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The State of the Union and the death of liberalism

January 26, 2011

Despite accusations from the right that Barack Obama is a socialist, the president’s State of the Union address last night is an indication that the Left is virtually dead in mainstream America’s political culture.

It is true that Obama spoke about the need for government investment in things like education, high-speed rail, science and clean-energy technology. But the overriding emphasis of the address was the power of free market capitalism to foster innovation and, in his words, “win the future.”

Instead of talk about strengthening labor unions, Obama celebrated increases in corporate profits. Instead of admonishing private companies for shipping jobs overseas, the president asked Americans to accept these realities (“the rules have changed,” he said) and simply work harder in the global environment to overcome the challenges presented by China, India and other low-wage economies.

There was no talk of shared sacrifice for the greater good; no mention of gun control, despite the recent events in Tuscon; no discussion of foreclosures, poverty or racism; little emphasis on the role that banks played in the pain of average Americans; and no talk of using a progressive tax system to pay down the country’s roughly $12 trillion national debt.

Each issue Obama raised, whether it was education, tax policy, or health care, was framed in the context of big business and America’s ability to compete in the global economy — an important consideration, but not the only one.

“We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world,” he said. “We have to make America the best place on the earth to do business” (emphasis added).

An indication of the frustration liberals feel toward Obama is in their reaction to the speech.

MSNBC pundit Rachel Maddow called the State of the Union “more of a CEO-style pep talk than a football-rally style pep talk,” adding that the speech was a “prayer to the free market, to the nation building in our own nation.” (See also Huffington Post.)

Paul Krugman of the New York Times complained that the president lacked a clear agenda, saying: “I have no idea what the vision here was. We care about the future! But we don’t want to spend! Meh.”

Rocky Anderson, the former mayor of Salt Lake City and the founder and director of High Road for Human Rights, told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now that Obama’s economic plan reminded him of the early 1980s, adding that “he sounded like Ronald Reagan. It sounded like trickle-down economics.”

Speaking on the same show, Joan Claybrook, longtime consumer advocate and former president of Public Citizen, questioned why the president had aligned himself with the same big businesses that many believe were responsible for the Great Recession.

“The thing that really bothered me the most,” she said on Democracy Now, “was that he’s going to cut domestic spending for programs that are essential for Americans. And I look at his new framework of being a business-friendly administration and say to myself, have they earned this? Have the Wall Street guys who robbed and plundered America, have they earned a seat at the table from this president? Have the guys who harmed homeowners and sent all these poor families into foreclosure, have they earned a seat at the table in a, quote, “business-friendly” administration? Not to me.”

What passes as liberalism today is a kind of moderate conservatism: liberals will cut government a little instead of a lot; liberals will reduce burdensome taxes on all but the very rich; and liberals will eliminate some corporate regulations instead of most of them.

This is a far cry from the Great Society and the War on Poverty. It is a far cry from the Port Huron Statement and Tom Hayden’s argument that “the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation.”

From a purely political perspective, the president may have given the speech he felt he had to give. The House is controlled by Republicans, the Left wing of the Democratic Party has been sidelined with nowhere to turn, and the electorate has been effectively trained to be suspicious of government’s potential for benevolence.

But by positioning himself so far to the right, Obama has continued on a path started by Ronald Reagan and has become another Democrat who capitulates to conservative hegemony over American political thought.

By doing so, he put yet another nail in the coffin of liberalism.


From → Analysis

  1. Lawrence permalink

    I wonder if the president is simply involved in some form of political survival game at the moment; saying what will poll well with middle America as a means of maintaining public good will in order to get something — anything — of his agenda passed in Washington, and to help preserve more Democratic seats in the elections to come.

    That being said, I can’t disagree with a word you wrote.

  2. Charles miller permalink

    I wish that you conservative would not invade Liberal “space” with propoganda! It really Bugs me!!

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