Obama and the Return of the Real
A New Stance Toward Reality
One day someone will undertake a comprehensive study of how all these bubbles grew and why they were inflated at the same time. It will be a story of a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life. It will recount how the largest government, business, military and media organizations, as if obedient to a single command, began to tell lies to themselves and others in pursuit of or subservience to wealth and power. Individual deceivers must arrange their untruths by themselves, by flat-out conscious lying, self-deception or a combination of the two. Huge bureaucracies have wider options. Banks, hedge funds, ratings agencies, regulatory agencies, intelligence services, the White House, the Pentagon and mainstream news organizations can grind inconvenient truths to dust, layer by bureaucratic layer, until the convenient lies that had been wanted all along are presented to the satisfied money- or war-hungry decision-makers at the top. The study of these operations will be a story of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters. It would be interesting, for instance, to compare the creation of the illusions of the real estate bubble with the creation of the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In both cases contrary facts were readily available at the base of the system but were filtered out as the reports went up the chain. For a somewhat contrasting, top-down model, the White House method for suppressing the truth about global warming within government agencies is instructive. In that case, the science was duly gathered but often squelched at the last minute by political appointees editing the reports.
A concluding chapter of the study will note that the rudiments of a new stance toward reality began to be articulated. Its motto can be the famous comment a senior Bush adviser made to writer Ronald Suskind, whom he belittled as belonging to the "reality-based community," which, the adviser said, believed that "solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." But that was no longer true, for "we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." Over at the American International Group, the recipient of $152.5 billion in federal bailout funds, then-chief Maurice Greenberg was saying much the same thing in happier days: "This is never going to get any better than it is today. We're so big, we're never going to swim against the tide. We are the tide." In short, the relationship between observation and action had been reversed. Reality was not the field of operation in which you acted, and whose limits you must respect; it was, like a play or movie, a scenario to be penned by human authors. Fact had to adjust to ideology, not the other way around.
Obama, of course, cannot wait for such a study to appear. He must batter his way out of the various bubbles and lay his hands on what is real immediately. It will not be easy. His election has done part of the job, but the mists of illusion still hover over the land. Fantasies of wealth and power, not to speak of superpower, die hard. Happy hour is more pleasant than the morning after. For bubble thinking was projected beyond the deluded institutions to national politics as a whole. The falsehoods that led to war, the fact-averse ideology that inspired the bid for empire, the investments based on fictitious ratings and the denial of the evidence of global warming: none of these grew in a vacuum. They were supported or tolerated or insufficiently discredited by the media and other organizations that inform and constitute the mainstream. The credit and debt booms were national, corporate and personal, symptoms of a nation living beyond its means at all levels. The facts of global warming, it is true, were increasingly accepted by the public--but not by the president it put in office, and there was little appetite for measures, like a gas tax, to cut back carbon emissions. As global warming intensified, the iconic American vehicle of the era was the gas-devouring, pseudo-military Hummer--an imperial auto if there ever was one. The grandiose conceptions of American power found a ready audience, as reflected in election results. They linger still as troops shift, with Obama's blessing, from the unpopular Iraq quagmire to the better accepted Afghanistan quagmire.
In short, the mainstream, like a river that jumps its bed and ravages the countryside, has overflowed the levees of reality and carried the country to disaster after disaster in every area of national life: military, economic and ecological. These depredations have paradoxically led a groggy public to yearn for the stability that Obama's centrist cabinet choices seem to promise. But they know--Obama, who denounced the "dead zone that politics had become," told them in the campaign--that these appointees had a hand in creating the ills they are now charged with addressing.
"Reality" has bifurcated in a manner confusing to politicians and citizens alike. On the one side is political reality, which by definition means centrist, mainstream opinion. On the other side is the reality of events, heading in quite a different direction. If Obama makes mainstream choices, he is called "pragmatic." And it may well be so in political terms, as the poll results attest. But political pragmatism in current circumstances may be real folly, as it was on the eve of the Iraq War and in the years of the finance bubble preceding the crash. Smooth sailing down the middle of the Niagara River carries you over Niagara Falls. The danger is not that Obama's move into the mainstream will offend a tribe called "the left" or his "base" but that by adjusting to a center that is out of touch, he will fail to address the crises adequately and will lose his effectiveness as president.
The difference between merely political pragmatism and the real thing is illustrated by the recently ended career of George Bush. From 2001 until 2006, he and his party dominated politics. Karl Rove's dreams of a permanent Republican majority looked feasible. The values voters, the soccer moms, the Reagan Democrats and so forth were all lining up. But another key "constituency"--one that never appears in any poll result--was quietly turning against him. It was the constituency of the real. The adjustable-rate mortgages were heading south, the energy markets were nonplussed, the warlords of Afghanistan were restive and the skidding Greenland ice shelf was voting with its feet. These were the votes that undid him. To paraphrase the old saying, Bush won power but lost the world. In the short run, the arts of delusion and deception (including self-deception) can keep politics and reality apart, but in the long run the two must meet. And then it is politics, not reality, that must adjust. Euripides understood that, too.
Hence Barack Obama's victory on November 4. He must be clear-eyed as well as brave if he is not to squander it. In this era, political safety can spell danger, for himself and for the country and world. As he faces the Himalayan problems of the twenty-first century, he should look on his stratospheric approval ratings with a wary eye. They could mean that he is adjusting too much to the rogue mainstream and not adjusting it enough to the real world. For him putting aside "childish things" means a wide berth to the dead zone. Doing so will require a toughness, even a ruthlessness, that has nothing to do with bombing villages in faraway countries. No poll can tell him what trade balances are going to be or what the people of Afghanistan or the carbon molecules are going to do, but he would be wise to let them be his masters. The path of ruling through illusion has been tried and failed. It is not open to him. He should figure out what's wrong with America and the world, honestly and directly communicate his findings to the public, do his best to fix things and then let the results speak for themselves. It's a very simple prescription--but light-years away from anything that has been tried in the United States for a very long time.