Saturday, November 29, 2014

Six Years a Slave

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

America’s 2014 election results proved disastrous for democracy. Republican gains at the national and state levels do not bode well for an underperforming economy, commitments to equality and social justice, a decaying, even dying infrastructure, investment in education, urgent environmental aspirations, and the very idea of representation. The GOP has had one overriding goal for six years: oppose President Barack Obama, defeat his policy initiatives (unless it relates to presidential war or national security powers), and destroy him politically. The GOP’s plan was to render Obama a one-term president, but in 2012, as in 2008, it pursued an agenda and selected a candidate incapable of making it happen. 

In the aftermath of the midterm elections, expert opinion tried to decipher the results—with limited success. If a generalized anger at Washington rooted in economic concerns tended to govern the outcome, it’s not immediately clear how the Republicans did so well. They remain the party of the 1% who desire to slash budgets, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, reduce, privatize, and jeopardize what remains of the social safety net, and gut the regulatory state, thereby rendering citizens even more vulnerable to economic contingency and environmental degradation. It’s a know-nothing party that would be comical in its ideology and ignorance if it weren’t in power and thus so dangerous.

The usual explanations (Obama’s approval ratings hit historic lows; the party in power is the inevitable target of wrath; Republicans had gerrymandered the results in the House following the 2010 census; Democrats had an unusual number of Senate seats up for reelection, especially in parts of the country where they do not perform well, etc.) seem insufficient. With the exception of The New York Times’ Charles M. Blow, major media outlets generally refused to discuss a critical factor since 2008: race. Race is not just the obsession at the heart of the contemporary Republican Party. It can swing independent and undecided voters who profess anger at both parties but somehow take it out on Democrats. How dare Obama, a black man, possess the White House, winning not only election but reelection? From the beginning Republicans have deemed it necessary to put Obama in his place. For them it remains an urgent task.

Not surprisingly, Karl Rove disclosed more than he intended when pontificating on the midterm results: “The American people voted to rein in President Obama…” Rove’s image of choice, featuring a device associated with animals and employed by slave owners, is ugly, offensive, violent, and racist. Reining in Obama has informed Republican conduct for years, even though Obama is a much better Republican than any major figure in the party. He understands the limits of the market system and the support mechanisms, the checks and balances that need to be in place for it to work on its own terms rather than destroy itself. Even the reviled Affordable Care Act is a market-based solution to a social problem that benefits corporate interests, rendering the insurance industry and government partners in billion dollar revenue streams. Still, the GOP’s rallying cry to would-be voters, apparently straightforward, was coded: “If you’re not a voter, you can’t stop Obama.”

At one level the campaign message seems to refer to Administration policies despised by the GOP: financial regulations, government subsidized health care, pollution controls, consumer protection, unemployment support, social investment, and the like. At another level, however, it treats Obama as the official manifestation of a reborn country Republicans cannot abide, that is, a world in transition, a world where they no longer enjoy (or not for much longer) place of white privilege, a world of color, of plurality, of difference. Republicans would deport undocumented immigrants. They oppose same-sex marriage. They don’t think climate change is a serious problem. They believe race relations have gotten worse. Who’s responsible? Barack Obama. Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chair, states the problem and delineates the appropriate (fantasy) response in a juridical-penal language Karl Rove could endorse: “Barack Obama has our country in a ditch…The punishment is going to be broad, and it’s going to be pretty serious.”

Democrats were so fearful of any association with Obama that they not only refused to have him campaign with them. They refused to defend those of his policies that were successful. Under no circumstances would most of them be seen with the president. Thus, when Obama had the audacity to state the obvious, that while he wasn’t on the ballot all of his policies were, the GOP exploded with delight. The advertisements that followed paired Obama with Democratic candidates for maximum visual effect. The states where control of the Senate would be decided were southern and rural, most with a brutal history and legacy of institutional racism. Make Obama the issue, the (black) figure whose unpopularity exceeds any rational or self-interested explanation of it.

Democratic defeat, ironically, has emboldened a president not known for love of contestation. Republicans have been predictably furious. Obama’s executive action on immigration puts the Republicans right where they belong: having to defend a xenophobia that violates American political ideals and threatens their political future. Do they have the political courage of their regressive convictions? No. The alternative: unleash and cultivate rhetorical rage at Obama. John Boehner, presuming a political potency he does not possess, complained bitterly that Obama had destroyed any chance of a bipartisan agreement. Boehner, who had previously demanded that Obama change his attitude when dealing with the Republican-led House of Representatives, also professed concern for the integrity of the Constitution, a laughably selective concern given the Administration’s extralegal assassination of American citizens, its relentless efforts to surveil global communications, its persecution of whistle-blowers and reporters, its criminalization of investigative journalism, its torturous force-feeding of Guantanamo prisoners resisting American captivity, and its unauthorized war making in Libya and Syria (among other places).

Representative Mo Rogers of Alabama gave voice to the Republican id by proclaiming that Obama warrants not only impeachment but courts prison time if he proceeds with immigration reform through executive action. Despite initial GOP calls for restraint (do not threaten to shut down the government, e.g., a position quickly abandoned anyway), Rogers could not refuse the beautiful image of Obama behind bars, no doubt influenced by the wildly disproportionate number of blacks in America’s racial gulag.

The more Obama asserts himself—especially after an election in which he was supposedly humbled—the more impotent Republicans noticeably feel. They have no constructive initiatives to offer and Obama taunts them for it: “Pass a bill,” he tells them, if you can pass a bill I won’t veto (his not-so-subtle subtext). Senator Rob Portman of Ohio insisted the election sent a message to Washington: end the dysfunction. Well, the dysfunction, the inability to perform, plagues the Republican Party. They made it a point of pride and principle to derail Obama’s presidency, which has led to self-inflicted social and political castration. They have done nothing for years—except reduce their status and standing in American public opinion, worsening the sense of humiliation they nurture. The country has paid the price, but as Obama continued to press for bipartisanship he showed remarkable patience and resilience. He had the strength to wait for them despite their persistent irrational rejections. He’s been precisely the kind of collaborationist leader for which David Brooks absurdly calls—absurdly because Brooks can’t see what’s been in front of him all along (assuming his good faith), perhaps because he can’t see past Obama’s skin color either. Obama’s patriotic convictions enabled him to endure a politics that has centered on him for six years—and will for two more years thanks to a racially-obsessed GOP. But he knows it shouldn’t. It’s not about him. And so Obama now acts without Congress, whether on immigration reform or global climate change or domestic ozone levels or…

The Republicans think they have retaken Washington. Unfortunately for them, no one told Obama.

1 comment:

  1. This piece seems to praise the president for overstepping the office's Constitutional authority. "And so Obama now acts without Congress, whether on immigration reform or global climate change or domestic ozone levels or…"

    Do we really want to empower the presidency in this manner? Someday a Republican may become president with an obstructionist Democratic Congress....