The problems confronting the US are many, the sources of constraint and influence in Washington multiple, and the Secretary has Presidential ambitions and therefore has to develop a record of steadfastness. The White House has assumed responsibility for many of the major foreign policy themes, and the Secretary is quite prepared to wait her turn.

The movements in the larger society seeking to move the President and the Congress in the direction of a broader agenda of reform are stronger and more deeply rooted than reported in the media. The protests of the militant right have had far more attention than the steady work of the party of progress. It is quite true that this party is fragmented, that much of its energy is concentrated on lobbying, on ad hoc campaigns in Washington and too little on long term educational projects in face to face settings in  communities.

The strenuous efforts of the Republicans at school book censorship, at influencing the public sector of higher education, the cautious reporting and even more restrained commentary of local media, suggest that the antagonists of progressivism suspect that its reserves of energy and persons  are still very large—if geographically and socially concentrated.  Extraordinary attention has been given, rightly, to the rigidity and repressiveness of the social doctrines of the Chrisitian fundamentalists—but much less to the continuing, if somewhat uncoordinated,  presence of strong currents of opposition to capitalism and militarism in the Catholic and Protestant Churches. (Quite a few of the senior military  officers who criticise imperial hubris are in fact Catholics, who have assimilated Church doctrine on the moral limits of war.)  The cultures and ideologies  of the newer immigrant groups are exceedingly varied, but some (a good many Latinos, for instance) have attached themselves to views of the positive role of the state indispensable to future projects of social reform. The ambivalence of the intelligentsia is best represented by the President himself, but there are large numbers of artists, journalists, scientists,   scholars, teachers,  writers  exceedingly unwilling to accept that the present substance of American life is all that can be achieved.  The Republicans  and above all their  corporate capitalist funders, have long argued that environmental movement with its demands for the radical reshaping of consumption distribution, production must lead, inevitably, to the reduction of the power of property and the sovereignty of the market. They may be correct. From a longer term perspective, the acute disappointment of the heirs of the progressive tradition with the President may be positive. It can teach them that they can depend only on themselves. They are very likely to decide in the short run that their long term chances of altering US politics would best be served by backing the President in the November elections. The Republicans insist on making it a referendum on a President who, rather unlike the actual one, is in their imagination a  determined proponent of the Progressive tradition.  That in and of itself may mobilise enough Democrats to retain majorities in the House and Senate—and cast a somewhat different light on the 2012 Presidential contest.

Professor Norman Birnbaum is University Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University Law Center. His most recent book is After Progress, American Social Reform And West European Socialism In The Twentieth Century, Oxford and NY, 2001 (German, Spanish, Turkish translations.)

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