The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia, Day 5: The Imperial President or the Cult of Milquetoast Personality

“Present-day politics places emphasis on personality. An entire party, a platform, an international policy is sold to the public, or is not sold, on the basis of the intangible element of personality. A charming candidate is the alchemist’s secret that can transmute a prosaic platform into the gold of votes. Helpful as is a candidate who for some reason has caught the imagination of the country, the party and its aims are certainly more important than the personality of the candidate. Not personality, but the ability of the candidate to carry out the party’s program adequately, and the program itself should be emphasized in a sound campaign plan.” ~ E. Bernays, Propaganda (1928)

Bernay’s theories, which were obvious and apparent the two decades after he wrote them, were both the secret and the downfall for the Democratic dream of Wonktopia. The end of Bernay’s passage could have described what Obama became: hope and change in the guise of a young constitutional law scholar-turned-senator from a strong family but who could made emblematic of the long integration of the black experience in America. Obama, biracial, born of an African immigrant and a liberal Brahmin family, identified as black. He had been, while not the anti-war vote many liberals projected onto him, a gust of fresh air against the neoconservative approach to war and the Washington consensus on Greenspan economics. He then stocked his cabinet with the old guard of Clinton and even Carter staffers. People like me noticed immediately, but for most of America, President Obama embodied hope and change. Change that some people loved and others hated, even if it was largely just symbolic and tonal change.

What was remarkable at first, even when the Democrats had dominance of entire apparatus of the Federal government for Obama’s first two years, was how little seemed to substantively change and yet how much the tone of the country changed. Eight years later people talk about opposition to Obama as if his first two years weren’t with a super majority of his party. Obama was being projected on, and while he can be more candid than most politicians, his actual policies were just a tonal moderation on Bill Clinton’s.

Like Bill Clinton in 2000, Obama would probably win this election if there were no term limits. Yet also like Clinton, we will have seen him as the normalizer of policies seen as previously right-wing. In the popular imagination, Obama was signaled to be the end of an area, but since he embodied Bernay’s point: he could embody both the party and the platform in his policy while also being a projection of hope that change had come.  Like President Bill Clinton’s dynamic, Clintonism was beyond the charisma of the man even if it stemmed from it, but unlike Clintonism, Obamism did not out shine the men himself because there isn’t much consistency or novelty there. Indeed, the very phrase “Obamism” seems strange.  What could it be?  What was Obama’s doctrine?  Just Prudence?  Drone strikes as opposed to ground wars? Deporting more than the Bush/Cheney consensus could do but showing compassion to children through the Dream Act and executive actions? Spending four years trying to forge a bipartisan consensus for issues that, politically theatrics aside, there was more or less a consequence already, and yet no consensus could made?

Those aren’t doctrines and you can’t build an -ism out of those seemingly ad hoc actions.  Obama is easy to thus see personified but nearly impossible to explain.

Obama as a figure will probably be immensely popular, but Obama’s Presidency as historical period of US government, for all its talk of change, will be seen be a continuation of the 1990 and aughts worldview far past its prime.  Obama himself stands un-reprimanded, but what he actually embodied in government  is meagre.   He used executive orders extensively for domestic policy differently from his the Presidents before him, but he based the actions on the ways Presidents since Reagan had used such orders for foreign policy and police actions.  This, however, could always have been undone in a hand-wave–with Trump, apparently, they will be. Like using the Supreme Court as a tactic, the liberal inability to take Wonktopia to state, local, and even federal legislatures did and continues to make all of its gains constantly at risk for erasure by fait of either the judiciary or the executive.

While it is probably the intense and obvious “coronation” aspect of Hillary Clinton hurt her possibility to the Presidency, and the obvious manifestation of family dynasties as manifestations of the Imperial Presidency, what was being missed is that these families were useful because they were wonks and inside dealers. These were not dynasties as autocrats or heads of state.  Indeed, the primary campaign argument made for Clinton, beyond the symbolism of a first female President, was her wonk-ish expertise.  In the US, more than in Parliamentary systems, the head of government and the head of state are co-terminus. While this was also true in the Soviet Union, even many Communist governments, including Maoist China, kept those two roles separate:  see Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.  In the US, the President has the power of both and neither.  President Reagan seemingly embodied the elements of the head of state, and President Clinton embodying the of government.  Obama shared more in common with Reagan or Kennedy than with Johnson or Clinton, yet he had to try to continue the latter two’s legacy.   In short, Bush the dynasty didn’t embody either well, although Bush 41 was a component head of government, his inability to be an effective head of state was constantly a weakness of which the media was aware.

The head of government in the US is the imperial wonk, Bill Clinton establishing the current format of DLC and DNC triangulation and a bipartisan consensus even in a time of partisan rancor.  He could manifest the bourgeois values of New York but package them in the rhetoric and temperament of the sun belt.  Bush 43 could do the same, but in a much more, frankly, tacky way.   Obama was able to carry on the policy torches of both while making multicultural America the face of the whole affair. Bill Clinton had tried to be the honorary “First Black President,” but he was always a good old boy from Arkansas.

Trumpism is larger than Trump.  Indeed, he is almost inversion of Obama except in one key way: Obama and Trump were both seen as outsiders.  As Trump staffs his Cabinet with a mixture of wonks and people from the non-Bush wing of the old GOP guard–a lot of faces that emerged in the 1990s are clearly predominant0–we shall see if Trumpism remains larger than Trump. Some appointments seem to indicate it will: Preibus and Bannon both being linked to the more radical end of Trump’s vision. It is not so much that a mandate was given to Trumpism: 47% of the electorate did not vote at all, and Clinton won the popular vote thinks to urban density.  Even if Trump is a the crude hybrid of American business with two Italian figures, Silvio Berlusconi and Benito Mussolini, his autocracy is currently limited. Furthermore, the common liberal idea that impeachment with Pence becoming President would make liberals complicit in the return of the one form of conservatism that have actually successfully defeated: Protestant theo-conservatism and its moral majority.

This is what makes the hopes of change based on protesting in major cities with Democratic bases so futile.  Even if one were to cause some faithless electors, this would be a black swan event.  A black swan event that require faithless electors in states where the protests are not popular and borderline non-existent.  As a form of even resistance, few things could more futile. Furthermore, at no time in US history, including the five previous times when the electoral college split has faithless electors change the results of an election. Such an event could trigger another black swan event itself, and cycles beyond the control of liberals would ensue.

What goes beyond this?  Liberals themselves don’t believe in the status quo they defended, and aside from fear of reprisals, most of the arguments made for this the methods used are unconvincing.  The Electoral college acting in bad faith would NOT slow the violence against vulnerable minorities–it would predictably accelerate it.   Clinton would have the most hostile congress in US history to her rule, and there would be special Prosecutors on the White House door step immediately.   Furthermore, the damage done to liberal jurisprudence would be as bad, or worse, if the conventional GOP got its way with the Supreme court.

The imperial Presidency has, so far, actually been able to maintain and expand the imperial party mechanism. Parties, even more than legislation, becoming the driving forces behind law, and think-tanks, more than legislators, drafting bills. Indeed, this has been a way to hide bourgeois management of the US political system and the dominance of several bureaucracies both partisan and none.  It is beyond time to rethink our alignment to these bureaucracies, and that would requires thinking beyond the executive branch of government.  Even traditional Democrats will have to do this, not just wilded-eyed progressives or jaded Marxists, because their focus on the executive electorally, a natural result of them being in large urban centers, has cost them most of the machinery of government at a state by state level.  In fact, so much so, that one more election could give the GOP the power to make constitutional amendments.

This will require thinking about para-state institutions beyond Unions, parties, and traditional think-tanks. This is the work we need to do. The right did it while you weren’t watching.  Not just the think-tanks that liberals knew about, but para-state institutions that left doesn’t have.  First through churches and the cover of religious exception, but now, honestly through magazines, charities, and memes.

Without thinking about what leftists used to call “dual power,” most attempts to change the direction of the government will determined by those bourgeois figures that have more room to move and a more coherent tribally singular contingency:  populists and the right. The right-ward shift is happening all over the world, not just in the US, for this very reason. We never needed to defend Wonktopia, but it is particularly deluded to think we can bring it back from the dead with some protests alone.

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3 thoughts on “The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia, Day 5: The Imperial President or the Cult of Milquetoast Personality

  1. Pingback: The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia, Day 5: The Imperial President or the Cult of Milquetoast Personality – sageinsightblog

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