Sunday, November 09, 2008

Violated Symbols

The High Broderists are all about the symbols.

One of the less pleasant aspects of the Obama campaign, one coming into full flower since Tuesday, is the disturbing phenomenon of well-to-do white elites patting themselves on the back for having "overcome" and voted for Obama. There is no hint of irony, no shadow of doubt, in the paeans they sing to their own wonderfulness, as if casting a vote for Obama indicates something good about them, and that their action - to cast a vote for a black candidate - represents a triumph over racism as such. We are all post-racial now!

The self congratulation is usually accompanied by a lecture of what this win must mean for the rest of us, such as Krugman's pronouncment that if I am not personally moved to tears, something must be wrong with me. Bob Somerby covered some of this in his Friday post where he took Krugman to task for trying to portray the election of this candidate as miraculous, a signifier of the nation having performed an inexplicably good act. Balderdash, countered The Incomparable One. We elected the best candidate of the choices before us, and deserve no praise for having exercised common sense. I note that Bob has assiduously shot down media claims about pervasive racism in the electorate, refusing to condemn his fellow citizens just to give the talking heads one more thing to hyperventilate over. Damon on Corrente in his post "On The Narrative and Importance of Symbolism" tosses some cold water on the insistence that these elite speakers know what this election represents to the African American community in particular.

What I see is the crude substitution of a strained symbol for substantive political action, and that this is how the power elite wishes it to remain.

This election does not change a thing about the institutionally enforced patterns of racial discrimination in this country. Minorities will continue to be scapegoated for the society's ills. Minority neighborhoods will still be under-served and over-policed. White flight to suburbs will go on, their denizens preferring to endure one and two hour commutes rather than live next to people of a darker hue. White parents will put their children into majority white private schools and will shun the public schools, among them many people who voted for Obama.

What this election does do is raise expectations about how discrimination and disadvantage will be addressed. There are expectations that the symbol is a promise for future action, not an end in itself.

To the degree that Obama does what the editorial pages and the Very Serious People want him to do, he will dash the expectations of those who most need this to be more than a symbol. If the Culture Club has its way, the peons will have to be content with the paeans and learn to love the symbolic. This election is a loss if it remains but a symbol. The expectations that need to be dashed are those of the comfortably well off.

The Village feels itself violated already with the presence of people from the Clinton administration on the Obama transition team. They are worried that Obama will not be a sufficiently "New Politics" kind of guy, wisely governing from the center. They fear the wrong kind of people, people who might "trash the place," will take over. You know, people like the crazy radicals pictured here in the Clinton cabinet from 1993, who destroyed, destroyed, the amicable bipartisanship of the Reagan and Bush I years. They don't want the dirty Clintonistas near their Precious, trying to change things in ways not approved by the Very Serious People. It offends them that the wrong kind of people may get their hands on power.

They need to be offended a lot more, but it is unlikely to happen.

"John Brown", the anonymous political consultant who does occasional pieces for Joe Bageant's blog, Deer Hunting with Jesus, weighs in with his opinion on who will be disappointed by The Precious:

What was never part of the deal was the creation of a hard caste system of social and economic polarization. When the day arrives when the vast majority of Americans understand in the deepest recesses of their minds that this myth is shattered and that their children will have less opportunity and poorer economic prospects than themselves, all that we have ever thought or learned about American politics will become irrelevant.

Within such a context the primary task of the new Obama administration will be to weave together a new political consensus that will fill the political space left behind by the collapse of the old right. These discussions over the next few months are likely to decide the political direction of the United States for a long period of time.

An Obama administration will have two primary options to choose from. One choice would be to move center left and reestablish the social compact of a modern New Deal type program. Barring a further deterioration of the economic situation in the country, it is not likely the direction they will move in. The second choice would be to reassemble a new establishment center consensus, minus the most reactionary elements of corporate power, and create a soft Democratic Party Corporatism as the new vital center of American political life.

The second option is the more likely choice and also the path of least resistance. The Obama administration will not pay a great political price in abandoning the pretense of moving the country in a progressive direction for two primary reasons. First, for Senator Obama's political base the symbolism of his election is the change they were seeking and not an idea or program based on a set of policies. The second reason is the political weakness of what passes for the left in the United States, a line up of individuals and organizations stretching from to the AFL-CIO, who in their misunderstanding of the nature of power confuse access with power itself.

The primary task of serious progressives over the next few months must be to prevent progressive votes of this Tuesday from being turned into another corporatist victory. No one should be very hopeful for the prospects of such an effort. I suspect as progressives spend their time fighting over tickets to the inaugural ball, the Wall Street and K Street branches of the Democratic Party will win the war of priorities and ideas of the new Obama Administration in a rout.

Sarah Palin is the Future of Conservatism

I can't say I disagree with this evaluation. The incessant drumbeat of world historic change because of the symbolism (heavy handed, overwrought) of Obama's skin color has created expectations the victors have no intention of fulfilling. It was done with the hope of creating a rabid voting bloc comparable to the evangelical/faux-populist foot soldiers on the right, those explicitly courted with the selection of Gov. Palin. Do not think for a second that the GOP strategy didn't work even if it failed to garner McCain a win. He lost moderates and he could not convince the radicals, but Palin came out of this with a more committed base than before. As John Brown notes in the same article:

Sarah Palin was never chosen for her strengths, but in fact for her weaknesses. For electoral purposes these were her strengths. She was chosen to be savaged because in order to savage her you would need to savage the realities, the life styles and thinking of the largest segment (though not a majority) of American electorate. Her ignorance of the world, her religious practices, her out of wedlock pregnant daughter represented far more true pictures of the realities of American life than the cosmopolitanism of Barack Obama.

It was to be the juxtaposition of his professorship of constitutional law to the countless community colleges she attended, his perfect family to her pregnant 17-year-old daughter, his Harvard educated wife to the "First Dude" of Alaska. What they were trying to say to American voters was the following: Barack Obama might be the mask you want to put on in this hour of need, but you know in your heart of hearts it is Sarah Palin that is the more truthful nature of your profile.

Her selection was an attempt to make the election about the culture wars, and it nearly worked. Absent the timely melt down in Wall Street it would have likely led to a John McCain victory.

The Democrats were not alone in crafting some powerful symbols, and despite the screaming of the media (main stream and blogospheric), the assaults on Palin had no effect on the race and did not diminish her appeal with the Republican base. Why do I say this? Because she was attacked continually from the moment of her selection but the polls changed only with the catrastrophic economic news. Looking at voting results, it also does not look like there was any statistically meaningful increase in voter turnout for the Dems, though I want to wait a few weeks for full results to be available. The victory was not an affirmation of the Democrat's symbol, nor proof of a new cadre of fanatical voters, nor of the nation turning away from what Palin represents. The loss was, as Brown claims, a collapse of the Reagan conservative base.

What now for these symbols of their respective political sides? Palin herself is cherished by her side because of the violations she has endured over this campaign. She may not be the candidate next time around, but she will be their symbol. Obama, as I pointed out, has one faction that wishes to leave the change at the level of symbolism and another that may feel extremely violated (indeed, several million of us are already there) if their expectations are dismissed. Brown concludes with this thought:
As we look into the future regardless of what course the Obama administration chooses to take for the politically serious on both the right and the left, the future is not likely to lie in the center of a new elite consensus. In a system, which is entering a period of semi-permanent crisis, to plant oneself or one's party in its political center is to make yourself responsible for a political system which is forever failing, losing legitimacy and eventually its right to rule. In the long run, the future will belong to whichever political force flies the boldest flags, stands credibly far enough from those who will be held accountable for our troubles, and curses the loudest at the coming darkness.
The right is positioned to capitalize on their symbols. Democrats could dash those expectations if they wished. But that would mean violating The Village's wishes.



Koshem Bos said...

The post reflects most of my thinking with some small modifications. The vote for Obama is indeed not only not the end of racism, it is totally independent of racism. The voters were scared enough to ignore their prejudices and their racism. Obama supporters in the Democratic party were first and foremost voting for the "black guy" because he was black and not independently of that. From this perspective, the endless screaming: "an historical election" is downright hysterical. It is historical for some minorities such as Asians and may be Latinos who feel that they can get there. Other minorities and groups don't feel much easier: Jews, women still should not apply despite having no such problem in the rest of the world. (New Zealand with an insignificant Jewish population has just elected a Jewish right winger for prime minister.)

The debate or discussion on Obama's direction is baffling me. He is a centrist if there ever was one. The unions will not get their card check and will instead get David Bonior as labor secretary (he is a real progressive, an intelligent person and a nice guy as well). Global warming except for replacing oil will be on a small burner. And Krugman's correct proposal to through as much money at the economy will probably be declined.

The Clintonistas will continue to be maligned by the media way more than W will ever be. Now, when Emanuel and Podesta already are in front and Summers may follow soon, the Village is shuddering; how come God (Obama) is going to Satan for help and so soon. The hate of the dirty Clintonistas is not less racial than any other hate of a select group of people.

I had difficulty understanding Brown; it's either way too long or too bombastic for my taste. I agree to the post interpretation though.

Symbolism is not my read of what is going on. Self congratulation, total belief in impossibilities, the mob moving to the new God these I believe. Or as someone put it, now after we elected God, will we have elections for president?

It all feels like W's coronation ten times multiplied.

I'll wait for the movie.

glennmcgahee said...

I just love that its "low-income" students being called on to do the manual labor. What about the kids attending private schools? Are they gonna be exempt from having to do service? And everytime I hear about money going to non-profits, it reeks of more money to church organizations. These churches already find enough money to involve themselves in campaign issues. I want to look at their tax-exempt status before they are able to get a penny of my money.

Bookhorde said...

I'm not a conservative (far from it) but as populist and a brown 3rd world feminist, I have to admit that Palin is one of my heroes now.

DarkGravity said...

With Dean gone from the DNC, I feel that something is afoot.

I feel about Obama, the same way I felt about W- he's manufactured. Sorry if I offend, but it's how I feel. I do not consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but it seems as if the power is shifting in some drastic ways. I may be wrong, but time will tell.

He's been put in this tense position with very high expectations. He seems fairly confident in his ability, but how will that change once the files are actually read? The economic reality is that he's going to have to punt to the right to TRY to keep the ship afloat, but the left will not like that. The truth is that if he does well he'll get a second term, although personally I'm betting against it. And only because it looks as if the market is determined to go down and no amount of government intervention will stop it.

In the end his election may only be a symbol and nothing more. His best bet, at least right now, is to stay the center and come out with a neutral legacy. However, that legacy depends on if the markets will it.