Saturday, November 03, 2007

Dreams of Obama: Sullivan Seeks Transcendence

Much as I enjoy Andrew Sullivan's blog and honor his opposition to torture, his Atlantic cover about Obama's transcendent potential strikes me as complete fantasy, with facts shaped to suit naive longings for renewal.

Sullivan claims that "our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable" while alleging that there are few substantive policy differences between the parties. How can Sullivan, who has been so relentlessly clearheaded about the constitutional dangers posed by Bush's normalization of torture and assertions of absolute executive power, pretend to believe that the parties' policies are substantively the same? One party's candidates are vying to prove that they'll out-torture each other, outdo each other in the destruction of civil liberties, and extend Bush's preemptive unilateralism any country perceived as a threat, while the other party's candidates universally promise to end Guantanamo, reject torture and negotiate with adversaries -- and Sullivan finds no difference? Similarly, his claim that the parties are not that far apart on health care because Hillary's national plan looks like Romney's Massachusetts plan is disingenuous. Romney has effectively repudiated his Massachusetts plan. None of the Republicans have put forward any serious plan for covering the uninsured nationally, while the major Democrats all have done so.

After years of eloquently detailing the disastrous effects of Bush's policies -- in international affairs, in civil liberties, in government spending, in grossly distorted and ineffective programs like the prescription drug benefit -- in this article Sullivan downplays real differences between the parties in favor of airy generalizations about the zeitgeist. It's not about a party entirely in the pocket of lobbyists and drunk on American military power and the fears they've inspired in the populace -- it's about Vietnam. Nonsense, Andrew. The Republicans have relentlessly hammered the Democrats on Vietnam because painting Democrats as soft on defense syncs up with painting them as the party of blacks and the lazy poor (commie sympathizers, socialists at home). Republican aggression on the world stage meshes nicely with their "toughness" with regard to the disadvantaged and their eternal bankrolling by big business whose interest they serve.

Not that the Democrats are not also corrupted by lobbying interests. Less so than the Republicans, but our whole political system has been poisoned by the escalating floods of cash, the legalized bribery. Robert Reich, in Supercapitalism, has gone many fathoms deeper than Sullivan in explaining the 'malaise' in American politics. Without blaming big business, which lobbies because each company must compete as relentlessly for political advantage (against rivals within its own industry, and against industries with rival interests) as they do in every other arena, he demonstrates repeatedly how arguments ostensibly about the public interest are often simply a smokescreen for competing economic interests. That may not always be true -- it's not, on civil liberties -- but the parties' positions have hardened into caricatures that suit their main supporters.

Finally, although Sullivan keeps his anti-Hillary hysteria somewhat under wraps in this article, his allegations of her core insincerity remain as unsupported as ever. He simply magnifies her perceived flaws of character and campaigning, while explaining away Obama's as part of a uniquely compelling package. Most unfairly, he compares HIllary's undoubted lifetime faith unfavorably with Obama's supposedly rational conversion in early adulthood. I read Dreams of My Father and had a very different take on that conversion. I don't think Obama is dishonest, but I suspect that as a young activist in inner city Chicago he did a number on himself -- because he wanted to belong to the black community in which he had immersed himself, he wanted to 'go all the way.' I find it simply incredible that a rational, skeptical thinker like Obama could convince himself in adulthood that Jesus died for his sins and offers him personal salvation. Rather I think he took a route to social salvation, to connection with the black community. In his sublimating way, I think Obama has been as concerned lifelong about his "political viability" as Bill Clinton. I find it sad that both Obama and Hillary have to wear their faith, and whatever combination of sincerity and self deception composes it, on their sleeves. As does anyone who wants to be President.

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