U.S. liberalism: promoting ‘reform’ while sustaining the status quo

“The history of American liberalism is one of promoting substantively modest if superficially radical reforms in order to refurbish and sustain the status quo. From Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to Bill Clinton’s New Covenant, liberals have specialized in jettisoning the redundant to preserve what they see as essential. In this sense, modern liberalism’s great achievement has been to deflect or neutralize calls for more fundamental change – a judgment that applies to President Obama, especially on national security.”

— Andrew Bacevich, “Obama’s sins of omission

Writing for The Boston Globe last month, historian Andrew Bacevich alluded to a critique of liberalism long voiced by the likes of radical “New Left” writers like Gabriel Kolko: that rather than curtailing corporatist or imperial polices, or fundamentally altering the nature of the corporate state, liberal politicians have regularly sought the appearance of change while reaffirming the reality of the status quo, albeit with minor superficial changes designed to keep the rabble in check and prevent the chance of actual change unscripted by the establishment taking place.

That Bacevich sees less change than more-of-the-same coming out of Washington is notable as, prior to the election last November, he penned a piece for The American Conservative on why he, a life-long conservative, was voting for Barack Obama rather than John McCain. “The election of John McCain would provide a new lease on life to American militarism, while perpetuating the U.S. penchant for global interventionism marketed under the guise of liberation,” Bacevich wrote. While hardly a glowing endorsement of the American state’s new caesar — “Obama’s habit of spouting internationalist bromides suggests little affinity for serious realism” — Bacevich argued his election would at least “constitute something approaching a definitive judgment of the Iraq War”; namely, as Obama declared during the campaign, that it was a war which never should have been waged in the first place.

But with Obama’s election — and with the benefit of hindsight — has that really been the case? Or has the election of a self-styled war critic, resulted in a “rather breathtaking bait-and-switch,” as Michael J. Smith posits, whereby the discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan has shifted among the once anti-war Democratic base from one focused on the morality of the policy to “a discussion of means — means to an end which is never explicitly stated but is implicitly agreed upon by all: namely, conquest”?

Judging by the muted response among the Democratic base to Obama’s decision to dramatically escalate the U.S. war Afghanistan, his continued acts of war inside of Pakistan and his rather timid Iraq “withdrawal” plan that leaves 50,000 troops — more than half the size of the initial invasion force — there until 2011 (unless, that is, the Iraqi government “requests” the U.S. stay a bit longer), I’d have to say Smith is clearly right: the anti-war movement, in so far as there ever was one, has been co-opted by the Democratic Party. One need look no further than the top liberal blogs for evidence of this: simply compare the number of outraged posts about bloated, right-wing talk radio blowhards to the ones expressing concern over the morality of extrajudicially killing suspected Taliban with remote-controlled drones.

This process of co-option and deflection — pay no attention to state-sponsored murder, but did you hear what crazy shit Rush Limbaugh just said? — is reinforced by the fact that Obama’s nominal opposition on the right, though they more or less share the same underlying assumptions on the desirability of a global U.S. empire, has reacted to the president’s mild shifts in rhetoric with the type of hysteria one would expect should he have gay married an illegal immigrant. To the stubborn third of the country that thought President Bush was doing a heckuva job to the bitter end, any dealings with “anti-American” foreign leaders which don’t end with an insult and an ultimatum amount to appeasement; any policy shift that proposes something less than complete annihilation for Iran and others should they defy “U.S. interests” degenerate pacificism.

This was in full display after Obama’s trip to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago, when the likes of Bill Bennett and Newt Gingrich took the airwaves to hyperventilate about the his shaking hands with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, claiming the Republic imperiled by an American president sullying his office by appearing to be on equal footing with his Latin American counterparts. In doing so, “Obama’s opponents on the mainstream right showed how ready they are to lash out at any gesture or move, however meaningless and harmless in itself, and declare it proof of Obama’s naivete, weakness, folly, etc.,” notes conservative blogger Daniel Larison.

In this context, it’s no wonder Democrats feel the need to form a protective circle around their chosen Godhead, cook up some popcorn and enjoy the spectacle of the Republican faithful crying “fascism!” at the first change in upper-income marginal tax rates — all the while propounding an economic and foreign policy platform of their own that would make Mussolini blush. That partisanship on both sides of the corporatist political spectrum trumps factual analysis comes as no surprise, but it is unfortunate since those best positioned to criticize Obama’s imperial agenda instead spend their time explaining to reactionaries that no, Obama is neither a Muslim nor Malcolm X’s lovechild, while right-wingers busy themselves calling for ever more imperialism and blasting anything short of unilateral, preemptive war as “blame America” McGovernism.

Thus, while he’s busy boosting the Pentagon budget and expanding U.S. wars overseas — with the help of Bush administration Defense Secretary Robert Gibbs — the only real vocal opposition to Obama’s policies comes from, absurdly, those who argue he’s not being militaristic enough. Sure, a few liberal bloggers voice objections, but for every Glenn Greenwald there appears to be a about a dozen Paul Begala’s unwilling to criticize Obama’s endorsement of what Bacevich calls “the Second Trinity of global power projection, global military presence, and global activism – the concrete expression of what politicians commonly refer to as ‘American global leadership.'”

As Bacevich suggests, the issue is not so much Obama — though he’s obviously in a position to effect the most change in U.S. foreign policy — but American liberalism, which has all too often excelled at engaging in the same policy of covert coups and overt invasions as conservatives but cloaked in an easy-on-the-conscience veneer of human rights.

“[H]owever much Obama may differ from Bush on particulars, he appears intent on sustaining the essentials on which the Bush policies were grounded,” Bacevich writes. “Put simply, Obama’s pragmatism poses no threat to the reigning national security consensus. Consistent with the tradition of American liberalism, he appears intent on salvaging that consensus.”
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About Charles Davis

A writer and producer with whose work has aired on television and radio and been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Intercept, The Nation and The New Republic.
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