The Theory of O

This congressional Republican budget is something different altogether.  It is a Trojan Horse.  Disguised as deficit reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country.  It is thinly veiled social Darwinism.  It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who’s willing to work for it; a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class.  And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that’s built to last  — education and training, research and development, our infrastructure — it is a prescription for decline.

The above is one widely discussed passage from the President’s April 3 “marvelous budget” speech to newspaper editors, one of the latest speeches to be identified by pundits as the “real” beginning of the 2012 campaign. Even more than last December’s address in Osawatomie or the 2012 State of the Union, it confirmed that the President believes he is in possession of a winning argument that also happens to be a partisan-ideological one. Rather than criticize “Congress” or “Washington,” the President is now comfortably naming names, and demanding that others do so as well.  In answer to the first question from the editors, he even added a liberal-delighting critique of both-sides-at-fault false equivalence.

Jonathan Chait explains the new dynamic in quasi-military terms:

The Republican strategy has real strengths. The party’s sheer bloody-minded refusal to compromise, and its devotion to ever more radical policy agendas, has helped it to shift the terms of the debate steadily rightward… The weakness of this strategy is that it opens you up to political attack by allowing your opponent to claim the center. That is the ground Obama has gleefully seized.

According to David Corn in Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party, what Chait describes as a gleeful seizure of evacuated ground is the product of a consciously designed and carefully executed political plan itself derivable from a larger Theory of Obama’s Presidency.

The Theory’s outlines ought to be familiar to any student of recent American history.  Corn explains it succinctly from the perspective of the Theorist-in-Chief:

As far as he saw it, his own triumph [in 2008] did not signify a basic shift in the nation’s political culture. Changing the fundamental mind-set of the country regarding government, taxes, foreign policy, education, the environment—this was a thirty-year mission. Roosevelt’s New Deal sensibility had defined politics for four decades, until Ronald Reagan reshaped the political culture in the 1980s and bolstered an antigovernment backlash. Obama was hoping to lead a new transition. He had concluded this could only be done gradually, in a manner that drew popular support from an American public that was often so at odds with itself politically, ideologically, and culturally.

Corn does not pretend that the Obami of 2008-9 foresaw the Tea-infused “shellacking” suffered by the Democrats in the 2010 Mid-Terms, but the Theory takes the likelihood of such a backlash, if not its precise forms, into account: The predictable resistance to an epochal shift in American politics would itself have to be successfully resisted, and resisted in a way that would establish the predicate for an election argument of 2012, as well as for, excuse the expression, a more fundamental transformation, a liberal-statist restoration, in the years beyond.

According to Showdown, it was within this overarching scheme that, in late 2010, chief White House strategist David Plouffe carefully plotted a two-part two-year campaign.  Its concept may or may not have been worthy of Frederick the Great or Sun Tzu, but it may have been worthy at least of Colin Powell, as in “First we are are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.”  If the O command “stuck to the plan,” 2011 (Phase 1) could unfold as the isolation and bombardment of the Tea Party salient, 2012 (Phase 2) as its attempted destruction amidst a major counteroffensive.

Corn’s book covers Phase 1 in detail, a mixture of reporting and 2nd draft of history collation. The overall narrative suggests a drawn-out re-play of the 2008 TARP vote, in which crypto-teapartisans took Republicans and all of the rest of us through a similarly apocalyptic drama that mainly benefited their political opponents, not least the Democrats’ presidential nominee.  Corn quotes a “Senior Administration Official” describing the 2011 sequel in the following terms:

We were dealing with House Republicans who were both irresponsible and incompetent. It was like you handed a nuclear bomb to inept and useless people. They couldn’t count votes. They didn’t know what would pass. And anything we said could blow everything up.

In this light the outcome may seem to have been pre-ordained, with the only real question being how much damage the far right, now under the Tea Party banner, would do to self and others before being squashed by sheer political-economic necessity.  The fact remains that by the end of the year the Republicans were conceding on  issues like payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance extension rather than sustain further damage.  As for the House radicals, one vignette from Showdown seems especially telling:

…Boehner was finally saying no to the Tea Party. During the conference call, the speaker kept the mute function on. His troops could not talk back to him.

At a wave-the-white-flag press conference later in the day, Boehner remarked, “Sometimes it is politically difficult to do the right thing.”

In other words, new expeditions to the fiscal-budgetary brink seem to be off the agenda at least until the lame duck session of 2012 and the seating of the 113th Congress.

There is, of course, another political faction – more like a loose bundle of splinters, if not that coherent – that agrees with the Tea Party on one thing:  that these are desperate times calling for desperate measures, not any art of the merely consensually possible.  For ardent “progressives” – possibly as much a misnomer for the further-left as “conservative” is for today’s further-right – any supposed turn to the strategic offensive, if indeed anything worthy of the name has taken place, has come too late, and the Obama-Plouffe battle plan, in view of the casualties sustained and territory ceded, has been one part cowardice and betrayal, one part self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is therefore unsurprising that Hullaballoo’s David Atkins, a reliably further-left voice at a reliably further-left blog, responded to Obama’s performance before the news editors with damningly faint praise:

If these words are put into action during a second term, it may well be that a disillusioned and chastened President Obama may be the President in his second term that many of us hoped he would be in his first. It’s not terribly likely, admittedly, but one can certainly hope. The positive signs are there.

The notion that a “disillusioned and chastened” President Obama – or a disillusioned and chastened anyone – will set out boldly is psychologically unpersuasive, to say the least, though it may be even harder to imagine a president who has just won re-election also understanding himself as a “chastened” leader.  Nor does the guy singing “Let’s Stay Together” or giving the Vulcan “Live Long and Prosper Sign” with Lt. Uhura look disillusioned and chastened to me.

More to the main point, Corn’s Obama of late 2010 through 2011 does not appear to suffer illusions about what he was confronting: Fierce and widespread skepticism regarding new government initiatives of almost any type, extending far beyond the talkradio, Fox-junkie, blog-trolling hardcore.  A deep underlying liberal-statist consensus may be stronger than most people recognize (at least until the moment of emergency), but, as many have noted, it operates conservatively, in the literal sense of the word, defending past social democratic achievements, not rushing to embrace new ones.  The ones in thrall to illusions would be any further-left progressives who underestimated the breadth and sheer inertial weight of what Obama, and they, are up against.

This last set of observations could be the basis for a discussion of both the Theory and its alternatives in larger context, but for now we can take the threatened overturning by a Supreme Court majority of “Obamacare” (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) as a concrete example of systemic inertia.  For left-progressives, durably providing the difference in opinion polling between plurality opposition and minority support for the health care law, its chief failing was that it did not go far enough.  They now point out that no one, or hardly anyone, considers single payer health care unconstitutional.  Unfortunately, no one considers it passable either, and single payer’s un-passability and Obamacare’s potential vulnerability are of a piece:  The Citizens United and Bush v Gore conservative activist court, cribbing talking points from far right blogs, is as much an element within the 30-year Reagan Era overhang as the legislative impracticality of single payer, and as the range of other real social and political, eventually cultural-historical, impediments to the rest of a further-left agenda.

For present purposes, it may well be that nothing as ideologically coherent as an authentically left program or for that matter as Tea Party “federalism” (or Romney-Ryan free market devolution) can be implemented in the United States of America.  The Theory’s very adequacy to the political moment may therefore be identical with its inadequacy to greater challenges that the American political system, maybe the American nation-state itself as presently constituted, cannot even recognize, much less successfully confront.  From this point of view, the apocalypse would be not what was avoided via the Showdown, but what the showdown showed us through a crack in the blinds, something that cannot forever be voted in or out or up or down, hidden under a “tarp,” or put off until another year or two for further putting off for another year or two…

For that you will need a different theory.


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25 comments on “The Theory of O

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    • The point, as I was tweeting on Saturday, is to accelerate in the hope of jumping the iceberg, kind of like during the finale of SPEED. Might seem difficult, but ,if it works out, you end up in the arms of Sandra Bullock out in front of the Chinese theater.

  1. As usual, I enjoyed the way this post is written. The observational reasonableness in it is also high, and it gave me an idea. The practical reason Obama should have pushed a truly progressive, what would have been really radical agenda in the eyes of the conservatives was that it would have moved everything to the left. Just as so-called conservatives credit themselves with moving things to the right even as the actual moving agent (Tea Party, etc) is seen as ridiculous even by fellow Rs. Then, Obama would still be supported by his original supporters, and unlike the pushing down by radical conservatives, a truly progressive far left mover would have linked up and stayed linked up with an always defensible degree of socially directed compassion.

    • The whole point of the Theory is that a president actually interested in coping positively with an emergency and getting a few things done can’t adopt a strongly ideological mode of operation. The most any single president can do at this stage in history and given systemic constraints is push things in a preferred direction and open up future possibilities. Anything else would mean taking an adversarial position against the very same history-culture-system (the state in Hegelian terminology) that produced the opportunity to turn against it – the president turning traitor from the state’s perspective, martyr for an alien ideology. In other words a revolutionary president would be a president attacking the presidency – Obama attacking himself. Some day, at the end of constitutional democracy as we know it, that’ll make a whole heckuva lot of sense. Maybe today if you’re in the desperation faction. Even so, you might want to have a few more acolytes in place and ready to pick up the pieces before you opt for Traitor/Martyr-in-Chief.

      • Good clarification. Politically, I am in the desperation faction. But, admittedly, I would be regretful when the reality of a desperate present opting disappeared house, home, etc. Still wouldn’t make it wrong and I like to believe that I would handle the suffering and accept that there might never be any pieces picked up. Not having kids would be advantage there. If I had kids, I would be all the more desperate for the opting, be ready to suffer more, and thinking about how to pick up the pieces more ahead of the opting.

        • Things could be a whole lot worse for a whole lot more people than just Scott (and Laura) losing house, home, etc. This gets into theories of the theory, but also into the territory where Gandhi says some mad things, and the Traitor-Martyr contemplates actually accomplishing, or enabling, the objectively exact opposite of everything you or I might prefer to see on Earth…

          • There are lots of possibilities. The one you describe is one possibility. But shouldn’t a truly objective dialectical theorizing include the possibility that there are at least as many positive possible accomplishments as negative? And, yes, it would be negative of you to try and argue that negativity is positivity, or some such thing. I get duality. I get duality in lots of spiritual ways, which do connect with Hegelian dialectics some, but I do also know that consciousness matters. When we can’t see through our own negatively oriented consciousness, it taints all our perceptions and understandings. Personal consciousness matters. No matter how objective we think we are, are actually are, our personal consciousness impacts what we say and write. So one person can say or write something almost identical to someone else, but because of the impact that personal consciousness has on things, the two people will communicate very different things, and since happiness elevates consciousness toward what yogis refer to as Satchitinanda (the Truth of Being is Bliss), blissful people convey the truth through their communications in ways that the rest of us can’t. And that’s why the Gandhi thing is not an even bigger deal to me. He was never thought of in the spiritual world as a realized being. He was not expressing from a state of bliss. He never claimed to be in Samadhi (Bliss), or even to have experienced Samadhi it as far as I know, and no one ever credited him with having experienced it. So the truths he conveyed were relative, not ultimate.

            • Right, but we’re not talking about realized beings, we’re talking about real people. If a realized being could be elected president, then the system would be fine, and there wouldn’t be anything for you to be desperate about, no reason to join the desperation faction, no need for a president-martyr-traitor, no need for you to open up an avenue of disagreement with me.

              • That is one positive possibility, yes. But you still didn’t answer the main question. In every relative situation, whether it is being experienced by a realized being or not, shouldn’t the predictive consideration of any dialectically perceived eventuality be balanced? Buddhists would say no because Samsara and Nirvana are split realities until they are perceived correctly in connection with a non-dualist realization and we’re predicting things in Samsara now, and we don’t have to waste time considering things in that way because you don’t recognize the split reality. If I understand your world view correctly, you don’t recognize Nirvana, just what you have somewhat insultingly referred to as the “real world,” so that positivity of a Buddhist kind is not there. I’m asking where is it? You have mentioned that Hegel was a happy guy. Why? Did is happiness have anything to do with his dialectical world view, and if so, could you provide some insight into that consciousness raising accomplishment?

                • Don’t think you should take the distinction between “real world” and “super-real world” as derisive. Only people who were prejudiced in favor of what they call “real” would have reason to do so. The question is how and where either the realized beings themselves or perhaps the consciousness or ultimate truth they represent is to be “real”-ized, if it’s going to be, and if it needs to be – assuming it hasn’t been. If it hasn’t been, or if it has been, or if that’s not a good distinction; or – if it hasn’t been, and if it also has been, and if that’s a good question that’s also a bad question – (my position) – what does that tell us about it, and what does whatever it doesn’t tell us about it tell us.

                  Don’t know that Hegel was “happy,” it’s just the impression I get – possibly because philosophizing is a very engaging and ecstatic activity, he was professionally successful, and had a stable home life… or maybe he was just born that way.

                  Hegel denied that he was in the prediction game: The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk, which tends to mean that, by the time we understand things fully, we are at the end of the process of their coming into being, and unable to affect them. That’s why the Hegelians end up looking back on history and explaining why things “had to happen that way” (the cunning of history). The sense of optimism comes from the idea of a great and inevitable process of coming to absolute self-knowledge of Spirit, but this viewpoint is always in danger of turning into false consciousness, and leads directly to the key criticism of Hegelian philosophy – the key criticism advanced by Marx, and typical of criticism of Hegel across the political (and philosophical) spectrum ever since – that it breeds complacency. The difficulty of Hegel reinforces this criticism: Hegel is too obscure to be useful or even comprehensible, and, to whatever extent you do understand him, it just turns you into a fat complacent self-superior bourgeois so-and-so always finding reasons to go along to get along.

                  • Well, every system has its weaknesses, and fortunately you have me to keep making it hard for you to just sink into self-superior complacency. Since we’re both bourgeois we’ll have to pray for someone else to help us there. The loss of house and home would take care of it, but it still might be better than our continued going along to get along. Maybe.

                    • It seems you become “Gandhi’s Jew” – with the potential for spiritual merit (or whatever the proper term is) from your self-sacrifice – but humanly incapable of embracing it. I’m not making fun of or attacking you, just pointing out the dialectic, where the prospect of super-humanity converts into inhumanity. I think the same thing that stunned you about the Gandhi-Orwell correspondence is what alienates “merely-humanists” or “realists” confronting the pronouncements of “spiritualists” (“super-humanists”).

    • Obama’s “original supporters” were not the “progressives”. I was very impressed during the 2008 campaign to meet so many people who were moderates, previously apathetic, and even defectors from the evangelical right.. Didn’t see to many “leftists” making calls and/or knocking on doors. The invented past in which the people who supported Kucinich or Edwards suddenly appointed themselves the Obama base is quite curious.

      Also “pushed” – what does that mean? “make militant speeches in the context of legislative defeat”?

      • The original supporters might not have been centered in the “professional left,” but I think Scott is representative of a different faction – people who might not normally have had much interest in politics, but who were captivated by the Idea of Obama, and whose imaginations in regard to political possibility are generally less constrained. The young almost by definition largely fit within this group. They may also sometimes be attracted to candidates like Kucinich and Edwards, but they may also include the moderates and defectors you describe, as well as people susceptible to charisma and the sense of belonging to a collective movement. Holding onto them amidst the wearying compromises of American politics is, to say the least, difficult, since they’re also given to moral purism of the sort that, if they do stay involved, may lead them more in the direction of “statement” politics. Part of the ideal they saw in Obama was a kind of deflected identity politics. So anti-racist idealists were moved by the opportunity to make an anti-racist statement. It’s inevitably less powerful for them the second time around, and even if Obama still gets 95% support from African Americans, the rejection of Wright and the judgments of West don’t help.

        • But O’s “original supporters” were a very mixed bag -which is why he was able to win the election. In the milieu of “left” blogs, one may not notice that the disappointment story extends to all sorts of other people – for example, I have heard Teamster supporters of the Keystone oil pipeline express a feeling of betrayal in the same language, but on alternate beats, as environmentalist opponents.

          You can’t win election on a reform platform without exciting hope – and thus invariably creating some disappointment. What strikes me though is how so many Americans regard themselves as the true base.

  2. From his vantage point, the work of ‘fundamental transformation’ is only half done, the set piece Obamacare is moving along,
    the automatic defense cuts did move toward satisfying the Iowa peace pledge, but he still doesn’t see it as going far enough
    toward ‘peace and justice’ hence the reassurance to Medvedev, which was a little too obvious.

  3. Oh, grow up, he’s a hack politician who absorbed the equivalent of Oprah deep leftism, from Bell, Wright, et al, whose previous executive function was handling Annenberg grants for the Chicago public schools, He rarely challenged the Daley machine, he basically stepped into a US Senate Seat, after all the plausible foes were ‘reaped’ by the local papers.

  4. CK, there’s some truth to your Gandhi’s Jew point, but it’s also a dodge. It’s the usual dodge. I’ll try something different. You know the Einstein quote about a problem not be solvable on the same level of consciousness on which it occurs. So we must ask ourselves to elevate our consciousness because we can’t expect rational, real level consciousness to work out the issues that occur on that level. So even we recent being talked down to by own elevated consciousness or the assumed elevated consciousness of another, or even some make believe Gandhi’s Jew, in my opinion it’s okay, because no matter how well we perceive things ordinarily, it will always go negative and that’s my point. Consciousness always affects our ideas and a negative consciousness is not only a problem to itself, it is also never right about anything. Maybe that’s the case here with what I’m conveying now. It probably is because I’m just Gandhi’s Jew.

    • I reject the idea that it’s a “dodge.” It’s built in. Every philosophical assertion that is true is also false, by virtue of being a philosophical assertion – something Hegel also observed, and which is easy to misconstrue. So, yes, that means that the truth of the “built-in-ness” of the self-contradiction, uselessness, and inhumanity of higher level consciousness is also subject to also-falseness. For Hegel, the movement between the two positions and the conceptualization of that movement, and so on, is what matters, not one or another position which, merely by virtue of being a position, implies its counter-position. It seems absurd or potentially absurd, a potentially endlessly recursive re-conceptualization of re-conceptualization, but it’s not an observation about or only about formal logic, but about experience, time, and consciousness. The recursion really does come to an end, in real time – like now for instance (whatever “now” is or was or will be).

  5. Well Scott, Gandhi might have geniunely meant well, maybe he conflated Dyer with von Rundstedt, but recall that TOS ;City on the Edge of Forever’ and the character Edith Keeler, the welfare and peace activists who impromtu saving by McCoy, changed the timeline forever, That is the problem, now the example of Maximilian Kolbe and company, might be more what
    you are looking for,

  6. What I’m really looking for is a poem by CK. Just as an otherwise fat self-superior complacent bourgeois Mozart found his higher consciousness in music, I believe that CK finds his in poetry. Emerson and Thoreau could philosophize on a high level because they also spent time with outdoor rightbrain experiencing. Meditation accesses the rightbrain present moment that qualifies in our present condition as higher consciousness. If someone doesn’t do any rightbrain experiencing, they better, in my opinion, do higher consciousness through art and after all this time on the blog, the fat self-superior complacent bourgeois part of my being is convinced that CK should take advantage of his artistic genius and be more poet than anything else. Music takes both left and right brain activity. Poems are said to be the only right brain word thing that we do. Constant and practically exclusive activation of the left brain makes us authority heavy along with fat self superior complacent and bourgeois. We reject that idea at our own peril. It’s all a dodge if we stick to one side of the brain. We’re dodging the other side.
    Check out the Jill Bolte Taylor video again on YouTube for further confirmation. Remember, she’s a left brain neuro-anatomist who has a full left brain stroke and is forced to experience life as a right brainer. You could say our whole communicative issue here is a question of my left brain attempts to explain right brain perspectives being rejected by left brain resistance.

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