Obamarama: The Absurd Arguments Being Used Against Him

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Mr. Livingston teaches history at Rutgers. He's finishing a book called The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century. He blogs at politicsandletters.com. Click here to read Mr. Livingston's last piece, "Obamarama: Why Some Liberal Academics and Journalists Are Suspicious of Obama" .

This time I waited until the returns were in. Barack beat Billary badly in South Carolina Saturday, much to my surprise. I thought it would be closer. The most promising figures to come out of the contest indicate that Obama’s appeal to young white voters is not something that shows up only in opinion polls—it reaches into the voting booth as well. He got 40% of white voters under 40 and 50% of white voters under 30. Pretty amazing.

But I’m still cranky because the political is getting way too personal. Hillary’s aggressive rhetorical moves in the South Carolina debate were almost laughable, except that they were offensive. The tearful, hard-workin’ girl who showed up in New Hampshire was replaced by the smirking, hard-hittin’ wonkette who knows how to count votes in the Illinois state legislature.

“Responsibility” was the key code word in that interesting moment—as if Hillary herself has ever been held accountable for her vote in favor of a war in Iraq (camera angles helped here, too, there were a lot of shots of Hillary leaning seriously on her podium, watching dubiously as Obama responded to her inane accusations). And please don’t tell me she didn’t vote for war. Remember, we were marching and staging teach-ins against the war long before the president’s agenda was aired in the United Nations.

Well all right, then. There are plenty of pro-Hillary flacks out there these days, or rather right here in River City, in the liberal media like good old HNN and The New York Times. Check out Sean Wilentz and David Greenberg, cross-listed on the HNN Top Ten last week (1/14/08) from The New Republic and The Washington Post—not exactly obscure media sites. And go read Paulie (“the Hitman”) Krugman on Tuesday’s NYT op-ed page (1/22/08) when you’re done.

Clearly, a vast left-wing conspiracy is gathering to deliver a knock-out blow to Obamarama, on the grounds that (a) as a mere ideologue who wields only nice words, he needs a pragmatic president like Lincoln—like Hillary?—to get things done; and/or (b) as a black man who missed the 1960s, he represents a “fantasy of easy redemption” for semi-educated white folks like me; and/or (c) as the anti-Clinton who would dare to renounce the either/or terms of the 1990s, he admires Ronald Reagan’s policies, particularly the dreaded supply-side economics of the first term.

Let’s see what the damage is. Sean defends Hillary’s self-serving correlation of LBJ and MLK—as King the movement leader needed Johnson the politician to inscribe civil rights in law, so Obama the orator needs Clinton the bureaucrat to achieve the Democratic agenda—by getting all historical on us. Now, Sean Wilentz is a distinguished historian, no doubt about it. But he leaves out a lot of what he learned in doing the research for The Rise of American Democracy (2006), a brilliant book that is as wide as my kitchen (I am able to use it as a barrier against dog forays into cat territory).

Sean wants us to know that this is serious business: “So—let us look very, very carefully at the historical record.” But he works backward, as it were, from the 20th to the 19th century. “Her point was simple,” he begins: “Although great social changes require social movements that create hope and force crises [hello?], elected officials, presidents above all, are also required in order to turn these hopes into laws. . . .Clinton was also rebutting Obama’s simplistic assertion [note: simple is good politics, simplistic is bad history] that ‘hope’ won the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the end of Jim Crow.”

Without any transition, with only a paragraph break, Sean leaps into the 19th century, using a rhetorical frame that suggests any disagreement with him must be nearly demented: “The historical record is crystal clear about this, and no responsible historian seriously contests it.” Uh oh.

“Without Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, black and white (not to mention restive slaves), there would have been no agitation to end slavery, even after the Civil War began. But without Douglass’s ally in the White House, the sympathetic, deeply anti-slavery but highly pragmatic Abraham Lincoln, there could not have been an Emancipation Proclamation or a Thirteenth Amendment. Likewise, without King and his movement, there would have been no civil rights revolution. But without the Texas liberal and wheeler-dealer Lyndon Johnson, . . .there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

And then the subtext of fierce, unfinished debates about the Sixties resurfaces: “Behind this argument over Clinton’s comments lies a false, mythic view of the 1960s in which the civil rights movement supposedly pushed Johnson and the Democrats to support civil rights against their own will.”

False? Mythic? Not just debatable? Do you mean to tell me that Southern Democrats were signing on to the civil rights revolution between, say, 1963 and 1968, when Black Power superseded integration as the agenda of African-American emancipation? Do you mean to tell me that Johnson didn’t know his party and his region would be held ransom for at least a generation by a so-called Southern Strategy that enfranchised Republicans like Jesse Helms? Please. The corrosive divisions that dominated the Democratic Party’s nominating conventions of 1964 and 1968—not to mention George Wallace’s successes in the 1968 primaries—are good indexes of how conflicted the party was on civil rights and its ideological corollaries.

As Obama said on Monday, MLK Day, “change does not happen from the top down.” You would think that Sean Wilentz, who made his bones as a labor historian in Chants Democratic, that prize-winning book of 1984, understands this essential premise of the new social history, which, as David Thelen points out, is now the essential premise of Obama’s campaign. It seems not. Sean would prefer to let the wonkette get ‘er done—because she knows what’s best for us, because she suffers not from false consciousness.

But let’s wander back to the historical record, just for a moment. I don’t want to be an irresponsible historian, but I sure do want to contest Sean’s rendering of the relation between social movements and legislative accomplishments in the 19th century. The “highly pragmatic” Lincoln—the analogue president who stands in for the wonkette, she who is always already ready to make policy—was, in fact, an ideologue who won the presidency by the force of his oratory.

Lincoln was a one-term Congressman turned out of office because he opposed James K. Polk’s dishonest rationale for war against Mexico. He was also a good lawyer, who defended the Illinois Central Railroad—a big corporation—in court. But he had almost no experience as a lawmaker, and none as an executor of the law: the largest bureaucracy he managed before March 1861 was the law firm he shared with William Herndon.

Again, before he was president, he was only an ideologue. As he pointed out in debate with Stephen A. Douglas, in 1858, “He who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes.”

When Lincoln gave the speech of his life, on October 16th, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois—before he joined the new Republican Party—he had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and it shows. He goes for broke. And he kept at it for the next six years, in speech after speech after speech, 90 or so for Fremont in 1856, then the debates with Stephen A. Douglas in the Senate campaign of 1858, and then the Cooper Union address of February 27, 1860, which is the most amazing piece of rhetoric I’ve ever read (even better, I think, than the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural).

In these many speeches—and remember, he held no office, he was just stating the anti-slavery case—Lincoln framed the issues in a way that would not allow a return to the oppositions or the compromises of the past. He embodied and performed a new approach, a new attitude, toward the problem of slavery, even though his programmatic proposals represented no departure from the Wilmot Proviso or the Free Soil Party: “no extension” was the sum and substance of his policy until he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862.

Lincoln made three ideological moves that created a new generation of anti-slavery sentiment. First, unlike the partisans of Free Soil, he insisted that slavery was a moral problem, and thus could never be compromised. In effect, he said, you do not have the right to do what is wrong. For example: “When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” (Peoria, Basler ed., 2: 266)

Second, he refused the highly pragmatic choice of Stephen A. Douglas as the Republican standard-bearer in 1860—this was the plan concocted by influential eastern Republicans such as Horace Greeley, who wanted a western moderate as the nominee—and indeed destroyed Douglas’s chances as a presidential contender by running against him for a Senate seat in 1858. In doing so, Lincoln moved the Republican Party to the left, away from the language of Free Soil and toward the idiom of abolition, wherein compromise with the expansion of slavery along the lines of, say, Popular Sovereignty, became impossible.

Third, and perhaps most important, he treated the Constitution as Frederick Douglass had learned to, an anti-slavery document that was fully consistent with the ethical principle of the Declaration (“all men are created equal”). In the Cooper Union address, Lincoln painstakingly showed that a majority of those who signed the original Constitution acted in their elected, official capacities to limit the spread of slavery, from the Northwest Ordinance to the Missouri Compromise. The either/or choices of the past—will it be the Declaration or the Constitution that guides us in solving the moral problem of slavery?—was now adjourned.

That address got him the 1860 nomination of the Republican Party he had already reshaped in 1858 by displacing the highly pragmatic choice of Stephen A. Douglas. In other words, what got him the nomination and the chance to make history was his oratory—not his experience as a lawmaker, not his managerial acumen, not his association with a political dynasty, but his oratory.

So the cute analogy peddled by Hillary and amplified by Sean on the basis of a “crystal clear” historical record looks pretty vacant. For Lincoln was a self-conscious ideologue who became a great politician only after he was in office—and even then the locus of policy-making was in the Congress, not the White House. You might respond by saying, Well, the division of labor was not as acute then as it is now, when Obama the orator himself has a herd of speechwriters. Fine. The point is that Lincoln’s principal experience before the presidency was in speaking on the central issues of his time, by standing at the heart of change, telling us where it would lead, and where it should lead.

David Greenberg recycles the liberal Enlightenment aversion to the “enthusiasm” of Obama’s supporters, which Sean so eloquently enunciated in his last piece. Words such as “allure,” “infatuations,” “enthusiasts,” “giddiness,” “exhilaration,” “intoxicated,” “seduction,” etc., congregate so densely in this essay that you begin to wonder why the Man of Reason who stands behind them hasn’t turned on Hillary, who, as you might recall, happens to be a woman. No, really, this worries me. Is Barack campaigning to be the first female president? If so, where does that leave the Clintons?

“So what explains the magic?” David asks, and comes up with an answer that is quite baffling. “The most obvious explanation is Obama’s stirring oratory, with its notes of generational change and unity. The key to his seduction [!], though, resides not just in what he says but in what remains unsaid [you mean the way he says it?]. It lies in the tacit offer—a promise about overcoming America’s shameful racial history—that his particular candidacy offers to his enthusiasts [!], and to us all.”

Now I guess we shouldn’t want to overcome this shameful history; or rather we should know that we can’t, because America is exceptionally irredeemable. Or is David’s point that the hard work of redemption is not to be done by zealots and enthusiasts—mere constituents—but by objective analysts like him, who know enough about the crystal clear historical record to tell us when to stop mourning and start clapping?

As I said, it’s a baffling argument. It goes like this. Unlike Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—“the first Democrat since the 1960s to formulate a viable and vital new liberalism”—Obama “doesn’t come bearing a new ideological vision.” Instead, he articulates a “familiar, mainstream liberalism.” So he’s a New Deal Democrat, unlike the Democratic Leadership Council wonks, the friends of Bill, who gave us NAFTA? Uh, no.

No, Obama is a soccer mom posing as a metrosexual male; at any rate he’s not a real man who is necessarily interested in class struggle. “High-minded and process-oriented, in the Mugwump tradition that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Bill Bradley, it is pitched less to the Democratic Party’s working class base than to upscale professionals. The Obama phenonmenon, then, stems not from what he has done but who he is. . . .Ultimately, it [this phenomenon] is a fantasy of easy redemption.”

All right, let me get this, er, straight. The Obama phenomenon allures, seduces, infatuates, and intoxicates us because it is not addressed to the white, male, working-class base of the New Deal coalition. It’s too squishy. It’s for “upscale professionals” like the Culinary Workers and SEIU. Hello?

It seems to me that the “fantasy of easy redemption” that needs immediate therapeutic intervention is David’s academic dream of reassembling the New Deal coalition with a lexicon and a program that foregrounds class conflict and its idiot attendant, the anti-monopoly tradition. It is a dream that has been described in great detail and with great success, of course, by Thomas Frank, Nelson Lichtenstein, Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Christopher Lasch, Elizabeth Sanders, Robert Westbrook, and many others. But it is erudite nostalgia at best. We—that would be us Democrats with a stake in the future—need to wake ourselves from its false promises, not keep prescribing it as the cure for what ails us.

And as for Paulie (“the Hitman”) Krugman, c’mon, man, the point of Obama’s remarks on Reagan was that the neo-conservatives seized the intellectual and ideological initiative in the late-1970s, not that supply-side economics worked. Neither David Stockman nor George Gilder thought they made a difference over at OMB, and they were right. Hey, Jude, oh, never mind, you’re dead.

And I do promise to flesh out that idea about what the Obama campaign performs.

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Jack Faust Matlock, Jr. - 2/2/2008

My, my. Is this a historian talking?
Sounds like a script writer for Fox News.

And are you suggesting that Kennedy's endorsement will turn more people against an Obama candidacy than the built-in, ready-to-go anti-Clinton crowd?

To me, this just doesn't add up--aside from being a quite distorted view of Kennedy. (He was very helpful, behind the scenes, in our negotiations with Gorbachev during the Reagan presidency. Was that political opportunism or what?

Tim Matthewson - 1/29/2008

1. Obama is supported by Ted Kennedy, and Teddy has a long history leading the Democratic party always to disaster. The Democratic party has a long history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and no name is more associated with defeat than Ted Kennedy.

2. Don't forget that Teddy Kennedy was the principal supporter of John Kerry, and he got the party to follow his Kerry lead, and look where that ended up.

3. Don't forget that Kennedy played a major role in defeating Jimmy Carter -- handing the Republicans a lengthy ad campaing against Carter.

4. Kennedy is a drunk and a womanizer and has a long history of visiting prostitutes. Remember the Au Bar episode in Palm Beach and the Chappaquidick!

5. Ted Kennedy is the butt of more jokes that any other politicians in modern America today, even George Bush.

6. Ted Kennedy can't get over the fact that his brothers were named John and Robert, but he has never realized that he has none of their political savy.

7. Kennedy seems to believe that the leadership of the Democratic party was entailed on his family -- it's primogeniture.

8. Kennedy is part of America's nobility -- i.e., meaning that he has no-ability!

9. America would be better off without the long line of dead Kennedys that seem to accumulate each season much like dolphins beaching themselves on Capt Cod.

10. If Obama thinks that Kennedy's endorsement will help him -- this provides that Obama has poor judgment -- Nothing will unite the Republican party like Ted Kennedy's endorsement.

Gary W. Daily - 1/28/2008

“As Obama said on Monday, MLK Day, ‘change does not happen from the top down.’”

I thought I had been listening with care to Obama, but I haven’t been getting this out of his speeches, debate remarks, and TV interviews. It’s hard to find “chants democratic” in Obama’s bi-partisanship dreams, Obama’s reaching across the aisle modus operandi, Obama’s big table approach to dealing with Big Pharma/Big Oil/Big Insurance power. If he’s not exactly working “from the top down,” can we agree that Obama, for practical political reasons (I hope), is nearly as centrist as Evan Bayh or the DLC? Obama, whom I admire immensely but is only at the start of his careful career path, should recall this Frederick Douglass lesson: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. . . ."

“Second, the "working class base" of the Democratic Party should be a question, not an assumption. Since when can we take this for granted?”

You’re right on the mark with this observation. We make the myths; we live the myths we make.

The working class has been asleep (again), or, as in the case of the rank and file of UNITE HERE, are sold out by their leaders. So the Edwards’ message fails to gain traction. Obama, along with the rest of the candidates, the press and nearly everyone in this country continues to sleep walk through dreams of their own making, not “Leninist dreams.” The Americans that matter to pundits and politicians think they are the children who grew up living on the shores of Lake Woebegone, all middle-class and all relying periodically on self-help books and inspiration fixes to chase the grayness of life away.

The failings of the news media in all of this are too continuous and gross to enumerate or elucidate. With Ben Franklin, the last word on F(I)X or the NYT or The Gwen and Jim Show, is: “Ever since Follies have pleas’d, Fools have been able to divert.”

James Livingston - 1/28/2008

P.S. The subtitle is not mine: I don't think the arguments against Obama are "absurd." My apologies.

And two other points I wish I had made. First, LBJ wasn't acting against his own will in backing civil rights legislation, but he was trying, desperately, to head off the chronic but newly insistent black nationalist agenda that had resurfaced after 1963, in the so-called urban crisis--he was trying, that is, to contain the anti-colonial rhetoric that had galvanized rebellion at home and abroad.

Second, the "working class base" of the Democratic Party should be a question, not an assumption. Since when can we take this for granted? Are we assuming that the working class is the obvious, anointed bearer of political progress? Are we assuming that the social democracy we hope for is the property of the working class?

If so, why? The history of the 20th century should have disabused us of these Leninist dreams, and the experience of our own time should have allowed a reinterpretation of them.