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An American Tragedy

I hate anything that smells of “I told you so,” but the only way I can explain the overwhelming success of Hillary Clinton’s race baiting of Bernie Sanders, and the kind of tragedy that represents for America’s future, is autobiographically. My first inkling that Barack Obama’s 2008 talk about a “transformational” presidency, about changing the mindset and so forth, was nothing but smoke in the electorate’s eye took place when Clinton conceded the nomination and Obama responded by taking a series of far-right-wing positions on issues such as gun control and the death penalty. Increasingly, I was repelled by his theatrics, especially the absurd nonsense about how “smart” he was, but it was with the escalation in Afghanistan, a few months after his election, that made me see him for the weak president he was. I began blogging then because I knew that if the American Left, such as it was, did not establish a critical perspective on an essentially opportunist figure, it would never again establish itself as an independent voice.

Blogging critically about Obama over the past eight years was one of the most unrewarding experiences of my life. Almost everyone I knew — friends, colleagues, readers — essentially accused me of something between racism and infantile leftism. Every possible, often fantastic excuse was trotted out to explain why Obama’s progressive achievements were so limited, even though Obama’s values were clear from the time he took the presidency, as expressed in his First Inaugural Address, centered on belt-tightening, and in his cabinet choices, which combined Bill Clinton’s emperors of financial control, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, with George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. In every way, Obama’s first term was a continuation of Bush’s last term, or at least its last two years. Never, in my view, would Obama have gotten the kind of pass that he got from progressives if he were white.

This is not to say that there were not important elements of racism in the Republican response to Obama, for example, in the “birther” issue, as Sanders explained so well. However, intelligence requires keeping two ideas in one’s mind at the same time. A left, of the sort that America had between the Progressive era and the 1970s, would have had at least some of the resources that would make it possible to see Obama for the bait-and-switch politician that he was and at the same time to unearth and confront racism where it existed. Obviously, this problem was different — more personal — for African Americans. As a Jew and the son of immigrants, I know what it is to be on the receiving end of prejudice; in that situation, loyalty to the group prevails. Nonetheless, I do believe that if American progressives and leftists had been able to maintain a consistent, critical perspective on Obama, Clinton would have gotten 50% of the African-American vote in South Carolina, rather than more than 80%, and in that case Sanders would have won the primary.

Obviously, Sanders was in an impossible situation because everything he stood for was a rebuke of Obama, and he could never say that. The failure of American progressives to maintain a consistent critique of the Obama presidency had left the field open only to the shallowest kind of identity politics and to the kind of apolitical and ahistorical technocratic reasoning that Paul Krugman typifies, and Clinton jumped right in. This is not to say that there has been no progress under Obama, but when one considers the larger picture, the catastrophe of the Middle East, and the almost unbelievable supremacy money has taken on in our society, the creation of two tiers in everything, the waste of wealth and knowledge — and now we are going to have a president who doesn’t even have Obama’s fearfulness in regard to foreign policy — just read about her naive and reckless behavior in regard to Libya in The New York Times. Well, ultimately, people get what they deserve, and perhaps neoliberalism and continual war is what Americans deserve. Personally, I would have thought they deserved better.

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Eli Zaretsky

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