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Monday, February 07, 2011

Our Porcelain Overlords

On Hardball tonight they discussed Obama's image problem with the American business community. Even after saving global capitalism, backing TARP, resurrecting Detroit, and defending Wall Street against radical reform, Obama gets no love. Why? on Hardball, one lead theory was that Obama's "populist rhetoric" hurt their widdle iddle feeeewwwings. We've been hearing this a lot lately, especially from Politico, driver of Beltway narratives.

It does seem a paradox, at least if you think that politics centers on economic interests. But it doesn't. Identity trumps interests. The problem is that we're so used to thinking about "identity politics" as a left-wing phenomenon that we don't see how great its influence has been on the right, with white southerners, Christian evangelicals, farmers, and especially the business community. For the latter, Obama's real sin is not the populist rhetoric--when the hell was that supposed to have happened!?!?--it's that he shatters their illusion of triumphal, even messianic, self-sufficiency and virtue. As ideology, laissez-faire has always been a patent fraud, false as history and idiotic as policy. The American business community was built, brick by brick, by the federal government. It was Hamilton's great legacy, and it makes every businessman in America a "welfare queen." But as in so many things, Americans walk Hamiltonian but talk Jeffersonian. As we groom ourselves in the mirror, we see how good we think we used to look, back when we were young and free. As Nietzsche argued, no one is so impressed with the glorious freedom (and righteousness) of its own will as is the ruling class. They mistake the feeling of power (a practical effect) for the self-justifying morality of private conscience (a mythic cause). "Of course, I have free will--I won, and I'm awesome!"

No matter how much money Obama puts in their pockets, he will always be the guy who revealed their feet of clay. He said that government had a critical role to play in improving the economy, and he was right. No matter how many pretty speeches Obama gives to the Chambers of Commerce, he just can't repent a sin that stains as deep as having been right when those who by definition cannot sin were so wrong.


At 7:16 AM, Blogger fronesis said...

I find the tenacious one to be on a roll, of late. This is spot-on, and really cuts through a lot of the crap that's out there on these issues.

The point about identity politics on the right is very powerful. But it goes further than that. What your analysis here reveals is not just that identity trumps interest, but that the second-wave feminist, crude marxist standpoint epistemology has identity all wrong. That model suggests that identity comes first and interests matter in relation to that fixed identity. What you (and third wave feminists) show is that identity is itself produced by, and is an object of conflict in, the politics.

At 10:32 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

An interesting connection, Fro. I tend to agree that 3rd wave feminism--whether or not it really is a "new" wave, or just 2.1--does a better job of capturing the mutability of identity and its complex relation to interests.

On the other hand, I always wonder how effective the 3rd wave strategies are for dealing with those identity questions. Here's the problem: on balance, I think that explicitly "identity" based politics tends to slant to the right. After all, conservatives tend to champion MAJORITY identities--at the expense of majority interests. So what we get is white, male, straight, Christian tribalism deployed to distract voters from a regressive and elitist economic agenda that serves few of its advocates. The strength of that narrative derives partly from its typical connection to traditionalism and nationalism, and partly from its inherent connection to power (as Nietzsche understood). Which is why, for example, Christianity, with its anti-power (anti-wealth, anti-family) ethic, can get transformed so easily into an uncritical, flag-waving imperialism. "Team Christian!" trumps self-sacrificing care for the poor and the sick in a culture where Xians are the dominant group, and even more when Xians are a WANING dominant group.

The task of left and center-left politics, anchored in old enlightenment ideals, is more complicated: make people more attuned to their actual interests (economic, social, etc.) than of the vicarious thrill they get from affirming power-oriented, majority identities. Which suggests that the 2nd wavers may have been right on strategy even when wrong on theory. What identity politics can add is an appreciation of the fault lines over identity--there are always opportunities to peel off voters and reshape identities. For example, Dems should ride hard against the GOP states' rights fetish, given its inherent contradiction to both nationalism and the American tradition--it can be stigmatized as a loser identity (the civil rights movement pulled off this trick quite nicely). Similarly, "nativism" has an unstable relationship to the distinctively American form of pluralist nationalism, one we've exploited well in the past (CA under Pete Wilson, for example).

I haven't gotten all this fully worked out yet, obviously. But these are questions I find interesting and worth some real thought.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger Number Three said...

Nice thread jack there, Fro. From USCC to feminism in one move.

In a completely different vein, I think it is safe to say that NO ONE PLAYS THE REFS LIKE THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE. No matter what Govt does for them (and their executives' compensation, like, say, extending the Bush tax cuts), IT WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH. No matter how little they are, indeed, regulated, IT WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH.

The real problem for the O Team here is that they are playing Obama's game--find a reasonable accommodation. But they are playing FDR against Stalin at Yalta. The USCC sees accommodation as weakness, and it leads them to ask for more, more, more.

The feelings BS is just a gloss. It is, as TMcD says, a ridiculous one. But it gives the folks on tv something to talk about.


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