HARPERS: Former Harper’s Magazine editor Roger D. Hodge has just published what may well be the definitive critique of the Obama presidency from the left: The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism. I put six questions to him about his new book.
1. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs recently derided liberal critics of the Obama Administration as the “professional left.” Was he talking about you? What do you make of this line of attack?
I’m not sure Gibbs has a coherent idea of what he means by the “left,” but if opposition to permanent war, extrajudicial assassination of American citizens, boundless state secrecy, and unlimited corporate bailouts constitutes “leftism,” then so be it. True to their Clintonian principles, President Obama and his advisors have spurned the Democratic Party’s liberal base and have sought to govern by appropriating the policies of the Republican right. Just as Bill Clinton enacted NAFTA and destroyed welfare, Barack Obama has pushed through a health-care program that was inspired by the Heritage Foundation and largely written by the insurance lobby—and he shows every sign of being willing to vandalize Social Security in the name of deficit reduction even though the program has nothing to do with the federal budget deficit. Obama has embraced the Bushite war on terror and has refused to roll back the unconstitutional executive usurpations that so outraged his supporters. And yet Democrats expect liberals to toe the line and shut the hell up lest the Republicans take advantage of their dissent. In fact, for the most part, the “professional left” of policy intellectuals, public interest advocates, and opinion journalists have done just that.
What’s fascinating about the Democrats is how consistently they have squandered enormous political advantages. The party’s leaders have apparently internalized Republican propaganda to the point that they feel they do not deserve to rule; consequently, when Democrats come to power, they always negotiate with themselves prior to meeting their opponents, make the tough-minded decision to betray their most loyal supporters, and profess shock and anger when the GOP—which never makes the mistake of publicly spurning its base—refuses to accept the purported bipartisan compromise. What results, of course, is that the Democratic Party, over and over again, enacts some version of the Republican agenda.
2. You frame your critique of Obama with the writings of James Madison. Why do you consider Madison to be the right optic for the analysis of contemporary American politics?
Americans are preoccupied with the Founders, and that is not at all a bad thing, yet much of the contemporary discussion of the revolutionary generation and the early years of the republic is appallingly shallow. In my view, too little attention has been paid to James Madison’s political philosophy—which is surprising, since Madison is the principal author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Founders did not speak in one voice, and careful attention to the substance of their debates (which were in many ways far more acrimonious than our own cable TV spectacles) can help clarify contemporary controversies, especially when so many of our present political combatants are merely reenacting old debates in seeming ignorance of the principles that were originally at issue.
Madison provides a particularly apt perspective on our current predicament because as a politician he devoted much of his energy to fighting precisely the sort of corruption that has swamped our political system. Madison was the intellectual and political force behind the republican opposition to the Federalists, who very much like the present-day Republican Party saw themselves as the natural rulers of the United States. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, sought to protect a narrow financial oligarchy from the interests of the great majority of American citizens. Hamilton’s ambition was to bind his “moneyed men” to the state through an innovative financial program that would at the same time lay the foundations for an international commercial empire. Madison and Jefferson did everything they could to obstruct the Hamiltonian agenda, correctly perceiving that such policies would lead, in time, not only to a sundering of republican philosophy from the reason of state but also to an aggressive militarism. And, as Madison wrote, “of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.” Those other enemies, he continued, include excessive debts and taxes, the domination of the many by the few, the extension of executive power, and the inequality of fortunes—all of which lead to that degeneration of manners and morals known to republicans as corruption.
3. Let’s take the recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, which holds that for at least some First Amendment purposes corporations are persons under the Constitution. How do you think this holding can be reconciled with Madison’s thinking—noting of course that Madison was a principal author of the Bill of Rights?
The Citizens United decision overturns more than a century of campaign finance legislation and jurisprudence—at least with regard to corporations—and lays the foundation for the complete deregulation of campaign spending. The Court’s majority held that the First Amendment rights of corporations were violated by some modest and heretofore uncontroversial restrictions on election spending. The Court’s reasoning was premised on a view of corporate “personhood” that would have been unintelligible to the framers of the Constitution—and, as Justice John Paul Stevens demonstrated in his magisterial dissent, the majority’s opinion was fundamentally inconsistent with a long series of precedents. The decision is an aggressive assault on anemic and insubstantial restrictions that have failed to prevent the corporate dominance of our political system; consequently, although it is likely to encourage some highly political corporations to spend even more on electioneering, Citizens United mainly serves to clarify the brute fact that our political system is little more than a plutocracy. MORE
NOAM CHOMSKY: Hodge skillfully draws the veil from Obama’s allegedly ‘reformist agenda’ to expose the reality of the programs ‘to ensure that no major stakeholder in his coalition of corporate backers will suffer significant losses,’ and will even enjoy spectacular gains—the ‘perfection of the long right turn’ of the Democratic Party since the 1970s, as financialization of the economy led to shedding New Deal commitments so as ‘to compete with the Republicans for corporate patronage.’ He calls for a revitalization of the founding tradition of civil virtue and republican values of liberty, a message that should be taken to heart if we are to reverse the drift toward an ugly future. MORE