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From the Sublime to Two Kinds of Ridiculous

Obama the Conceder

by ANDREW LEVINE

In aesthetic theory, "sublime" denotes an incomprehensible vastness; aesthetic contemplation of sublime things elicits awe. Sublimity is neither good nor bad in a moral sense; it is an aesthetic property only. But great villainy can be sublime and so can mindless simplicity. Thus there was something sublime in the villainous and mindless obduracy of Congressional Republicans in the first two years of the Obama presidency. The Party of No’s dedication to driving Obama to ruin rose to that level.

This was not entirely a bad thing inasmuch as even the more "progressive" aspects of the Obama agenda had a reactionary side. Thus Obamacare reinforces the power of health care profiteers, and the abolition of "don’t ask don’t tell" reinforces the idea that it is commendable to put oneself in harm’s way to serve imperialism’s designs. Still, the machinations of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell were more villainous than not, and their obduracy did more harm than good.

But it served their purpose — not by denying Obama legislative victories, but by moving the framework within which he operated so far to the right that the Republicans got their way even when they lost.

If only the Pelosiites in control of Congress between 2006 and 2008 had been a quarter as obstinate! They could have ended Bush’s wars and, by investigating on-going war crimes, begun the restoration of the rule of law. They could even have brought impeachment proceedings against Dick Cheney and George Bush, as some Democrats, before 2006, said they would. But, true to Democratic traditions, Nancy Pelosi was emphatic: anything smacking of liberal audacity was "off the table." That order is still in force.

When, in 2008, "we, the people" finally got a chance to weigh in, it looked, for a while, like the tide would turn. But Republican intransigence and Democratic pusillanimity soon made short order of that expectation.

Ironically, though, the 2008 election also put the GOP establishment at risk of losing control of their own operation – to the Frankenstein monster their paymasters concocted in their behalf. So it is that the Tea Party now runs the GOP in much the way that Republicans ran the Democratic controlled Congress before the last election. They have this power, in part, because they are more obstreperous than any other faction and because, if nothing else, they stick to their guns, figuratively speaking of course. By now, our public discourse has become so degraded that it hardly matters that they are also a whole lot stupider even than their sublimely mindless co-thinkers.

There is something praiseworthy about the Tea Party style; after all, it is good, in a moral sense, to have principles and to stand up for them. But the Tea Party is of no interest from an aesthetic point of view. The level of Republican obstinacy remains undiminished under their aegis, but what was sublime a short while ago, when all Republicans did was play an obstructive game, has become ridiculous now that the players stand for something –something retrograde, confused and downright idiotic.

Thus the pendulum is swinging back, as it always does. It isn’t just a matter of overreaching, as in Wisconsin and other states where, since the last election, Republicans have had free reign. It has more to do with scaring the wayward back into the fold. Ridiculousness is the enemy of awe, and the Tea Party is nothing if not ridiculous.

How far back will the pendulum swing? Not far at all, if the Democrats have anything to say about it, for they too are ridiculous, though not in a different way. They are not risible, the way the GOP has become. Instead, they are ridiculous in a way that should and often does excite outrage. This because, following Obama’s lead, they fail miserably at governing, permitting their more laughable rivals to call the shots.

Needless to say, their shortcomings are not entirely their fault. There are limits to the extent to which a semi-official political party in a capitalist state can defy the logic of the capitalist system. Those limits are not fixed however; they vary with circumstances. When Obama assumed office, after eight years of incompetent and misguided Republican leadership and with a profound economic crisis underway, the political system was more capable of sustaining far-reaching, if not radical, change than at any time in recent decades. Following Obama’s lead, Democrats squandered that opportunity entirely.

In addition to the normal constraints faced by states in capitalist societies, the American state is also unusually encumbered by (legal) corruption. Thanks to "bipartisan" support for a (self-serving) status quo and to a judiciary that is, to put it nicely, philosophically and jurisprudentially "challenged" from the top down, corporate and plutocratic interests rule. These extra encumbrances are especially difficult to overcome. But they are not insurmountable. Contrary to the expectations of many Democratic voters, this is something Obama and other leading Democrats have not even tried to do.

Overlaying all these structural and super-structural impedances to real democracy (rule of the demos) there is also competition between the two (pro-corporate, plutocrat friendly) wings of our duopoly party system. This is the only part of the story most liberals see, and it is what the liberal press reports on assiduously.

If we allow that an ideology can be a hodgepodge of confusions, then it is fair to say that most (or at least some) Tea Party shenanigans are ideologically driven. The obduracy of the GOP leadership in 2009 and 2010 was not; it was about competition with Democrats and nothing else. This is why it was so polarizing. At a fundamental ideological level, the two sides were and remain close. Small differences therefore assumed immense proportions, encouraging petulant and self-reinforcing hostility.

But this does not explain why Democrats have been so much worse than Republicans at driving the agenda. The reason why, in short, is that, in the most relevant sense, they are the more ridiculous of the two parties. Robert Frost famously said that a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument. The Democrats’ governing style is Frost’s liberalism writ large.

Above and (far) beyond the constraints under which Obama must operate, constraints he has done nothing to modify and everything to reinforce, Obama has, time and again, begun by conceding 90% to the Greater Evil Party and then negotiated, badly, over what remains. He is about to do this again, this time with so-called entitlements — in saner times, the third rail of American politics. It seems too that in the spirit of "deficit cutting," he will also sacrifice his pet infrastructure projects. What a small price to pay so that the rich can enrich themselves even more egregiously than they already do, and so that our perpetual war machine can continue to spread murder and mayhem without encountering pesky financial impedances!

Not everything that is outrageous is ridiculous in the way Obama’s governance has been. For example, when the Clinton administration occasioned the death by sanctions of some half-million Iraqis it was outrageous but not ridiculous — because this is just the sort of thing an empire does if it can and if its leadership thinks it worthwhile. Obama’s concessions to the GOP are not like that – they are outrageous to be sure, but they are also ridiculous because they do not represent business as usual. It is not their outrageousness per se, but their gratuitousness that marks them off as exceptional and worthy of ridicule.

No doubt, Obama and his advisors, have made a calculation: that being ridiculous will work to their advantage in the coming election, which is as far ahead as they care to consider. The idea is disarmingly simple: stay just one step less far to the right than the GOP and everyone to the left of that spot – that is, nearly everyone who is not ridiculous in the Tea Party way – will have no where else to go.

They might be right. If color-coded alerts were enough to sink John Kerry, think how much more potent the idea that we might soon be governed by the likes of Michele Bachmann can be. Why else are there, as yet, no calls to dump Obama? Never before has any Democrat, not even LBJ, merited being dumped more; but nary a word is said about it. As Mel Brooks’ Two Thousand Year Old Man would say, "it stems from fear" – fear, in this case, that the Republicans’ brand of ridiculousness will have even worse consequences than the Democrats’.

True enough, but it is relevant that Democratic ridiculousness has helped lay this Hobson’s choice upon us. For this is what decades of liberal lesser evilism has come to –a political scene in which one kind of ridiculousness, the risible kind, vies with another, the kind that elicits outrage.

Congressional Tea Partiers and Republican presidential candidates are not about to get any less risible. But Democrats can become less outrageous any time they want. All they need do is take their own side – against Republicans of course, but also, as need be, against their "bipartisan" leaders. To that end, there is much they could learn from the Boehner and McConnell of the pre-Tea Party days. Perhaps they could never equal the sublimity of their intransigence, but even a smidgen of it would help make our future less ridiculous than our present has become.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.