Super Bowl weekend is upon us. The ultimate distraction in a nation of five-minute attention spans. More of us will likely spend more time dissecting the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens than we will unpacking the debt ceiling debate. If so, then we’ll get what our political ignorance deserves. Citizens are supposed to make informed decisions in a democracy. We have millions of citizens, but so few of us are informed. We spend our free hours—understandably in many cases—planted in front of the tube, decompressing after another long slog through the working day. We’re too tired to dig for alternative political sources on the Internet—we’d rather ingest our politics at the fetid troughs of Fox News and CNN and The New York Times. But corporate media feeds us a steady diet of business-friendly (and labor-hostile) opinions designed to elicit unthinking support for state policies—which reflect the interests of the businesses who paid for them. So, with a population unwilling to rise in defense of its own interests, we naturally get a raft of venal politicians willing to accept the bribes of big business to do their bidding in government. For the enterprising and unscrupulous, is there a more attractive career path?
A Proven Formula for Political Fraud
For Congressional hopefuls with dreams of national fame, it is such a simple formula to follow: run on a populist platform, promise to fight for democratic reform, pledge to battle vested interests and to create a new kind of government—one that listens to its people. Then, once you’ve been elected, reverse course. For every time you mentioned ‘the American people,’ take a dollar to work against them. For every time you denounced a war of foreign aggression, vote to fund a foreign war under the guise of ‘supporting our troops.’ For every time you claimed that the planks of the New Deal were non-negotiable, agree to de-link one plank from inflation in the interests of ‘deficit reduction’. Hire a few fledglings to craft some tepid legislation denouncing some egregious piece of elite corruption, champion it on the floor of the House, get it ratified, and then bury it.
This formula accomplishes two things: first, it establishes relationships with all the fat cats in Washington and in your district. You signal your willingness to work for the betterment of big business, and that your campaign promises were just a series of populist stump speeches the better to be ignored by the financiers of your re-election. Your vacuity is depthless, your cupidity—endless. Fill me, you say, with the special interest of your choice. Second, the formula inures you from serious criticism in the next election. After all, you’ll have a couple of comical laws or censures to hold aloft as you remind the threadbare populace how you labored tirelessly on their behalf. The corporate media, purveyor of the status quo, will trumpet your meager achievements with thoroughly disproportionate glee. The rest, the flotilla of ways in which you sacrificed people and principle for short-term profits—annoyingly summoned by gadfly idealists and imperial gainsayers—can be gently brushed aside as part of the compromise of politics. Sacrifice is necessary, you tell Americans, especially theirs.
A Time-Honored Tradition
This is the pantomime of democracy, the little puppet show that has us all transfixed. Obama is simply its latest avatar, a master of the form, like his heroes Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton before him, who pioneered the tradition of hostility toward poor minorities. We can’t really know why Obama admires Reagan and Clinton. Perhaps for their subterfuge. But we can at least say what they did. Reagan launched a racis. war against African-Americans called the ‘War on Drugs’. Drugs were harshly criminalized and since its inception in the 1980s millions of minorities have been incarcerated. When you think about it, criminalizing marijuana is just outlawing a liberal lifestyle choice. If you want to throw a bunch of unsavory types into prison, don’t wait for them to commit a crime—criminalize what they’re already doing. So you can’t smoke a mind-expanding drug, even though it doesn’t lead to violence, and actually calms people down and helps with pain. Of course, Reagan claimed he was saving people from drug addiction, claimed to be helping the very people he was attacking. But we are no closer to eradicating drug use than we were thirty years ago. Either Reagan launched one of the most foolhardy campaigns in the history of police work, or he wanted to attack poor blacks in a socially acceptable way. I say the latter.
Clinton, the New Democrat, also attacked the poor under the guise of helping them. He smartly split indigent Americans into two groups. First, the miniscule clan of the legitimately unlucky—for them he created a program called From Welfare to Work, which sounds like a noble effort to help those who would help themselves. Naturally, it was nothing of the sort. All it did was restrict government assistance and ‘transition’ millions off the welfare rolls. This allowed the program to trumpet fewer welfare recipients, ostensibly a positive development based on the assumption that people no longer needed help as they helped themselves to jobs, which of course were nonexistent. The second group of Clinton poor were the ones Reagan had called ‘welfare queens,’ the thriftless black woman who kept having kids so she could fleece the government of more funds, and arrived to pick up her welfare checks in a limousine. In order to create a pair of stereotypes with which to bookend this bipartisan racism, Clinton created the term, ‘deadbeat dads,’ to stigmatize irresponsible black fathers. So queens and deadbeats were arrested for smoking by Reagan and punished for their poverty by Clinton.
But why would Obama, who’s half-black, admire that kind of behavior? Might as well ask why Christians launched bloodthirsty crusades when their savior was a known pacifist? In politics and war, everything gets twisted into its opposite. In Orwell’s 1984, war was peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance was strength. For Republicans today, war is regime change. For Democrats, imperial conquest becomes humanitarian intervention. Your terrorist is my freedom fighter. Sigmund Freud said that if you really want to know the true nature of humanity, just invert society’s most important moral injunctions. Seems the same rule can be applied to our government. We all genuflect before the god of peace, but we pursue policies of violence. We repeat platitudes about self-determination and sovereignty, but work to imprison our neighbors. We rail against intellectual piracy after having built an empire on theft. So if we relentlessly extol democracy, does that mean we secretly hate it? And, to my earlier point, is there some kind of deep-seated self-hatred in Obama that makes him want to cut assistance to the poor—to leave Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid open to reductions—so many of whom are minorities?
The False Doctrine of Personal Responsibility
Maybe there is. Or maybe he has swallowed their propaganda of personal responsibility: If you’re down and out, it’s your fault. If you’re unemployed, it’s for lack of industry. If you’re in debt, it’s for lack of thrift. If you’re sick, it’s for lack of self-care. You need to take responsibility for your life and pull yourself up by the bootstraps—as impossible to do as the metaphor suggests. If you’re taking government money, you’re a heedless parasite who needs to be starved. That was Reagan’s phrase for destroying the New Deal. He called it, ‘starving the beast.’ The beast is government, not people. ‘People’ are usefully abstracted into a fearsome image of a bloodsucking bureaucracy, which, of course, everybody hates.
But that’s just half the story of personal responsibility. There’s the upper class narrative too. The tale of the one percent. They’re the ones who have actually ‘taken responsibility’ for themselves. If you’re a millionaire, it’s thanks to your innate industry. It’s got nothing to do with your natural advantages—a rich father, an educated family, private schooling, an inheritance, the countless benefits of being born into a civilization with paved roads, functioning hospitals, policed neighborhoods, secure borders, and instant access to hard-won human knowledge of every kind. In the narrative of personal responsibility, none of this amounts to the slightest obligation to society. Your success is wholly your own. It’s John Donne’s apothegm inverted: ‘Every man is an island unto himself’.
And that’s why we need to starve the beast, to ensure that we are not our brother’s keeper. To make people go without help—unless it’s a bowl of soup from a church or a cheap tourniquet from the ER. In America, you’re on your own. That is likely Obama’s true position—judging from his actions. It is also the legacy that Obama hopes to fulfill—starving the beast. From Ronnie to Willie to Barack, the beat goes on. By using Republican stonewalling as cover, Obama can enact cuts to the social safety net and blame conservatives for it. Reality, he’ll tell us, is a series of compromises. Change is incremental. Progress comes slowly. For every tiny tax we gain on a few thousand elites, there are billions in senior benefits we must sacrifice. So let’s suffer the pain of others with equanimity and be sure not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. If all goes well, Obama will leave the White House having restricted our freedoms, reduced our benefits, endangered our planet, and retarded democracy, all while being carried from office on a carpet of plaudits that lionize him for being a champion of progressive values and democratic change. Quite a feat. But don’t forget, if it makes you do a double take, it might be doublethink.