Reflections on the Obama Presidency: (4) Leaving Bipartisanship Behind
After all, it always takes two to tango, and the Republicans are now refusing to dance. Their ranks are too riddled with birtherism, conspiracy theories and latent racism to permit them to participate in any dance that moves to a progressive rhythm; and Democrats should not choose to dance to any rhythm other than that one. So the question becomes – what form are progressive politics to take, if progressive politics are to advance? The old Clinton joke – of why did Bill Clinton cross the road: to get to the middle – those days have gone. The Democrats didn’t take them away. The Republicans did: the Republicans and their ideological allies in the media (from Fox News to talk radio) and in the battle for ideas within the education system (not least from the Koch Foundation). The American conservative movement knows full well that winning political power is about more than winning votes. It is about winning minds; and you don’t win minds by being nice to your political opponents, or by capitulating to their programs. You win minds by arguing with enthusiasm and clarity for the superiority of your ideas over theirs, and for your programs instead of theirs. At the start of the Obama Administration, the book which pre-figured the arguments of all the opinion pieces gathered here, Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, began in this fashion. It is an opening paragraph with which, sadly, it seems appropriate now to close this collection of reflections observing that Administration in real time.
Political parties are the great rainmakers of the modern age. They package ideas. They put together programs. They organize blocs of voters. They tell us what is happening – what is going right and what is going wrong. They point a way forward; and they provide us with protection against the rain coming from the other side. When they are effective, they provide a narrative linking the private hopes of their supporters to some great national program of reform. They keep their own people dry by the quality of that narrative – by the ability of the arguments and images they deploy to act as an effective umbrella against narratives coming from their opponents. For at least thirty years after the New Deal, the biggest umbrella in American politics was a liberal one, constructed and held up by the Democrats. But that umbrella broke long ago, great holes torn in its canvas from the 1970s by the disintegration of the New Deal coalition and the rise of the Christian Right. For the last three decades – in one branch of government after another – a conservative umbrella has held sway, and Republicans have been the normal political beneficiaries of its canopy. The issue before us, as the Obama presidency begins, is whether that conservative canopy is itself now being replaced. Right-wing forces in the United States clearly fear that it is. How else are we to understand the venom, outrage and even despair visible in much of the reaction by Republican politicians and their core supporters to the initial policy moves of the new Administration. But one swallow does not make a spring, and though the election result in November 2008 was an important moment of realignment in American politics – as potentially important in its way as were the realignments of 1932 and 1980 – whether that potential can be realized is still to be determined. The big issue – of whether the United States will go to the left or to the right – is still in play.iv
Still in play – and, if we are being honest – so much further from breaking in a progressive direction now than was the case in 2008. For what we have just witnessed, in the election of Donald Trump, is what some of us hoped that we had put behind us in 2008: the full fruits of conservative America’s long battle for the minds and soul of the U.S. electorate. The great tragedy of the Obama presidency is that those hopes were not realized. The great tragedy was that the presence in the White House of a genuine progressive failed to eradicate long-established layers of racism and misogyny in the mind-set of key groups of white non-college educated working-class voters, many of them locked away in the depleted labor markets of rural and small-town America. These were voters who then turned out in unexpectedly large numbers to block the continuation of the Obama Administration’s policies in new and female hands. That largely voluntary and self-generated mobilization – effected without a strong ground-game by a Republican Party that largely kept its distance from its presidential candidate – speaks to the scale of the task still before us as progressives here in the United States: the task of building a coalition of the American poor and economically insecure that is united around policies of job creation and income generation rather than divided – as now – on lines of gender and race. As the United States imperceptibly transforms itself from a white and patriarchal society with minority populations, into a genuinely multi-racial and gender-blind one, putting that coalition together should become easier over time. It is not easy now, because the shadow of the past lies heavy in the minds of so many older white Americans; but time is not on the side of the old. The millennial generation now replacing them is not so ideologically burdened, and it is the millennial generation which is poised over the next decade to pull the center of political gravity to itself.
The Trump campaign and its Republican Party backers were able to exploit the current economic grievances and fears of white working-class America in no small measure because, during the Obama years, the conservative political establishment could simply adopt a policy of total resistance and negativity – winning electoral credibility, among economically challenged white voters at least, by simply being the “Party of No.” But that option is now closed to them. The very scale of their victory in 2016 leaves the Republicans as visibly responsible for governing, at the very moment when the character of that victory leaves them in power without a clear program. If any Republican thinks that a few tax cuts and the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act will bring generalized prosperity charging back to America, they are in for a serious and a rapid shock. The gap between promise and performance that so bedeviled the Obama Administration will soon be one that exposes the permanent bankruptcy of their politics rather than the temporary impotence of ours. It is an exposure that will open the political space again for a revitalized progressive politics if the American center-left has the imagination, the discipline and the energy to both see that space coming and seize it when it arrives. My faith in that imagination, disciple and energy remains undaunted, not least because I realize this. In the great competition for the mind of the American electorate, we do well to remember – in this, our darkest hour – that all that we have lost now is this particular round. There will be many rounds to come, and if we persevere, many victories ahead.
“This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it. It is, it is worth it.” (Hillary Clinton, in her concession speech, New York, November 9, 2016)
First posted, with full academic citations, at www.davidcoates.net
This is an extract from the closing essay in David Coates, The Progressive Case Stalledv Published by Library Partners Press, and bringing together all the Coates’ postings on Barack Obama’s second term. The postings on the Obama first term are also available, collected together as Pursuing the Progressive Case.vi Together, the two volumes make up Observing Obama in Real Time.
iv David Coates, Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments. New York: Continuum Books, 2010, pp. 1-2.
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.