Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Deal: Compromise and Contradiction

I heard this quote on the radio, and was glad to see it in print: “Sympathetic as I am to those who prefer a fight over compromise, as much as the political wisdom may dictate fighting over solving problems, it would be the wrong thing to do. The American people didn’t send us here to wage symbolic battles or win symbolic victories.” That's President Obama on Monday at his announcement of his deal with Republicans in Congress to temporarily extend the Bush tax cuts, including the ones for millionaires, in return for 13 months of extended unemployment pay, a bit of a tax holiday (at the expense of social security), and other bits and pieces including a compromise that splits the difference over the Estate Tax for gazillionaires which the Republicans call "the death tax."

Once right-wing pundit Andrew Sullivan called it a masterstroke, a virtual second stimulus deal that ensures Obama's reelection. Liberal NYT columnist Paul Krugman calls it a shortsighted capitulation to the Republicans that weakens his future chances. A sober analysis on the supremely unsober site Gawker sees Obama staking out the turf of the "last reasonable man in Washington."

Obama was shown on TV today attacking the Republicans for holding the economy hostage, and also for attacking the progressive/liberal left for valuing "abstract ideals" above results and for being unwilling to compromise. But what I find the most revealing of all these contradictions on these deeply unsatisfying events are Obama's words quoted above; they give me pause to consider the last three years.

Because as those of us who felt a glimmer of real hope about Obama know, it was all about the symbols, all about the abstract ideals. The Obama campaign were masterful manipulators of symbolism, and they called it right. Those symbols got him elected. Now as I have said before it turns out that the problem with symbols is that what they stand for is highly subjective, and the country wasn't really making a hard left turn at the last election, despite the wishes of those of us on, well, the hard left.

In truth Presidents do horrible things: American capitalism with all the good things like relative political freedom is actually a pretty horrible institution and the person who gets to be in charge of it all is going to be pretty horrible probably no matter what. By which I mean, Obama is risking something by shattering the last illusions of himself as the second coming of FDR, or rather, the 70-years-later liberal myth of what we wish FDR was, but not that much: he's not actually the progressive liberator. While his compromises with the Republicans are unattractive to behold, his pragmatism is probably actually doing something, short-term at least, to make things better for people in difficult times. Certainly the people whose unemployment benefits won't be cut off would agree with that.

It was exhilarating to see him elected. But from the moment of his inaugural address, though, the hard realities started to clear away the symbolic fog. He was revealed to be, well, just another American President. Which is, um, what the point of having those elections was in the first place. I strongly supported his election, and while this is not the moment, I often find him brilliant and likable. I strongly believe given the realities of 21st-century America, voting for Democrats is usually going to be the necessary...wait for it...compromise. Even when their election puts brilliant and (sometimes) likable people in charge of war machines and spies; in charge of the institutions of state repression; and in charge of the corporate/financial juggernaut that strengthens wage slavery and gives to the rich at the expense of the sweat of working people; making them instantly a lot less likable. Well it will ALWAYS do that. Until the game changes.

There's no mass movement, no socialist party, no class consciousness, and the ones out there waving the torches and pitchforks, those scary cretinous legions are no friends of progress, peace, and justice. I'm sobered by Obama's renunciation of the symbols that got him elected. But the choices, the alternatives, are few. I don't plan on surrendering my voice, my advocacy of real and permanent solutions--real socialist ones. I don't intend to renounce the hope the symbols give me. Oh it could be so much better. I know that.

But oh, it could it be so much worse.

Graphic courtesy of my blogfriend Fritz of the Album Art Exchange blog. That's the famous Sheperd Fairey poster variously entitled "Hope" or "Progress" completely subverted.


  1. rusty, out on the factory floorWednesday, December 8, 2010 at 4:06:00 AM EST

    Excellent post ish.

    Where is the game changer? isn't that who most of us thought we were electing when we voted for obama?

  2. Thanks Rusty, Wonder Man. And thanks for stopping by.

    Yes, Rusty, I think many of us did think Obama was the game changer. I think that was our hopeful delusion....and I don't think there was anything wrong with that delusion: it was a good sign of our capacity for envisioning something better. I argue for voting for Democrats all the time. But that is a defensive move. I don't think the game will actually change until both parties split: creating the far-right behemoth we know is coming, and the left broken from the Democrats' legacy and ties to big business and the establishment. It's all well and good to say work for a third party now, but I think without something happening to the existing parties, a third-party is doomed to irrelevancy, and probably right-wing irrelevancy at that. And key, a new party has to exist not only on election day, but the rest of the time as well.