A tentative murmur of hopefulness among some American conservatives is threatening to explode into joyous optimism. A few rough days for the Obama administration, combined with Obama’s lame duck status, seem to have created an intoxicating elixir of wishful thinking, and a surprising number of people are quaffing this elixir without reserve. I feel like a teetotaler at a Dionysian bash, watching everyone else progressing from gaiety to hysteria, and wondering how they could be so careless as to set themselves up for the horrible morning after that awaits them.
Obama is finished, the revelers exclaim. His agenda has run out of steam, they muse. He is beginning to look petulant and frustrated, they observe.
In fact, reports of the Obama presidency’s death are not only, as Mark Twain would say, exaggerated, but demonstrate the extent to which he has succeeded in fundamentally transforming America. A government is truly transformative not because it achieves everything it sets out to do, but because it fundamentally shifts the public conversation onto its own territory – and fundamentally, in this case, means substantially and permanently. That Obama has lost some of his luster is certain; that this betokens a defeat for progressivism shows a grave misunderstanding on the part of conservatives.
Apart from the president himself, it is unlikely that any progressive imagined that Obama would be carved into Mt. Rushmore during his presidency, or that bipartisan choirs would be singing hosannas by the end of his second term. He is a radical. His policy proposals and defining principles are well-outside the mainstream – or they were. His radicalism protected him from scrutiny during his early rise to power, partly because most people regarded the simple truth about this man as too far-fetched, and therefore ignored it, and partly because in a society primed with generations of public education, entitlement indoctrination, and phony class warfare, Obama’s promise of experimental novelty and personal magic seemed daring and exciting, rather than laughable and dangerous.
But what happens when “daring and exciting” wears off, and is replaced in the general perception, not with “laughable and dangerous,” but with “boring and harmless”? Did anyone imagine Obama could remain “almost a god” forever? The great orator-in-chief with the mythical past whose very pant leg seemed to make establishment conservatives swoon has disintegrated, leaving the mirage of a “normal” Democrat – a man pushing the left-wing agenda a little too far at times, but basically part of the dull mainstream of contemporary political discourse. In just over four years, “fundamental transformation” has become old hat – not because it has been rejected, but because the foundations have already shifted enough to render the Obama administration’s radicalism significantly more mainstream.
If, during the 2008 campaign, Obama and his mouthpieces had stood up and said, without reserve or qualification, that the primary intentions and ultimate achievements of his presidency would be: (a) taking America’s definitive step off the cliff into the world of socialized medicine; (b) creating vast new regulatory bureaucracies to curtail what was left of the free market; © moving through back channels and white papers towards the nationalization of local police; (d) creating new national academic standards and pre-school programs designed to make non-public school options virtually impossible, setting the stage for an eventual outright ban on private child-rearing, as is the norm in Europe; (e) crashing the U.S. economy with runaway federal debt and unrestrained money-printing; (f) reorienting U.S. foreign policy towards open support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and of Islamist government in general; and (g) the humdrum-ization of every wacky campus leftist agenda item (transgender rights, pot party rights, Gaia rights, consequence-free promiscuity rights) – if these intentions and others like them had been stated directly during the 2008 campaign, would Obama have been embraced as the redeemer, or dismissed as a well-dressed kook?
And yet all of these agenda items are well on their way to completion, often with bipartisan support, as in the case of the Common Core curriculum, which has suckered many so-called conservatives with its (provisional) inclusion of a few good titles for literature class. In fact, this example perfectly illustrates the problem with fantasizing that the demythologizing of Obama the Man will precipitate the undoing of Obama the Agenda. The premise that government, at whatever level, ought to be in the business of educating children, and even that such education ought to be compulsory, is so deeply embedded in the contemporary consciousness that anyone who questions it is regarded as some kind of nut by a large swath of mankind, including most self-described conservatives. (Trust me.) And yet it was not so long ago that universal compulsory government schooling was just a twinkle in the eye of a few progressive power-mongers who understood that controlling what goes in gives one control over what comes out.
Having achieved such absolute cultural submission on the ownership of your soul, it was only a matter of time before the progressives moved to complete the transfer of ownership by claiming sole proprietorship of your body. ObamaCare will face numerous challenges on its details and internal mechanisms in the coming years, but its underlying principle – that government ought to have central decision-making authority in what is euphemistically called “healthcare,” but is more properly named “self-preservation” – will be far more difficult to challenge. A large bureaucratic apparatus and funding mechanisms are already in place, new rules are already insinuating themselves into the economy, and a major constitutional hurdle to the law’s practical implementation has already been cleared, thanks to a Republican-appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
And this leads us to the Republican Party, which is daily bringing new meaning to the old parliamentary term, “the loyal opposition.” Immediately after Obama’s re-election, Speaker Boehner conceded defeat on ObamaCare, declaring it “the law of the land.” Not that his declaration indicated a substantial change in the GOP’s real position – as opposed to base-baiting rhetoric – on the subject. After all, the GOP establishment took great pains to ensure that their presidential nominee would be the only candidate among the final eight primary contenders whose own position on government-run healthcare was so compromised that the entire party would be effectively muzzled during the presidential campaign regarding the single most winnable issue on the table.
Now the “healthcare” issue is essentially lost, and with it America’s last pretenses of being a free nation – and many conservatives have not even noticed this yet. America has quickly fallen into the policy wonk abyss on healthcare that has long since swallowed up the rest of the Western world. Repeal, as so many honest Republicans have admitted, is no longer even an option. Government-controlled healthcare, in just a few short years, has “progressed” from taboo topic to accepted norm; the only questions now are about bureaucratic waste, practical confusion, and the economic ramifications of some of the law’s more arcane subsections.
Some conservatives trick themselves into optimism by noting that the practical results of this legislation will be disappointing to the public from the point of view of real medical outcomes. But of course they will be disappointing – they were never intended to be satisfying. The purpose of this legislation as passed – made all but explicit by Democrats at the time – was simply to establish government control of the medical establishment. For progressives know what the conservative optimists would also know, were they not drunk on the elixir I noted above: in the modern world of Tocqueville’s soft despotism, a government encroachment, once achieved, is almost impossible to rescind.
The progressive mechanism has been amply demonstrated throughout the civilized world over the past century: there is no problem caused by state control that progressives cannot promise to repair – with more comprehensive state control. And the past century also proves that there is no regulatory assault on liberty that most people will not swallow – until they have had to live with its fallout for a while. Snap these two modern realities together, and you have the perfect ratchet of civilizational decay: Government promises to fix a problem they created with further regulation; the public assents, on the grounds that “we have to do something”; new regulations exacerbate or perpetuate the initial problem, while diminishing freedom; the public gets restless for change, as the problem worsens; the government promises to fix the problem with yet more regulation; the public assents, once again on the grounds that “we have to do something”; and so on, tyrannidem ad infinitum.
Public education is a catastrophe. The solution: more comprehensive public education, with fewer loopholes for alternative methods which might have spared a few souls the forced retardation and collectivist indoctrination of public schools.
Crony capitalism has distorted the free market into an oligarchy presiding over an illusion of liberty. The solution: reorder this system as an oligarchy presiding over an illusion of socialist redistribution.
Government regulation of healthcare has made a corporate monster of private medicine. Solution: turn a corrupted and over-priced system into a treasury-sucking monster of bureaucratic ineptitude, government-mandated malpractice, and cost-cutting mass murder.
America has slowly emulated the progressive drift of the rest of the West for several generations. The task of the Obama administration is to accelerate America’s decline in those areas where she has been lagging behind the Western arc. Rather than basking in the meager lamplight of the administration’s few failures, freedom-lovers ought to be facing up to the startling truth of just how much has already been accomplished by the most brazenly anti-American, anti-liberty administration in U.S. history.
As for the sheen wearing off Obama’s brass, that was inevitable. But you do not judge a battering ram by the dents it incurs through extensive use. You judge it by whether it successfully got you through the enemy gates. American progressives will happily change Obama for a shiny new battering ram later; for now, they must be exceedingly satisfied with how thoroughly they have breached America’s final protective gates using the one they have. They are busy at work looting America’s treasure, literally and figuratively, and enslaving the peasants. (That would be you.)
This administration has substantially shifted the ground on many issues of profound relevance to the survival of a free society: the right to self-preservation; the right to secure the means to one’s self-defense; freedom of speech (consider the treatment of critics of Islam); respect for the elderly; the institutions of marriage and family; and even basic respect for individual self-reliance and achievement vs. collective grievance and entitlement. They have taken significant steps towards even greater federal control of education, from nursery school through university. They made the sexual proclivities of young women and homosexuals a central theme of a presidential election, bringing mainstream American political discourse to depths not even plumbed during the Clinton era. On foreign policy, they have gotten away with murder – almost literally, in the case of Benghazi – without stirring general outrage, thanks to carefully manufactured public cynicism and crisis-weariness. And America re-elected – thanks in large part to the non-voting passivity of a plurality of adults – a drug-damaged serial liar with long-standing, well-publicized communist affiliations and a list of pre-presidential accomplishments as long as Bill Ayers’ pinky finger.
That Obama will not be as popular at the end of his presidency as he was at the beginning almost goes without saying. That this constitutes a victory against progressivism is simply false. The bland-ification of Obama is a natural result of the mainstream-ization of his agenda. Trust those of us who have seen this before.
In 1968, Canada elected as prime minister Pierre Trudeau, a young, smooth-talking “intellectual” with a shady leftist past and no significant political accomplishments. Over the course of his reign (correct term), he instituted a variety of socialistic policy measures – though of course not everything he hoped for. He played tough guy with terrorists on Canadian soil, while playing footsie with Fidel Castro, who backed those terrorists. A few brave journalists who connected the dots among his various disturbing writings and statements in praise of Mao and Castro, and in support of virtually unlimited federal authority, were treated as crackpots or fear mongers. His crowning achievement was a literal rewrite of Canada’s constitution, with cleverly inserted loopholes for overriding its proclaimed “individual rights” whenever required by collectivist policy objectives. (This is the constitution touted by Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the model for developing nations, rather than the antiquated U.S. document.)
Trudeau remained Canada’s prime minister for an eternity, until the country, including his Liberal Party, grew tired of his pomposity and failed economic policies, and gave up on him. Today, the national division and cultural corrosion he left behind seem irreparable – but Trudeau is once again held in high esteem by a large proportion of the population. His look-alike, equally dandyish son has just been elected to lead the Liberal Party back from the ashes, as Canada’s progressives yet again place their hopes in the old cult of personality magic.
Likewise, American progressives will eventually seek a new mask for their authoritarian agenda. But their next wave will begin from a start line much further from the U.S. founding than the line Obama inherited. Much more than wishful thinking and high electoral hopes will be required to turn back the results of the Obama presidency. America, whether she fully realizes it yet or not, is fighting a whole new war now, on what is, for her, uncharted territory. Until Americans come to terms with this new terrain, all talk of moving beyond Obama is just tilting at windmills.