Believers in Great Men Think Alike

Believers in Great Men Think Alike

Disappointment is one thing American liberals can be certain of. Optimism is the real challenge.


After rereading The God That Failed, a book in which six prominent ex-Marxists relate their disillusionment with communism, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said expressed his irritation at what seemed like a show trial for a straw man. “Why as an intellectual did you believe in a god anyway? And besides, who gave you the right to imagine that your early belief and later disenchantment were so important?”

Obama’s first anniversary in power is approaching to howls of betrayal from parts of the left. Let’s begin by acknowledging that there are many grounds for disappointment. The failure to show leadership in the healthcare debate; the decision to leave much of Bush’s torture apparatus intact; the lack of alacrity on ending the Iraq occupation; failing to get rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; bailing on his pledges to renegotiate NAFTA and impose a foreclosure moratorium.

Some of these things can be explained, but none should be excused. It is true that Obama inherited a mess. But that is no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt on his campaign promises. He’s the president. He has all the benefits he needs. With one in eight people on food stamps, one in six black people unemployed and thousands still being slaughtered in Afghanistan and Iraq, “change” is not a slogan for many who backed him; it’s an urgent necessity.

The past year has been a painful lesson in the distinction between elections, politics and power. Elections change personnel; politics changes agendas; power is the means by which those agendas are put into action. Getting Obama into the White House was the beginning of the process, not the end. In the context of his campaign, the balance of forces in American politics and the demands of those who elected him, these frustrations make sense. Outside it, the leap from disenchantment to accusations of betrayal owes more to emotional and cognitive dissonance than political critique or strategic intervention.

Broadly speaking, this outrage flows from two camps–those who placed too much faith in what he might do and those who placed none.

From the first, there is the anguish of the infatuated suitor scorned. I loved you, I followed you, I believed in you and this is how you repay me. This is little more than projection. Obama never claimed he was a radical. True, he did offer hope and inspiration. But I don’t recall him saying that within a year the entrenched interests of American capital, the lobbyists, corporations, Fox commentators and militarists would throw their hands up in surrender at the flash of his smile and the lilt of his rhetoric. His decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan, for example, is definitely wrongheaded. But to qualify as betrayal he would have had to have promised something else, when the truth is this is one pledge he kept and many of us wish he hadn’t.

From the second group, there is the self-satisfied smirk of the pundit for whom the itch to say “I told you so” has become too irresistible not to scratch. Absent any other coherent political or electoral strategy that might get us from where we were to where we need to be, they got their disillusion in early to avoid the rush. Refusing to see any potential in the mobilization of huge numbers of young, black, Latino and union workers who took part in his campaign, they understood the energy and excitement as little more than a moment of mass delusion. Like a broken clock, they just had to wait until the moment when they could pronounce themselves correct. In the words of Friedrich Engels, “What childish innocence it is to present one’s own impatience as a theoretically convincing argument!”

While these two camps are driven by different impulses, they have two important things in common. First, they share a right-wing assumption, made famous by Thomas Carlyle, that history is made by “great men” rather than the far more complex interaction of people, time, place and power. Their ire is trained on one man and one alone. Not a system, institution or kaleidoscope of forces but Obama. If he were better, things would be different. If he tried harder, he could succeed. Such charges betray a devotion to a man and reverence for an office that is indecent in a democracy and incompatible with left politics.

Second, it suggests that this “great man” exists as an abstraction, in the absence of other forces, constraints and material realities. What movements might support or oppose him and what events might distract him are, to these detractors, apparently irrelevant. They reduce politics from an engagement with the world as it is to an act of will to construct a new world out of whole cloth. In this world the need to get sixty votes in the Senate, and the compromises that might emerge from that reality, have no meaning.

The disappointments of Obama’s first year were never difficult to predict. They were evident not only in his politics but in the alignment of forces and institutions in which he is embedded. Obama may have emerged as the most viable progressive candidate in these elections and the most progressive Democrat in the White House since Lyndon Johnson. But that is not the same as his actually being progressive.

Disappointment is one thing you can usually be certain of if you are on the liberal left in America. Optimism is the real challenge. Some of us drew hope from the energy, activism and diverse nature of Obama’s base, which we believed might emerge as a movement. That hasn’t happened. But it was rooted in an understanding not that he would lead us leftward but that there might now be enough of us to push him leftward and that he might be responsive to that pressure. “If there is no struggle there is no progress,” said abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

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