Were progressives duped by Obama?
Posted by Kevin on July 11, 2009
Lately, some progressives have been ceasing their rationalizations of President Obama’s blatant corporatism and militarism, and are starting to speak up about how little “change” the Obama administration really represents. However, this welcome transition also frequently comes attached to the problematic notion that they were somehow duped or mislead into supporting him, or that he betrayed the progressive movement.
This is essentially the argument made by Marie Marchand, executive director of the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center in Bellingham, WA, in an article at CommonDreams titled I Want My Money Back! (Pres. Obama!) From the article:
…I thought I was supporting change I could believe in, not more of the same bloodshed and war!
Betrayal is a part of life. After awhile, you just come to expect it. Yet, the initial shock always hits you as a surprise. Alas, the nature of betrayal. Humans are vulnerable to being betrayed because underneath our husky shells, our pain and hardened hearts, we are soft and trustful creatures. We want to believe in people.
I’m not that young, so I possess some cynicism. But I’m not that old either, so I manage some idealism. Sure, I am used to being betrayed by my government. But I thought my days of calling the White House in tears were over. To think that Barack Obama preyed on this naive hope in me and millions like me is unforgivable.
I expect the Republicans to throw money at the Military Industrial Complex. Yet, from the Democrats, I was promised a different direction (like OUT of the Middle East). Regrettably, there has been miniscule change. There is still nothing to believe in.
You know, it’s great that she’s saying this, that she’s seen the light. But I can’t help but feel frustrated when I hear arguments like this. In my opinion, there was ample evidence from the beginning, if you looked past the sunny rhetoric to what Obama actually proposed doing, to suggest that he was very “conventional” in his views. As Jeremy Scahill put it recently in an interview with Socialist Worker:
What people, I think, misunderstand about Barack Obama is that this is a man who is a brilliant supporter of empire–who has figured out a way to essentially trick a lot of people into believing they’re supporting radical change, when in effect what they’re doing is supporting a radical expansion of the U.S. empire.
I think that it’s a bit disingenuous for people to act as if though they were somehow hoodwinked by Barack Obama about this.
If people were playing close attention during the election–not just to the rhetoric of his canned speech that he gave repeatedly, and the commercials, and the perception of his supporters was that he somehow was this transformative figure in U.S. politics, but also to the documents being produced by the Obama campaign and the specific policies he outlined–you realized that Barack Obama was very much a part of the bipartisan war machine that has governed this country for many, many decades.
What we see with Obama’s policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Arab and Muslim world, as well as his global economic policies, are a continuation of the most devastating and violent policies of the Bush administration–while placing a face on it that makes it easier to expand the iron fist of U.S. militarism and the hidden hand of the free market in a way that Republicans, I think, would have been unable to do at this point in history.
A similar point could be made about Obama’s economic positions; how could anyone really think he was going to stand up for the downtrodden or radically restructure the system when he was surrounding himself with neoliberal economists like Larry Summers and had advisers privately tell people he didn’t really mean all that stuff he was saying about free trade? [A very telling anecdote: I remember how when news about the latter came out, the problem for my very pro-Obama in-laws was not Obama's bullshitting, but how it would effect his chances of winning.]
There were some exceptions to this rule, areas where Obama supporters can legitimately claim to have been betrayed, such as Obama’s embrace once in office of Bush’s radical secrecy doctrines (which he had strongly campaigned against). As David Sirota notes, Obama hasn’t exactly been shy about blowing off campaign promises, and in fact expresses borderline surprise about actually being expected to follow through on the stuff he said to get elected. “It’s true that politicians have always broken promises, but rarely so proudly and with such impunity [as Obama]“, Sirota said. And even I have to admit to being surprised about the degree of Obama’s badness, of how totally Obama embraced Bush’s policies on some issues.
But for the most part, I don’t think it’s right to speak of Obama as having “betrayed” progressives. It’s not betrayal if he didn’t agree with you in the first place. He was pretty clear about where he intended to lead the country; the idea of him being this great progressive was almost entirely wishful thinking on the part of his supporters. That’s what’s so frustrating: the preponderance of evidence pointed to Obama being a kinder, gentler face for American Empire, but supporters like Marchand chose to tune that out in favor of hopenchange.
Also, at the risk of sounding bitter, my sympathy is dampened somewhat when I think back to how, as a Green Party supporter, I was treated like a buffoon by people like Marchand when I questioned whether Obama was really the closet lefty that many seemed to think he was. When they weren’t rationalizing his positions, the best defenses I would get were along the lines of: “Come on, he can’t be that bad!” “Yeah, [insert position here] is horrible, but he doesn’t really mean that; he has to say that to get elected.” “You’re being such a Naderite purist; wouldn’t anyone make you happy?” “Don’t you understand, we can’t let McCain win! It doesn’t matter how horrible the other guy is!” It’s hard not to take the asshole route and say, “I told you so!” An acknowledgment of wrongdoing on their part would be nice, but probably too much to expect from people trying to justify why they supported Obama in the first place. It’s just easier for them to say, “No one could have seen this coming!”
I know some will say it’s too early to be talking about 2012, but is Marchand’s realization about how shitty Obama is going to translate into a vote against his reelection? Or is she going to blow off her concerns and fall for the hype again (or at best hold her nose and vote for him anyway)? How long until we start hearing that Obama can’t really start getting things done until his second term?
My point in all this is that I don’t think progressives were tricked or duped by Obama (just as I don’t think they themselves were stupid or uninformed); rather, they fell for him because they wanted to believe.
[Certainly, there are other progressives who knew exactly what they were voting for with Obama, but did it anyway for various reasons. I disagree with them too, but this post isn't about them.]
That said, it’s important that we try to understand why people like Marchand wanted to believe if we ever want them to drop their support for the Democrats. There are possibly a lot of people out there like her who are becoming disillusioned with Obama (although as The Nation‘s Eyal Press argues, it’s not clear how much of the Left this represents; there’s still a lot of people out there, like Press, for whom nothing can seem to shake their support for Obama). Sounding smug and superior, putting them on the defensive, isn’t going to win their support for an independent progressive movement that won’t allow itself to be an arm of the Democratic Party. We need to recognize that some of the reasons they wanted to believe are legitimate, if unfortunate, and work from there.
The most important thing to realize is that none of us are perfectly rational, coolly and calmly weighing the pros and cons of candidates/positions. People choose candidates in large part based on how those candidates make them feel and then justify that gut decision after the fact. For people desperate to believe that change within the two-party oligopoly is possible, Obama made them feel pretty good. Marchand says as much in her article:
I knew I was naïve; yet like millions of Americans, I had no choice but to believe. Our hearts were desperate for hope. We saw Barack Obama as an oasis in the desert. To think that he may be just a mirage is heartbreaking.
At least Marchand has the guts to look within and admit that the object of her hope is just a mirage, even if she can’t go all the way to realizing that she should have known that in the first place. It’s good that it’s happening this soon into Obama’s term. As for the numerous progressives for whom it seems Obama can do no wrong (or who like Press blow off that wrongdoing by talking about how we need to be “pragmatic”), bear in mind that it took six years after Bush was elected for conservatives to turn against him. I’m not holding my breath waiting for the Obama lovers to wake up.