Is the world as we know it coming to an end because Scott Brown, a Republican, won the special election in Massachusetts for the Senate seat of Edward Kennedy? You can actually make the argument. To wit: Brown campaigned as the “forty-first vote,” meaning that with his arrival in the Senate, the Republicans would acquire just enough seats to defeat cloture of filibusters, by which, under Senate rules, they can kill any piece of legislation. The legislation on most people’s minds these days is the healthcare bill, which Brown has specifically vowed to reject. But the threat, as everyone knows, extends beyond that bill to any bill that the Republicans choose to defeat. If the Republican Party were a diverse or open-minded one, the threat would be only theoretical, but in fact it has voted in lockstep against most major bills proposed by the majority, including the stimulus package earlier last year. Thus, Brown’s self-designation as the forty-first GOP vote carries within it a threat to hamstring legislation across the board. And since the world needs American cooperation to cope with the expanding array of dangers it faces, a hamstrung United States means a hamstrung world. The most consequential business before the world is probably halting climate change, but for this to happen the United States must participate. The election of Brown, who opposes cap and trade, could kill that hope, and with it the hope of a serious global agreement to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. All of which is how his election could end the world as we know it.
Of course, that chain of consequences could be broken at many points. For instance, some Republicans may break ranks on the climate change bill, or the rest of the world may proceed without the United States, as the European Union is doing. On the other hand, the Republican paralysis of Congress is likely to stall a long agenda of other urgent business, and it is sobering that in this and in so many other matters, American politics appears to have drifted so far from facing the real business of the country and the world. (The words “global warming” did not appear on Brown’s campaign website.)
How has it happened? How have politicians and voters apparently detached themselves so thoroughly from the actualities of the times we live in? It’s not so easy to determine. The Brown voters were rebelling against something, but what was it? It’s evident they were not thinking of climate change. Were they rejecting Obama? The healthcare bill in the Senate? Too much “change”? Not enough change? The wrong change? They were allegedly angry, but at what? Was it big government? Big business? Both? President Obama intriguingly but rather mysteriously said their anger was the same anger that propelled him into office a year ago. But how could that be? The polls didn’t do much to clarify the situation. A Washington Post/Harvard/Kaiser Family Foundation poll right after the election found that by 63 percent to 31 percent, the voters of Massachusetts thought the country was “seriously off on the wrong track.” Brown won two-thirds of these voters–whereas Obama won more than 80 percent of them in the fall of 2008. And what was the “right track”? The numbers were murky. On whether the government should do more to solve problems, the voters were split, with 50 percent thinking it should and 47 percent thinking otherwise. The public professed discontent with the Democrats’ plans for healthcare, but only by 48 percent to 43 percent. Massachusetts has a healthcare plan not unlike Obama’s, which the public approves by 68 percent. And Obama himself had the support of 61 percent of the state’s voters. And Republicans in Congress were rejected by 58 percent and approved of by only 40 percent.
Such responses seemed to convey more ambivalence than anger. A Brown voter in Massachusetts, cited by the Kennedy School’s Richard Parker in a piece by Jim Sleeper at TPMCafé, caught these paradoxes perfectly when he commented that he was “for individual liberty” and wanted “to get government’s hands off Social Security and Medicare.” Moreover, many voters expressed disappointment not in Obama and Democrats generally but in Brown’s opponent, Martha Coakley, who failed to campaign vigorously after winning the Democratic primary.
Still, whatever the polls say, the results won’t go away, and something has clearly changed in public opinion since a year ago. We need to remember that the Massachusetts results are a chapter in a story that predates Obama. From the beginning of his presidency, Obama has confronted a dilemma that has perhaps been unique. On the one hand, he has been handed a tangle of crises that in their gravity and complexity rival those faced by any previous president, including the collapsed economy, a dysfunctional, overexpensive health system, two stalled wars and, of course, climate change. On the other hand, perhaps precisely because the real agenda was so daunting, he faced a politics steeped in unreality–a body politic that was impatient for the return of a prosperity that had been based on speculation and fraud, was unprepared for the sacrifice that healthcare reform would impose on some, was still unready to let go of victory in the stalled wars and apparently was quite oblivious of climate change. (So distant was that concern from electoral politics in Massachusetts that the Washington Post poll didn’t even ask voters about it, nor does it usually register on pollsters’ lists of their concerns.)
These illusions were supported by the organized advocacy, amounting to a kind of political platform, of the Republican Party, which has raised denial to an art form and has put forward no realistic proposals for dealing with the economic or ecological crises. A fateful question for Obama from the beginning of his presidency has always been how much he would accommodate himself to current fantasies and how much he should insist on dealing with the real. With his ingrained bent for conciliation, which is one of the great themes of his political career (and of his literary production before that), he chose a middle course, seeking to woo the opposition. Unfortunately, that also involved muting his voice to compromise with its illusions as well. He rejected one war but embraced the other. He supported Bush’s bailout of the banks and refused to take control of them. He kept Bush’s defense secretary (making Gates one of only a few Republicans ready to work with Obama). He declared an end to torture but refused to insist on accountability for the torture that had taken place. He sought a reconciliation with the opposition in Washington that in a way left out the rest of the country. Yet the courtship of the opposition failed. His reward was a Republican media and tea party movement that smeared him as foreign-born and a Hitler, or Stalin, redux. The Congressional Republicans spurned his initiatives, voting in lockstep to block his proposals while hankering for the legislation-killing forty-first vote they now have.
In the face of this campaign, the path of fantasy, so resolutely taken by the Republicans, was never a possible path for Obama. The only hope, then, was a politics of the real, of actual accomplishment. He had to do the simplest but hardest thing in politics: recognize problems, persuade the public of their reality, solve them and show the results. Understanding this, the Republicans had a ready answer all year: obstruct him (and the country) from achieving anything. Refuse to cooperate with him, and then accuse him of partisanship. Stop all his initiatives and then brand him as ineffective. Prevent improvement in people’s lives, and then point out that their lives are still unimproved.
That is what has happened in the past year, and it is the strategy that, whatever the polls say, was ratified in Massachusetts, which de facto voted for obstruction.
What is Obama now to do? Ally himself more passionately, more eloquently with the real. Give voice even to unpopular truths. Tepid distortions can never compete successfully with brazen ones. Only full-throated pursuit of truth can rival big lies. We know he has eloquence and passion in him. Instead of trying for hopeless compromises with the powerful, he should recognize the two quagmires and act accordingly; make the case for stopping global warming (his speech at the recent Copenhagen summit was perfunctory and flat); acknowledge the abyss that has opened between an exploitative class of the wealthy and the rest of the country and do something significant to close it. There is a power in the real that is going untapped. It is the power of that salubrious, galvanizing, irreversible inner shock that you feel when the veil falls from your eyes and the truth of something is placed before you. As Obama must know from his years of community organizing, moments like this, occurring in millions of hearts and minds, are indispensable for a living politics, which otherwise stagnates. The alternative is more of the unfocused resentment, directionless anger, obstructionism, confusion and disappointment displayed in the Massachusetts election.