Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Progressives don't see Obama clearly because of our racial blind spots.

The predominately white progressive intelligentsia don't see Obama clearly because of our racial blind spot.  We don't see the role of race in how he seems to understand himself and how other perceive him.

First of all, we think that he understands himself as one of us.  A progressive activist, heir to the radical and New Left movements most of us were raised in.  He is not; I think that he understands himself (and certainly his real base understands him) as the first African American President.  We're thinking Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.  We should be thinking about Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago.  Washington was elected and immediately faced a solid wall of opposition from most white aldermen in the city.  Washington understood his role as breaking down that wall of opposition and assembling a governing majority, which he finally did after his re-election.  Unfortunately, he died shortly thereafter.  By the way, one of Washington's political strategists was David Axelrod.

How does Obama break the iron unity of the GOP opposition to assemble a governing majority in the US Congress?

If we progressives were not blinded by our own assumption that our history is the only history, we might see how Obama may be seeing his situation.

White progressives often think that African American elected officials are politically naive.  We will far more credit to Cornel West, who has never been elected to anything, than to an elected state senator, or even the President of the United States.  We think that Obama does not understand the nature of John Boehner, Mitch McConnell or Eric Cantor, as though he has not sat across the table from them.  He doesn't understand how mean they are, we think.

Obama acts entirely within the tradition of mainstream African American political strategy and tactics.  The epitome of that tradition was the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement, but goes back much further in time.  It recognizes the inequality of power between whites and blacks.  Number one: maintain your dignity.  Number two: call your adversaries to the highest principles they hold.  Number three: Seize the moral high ground and Number four: Win by winning over your adversaries, by revealing the contradiction between their own ideals and their actions.  It is one way that a oppressed people struggle.

Obama has taken a seat at the negotiating table and said "There is no reason why we cannot work out solutions to our problems by acting like responsible adults.  That is what people expect us to do and that is why we have entered into public service."  That is the moral high ground.

Honestly, I have been reminded more than once in the last few months of those brave college students sitting in at a Woolworth's lunch counter, back in the day.  Obama sits at that table, like they did at the counter.  Boehner and McConnell and Cantor clown around, mugging for the camera, competing to ritually humiliate Obama, to dump ketchup on his head.

I don't think those students got their sandwiches the first day, but they won in the end.

Obama is winning.  Democrats are uniting behind him, although some white progressives think that they could do the job better.  Independents are flocking to him.  Even some Republicans are getting disgusted with their Washington leaders.  Obama is not telling us about lack of seriousness of the Congressional GOP; he is showing us the vivid contrast between what we expect of our leaders and their behavior.  The last two and half years have been a revelation of the essential conflicts in our society and politics.

If white progressives understood much about the politics of the African American struggle in the United States, we would see Obama in the context of that struggle and understand him better.  And you don't have to be African American to know something about the history of the African American struggle.  The books and the testimony is there.  It's not all freedom songs.  But you have to be convinced that it is something that can teach you something you don't already know.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Negative Mimetic Desire and Negotiating

All these high-stakes negotiating crises in Washington DC seem to be polarizing rather than unifying -- both for the people in the negotiations and for us, the observers of the spectacle.

I think that it is because they are exercises in Negative Mimetic Desire.

Mimetic Desire is a term I got from Rene Girard and refers to the pattern of wanting what other people want.  To go further, in most situations most of us do not know what we want until we observe other people wanting it.  We imitate other people's desires.

Negative mimetic desire is wanting what some particular other people reject, because they reject it.

In the very complicated world of public policy and federal government financing, most of us do not have a clue about the merits of one proposal over another.  We depend on signals from opinion leaders we trust that this proposal is good and that one is bad.  We end up wanting as non-negotiable what the others have said they cannot accept.

During the health care debate, the public option became a non-negotiable symbol, when most of us had not heard of it before.  The Individual Mandate was a GOP policy preference up until the point that it became a crucial part of the Health Care bill that Obama wanted.  What Obama wants must be bad = negative mimetic desire.  The clearest example was Joe Lieberman's quick flip-flop on the proposal to let people over 55 buy into Medicare.  At first he liked it because it was an alternative to the Public Option (which was to be opposed because the left wanted it), but within a week, he moved to oppose the 55-Medicare buy-in, because as Lieberman stated explicitly, the proposal was making too many liberals happy.

Of course, in the legislative process leaders signal one set of priorities in public and then proceed to compromise them in negotiations.  As a result, followers are confused and feel betrayed.  Impatience with legislation grows.

It used to be that Congress passed individual authorization and appropriation bills, for each part of the government.  Then, they were consolidated into a single budget resolutions.  Now there are these deal last minute deals under the deadline of either government shutdown or default.  The deals get bigger and the negotiations get more symbolic and abstract and the public gets more and more polarized as one set after another of supposedly non-negotiable positions get bandied about.  Everything becomes winning and losing.  Eventually the leaders compromise, but the rest of us don't.