Monday, December 7, 2009

Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and the failure of identity politics

In November and December of 2009 those on sitting on the progressive side of the political fence received two shots to the solar plexus. One roundhouse right was delivered by Madam Speaker the other by Mr. Hope and Change.

It was only a few years back when there was quite more joy in Mudville, November of 2006. On that lovely Election Day Howard Dean delivered a Democratic majority in both houses of the Congress. Then President Bush admitted that he and his party had been handed a major defeat. The Donkeys, in a deep blue funk since Bush’s triumph over John Kerry had come roaring back thanks to Howard Dean’s Fifty State plan. The crowning moment came in 2007 when the newly minted Democratic House of Representatives elected the first female speaker of that institution.

But it was not long before the bloom was off that particular rose. For those who knew their history and the way institutions like the House really work, finding the cloud in the silver lining was not hard. Those with a cynical bent and with finely attuned political antennae had their worst suspicions validated when Nancy Pelosi allowed the get-W Bush-out-of-jail-card known as the FISA reform act to pass.

That bill was a civil libertarians shop of horrors; it was badly written and unconstitutional in at least two ways. First it was an ex post facto law. It “legalized” actions of the Bush-Cheney administration that were manifestly illegal and morally suspect. The vacuuming up of e-mails, phone conversations and bank records by Bush/Cheney were a violation of law and the Fourth Amendment. All by themselves they constituted an impeachable offense.

However, thanks again to the first Female Speaker, impeachment was “off the table.” The sole effective means the Legislative branch against a tyrannous Executive was tossed away so Pelosi could push forward her goals. Thus was the Constitutional responsibility of the House to hold the President to account thrown away so that the Republicans and their Blue Dog enablers could still dictate which bills got passed.

If it were not for the Speakers sex she would have been done right there. The leader of the Opposition Party in the Legislature unconditionally surrendered her prerogatives to a President whose approval ratings had hit rock bottom. She gave the man-child of Crawford, Texas a pass on egregious criminal behavior. She showed all the spine of an earth worm. She was Harry Reid in a skirt.

The real question with Madam Speaker is not why she copped out on her responsibility, why she went along to go along, but why people did not see this coming a mile away. Blow off the dust on any biography of just about any person who it the first of a non-white-male example of a high position and it gets very depressing. These people are to a man or woman, sell-outs. They are deeply ensconced and deeply committed to the status quo they appear to be upsetting. They have worked so long in the system that they have been co-opted by it.

Nancy Pelosi is only the latest female example of the phenomena. There are others in the history books and holding office as we speak. These are go-along-to-get along types, people deeply invested in the common wisdom of the institutions they represent. At best they are evolutionaries not revolutionaries; at worst they are ladder-kickers like Clarence Thomas. (A ladder-kicker is a person who once they climb to the top of the heap kick off the very ladder of preference they used to get to their exalted position.)

Nancy Pelosi was a defector from her sex. She supported the abomination that is the Stupak amendment because that is what the legislative branch has done since at least the Hyde Amendment crawled out of its malevolent, misogynist hole. The male-dominated legislative branch has been overly willing to trade in women’s reproductive rights to gain a “compromise” from bad-faith “conservatives.”

Thus to gain a modicum of relief from Free Market absolutism good “liberal” stalwarts like Pelosi surrender the rights of average women for the mumbled promises of DINOs/DLC types who have no honor. Pelosi did this because that is how the game is played in D.C. This is the conventional wisdom of the fevered swamplands around the Potomac. It is all crass political consideration and pandering to people who have no intention of supporting your goals.

Still it is a little ridiculous for some to be in high dungeon about Pelosi’s effectively vaporizing a woman’s right to choose. She already agreed to abrogate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. She already surrendered the House's right to check an overly vigorous Executive via Impeachment. She did nothing to slow down the illegal, immoral and counterproductive occupation of Iraq. She already gave the shrub a pass on extraordinary rendition, on waterboarding, on other forms of torture and abuse. She aided and abetted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, so what if a few poor American women die from back alley abortions?

Forget what you “know” about this grandmother of Italian extraction she is member in good standing of her class. That class has no connections to work-a-day people. She is a hyper-rich socialite from San Francisco, California. She is insulated from the regular cares of ordinary people by swaths of money. She is isolated from the vast majority of her fellow women by the culture of Washington. Her “reality,” the reality of the political process in Washington is not your reality. She is a Stockholm Syndrome survivor of the Regan revolution and thus had not gotten the memo about the populist revolt that is happening in the Democratic Party. In short, she will continue to be worthless to the progressive movements and its concerns.

Since the discussion has moved to personalities that are worthless to the Progressive cause it is a good a time bring Barack Obama into this discussion as any. Having watched the degeneration of hope and change since the election a year and month ago it is no surprise how this arc has progressed. At least it should be no surprise to anyone who spends any time paying attention to history. Maybe time and experience has left us jaded, cynical and despairing. Still once you peel back the thin and shiny outer cover of Obama what is actually left is nothing more than a values-free politico.

By now one can get either of Obama’s self-penned books in the remainders bin of any purveyor of the printer’s art. Amazon probably has more than a few used copies that you can get for only few dollars. Read The Audacity Of Hope or download it from Audible or iTunes. It is a work of an astounding vacuousness, behind the soaring rhetoric of ah-shucks banality lays a vacuum of political purpose emptier than deep space. It is centrism for the sake of centrism; it is a total abandonment of any core political values. It is a high-falootin recapitulation of Rodney King’s “can’t we all just get along.” If you read or listen to that book nothing Obama does viz. ignoring core democratic and core Democratic Party values should come as no surprise.

Barack Obama is at his center the most conventional of conventional thinkers. Think back dear reader when Obama was just a junior senator. Who fell madly in love with the man on first blush? It was Tom Daschle, an insider’s insider, who fell so hard for Obama that one turned away from the couple in embarrassment wishing they would just get a room. Who also was temporarily smitten? It was none other than Holy Joe Lieberman, the Likud Senator from Etna by way of Connecticut. You can tell a lot of a person by the company he or she keeps. Much was made of Obama for “paling around with terrorists” but no one bothered to look at the really terrifying specters of Washington insiders who gathered around Obama. It mattered little that Obama was acquainted with Bill Ayres or sat in Jeremiah Wright’s pew; what really mattered was him partnering up with Washington operators like Tom Daschle.

Again we should have seen this coming from miles away but Obama is nothing if is not a gifted and charismatic politician who knows how play to our hopes. He brilliantly used his race and his oratorical gifts to gain his ascension to the White House. Out of brilliance or necessity he took Howard Dean’s grass roots organizing template. He took note of the Net roots of the Democratic Party and used it in a way not seen before. Obama took Dean’s DFA template and put it on steroids. He also saw the nation’s exhaustion with the excess partisanship of the Bush era and offered a facile solution to the nation’s weariness.

It was all hope, change, brotherhood, peace, love and granola with Obama. As an extra added bonus was the symbolism of electing the first President of a darker hue. Obama’s gift was clear to see; even Joe Biden was star struck. Biden’s politically incorrect statement, that Obama was clean, articulate, and bright expressed what many others were privately thinking. Here was a black man who was calm, collected and played the game the way the white power structure wanted it played. The man had a style of public speaking that was non-confrontational and inspirational. Best of all Barak was a team player. He was a slow, steady and conventional thinker. Obama offered in his conciliatory person a facile solution to a myriad of issues and concerns. He offered a human bridge between black and white, between blue states and red states, between the queer nation and “values voters.”

In a way it is mean-spirited to place too much blame on Obama failure to meet our outsized expectations of the man. One man cannot overcome the long and tangled history of the middle passage in the United States. More than Four hundred years of evil perpetrated on people cannot be whisked away by the election of a mixed race man to the Presidency. Still Barack Obama did commit the worst sin in salesmanship: he over-promised and he under-delivered. From his vote for FISA while still in the Senate to his most recent foreign policy decision in Afghanistan the man has consistently disapointed the very people who got him in office.

Obama’s mad dash for the mythical center, a center that only exists in the clueless minds of the political elite of Washington, has deeply offended the Progressive net and grass roots of the Democratic Party. Still if one was paying attention early on you would have seen this coming. Obama’s nomination of Joe Biden was the first hint that the great “progressive” hope of the Democratic Party was less than it seemed. Nothing against Biden, the man has performed yeoman service to the people of Delaware, but the man is a consummate Washington insider and no one’s definition of a Progressive leading light.

After Biden got the nod, more disappointment for progressives followed shortly after the Obama victory. The then President-elect chose Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff. While Rahm knew Washington he had a less secure purchase on the facts on the ground outside the beltway. His tenure as chairman of the DCCC was mediocre at best and counter-productive at worst. The resurrection of the Democratic Party in 2006 was a function of the leadership of Howard Dean at the DNC. The Dean insurgency, run by grass roots and net roots activist ran 180 out from Emanuel’s game plan. Worse for Rahm’s titanic ego the Deaniac wing of the party was much more successful in running its plan than Rahm’s plan of running “safe” candidates battleground states. Dean got Democrats seats in solidly red districts while Rahm lost squeakers in states that were purple. Despite all his successes or maybe because of them Dean found no position in the Obama Administration. Obama chose an apparatchik, an amoral beltway operator over the man who provided the fire for the Democratic Party.

Up and down the line the nominations that Obama offered for various positions in the Administration where a who’s who of conventional wisdom. The man who offered change in theory offered no such thing in practice. Not even the heman-women-haters-club of official Washington was much dented. Much like Clinton before him Obama showed some decent incremental change in the line-up but nothing earth shaking. Even his first nomination for Supreme Court justice was nothing to write home about. Sotomayor is a corporate-friendly justice who is actually slightly to the right of the woman she replaced. If anything she too may prove the bankruptcy of identity politics by possibly becoming a hindrance to the advancement of both women and Hispanics. She could be the fifth and final vote that guts Roe vs. Wade, either by direct overturning of the case or by the death by a thousand cuts it now suffers. Now that she is safely ensconced in the highest court in the land there is no telling what damage she will do. Remember arch Neoconservative and unrequited lover of George W Bush Condoleeza Rice has a biography uncannily similar to Sonia Sotomayor. Being a woman of color does not, per se, make one a better, more enlightened person.

If being a woman of color is no guarantee of possessing a more refined personality then it follows being a man of color is similarly no indication of a person’s exalted status. Peel away Barack Obama’s skin tone and what are you left with? He is a man who is both profoundly cautious and personally conservative. He is a man who makes no sudden moves. He is a man who takes in all sides of the debate and then usually finds the middle ground. He is a man who is an inveterate compromiser, a man who seeks bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake. He is man of rare intellectual gifts but with no real political nor moral compass to speak of. He is the ultimate technocrat crossed with a glad-handing politician. He saw the wave of disgust that George W Bush engendered and body-surfed it into highest office in the land. He did this by presenting himself as something he was not; an agent of change. Barack Obama only interest is in tinkering around the edges of the system that has rewarded him so extravagantly. He may support this program or that program because of a policy wonks preference but not from any deep conviction. He could not even stand strong for Professor Gates when he knew deep down in his bones that the Cambridge Police had been bad actors. Instead he bowed to the pressure of the right-wing noise machine and had that ridiculous beer summit. He is the ultimate overcautious consensus seeker who slavishly follows a bankrupt Washington received wisdom. He is, in short, Dwight David Eisenhower in black face.

If there is anything to be learned from the un-dynamic duo of Pelosi and Obama it is this: we must view our politician as exactly that—politicians. They are not saviors, they are not reformers, and they are not even leaders. Top-down management only works for Elephants, not Donkeys. Expecting any long-term politico to save us from ourselves is an act of futility. Color or sex is no indication of the politician’s merit and if history is any guide it is an indication of the politicians’ demerit if they are Sui Generis of their race, ethnicity and/or sex to gain high office. The real work has always been ours, the work of E Pluribus Unum. Until we truly follow Martin Luther King’s advice and judge people by the content of their caricature and by no other measurement we will continue to be disappointed by the people we identify with solely because of race, ethnicity, faith or sex. The only true acid test of a politician is the results they garner, no other measurements need apply.
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