Pitchforks round the White House

Why Obama should learn to love the left.

What gives with Obama´s scolding attitude to his base? The idea seems to be that life in the White House and the Democratic caucuses in the Capitol would be better if all his supporters were like RBC bloggers: conciliatory, rationalist left-of-centrists. (Our commenters trend further left, pace Brett, Thomas [pacificatory update, but this is the last: and Dave]).

Rubbish. It´s a truism of negotiation theory that it pays to be crazy or at least look it : red-eyed, trembling hands, on the edge of losing it entirely. This extends I reckon to principal-agent situations: agents want crazy clients to negotiate for. Obama would be much better off if his base included a large contingent of people on the edge of storming the NYSE and pushing the bankers out if their helicopters without a parachute.

The British parliamentary reforms of 1832, 1867, and 1911 took place against a background of popular agitation. Rioters set fire to Nottingham Castle in 1832; in 1867 the police did not dare to enforce a ban against a huge demonstration in Hyde Park; 1911 was marked by bitter industrial conflicts, in one of which two workers were shot dead by police. It´s hard to see how the centrist reformers could have got their way in the smoke-filled rooms without the agitators outside.

So the rational strategy for a moderate reformer is to cosset your radicals, signal that your heart is with them, though unfortunately etc, and point their anger at your political opponents – and away from you. At the same time you signal to your opponents that you personally would be willing to compromise, but your crazy radical base have tied your hands.

In this Pol 101 analysis, Obama´s problem isn´t that he has too many lefty supporters but too few. Of course he doesn´t want the radicals to become so strong they determine his actions, but there´s no risk of that. Dennis Kucinich and his friends don´t even fill a cosy Adullam´s cave.

Why is Barack Obama, a cerebral and well-educated politician, unable to see what what was obvious to his soulmates Grey, Disraeli, and Asquith? It´s pure speculation, but here´s my guess.

Barack Obama had close dealings with real left-wing radicals only once, as a young community organizer in Chicago. He did once meet Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, former members of the Weather Underground, and no doubt others on the far left of Chicago politics. During the election, the acquaintanceship was used by conservatives in an absurd attempt to portray Obama as a closet far-left radical himself. Progressives rallied round to dismiss, and bury, the allegation.

But there is a real question about the effect of the contact on the ambitious young black politician. My hypothesis: Obama was close enough to feel in his bones the attraction of clear-cut iconoclastic ideas married to fierce egalitarian passion; but also to see them as a real danger to the moderate, Luther-King path he chose. The danger extends to association, for people like Ayers and Dohrn really do scare off centrist Democrats and independents.

Obama should get over this. Jane Hamsher wants a public option in health care; Glenn Greenwald, fair civilian trials for alleged terrorists; Paul Krugman, a return to Clinton´s tax rates and Roosevelt´s financial regulation. These are not the positions of revolutionaries. In many ways, they are closer to the centre of American opinion than he is.
Update: Among other things, I take away from Andrew´s new post the ¨hard cop – soft cop¨ metaphor, which fits well here.

Update 2 – 10 Dec: Liberal Democrats on the Hill are enraged! House Dems are holding out for an extra year on the payroll tax cuts (and why not also for the long-term unemployment insurance, plus extending the debt ceiling)! Sen. Schumer is still fighting for ending the millionaire tax cuts! Feel the dark side of the Force! Obama should be delighted, as long as his Leveller troops come round in the end.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

22 thoughts on “Pitchforks round the White House”

  1. Let me offer another possibility, which also hinges on the fact that there aren't enough left wing radicals. It's that there aren't enough of them to be a sufficient base from which to win national elections. Cosseting them may bring them along, but it costs votes on the other side of the coalition, and he's made a calculation that it costs more votes than it gets. To me, the evidence suggests that he's right. Take a look at the Congress: there was no way that he could have passed any of the major pieces of legislation by moving to the left. Even signaling to the left that he was with them would likely have doomed them. He had to keep Ben Nelson on board, and does anyone really think that would have happened if he had started telling progressives that, yes, this really was just a nose under the tent and that they'd be back for more? No Ben Nelson, no health care reform. No Ben Nelson, no financial reform. This is to say nothing of the fact that all of these needed at least one Republican vote to pass as well. You had a choice: you could have a cosseted left, or you could have had legislation. I think Obama made the right choice.

    Further, it would help Obama if there was a mob storming Wall Street and hanging bankers from lampposts. For the most part, that's not what the left has been doing. Obama told them to make him do these things, and they interpreted that as meaning that they needed to yell at Obama louder and more pointedly. Any rational person would have seen that that's not what he was saying, but that's what they did. The results they got were perfectly predictable.

  2. To put a genuinely credentialed and very temperate guy like Paul Krugman in the same category as rhetorical bomb-throwers like Hamsher and Greenwald makes no sense to me.

  3. I think Neal is essentially correct, as far as he goes, but it's not far enough. The problem, as he shows, is at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Actually, the problem is with the people who elect the people at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Our tea drinking friends seem to have understood this: if you want stuff that requires legislation, you need the get the legislators going your way.

  4. He's not on the Martin Luther-King path. Clearly you need to read "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" where MLK talks about why he's BREAKING THE LAW in CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE and CASTIGATING WHITE LIBERALS AND MODERATES WHO PREACH PEACE and PATIENCE. http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_B

    Seriously, don't ever sully MLK's reputation with Obama's lack of fucking spine. If MLK would have been like Obama he'd have given up the first day.

  5. A more plausible explanation is that Obama is a moderate, right of center Republican whose best path to political success was found in the generally center-left Democratic party. He did not try to use the far-left (as you see Greenwald, Krugman, et al) or the center-left (as I see those people) to advance traditional Democratic goals because he would prefer to move the country more to the right and not at all towards the left.

  6. J. Michael Neal wrote, "You had a choice: you could have a cosseted left, or you could have had legislation."

    False dilemma. There were lots of actions Obama took that didn't involve legislation. For example, any rational person would have assumed that Obama's rhetoric about ramping up the war effort in Afghanistan was just lip-service, as any rational person would understand that (barring a massive military commitment to the occupation there, which the US populace would never be willing to make) there's no way Afghanistan can ever be stabilized by the US, let alone "won". But for some strange reason Obama actually acted like he literally meant what he said, and decided to flush men and materiel down the toilette.

  7. (Wimberley): "Why is Barack Obama, a cerebral and well-educated politician, unable to see what what was obvious to his soulmates Grey, Disraeli, and Asquith?"

    The question answers itself. Unless you've seen his SAT, GRE, and LSAT scores and his college and law school transcripts (in which case, you're far ahead of the American electorate), where's the evidence of cerebration and education? The straightforeward explanation for his credentials is that Barak Obama is an affirmative action baby who's in way over his head.

    (Wimberley): "Barack Obama had close dealings with real left-wing radicals only once, as a young community organizer in Chicago. He did once meet Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, former members of the Weather Underground, and no doubt others on the far left of Chicago politics."

    Ummm…Once?

  8. I think Obama is selling himself to the corporate plutocracy, as the low-risk alternative to a Republican President trying to do, basically, the same policies.

    There's a carefully maintained split among those inclined toward an egalitarian politics and reform. The authoritarian-followers, to whom populist appeals customarily make sense, are shepherded into the Republican Party by Rush, Sarah and Glenn Beck. The progressive-minded and better educated professionals, who make up the Democratic Left are effectively neutralized by Obama and the corporate centrists, who control the Democratic Party.

    As long as the split is maintained, and the Progressives never ally with the Populists, no mass movement is really possible.

    Obama wants to sell himself to the corporate plutocrats as the President best suited to keeping the popular split, split, while enacting the policies desired by the plutocrats. Obama does not want an effective populist/progressive reform movement at his back, and doesn't intend to represent the aspirations of progressives for reform.

    The emergent split in American politics is between the corrupt and the non-corrupt; those defending the vested interests of predatory capitalism and America's global superpower role, and those opposed. That split is orthogonal to the current ideological and partisan divisions, and is a long way from having a voice or a champion.

  9. Malcom,

    Barack Obama made law review at HLS and his University of Chicago courses were highly rated by both his students and his peers. Plus, Lawrence Tribe says Obama is very, very smart. As far as I'm concerned, those things are abundant proof of both "cerebration and education". If he's in over his head (and I agree that's one possible explanation for what's been happening), it wouldn't be because he lacks education and intellect or because he is an "affirmative action baby". It might be because he is a poor negotiator who lacks experience at high level, high stakes politics and negotiation. But that would be more a function of his meteoric rise from state legislator to the presidency. Or, it may be my preferred explanation is the right one, namely, that he is basically a man of the center-right negotiating with the far-right about how to protect "hostages" (i.e., the New Deal, the poor, the unemployed,etc) about which neither he nor his supposed Republican adversaries truly give a damn. Your explanation, however, is simply inane.

  10. According to your analysis, Obama should pretend that leftists are numerous and powerful and genuinely threatens him.

    For example, by getting all upset whenever we are mentioned.

    Just as he did.

    The cynical strategy is to cosset the lefties in private (as with the conference call that kept lefty bloggers on the phone just as the deal was made public) and complain about us in public.

    Now I admit my theory is too clever by three quarters (44 dimensional chess anyone ?). I guess he acted angry because he is angry because we hurt his feelings. But talking about us as if we mattered would have been a clever tactic if it were to have been a tactic.

  11. Robert: Hmm. The thought did occur to me in inchoate form. But what Obama failed to do, as a good two-faced soft cop Machiavel should, is to signal to the left that he really deep down loves us. Aw shucks, my hands were tied, we´ll have better luck in 2012. So if it was a tactic, it was a very poor one, and made him, not the GOP or its backers, the target of leftish frustration.

    Nelson Mandela´s first speech out of prison in February 1990 included tributes to the South African Communist Party and its armed, sometimes terrorist wing Umkhonto we Sizwe. He rallied the ANC base, including parts he disapproved of, before negotiating with the whites.

  12. I’m not buying Robert’s explanation. If Obama was playing "good cop," "bad cop" then surely he would have wanted to have his secret "allies" in the Senate threatening filibusters, proposing legislation to increase the estate taxes or to increase taxes on bankers. And obviously the time to have the "bad cops" going on television loudly declaring that the people should rise up and descend on Wall St. with pitchforks and torches was during or before the negotiations with the GOP. That way, Obama might have increased his leverage with the “crazy” implacable and immovable Republicans by claim that he need concessions from the them to placate the “idealistic,” implacable and immovable Democratic base. That would be "good cop," "bad cop". Just rolling over for the Republicans and then lashing out at liberals when they called him a chump isn’t "good cop," "bad cop". It doesn't make Republicans feel the need to sweeten the deal. It’s just a guy whose feeling were hurt (even though the most charitable explanation for the way he approached negotiating with the Republicans is that he means well but is basically a chump).

  13. Minor point but his name is Martin Luther King Jr. not Martin Luther-King Jr. He was not the son of Ms. Luther & Mr. King.

  14. Bruce Wilder makes this intriguing observation: "The emergent split in American politics is between the corrupt and the non-corrupt; those defending the vested interests of predatory capitalism and America’s global superpower role, and those opposed. That split is orthogonal to the current ideological and partisan divisions, and is a long way from having a voice or a champion." I tend to agree, but I wonder how someone seen as a threat to the predators could rise up as a "champion" in today's hostile media environment. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, is not owned by the banksters but is also barely known outside of progressive circles.

  15. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, is not owned by the banksters but is also barely known outside of progressive circles.

    In progressive circles, this is considered an earnest of his good will. Anybody with efficacy is corrupt, because they have efficacy.

    In the long run, the 'professional left' doesn't trust, maybe doesn't even believe in, government — sharing that predilection with the teabag right.

    We're fighting Marx/Kautsky v. Bernstein/Jaurés, all over again.

  16. The notion that Obama isn't particularly bright or talented and achieved his academic successes in large part because of affirmative action, per Malcolm Kirkpatrick's suggestion above, is just bizarre. And while Tribe's endorsement is nice it isn't necessary. I just have to listen to him talk extemporaneously. He's clearly got brilliant analytical chops — certainly way beyond even most talented politicians in the US. I go back and forth between thinking that he's playing a long game — trying to improve the rationality of our political process by modelling rationality — and that he's somewhat naive. To be clear I voted for Clinton in the primary basically for fear of the latter. But, he's learning. Step 1: Understand that the Republicans still hate the New Deal, Medicare, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Step 2: Ignore the Jane Hamshers and Glen Greenwalds of the world.

  17. I go back and forth between thinking that he’s playing a long game — trying to improve the rationality of our political process by modelling rationality — and that he’s somewhat naive.

    It's both. Ask any teacher.

  18. I'll just point out Bruce Wilder as an example of the people who completely missed the point of Barack Obama telling people to make him do something.

  19. "The straightforeward explanation for his credentials is that Barak Obama is an affirmative action baby who’s in way over his head."

    That explanation is indeed straightforeward.

  20. (Mitch): "Barack Obama made law review at HLS and his University of Chicago courses were highly rated by both his students and his peers. Plus, Lawrence Tribe says Obama is very, very smart. As far as I’m concerned, those things are abundant proof of both 'cerebration and education'."

    Via Instapundit: "Obama’s former colleague Richard Epstein says: 'I like Obama but I reject the suggestion that he is an intellectual. He is an activist merely mimicking the mannerisms of an intellectual.'

    Personally, I think Richard Epstein’s a better judge of who’s intellectual than Juan Williams is. But I think most of the press — for whom the phrase 'an activist merely mimicking the mannerisms of an intellectual' may also apply — is easier to fool."

Comments are closed.