Yesterday on America Live, the Miss Thing of the Right Wing, Megyn Kelly, once again did the impossible: this time, she predicted the future. Having spoken to White House staffers—who, we can only assume, do not lie to Fox News—Kelly informed the concerned citizen that President Obama’s State of the Union address would focus on “economic fairness.” As you may know, when Republicans say the words “economic fairness,” they mean deregulation, tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, and the gutting of social programs. In reality, Democrats implement a more ambivalent, less brazen form of those same policies—but in the corporate media, particularly on Fox, when someone presumed to be liberal utters those dreaded words, it suddenly turns the liberal ideal of moderate wealth redistribution to offset structural inequities into a signifier for everything viewers and voters find threatening, totalitarian, and anti-American about socialism and Marxist critiques of capitalism and private property. As a starting point for the obligatory Fair & Balanced Debate, Kelly invoked a recent Gallup poll that showed that only 2% of voters consider the divide between rich and poor to be the issue of greatest concern in the coming year, as opposed to the 52% who care most about “Jobs/Debt/Decline.” Why those three issues were grouped together in one poll option, and what exactly the other 46% said, we will likely never know. The presentation of the poll results, if not the poll itself, is fundamentally manipulative and serves to marginalize structural concerns about economic justice.
But as ambiguous as polls are, they also aren’t utterly devoid of meaning, particularly given the demographical research and psychological awareness with which mass media addresses its subject. As I discussed previously, there is a consciousness produced by ideologies of dominance that manifest in the United States as a cultural tendency towards rightist politics. This is a cultural context in which a perspective between the political center and the political right is considered “neutral.” Thus, Kelly “neutrally” reads a radical antagonism into Obama’s choice of theme that does far more than simply overstate the contrast between the (politically) liberal concept of correcting structural inequity and the (politically) conservative concept of actively reinventing the status quo. It also completely elides the extent to which the policies Democrats actually outline (to say nothing of those they actually implement) are, far from being socialist, often not even left-of-center. The conservative pundit in Fox’s “right-left” match-up, radio host Jason Lewis, took up the well-worn line of argument that paints Obama as the aggressor in the “class war,” and the rich as victims of a welfare state in which “the top 1% pay 40% of taxes.” Even lip service to the desirability of egalitarian distribution of power (in this case wealth) runs the risk of registering negatively with even the most downtrodden of capitalist society, as long as they do not question the morality of “upward mobility.”
In the context of US culture and its social Darwinist ideals of individual achievement, what conservatives from John Boehner to Nietzsche have called something along the lines of “the politics of envy” carries as much risk with “the masses” as it does potential benefit. “Capitalism without failure is like religion without sin,” economist Allan Meltzer famously said, “It doesn’t work.” Like many instances of conservatives speaking candidly about the impossibility of a toothless capitalism, I agree. However, I don’t conclude from this that capitalism is therefore morally justifiable—only that the perspective that attributes the oppression inherent in capitalism to “a few bad apples” and “not enough regulation” is the kind of conciliatory centrism that, more than any GOP crypto-fascism, continually deprives what may one day emerge as a formidable political left of its spine and its vision. In such a Fair & Balanced Debate on Fox (or, really, any other corporate media), the liberal is usually just that: a centrist who subscribes to some version of the “free market” economic liberalism embraced more radically by conservatives. Radio host Leslie Marshall is a stalwart of these debates, and though I’m sometimes conflicted about rooting against liberals in these scenarios, I’ve little sympathy left when she defends the status quo of partisan politics by presenting lockstep marching behind the center-right candidate—she claims voters should say, “I want to stick with this guy” because there has been change, “albeit slow”—as the counterpoint to the far-right view. The very fact that on the nation’s most-watched news channel (with almost 50% of the market share), a union-busting neoliberal like Nancy Pelosi is continuously referred to as a spearhead of the “far-left” is evidence of conflicting but interdependent narratives that constitute the scope of “serious” political discourse in the United States: both liberals and conservatives (both in government and the media) have a stake in and therefore contribute heavily to the discursive construction, not only of Democrats as the embodiment of liberal values, but also of liberals as “the left.”
So it was predictable yesterday night that this statement earned Obama, along with applause, a barrage of boos (ostensibly from conservatives): “We can either settle for an America where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone gets their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” “Restoring” a capitalist economy rooted in egalitarianism is like “restoring” racial justice to the United States: it may be possible, but to imply that it has been done before is historical revisionism of the most sinister kind. The conservative critique of Obama—that he is a leftist—is untrue, but not baseless. Marxist critiques of capitalism do indirectly inform many liberal and social democratic arguments for regulation, labor unions, and social safety nets. But these center-left ideologies never question the necessity of capitalism; indeed, in the 20th century they appropriated a modicum of class consciousness towards the end of maintaining a “toothless,” slightly less social Darwinist capitalism that can diffuse the imperative for a leftist mass movement, and in doing so, preserve the status quo.
My point is not only that liberalism in the United States has become a mechanism for suppressing truly radical thought, but also that the cowardice of liberals has “forced” them to betray even the liberal values that they claim to hold, and for that, they are indefensibly hypocritical: politicians for enacting the policies, and voters for supporting the politicians. In case you buy Obama’s commitment to “economic fairness,” let me remind you that Obama has received more Wall Street campaign contributions and appointed more Wall Street investors to his administration than any candidate. Ever. He abandoned unions, who have now thrown their unquestioning financial support behind him once again, during Scott Walker’s assault on labor rights. No matter how many times he sighed deeply while doing it, he renewed the Bush tax cuts. The GOP had not even demanded cuts to Social Security yet when Obama offered them up. And his use of sanctions as a coercive measure and support for free trade agreements indicates he is even less ambivalent about “economic fairness” when it comes to non-Americans. But Americans don’t care about that, so let’s get to the important stuff.
“This generation has made us safer and more respected around the world,” Obama asserted proudly tonight; such is the President’s signature: pandering, unverifiable optimism dressed up as levelheaded pragmatism. He opened with the night’s first, but not most chest-thumping, reference to the murder (yes, bad people can be murdered too) of Bin Laden and the fairly dubious claim that “the Taliban’s momentum has been broken” in Afghanistan. In fact, among the revelations of the Afghanistan papers released by WikiLeaks, one that continues to be corroborated, is that Taliban attacks in Afghanistan have increased in recent years.
Obama claimed that his administration has implemented measures to “hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like this never happens again.” What does he mean? Over two-thirds of the 400 proposed regulations in the notorious Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act have not even been drafted, much less finalized. Not a single executive from the investment firms responsible for the financial crisis has been prosecuted. Not a word about reinstating Glass-Steagall has been spoken by this administration.
Obama proclaimed his intention to offset the appeal of outsourcing with tax incentives for transnational corporations who bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. By magnanimously offering big business economic incentives for exploiting US workers instead of Colombians, Filipinos, and Bangladeshis, he demonstrates a signature Democratic rhetorical bait-and-switch: he nominally sticks up for working-class Americans, while simultaneously holding out the continually open government coffers to corporations. The irony, of course, is that these tax incentives have no chance of offsetting the profitability of manufacturing in countries with negligible or nonexistent labor laws. And the President should know: this state of affairs is guaranteed by the lucrative free trade agreements that receive bipartisan support as well as the unwavering support of the Obama administration.
He promised to help the United States achieve “energy independence” by taking advantage of all “public land” for resource extraction. This means two things, both of which should alarm environmentalists. First, it means expanding offshore oil drilling. This he mentioned by name, and no doubt bore his promise in mind when, later in his address, he declared his commitment to ensuring that offshore drilling disasters like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are “contained.” Then there’s fracking, the distastefully obscene-sounding final frontier of continental natural gas extraction. Maybe the name is just so vulgar, Obama’s speechwriters didn’t have to heart to include it in the midst of all the self-congratulatory pomp and grandeur of his election year talking points. Maybe he really thinks that environmentalists will be assuaged by his requirement that oil companies disclose all chemicals potentially harmful to humans that are released in the drilling process, and accept the immense contamination of groundwater that results from fracking as—as per military parlance—collateral damage. Maybe he’s not wrong; at any rate, for such a reasonable guy, Obama’s rejection of the Keystone pipeline seems plenty bone to throw to those troubled by the endangering of human and animal life for profit. He certainly won’t risk losing the vote of people who can’t decide whether they’re Republicans or Democrats (and the campaign contributions of oil companies) to tailor his environmental policy exclusively to the concerns of the left wing of his base. Those people have no choice, and would never do something crazy, like decide not to vote for Democrats.
He committed to passing tax breaks for clean energy companies, bolstering his progressive cred with one hand while silently smothering its validity (as well as the potential for any significant efficacy) with the other by neglecting to mention the tax breaks natural gas companies will continue to receive.
For the desperate progressive, there was a feminist micro-victory when he referred to a generic small business owner as “her.” Much will no doubt be made of the moment when, in his final bout of military pandering, Obama mentioned (to the barely noticeable discomfort of several unsettlingly stoic generals) that one can be either “gay or straight” and fight for the United States. For a man who has yet to come out in support of gay marriage, the victory here is a farce. For radicals seeking non-hypocritical justifications for voting for Obama, the pickings are slim.
The man whose administration poured $29 trillion (almost twice the much-maligned national debt) into Wall Street showed no inkling of irony when he proclaimed that he would stand for “no bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts.” He affirmed his liberal commitment to a mythical toothless capitalism by claiming he had imposed “smart regulations to prevent irresponsible behavior” in business, and flexed his conservative chops for the moderate demographic by bragging that he had approved fewer regulations than Bush (in what I can only assume is some reasonably comparable span of time). His promise to deregulate factory farming, coded in the language of freedom from the burden of the government “looking over [your] shoulder,” received bipartisan applause.
Obama’s rhetoric was, as it almost always is, so right-of-center and conciliatory that it should induce allergic reactions in any self-respecting leftist. This can be seen in his concrete vows—such as his stated conviction that millionaires’ incomes should not be taxed at less than 30%, a far cry from the 91% highest-bracket rate under the radical socialist Eisenhower. It can be seen in his historical reference to Lincoln’s remark that “the role of government is to do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves.” Conveniently, the only opposition drawn here is the selectively anti-authoritarian (right-wing) dichotomy between “government” and “people” that ignores the codependence of government and commercial enterprise in the state apparatus and its prerogative of control.
Predictably, having spent most of the address affirming his commitment to neoliberal economic policies, Obama ended his address where he began, on his “strong suit”: neoconservative national security and foreign policy. Making no mention of the fact that he “reluctantly” signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which codified the longtime denial of habeas corpus to terror suspects and extended the legal suspension of civil rights to US citizens, he instead jumped right into the sort of jingoistic chest-thumping that somehow troubles liberals less when it comes from a Democrat. “We will stand against violence and intimidation,” declared the man who rapidly expanded the drone program that has killed almost 2300 Pakistanis—at least 385 of them civilians—since 2004, and whose increased aid to Israel continues to reify the United States’ complicity in the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Our “iron-clad” relationship with Israel, Obama affirmed to the loudest, most bipartisan applause of the night, is one reason that our opposition to “intimidation” will not prevent the NDAA from exploiting the systematic conflation of Palestinian charities with terrorist organizations, nor will this alleged opposition to “violence” result in any sort of pressure on Israel to freeze the construction of settlements in the West Bank and end the practice of apartheid both in the Occupied Territories and in Israel proper. Truly, the President spoke from a place of reason and compassion when he declared that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” threatening the Iranian government with draconian sanctions that will devastate not the regime but the Iranian people, and proudly assuring a deeply militaristic, Islamophobic electorate, a grinning Chuck Schumer, and the other Congressional hawks (a.k.a. “members of Congress not named Paul or Kucinich”) that “no options are off the table.”
Anyone who tells you that the United States’ influence in the world has declined, he offered modestly, “doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” The voting population of this country, generally, deserves the benefit of the doubt and the assumption of heterogeneity—but unfortunately one doesn’t have to be a Fox News viewer to feel a swell of hegemonic pride at being told by the Commander-in-Chief that in the affairs of the world, “America remains the one indispensible nation … and I intend to keep it that way.” Just vote for me, and I’ll make sure you aren’t thrown in Guantanamo for organizing a pro-Palestinian protest until a real Republican is President.
And of course, Obama would have been remiss to end the night without another pandering reference to what is becoming an election year holy trinity of national security talking points: name-dropping former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who he retained, Obama did not neglect to mention, from the Bush administration); reminding us once more that he, personally, gave the order to kill Bin Laden; and acknowledging the causal relationship between our military engagements and liberty: “Our freedom endures because of the men and women in uniform who defend it,” he declared confidently, to predictably uproarious applause.
Almost immediately afterwards, as is customary, the GOP and the Tea Party (two distinct entities, Fox likes to remind us) presented their respective responses to the President’s address. Speaking on behalf of the Republican “establishment” was Indiana Governor and fantasy Presidential candidate Mitch Daniels, while the Tea Party response was given by comedic genius and actual but surreal Presidential candidate Herman Cain. In their nonsensical right-wing populism and acrobatic attempts at painting Obama as their ideological antithesis, both were—in contrast to the President’s overwrought duplicity—ludicrously entertaining. Drawing on the usual plethora of liberal memes used by center-right and far-right alike, Daniels emphasized the need to “fashion a new, affordable safety net,” adding rather ominously that “if we fail to act to grow the private sector…nothing else will matter much.” Unwittingly demonstrating his ideological kinship with Obama, he waxed poetic on the subject of the American Dream: “Business is the noblest of human pursuits,” he said, for businesspeople are truly the creators of jobs (He did not hesitate to add of the late entrepreneur and sweatshop owner Steve Jobs—also name-dropped by Obama—“What a fitting name he had.”). The most useful line of attack for Republicans against a center-right President remains the tried-and-true invocation of Americans’ deep-seated fear of commies, and by proxy, of anyone who is to the left of the right. Dismissing Obama’s centrist rhetoric surrounding the under-taxed rich and their vaguely defined “fair share” as divisive, incendiary radicalism, he tapped into the fuzzy, media-maintained historical consciousness of the post-Red Scare United States and the role of liberal ideology in the appropriation/marginalization of class struggle: “As in previous moments of national danger, we Americans are all in the same boat.” Republicans, unlike those Marxist Democrats, “will speak the language of unity” and “open the door to the stairway upward.”
Cain’s griping had the relative disadvantage of being virtually identical in form and content to his debate and interview appearances during the campaign. His saving grace, however, since his very first proclamation to “only allow small bills,” has always been a fundamental failure to grasp the difference between a simple analysis and a simplistic one. After some compelling rambling about how Obamacare will ruin businesses and how the national debt surpassing our GDP coincided with the birth of his grandson, he got down to the nitty-gritty: “Some of us are not stupid,” he declared proudly. “The state of the union is not good.” I agree with him there. His prescriptions, interestingly enough, are largely similar to the substance of Obama’s address: we need “a fairer and simpler tax code,” to “maximize energy resources,” and to restrengthen our military, which Republicans maintain Obama has “cut and cut and cut.” “Stop the class warfare,” he implored, “stop the attacks on business, stop the attacks on citizens,” before his platitudes devolved into some unintelligible yet vaguely revolutionary-sounding mythological reference to “old King George and the Brits” and how they were tyrants and Marxists. Sound like any Presidents we know?