The Great Realignment
Obama did bring change.
He didn’t change policy. In America, policy rarely changes much. We have neoliberalism for economic matters and neoconservatism for the promotion of war and the expansion of the police state. That’s not Republican policy or Democratic policy. It’s American policy, forever and ever, world without end, amen.
Under Obama, policy continued down the same road in the same direction that it had been going since 1978. He continued and expanded on the policies of George W. Bush, just as George W. Bush continued and expanded on the policies of Bill Clinton, and Clinton continued the policies of the Reagan/Bush era. This pattern holds true even for Trump. Despite the passionate need of Trump’s critics to consider him “unprecedented,” if you look at Trump administration policies, it’s clear that in most respects he continued and expanded on the policies of Obama. Certainly his policies on war, civil liberties, the energy economy, and the criminal justice system were indistinguishable from those of the previous three presidents. Even Trump’s vaunted economic populism was little more than a will o’ the wisp, leading people on with the suggestion that Trump might create jobs, keep corporations from further de-industrializing our society, or rebuild the infrastructure that keeps our society going. Like most will o’ the wisps, following these promises merely led people deeper into a pathless swamp.
But Obama did bring change: a change in politics. It wasn’t the change most of us were looking for. The change we were looking for can best be expressed by a line I remember from Obama’s 2008 campaign:
In this statement, Obama was evoking the politics of the Golden Age of Capitalism (1932-1978), encouraging us to hope for the re-establishment of those politics. The government would regain its traditional role as arbiter and referee of the conversations between bosses and workers, the aristocrats and everyone else. The bosses, the super-rich, would no longer dominate and control every conversation. Government would use its power to prevent them from doing so, thus enabling others to have a say in the politics of the country; we would then discuss and bargain and come out with a set of policies that represented at least some of the interests of the 99%. I believe the hope for this outcome was the primary reason there wasn’t violence in response to the crash of 2008, a tsunami of fraud which wiped out jobs and homes across the country (and around the world.)
We were, as FDR once said, patient.
Well, it worked before.
Unfortunately, those weren’t the changes brought to us by the Obama/Trump era. And yes, it’s one era, not two. It’s the era that has brought us the Great Realignment.
Some years ago, like many of us, I frequented another political website, visiting it almost every day. One of the commenters had the handle Anton Bursch. The reason I remember Mr. Bursch is a comment he made. Unfortunately, I don’t have his words memorized, but the gist was as follows:
Now, none of the people conversing with Bursch at that time was a Green. We were all Democrats. Bursch was using the word “Green” as an epithet for the left-wing side of the Democratic party. The “we” in his sentence, therefore, referred to Clinton Democrats (call them New Democrats, the DLC, centrists, the Third Way, Republican moles, or whatever you like).
The Great Realignment accomplishes Bursch’s goal. The “Greens” have either been eliminated from the Democratic party, or remain powerless and largely silent within it, which is just as good. And the Clinton Democrats have united with the Bush Republicans. Some Bush Republicans (like Bush’s ethics lawyer, Dick Painter) have even run for Congress as Democrats. As for W himself, the increase in Bush’s popularity over the past five years is almost entirely due to a change in the opinions of Democrats, many of whom have decided he’s not only an ally, but a cause for nostalgia. These Democrats embrace—or at least tolerate without question—Bush’s policies, up to and including torture, indefinite detention, wars of acquisition, surveillance of the populace, censorship, and a buffet of loathsome economic and financial policies (many of which Bush inherited from Bill Clinton, merely improving on them here and there.)
There’s a reason George and Bill are such good friends.
It’s understandable that Bush Republicans and Clinton Democrats would unite; their only visible disagreements were on the subjects of war, civil liberties, and bigotry. Apparently the Democrats’ opposition to wars of choice and their support for civil liberties were not deeply held (a fact indicated by the pro-Iraq war votes of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden). It was the mainstream Democratic voters who objected to George W. Bush's anti-constitutional atrocities, not their leaders. But it only took Barack Obama approving torture and war to make “centrist” Democratic voters approve them too; it only took Barack Obama quietly accepting both Patriot Acts and adding on some additional authoritarian garbage of his own—check out the Insider Threat program sometime—to make “centrist” Democratic voters decide that civil liberties were a frivolous luxury, just like Bush supporters had been saying for eight years. Since “centrist” Democrats held all power in the Democratic party, that left bigotry as the only apparent difference between Democrats and Bush Republicans—a perfect situation if you want to agree on almost every policy while still presenting a front of vehement partisan opposition.
In fact, Anton Bursch got more than he hoped for, because Obama’s approval had the same relationship to Bush-era ideas that a money-laundering scheme has to Mafia drug money. It cleaned those ideas right up, giving a nice shine and polish to their credibility. Even some of the “Greens” embraced torture, war, indefinite detention, surveillance--because Obama did. You can't disagree with Barack Obama. If you disagree with Obama, you are disagreeing with the Inheritor of the Dream. You don’t disagree with the Inheritor of the Dream. Not unless you’re a bigot.
Here’s where the Great Realignment really started cooking with gas, and here’s where Obama, in particular, really brought about change. He changed the nature of the left—radically. Prior to Obama, the left was defined by its policy preferences. So was the right—but the right also had something the left didn’t have: an unquestioning authoritarian hero-worship of its leaders. The left analyzed and criticized its leadership, usually in reference to policy goals. The oft-lamented “circular firing squad” was actually the expression of an anti-authoritarian, policy-centered impulse on the part of left-wing Democrats, and despite all the efforts of the Clintons and their friends, the threat of Republican political victories could not entirely quell it. (Another commenter at TOP, paraphrasing Hannibal Lector, described that threat thus: It puts the Clinton on its skin or else it gets the Bush again.)
Barack Obama was the pretext for the development of an entirely new political culture. Developed in the fertile growth medium of the Internet, this culture wedded a carefully tailored version of the left’s traditional opposition to bigotry to the methods and values of Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was no longer acceptable to criticize Democratic leaders, or even to disagree with them. Doing so meant you were a bigot. “Centrist” Democrats now possessed a formidable weapon to enforce a new culture of Democratic authoritarianism. Even worse, unquestioning support of political leaders was suddenly being presented as synonymous with fighting bigotry. It used to be that you determined which leaders you supported by looking to see if they were fighting bigotry through their policies. No more. After Obama, Democratic leaders are assumed to be fighting bigotry simply through their existence. This even applies to rich, heterosexual, white, cis men. (“If you don’t vote for me, you’re not black,” said Joe Biden). All they have to do to fight bigotry is to win elections.
By the way, if they don’t win elections, they still aren’t to blame. You are. Your insufficient loyalty made them fail.
Or maybe it was Russia.
Now, rather than looking to see if political leaders are bigots or not, we look to see if voters are bigots or not. How do we know? By finding out which political leaders have their loyalty. If you’re not a bigot, you will always vote for the Democrat. If you're not a bigot, you will always accept the Democrat the party hands you as nominee without question, even if they have committed election fraud and voter suppression to ensure that their nominee of choice succeeds.
But voting for the Democrat is not enough. You also have to watch your mouth. Saying something critical of a Democratic leader could undermine their chances of (re)election, which is the same thing as undermining the fight against bigotry; thus, only racists, sexists, and homophobes would ever disagree with a Democratic politician in public. For instance, you should never bring up the fact that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden were instrumental in creating what is possibly the most racist American law of the late twentieth century. You should never bring up the fact that Hillary Clinton once said “Hard-working Americans, white Americans, won’t vote for Barack Obama,” nor the fact that she once compared black children to savage animals who needed to be “brought to heel.” You shouldn’t mention that Joe Biden said “If you don’t vote for me, you’re not black.” And you certainly shouldn’t bring up the fact that Kamala Harris let future Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin walk when she had ample evidence to prosecute him for fraud—meanwhile delighting in putting black and brown people in jail for selling marijuana and keeping them there, even after California legalized the sale of marijuana.
The Great Realignment is essentially an exercise in rewriting the political dictionary. The “left” gets redefined to include support for Bush-era authoritarianism and Bill Clinton’s neoliberal predator economy (NAFTA, CAFTA, the TPP, the destruction of working people’s spending power, the deregulation and bailout of banks, and all the other manifestations of corporatism and disaster capitalism). This new “left” is thus little more than a pretense that supporting existing power relations somehow adds up to an ideological, or even an ethical, position. What the new “left” really does is wrap obeisance to current power relations in an ethical candy shell, sweetening its grim policies and grimmer politics with the visible promotion of individual LGBTQ people and people of color (and some heterosexual cis white women). The promotion of politicians and celebrities from traditionally oppressed groups has been substituted for the practice of actual social justice politics, which, since it concerns itself with the conditions of people’s lives, can only exist in the presence of actual policy reform.
Like a changeling in the crib of American politics, this new left serves the primary function of covering up an absence: the absence of at least half the American political spectrum from American politics. Only this kind of cuckoo politics can enable the powerful to achieve their real goal: removing traditional leftism from the American political imagination. You can't just suppress the ideas of half of America and leave an empty hole for all to see. That would likely inspire resistance. It's necessary to fill that space up with something that resembles what used to be there just enough to silence criticism. So, after decades of demonizing and suppressing traditional left-wing ideas, they cover up the absence of such ideas from American politics in the hopes that the American public will soon forget that they ever existed. Far better than traditional censorship and suppression (though they use those methods too), changeling (or cuckoo) politics fills the space where leftist policy used to reside with a carefully tailored form of identity politics that eschews history and actual policy change ("If BLM approaches you...don't offer support for concrete policy positions," said the internal DCCC memo).
The only reason this strategy succeeds is that most of the liberals and a significant portion of the left have rallied in support of the changeling, vehemently attacking those who express skepticism about the changeling's nature and identity. These liberals and former leftists provide a character reference for the changeling politics in the crib, deflecting criticism and skepticism from the cuckoo to its critics. All the King's horses and all the king's men could not make this strategy work without the cooperation of American liberals and leftists.
The million-dollar question is: why do they do it? The answer is pretty sad. Much like believing that Trump is unprecedented, cuckoo politics enables liberals and left-wingers to retain faith in their society and avoid the terror of realizing that one is in the hands of relentless sociopaths and liars. Cuckoo politics provides a place for left-wingers to put their energy and a way for them to feel that they are a part of a working social system. Thus, believing in cuckoo politics gives left-wingers a way to escape from the existential agony of watching the world burn at the hands of a political system in which they have little agency. The only price is one’s honesty.