November 3, 2010
The Dialectic of Obama
America's left, and the party it dominates, faced a reckoning yesterday. Two short years ago, exultant progressives believed America had shifted permanently to the left. Now that sweet taste of victory has turned to acrid ashes in their mouths.
The scores of congressional Democrats (along with even more state officeholders) who lost their coveted positions, need a way of comprehending the disaster which has befallen them. The scapegoats offered by President Obama and his surrogates -- Tea Partiers, witches, foreign money, and Fox News -- will not suffice. President Obama himself, the man with a winning smile, a slender build, and a way with teleprompters, cannot escape blame for the disaster at the polls. Former friends, including many who rode his coattails, see in him the cause of their expulsion from the political paradise of high elective office.
How could it go so wrong so fast? How could a man once seen as a savior turn out to be a disaster for those who embraced him?
For our bewildered friends on the left, an explanation is necessary, one couched in terms from the progressive framework -- dialectical analysis, the means that Hegel created and Karl Marx adopted for understanding history. Dialectics constitutes the Marxian foundation on which modern progressive strategy is built.
Barack Obama himself is almost certainly familiar with the Marxist analytical framework for understanding what moves history. He was mentored by Frank Marshall Davis, a Communist Party member. The typical white grandparents who raised him moved in communist circles after leaving Kansas for Mercer Island, WA and Honolulu. I doubt very much if Davis ever got very specific with young Barry on the complexities of dialectical materialism, the formal basis for communist theory. And because the president's college transcripts are a closely guarded secret, we cannot know if he took any courses on Marxist theory while at Occidental College and Columbia University. But he surely understands its basics.
The Marxist theory of history teaches that it moves forward through a dialectical process, powered by conflict. Thesis -- an action or idea -- generates a reaction, its antithesis, which results in contradictions and conflict. The wise dialectical thinker understands that by heightening contradictions (or not letting a crisis go to waste, in the immortal words of Rahm Emanuel), the final outcome -- the synthesis -- can be shaped in radical directions. Among those who took this lesson was Saul Alinsky, for example, who wanted to "rub raw the resentments of the people" in order to hasten revolution through peaceful means, inspiring young Barack Obama to become a community organizer.
The dialectical game plan of the Obama presidency was obvious: use the ongoing financial crisis sparked by subprime mortgage lending to generate momentum for fundamental restructuring of the economy. Blame Bush and big business for the problems, and use resentment arising from real economic suffering to push for game-changers like ObamaCare and Cap and Trade, putting government in charge of the commanding heights of the economy. Once private enterprise was so constrained and limited, further systemic changes would be child's play. With everyone dependent on government approval for health care, carbon emissions, college loans, and jobs, no countervailing forces would be strong enough to limit the power of the statists. No longer would the power of capitalism dictate the terms under which Americans live.
But problems with this model of change arose quickly. It turned out that Americans' modal impulse in times of trouble is not to seek a government solution, because they are skeptical of the effectiveness of such bureaucracies. A segment of the public, of course, is happy to have government provide for their needs, but it is neither large enough nor motivated enough to become a revolutionary vanguard. Although purple-shirted SEIU thugs managed to bite a finger off here and demonstrate at an executive's house there, and New Black Panthers wielded nightsticks at polling places, the efforts failed to ignite a popular uprising and even generated a backlash, despite the efforts of progressive media allies to suppress information about them.
The American national character is built on the bedrock of self-reliance. Having spent some of his formative years in Indonesia and the remainder in the company of communists in Hawaii, Barack Obama failed to understand the dialectical forces at work. Rick Santelli's famous television rant which sparked the Tea Parties might as well have been spoken in Sanskrit, for all the understanding it evoked from Obama. There was discontent rubbed raw, all right, but it inclined people more to demand freedom from looming government restrictions of regulation and onerous debt obligations than to demand succor from a generous state. The objective conditions, to use a favorite phrase of Marxian discourse, were not as favorable as had been assumed.
A second faulty assumption contradicted the Obamian understanding of the dialectical dynamics. The power of progressive media to control the national news agenda was vastly overestimated. Despite the intense efforts expended to demonize Fox News, the mere existence of a voice not playing along with the narrative propounded by the progressive media was enough to break the mass trance which had been so effectively propagated during the campaign. Actually governing also turns out to be a lot more difficult and rocky than delivering familiar campaign speeches, so dissonant voices pointing out the flaws undermine the sense of mastery and inevitability manufactured around Obama's public persona.
It was not just Fox News, of course. Enterprising internet sites, talk radio, and the few conservative newspapers dug up all manner of information which broke the spell. Worst of all, social media (like Mybarackobama.com) turned out to be a model just as well-adapted to conservatives as to leftists.
The real killer, when it came to the social forces, was the intersection of self-reliance, information, and social media. The Tea Party phenomenon, a self-organizing, spontaneous rebellion aimed at overthrowing the brand-new progressive dominance of government, was fatally misunderstood by just about everyone on the left. The only model they had for understanding it was their own experience of mass mobilization: top-down, centralized, and funded by wealthy special interests. A "starfish" organization with no head, and which generates and regenerates when opposed, is not something which can be effectively fought by believers in the wisdom of democratic centralism.
But the coup de grâce, the one thing nobody on the left had counted on, was that flawed document, the United States Constitution. Tea Partiers began reading the Tenth Amendment and asking awkward questions about the power the central state was arrogating. No matter how many times you call people "fringe," "wingnuts," or "dangerous radicals," it is difficult to make the nasty labels stick when all that is being asked for is adherence to the Constitution. The doctrine of a "living Constitution" has been so thoroughly accepted in progressive circles of journalism and academia that nobody ever took seriously the notion that the actual words of the document would cause problems for them. But for people who have to read and apply rules in daily life -- for example, when paying taxes -- the notion that a living Constitution could kill a portion of the actual Constitution makes no sense. Those honored with public office, the president most prominently, take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Demeaning those who cite it is a losing proposition.
Thus, the Tea Party antithesis to the Obama thesis has turned out to be larger, more powerful, and more deeply rooted than anticipated. The result -- the synthesis -- began to unfold yesterday, and it will continue to manifest through the next few elections. The dialectic of Obama is turning out to be a force returning America to its constitutional moorings.
Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.