What Center?

obama eating crowObama the Centrist

On what set of national policies was President Obama anything other than a “centrist?” How many times did he “reach out” to Republicans? On the war in Afghanistan, education, health care, Wall Street reform, immigration, and climate change he bent over backwards to accommodate the opposition party. Yet the Republicans stiffed him on all accounts. Any pundit who advises Obama to “move to the center” must be required to define exactly what he or she means by “center.”

The political “center” of American politics is a moving target. And for the last thirty years it has moved in only one direction: Rightward.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan moved the “center” in his direction with “trickle down” economics, deregulation, and stoked up anti-communism. In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay bettered Reagan by exploiting social and cultural issues and elevating the Southern wing. In the 2000s, George W. Bush shifted the “center” so far to the right he alienated many old guard conservatives. And now in the 2010s, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and the Tea Party are pushing it again. How far can they go? (Apparently pretty far.)

North Carolina Representative Heath Shuler, the leader of the moribund Blue Dog Democrat coalition, wants to oust Nancy Pelosi to become minority leader by claiming that the 2010 midterm elections showed that the Democratic Party must “move to the center.” But Shuler, like the pundits, hasn’t defined what he means by “center.” If the Democrats in Congress follow people like Shuler they’re heading right down the primrose path to political irrelevancy.

In 2008, Obama’s compelling personal story for a time captured the imagination of millions of Americans. But the coalition of voters that swept the Democrats into Congress and Obama into the White House was as fractured and fragmented as anything else in American society. Overlooked in the pageant of electing America’s first black president were other significant factors that played into Obama’s victory such as the weakness of the Republican ticket, Bush fatigue, and the effects of the economic collapse. We learned that other public figures have compelling personal stories too; people like Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, Sarah Palin, and even John Boehner.

When the history of the Obama presidency is written a key theme probably will be how wrong and naïve millions of people were in 2008 when they thought electing the first black president in American history might signal the beginning of a new attitude about race. On the contrary, before Obama was even sworn in the white multitudes on the Right became thoroughly unhinged. The over-the-top reaction to Obama from the Tea Baggers, Fox News, Glenn Beck, and other components of the Far Right echo chamber, which featured stories about birth certificates and Muslim influence, exposed the persistent racism in American society that cuts deep down to the bone and into the marrow.

In 2010, Republican candidates ran campaign ads targeting Latinos and Muslims, as well as depicting Obama in ways that played upon the color of his skin, all of which tested the boundaries of “acceptable” levels of racism in our political discourse.

But it’s a different kind of racism than the old Jim Crow variety. It’s an Internet age, postmodern racism that is fractured, fragmented, and multivalent. It can even be consistent with “multiculturalism.” When a Latino Republican operative, Robert de Posada, thinks he can get away with running campaign ads (in Spanish and English) urging Latinos to “send a message” to the Democrats by disfranchising themselves, servitude to the Republicans’ electoral interests became an “oppositional” expression of “protest.” It’s a weird manifestation of “multicultural” racism. Similarly, the blatant tokenism of Michael Steele’s appointment to Chair the Republican National Committee along with all those anti-choice Republican women (“Mama Grizzlies”) who have nothing but contempt for the vast majority of women who don’t earn $75,000 per speaking engagement, illustrate the new racism and sexism. And don’t forget the Log Cabin boys and Ken Mehlman and David Dreier and Lindsey Graham and Mary Cheney. (They even have a “working-class white male” signifier called “Joe the Plumber.”)

The Far Right has learned to use “identity politics” to great political effect. This turn of events makes all the hand-wringing during the 1990s about the perils of postmodernism and multiculturalism seem quaint. Back in the ’90s, even a giant among liberal historians, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., felt compelled to write a book lamenting the divisiveness of “multiculturalism” titled: The Disuniting of America. Alan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, could never have imagined how thoroughly the “multiculturalism” he saw as so threatening to conservatives would be co-opted and put to great use by his ideological soul mates.

In today’s high-octane capitalist environment where commercial advertisers slice and dice American society into thousands of different “target demographics” — cutting us up into subdivisions (and subdivisions of subdivisions) based on gender, race, age, religious affiliation, consumption habits, region, hobbies, brand loyalty, educational level, Internet hits, and so on – any “Grand Narrative” about the mindset of “the American people” quickly breaks down. This fragmented social reality, especially as refracted through the corporate media, is one of the reasons why opinion polls of voters’ preferences on specific issues, like Social Security or Afghanistan, cannot be squeezed neatly into a story line that supports either political party. And there’s no simple interpretation of the 2010 midterm elections that transcends these polarized, disparate, and artificial social categories and groupings.

Electorally the problem is even more complex: an extremist Supreme Court ruled that it’s in America’s interest to give more power over our political institutions to giant corporations; the Chamber of Commerce and all the other slush fund factories that are overflowing with corporate cash have skewed our politics even more toward the interests of the rich and powerful; and Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and the echo chamber largely define the political debate. Countervailing forces like labor unions have been beaten down over the past thirty years and in today’s context of high unemployment have been made weaker still. If the “Grand Narrative” the Republicans are now constructing were true they wouldn’t need all the subterfuge, money, and political legerdemain, they’d just open their doors and “the American people” would willingly rush in. And with the Republicans’ 600-plus newly-won state legislative seats, along with their thirty governorships, they will be able to gerrymander at least 190 congressional districts. Democratic state governments will only be able to draw up about seventy.

No one could foresee how thoroughly the Republican Right would absorb, appropriate, and co-opt identity politics and multiculturalism by putting forth their own Clarence Thomases, Robert de Posadases, and Sarah Palins (blacks, Latinos, and women who are opposed to any piece of legislation or social policy that might benefit blacks, Latinos, or women). Combine this identity politics with the postmodern manipulation of political language, where words mean anything the rich and powerful want them to mean, and there could be a realignment over the next few election cycles that ushers in a very long period of direct oligarchic corporate control over our nation’s governing institutions.

Back in the 1960s the Democratic Party did the right thing by shedding its racist segregationist wing. But a quick look at today’s electoral map shows those same elements were welcomed into the waiting arms of the GOP. The Democrats kicked the bigots out of their “tent” and in the process cemented what might be the most important structural advantage the Republicans have.

Contrary to Beltway speculation, the Tea Party and the GOP leadership are not going to fight a “civil war”; their shared hatred of Obama and desire to maintain power will unify them. Sure, there will be times in the 112th Congress when the right hand doesn’t know what the far-right hand is doing, but their squabbles will be minor and easily resolved by simply reminding members of the Republican caucus how much they all despise Obama. The lengths to which the WASP-GOP-Tea Bag coalition has gone to destroy the Obama presidency — even when he has shown that he has been a “centrist” all along – exposes something deeper in American society. All of the “multicultural” education that the Right found so threatening in the 1990s has apparently achieved very little. The country is as racist as it ever was.

And all of a sudden the costs of presidential trips are being scrutinized after Internet crazies floated the lie that Obama’s trip to India was going to cost $200 million a day. CNN deserves some credit for debunking this myth, but the episode is just the first shot in a new level of scrutiny of the Obama White House. Soon Representative Darrell Issa and other congressional Republicans are going to make the Clinton impeachment look noble for its comity. It’s kind of amazing that people claiming to be “Tea Party Patriots” have such little respect for the office of the presidency. And where were these people when Bush wasted all that money landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln for his flight-suited photo op?

Some wags have christened the midterms “the Fox News election” because it appears to be the fruit of a two-year, highly-focused effort from Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire to destroy Obama and his party. The Republican rout is just step one toward winning monopoly power for the GOP. But for the sake of maintaining the legitimacy of the two-party system Fox and friends must construct their own version of the perfect Democratic Party to fit the needs of the modern GOP. It would be a Democratic Party that plays a role similar to the one that Alan Colmes used to play on Sean Hannity’s show: a hapless, ham-handed, interlocutor incapable of winning an argument. The “opposition” party would be placed there conveniently to make doomed, feeble attempts to articulate the “liberal” position. It would be an ersatz “debate” like we see on Fox every day with a predetermined “winner” and “loser.” Joe Lieberman has been trying to help Murdoch accomplish this goal for years.

Joe PalermoThis kind of rump Democratic Party that would serve to solidify Republican one-party control like it enjoyed from 2003 to 2007 can only come into being with the help of Democrats who are touted as “moderates” and “centrists” who offer their full agreement and consent to the biggest pieces of the Republican agenda, such as tax cuts for the rich, aggressive wars abroad, deregulation, slashing social programs, and institutionalizing corporate power in all of its manifestations no matter how damaging to society. Lazy press commentators, Blue Dogs, and others who call for the Democrats to “move to the center” are facilitating this outcome.

Joseph Palermo

Published by the LA Progressive on November 10, 2010
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).