Barack Obama often is called, disparagingly, a liberal, by people who call themselves conservatives. But it’s a big stretch to call Obama a liberal. And there are damned few conservatives left in this country. We’re a nation of neoconservatives.
Liberals view the world through the lens of empathy for individuals, especially individuals who are “down on their luck.” FDR is the beacon of liberalism in the United States, primarily due to the social programs he championed during the Great Depression. These programs constructed a substantive safety net for individuals while also protecting individual rights. The safety net included government provision of necessities seen as essential to freedom, such as education, health care, food, and shelter. And the rights were the ones you’ll find in this country’s founding documents: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.
My, what a quaint set of ideas.
When I was a youngster and then a young adult, during the 1960s and 1970s, FDR Democrats dominated the political scene. They were pro-labor, which meant they understood the importance of laborers to American economic supremacy. They wanted the government to keep out of the lives of individuals, even to the radical extent that people of color were entitled to rights. Women, too! It was a brave new world, undergoing a profound cultural revolution. Since then, those wacky liberals have tried, to virtually no avail, to extend rights to non-heterosexuals.
Up until the 1970s, and arguably later, conservative issues were lumped into two categories, fiscal and social. Fiscal conservatives, historically including many Republicans, tried to minimize the size of the federal government by restricting government functions to the incarceration industry, including K-12 concentration camps, and occupation of foreign lands, which they called, without apology, national defense (to be fair to conservatives, they were joined on the imperial bandwagon, more often than not, but self-proclaimed liberals). These days, everybody who can balance a checkbook calls themselves fiscal conservatives. By definition, none of these people are contemporary politicians. We have not employed anything resembling fiscal responsibility since 1981, and perhaps longer.
Social conservatives are far more common than fiscal conservatives. These folks hearken to the good old days, when women and people of color knew their subordinate places. In other words, “social conservative” is code for racist, misogynist, specieist, homophobe. Amazingly, many people put this label on themselves, thinking they are strictly interpreting the founding documents of the United States. If they’d read them, they’d conclude the opposite.
Neoconservatives arose from the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. They were disaffected liberal Democrats and former followers of Trotsky. Ronald Reagan was the figurehead, in large part because he was viewed as something of a tabula rasa for the founders of the movement. Imagine a likable, male version of Sarah Palin.
Neocons did not, and do not, fit the mold of liberal or conservative. Although they tend to be socially conservative — that is, they want the federal government to have absolute power over who gets married, who has sex with whom, and which species are allowed to persist at our domineering hand — they clearly are not fiscally conservative and they have no interest in small government. They routinely rail against “tax-and-spend” liberals. Then they cut taxes (read “services”) at every opportunity, offering to “relieve” us of the burden of taxes (hence, services). The massive government they’ve created focuses not on helping struggling individuals, as was the historically liberal model, but rather on providing subsidies for the uber-wealthy. Thus, even while the neocons have been cutting taxes (read “services”), they’ve managed to create huge government programs to subsidize people who have enjoyed every economic advantage. The neocons have come up with no way to pay for these massive subsidies, because they’ve destroyed the tax base. So, off we plunge into an ocean of debt unimaginable to liberals and conservatives alike.
We have become a neocon nation. All contemporary national-level politicians pay lip service to individuals while championing bailouts for every conceivable large corporation and tax cuts for everybody. No serious candidate for president would mention the idea of raising the highest personal income-tax bracket to 70%, yet that was the rate before the Reagan took office (down from 80% shortly after the Great Depression). Workers’ rights went out the proverbial window along with serious oversight of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Lobbyists have assumed control over federal spending, to the great benefit of the organizations they represent and to the great detriment of poor citizens. The chasm between rich and poor resembles our own universe in size and rate of expansion.
Barack Obama certainly is more liberal than any president since Jimmy Carter. But do not expect him to roll back governmental control over any of the following: tracking “terrorists” (as defined by the executive branch), personal privacy (including tracking every financial transaction made by every American, as approved by the Democratic Congress during Dubya’s first term), bail-outs for the big companies (without Congressional oversight), funds spent on the occupation of foreign countries (without public support). And if you expect a resurgence in workers’ rights, you’ll be sorely disappointed when every new executive order and piece of legislation favors management (i.e., big biz) over labor (i.e., workers). Ditto for actions that favor non-heterosexual humans. And you can forget about non-human species.
It’s a neocon nation. The cultural current is far too strong to be overcome by Barack Obama, even if he were inclined to swim against the cultural stream.
As usual, I have good news if you don’t like the direction the government and culture have taken: the problem’s going to take care of itself. When the empire completes its fall, when the federal government loses the ability to control everything from foreign wars to domestic sex acts, when the dollar’s even further in the toilet and the transportation networks are completely impotent, when the cheerleader-in-chief of American Empire can no longer destroy the lands and waters and the organisms on which we all depend, that’s when we can bury the neoconservative agenda.
I’d give it a year. Maybe less. But I’m an optimist.