The title of Michael Tomasky’s piece for the new (December 9) issue of The New York Review of Books is “Can Obama Rise Again?” His analysis of the decline of Barack Obama’s popularity and effectiveness is cast in a critical examination of two recent books, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics by Ari Berman and The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism by Roger D. Hodge. At the very least Tomasky provides a lot of valuable context for any reader interested in approaching either of these books. From my point of view, however, the greatest value in his context is the implication that he is probably asking the wrong question in his title.
What is at stake is neither Obama’s popularity nor the strength of the Democratic Party. The real question is whether those Americans desperately seeking reform in a country that has undermined any sense of security in day-to-day life, whether it involves health care, education, or even fear of inadequate “homeland security,” will have a candidate in any future election for whom they are willing to vote. By its very nature progressivism has always been anathema to established power, and the Supreme Court has now allowed that established power unbridled use of financial resources to demonize both the ideas of progressivism and the candidates who embrace those ideas. In other words, the punch line of The American Ruling Class, both Lewis Lapham’s book and John Kirby’s documentary (“Why change City Hall when you can buy it?”), has become more significant in the domain of national politics.
Our country has had a legacy of political parties whose name began with the adjective “progressive.” One of the earliest even had the backing of a former Republican President, who basically became fed up with what his party was doing. Unfortunately, our electoral process has deteriorated to a stage in which third-party interests seem to function only as spoilers, rather than as coalition-builders. This, itself, is part of that status quo that “the American Ruling Class” wishes to preserve, often by spending massive funds that might otherwise benefit the public welfare.
Hodge’s point is that the real “hope” that Obama evoked was that, in the midst of so much adversity, progressivism could still find a voice. The tragedy is that this hope was held out only to attract voters and was dashed in the earliest months of the new Administration. That adversity is now stronger than ever, and Max Weber’s risks of loss of meaning and loss of freedom are no longer potential. They have become the “new reality;” and any talk of “hope” towards changing that reality is just another casualty in that pile of lost meanings.