The following is an excerpt from David Masciotra’s new book, Against Traffic: Essays on Politics and Identity. For sale exclusively at Amazon.
Looking back over the 2012 Presidential Election, it is easy to see how team membership, echo chamber media, and self-massaging and wishful projection coalesced to make Barack Obama a two term President, and punctuate the obituary for the authenticity of the liberal class. Blind party loyalty and the “lesser of two evil” neurological disorder combined to exile any substantive discussion of Obama’s oligarchic and criminal policies to the margins. “But Romney is worse,” was the child-like refrain that greeted anyone attempting to launch an adult critique of, for example, drone warfare or the unsupervised bailouts of the banks. “But Romney did it too,” was the silencing tactic used to deflect criticism of Obama’s ideological inconsistency on a variety of issues or the autocratic individual mandate in his health care reform.
These are not mature or sophisticated arguments. Rather they are the school yard tactics of children caught with their hands in the cookie jar – “He did it first”, “You never yell at her like you do me.” The “lesser of two evils” excuse enforces blind party loyalty by pre-emptively deleting legitimately filed grievances about one’s political party, and by lowering the standard of judgment until there is no standard. It is a trap that more than anything else, preserves and protects the status quo of a corrupt duopoly serving a self-centered oligarchy. If the only response to an indictment of Obama for war crimes overseas, neglect of the public interest at home, and consistent dishonesty is a delusional defense on the ground that Obama is evil, but to a lesser degree than the other guy, there is no offense or crime Obama could not commit. Anything he does will only cause his supporters to refer to the threat posed by Republicans. Meanwhile, Republicans are using the same tactic to mute the voices within their own constituencies criticizing Republican leaders. It is a confidence game that easily manipulates those unwilling to declare independence and quit the team. Each side has their own media to propagandize readers and viewers into a state of political catatonia. No one is thinking. No one is acting. Everyone is staring into space at the image of a great leader who, after you deconstruct, emerges as slightly less cruel, sociopathic, and detestable than the person opposite him on the ballot.
As Christopher Hedges, who wrote an entire book on the hypocrisy and shallowness of the liberal class, points out, “The presidential election exposed the liberal class as a corpse. It fights for nothing. It stands for nothing. It is a useless appendage to the corporate state. It exists not to make possible incremental or piecemeal reform, as it originally did in a functional capitalist democracy; instead it has devolved into an instrument of personal vanity, burnishing the hollow morality of its adherents.”
Hedges makes a crucial point to understanding the spiritual emptiness and ethical frailty of liberal America. Politics no longer functions as the flawed, but important apparatus for serving the poor, down trodden, and dispossessed. Over the past four years, we’ve witnessed the disappearance of the anti-war movement, the capitulation of the anti-poverty movement, and the self-enforced gag order of the civil rights movement. The conditions these movements aimed to anesthetize have grown worse, but the movements have sublimated themselves into the Obama technocracy. The result is a feeling of moral superiority obtained from doing nothing. Obama represents everything the educated, urbanite liberal class holds sacred – multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, elite education. The right-wing, bizarrely and stupidly, goes out of its way to attack these very components of Obama’s character and these very aspects of American society. Liberals thereby gain a feeling of heroic piety and the reassurance that they are on the side of goodness, but they ignore what the avatar of American multiculturalism is actually doing to undermine countless cultures across the country and across the world. Identity politics has demolished class and peace politics.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the reelection team for President Obama relied on “big data” in ways that were both unconventional and unprecedented. “The Obama campaign has used cookies to track its supporters online since the 2008 election,” the article reported and explained, “It spent the past 18 months creating a new, unified database, factoring in some 80 pieces of information about each person, from age, race and sex to voting history.” Campaign advisors, public relations workers, and speechwriters were then able to customize Obama for each appearance and in each advertisement to target a certain constituency considered critical for electoral victory. Businesses have used similar marketing techniques for several years, but the Obama campaign is the first to apply them to political persuasion and voter outreach. He, of course, won the election handily, and did so by sounding alarms on social issues that would rally sympathetic segments of the voting public. The largely manufactured “war on women” was the most effective and manipulative part of Obama’s “big data” marketing effort.
At a time when women are outperforming men in nearly every arena of America – graduating from college at higher rates, entering the professions in greater numbers, soaring into managerial positions at unprecedented levels, and enjoying income gains while men watch wages drop – the Obama team was able to take an objection to the Health and Human Services mandate that religious organizations be required to cover the contraceptive costs of their female employees and combine it with a handful of idiotic statements Republican politicians made about rape – all of which were roundly rebuked almost immediately – to convince millions of people that he was the knightly dragon slayer protecting fair maidens, princesses, and queens from a “war on women.” It was nonsense, and it never came close to acknowledging real problems facing women who don’t graduate from expensive colleges and work in air-conditioned offices – poverty, hunger, lack of health coverage (forget about birth control), and deportation. It also never recognized rape in the military or the amount of families and mothers whose lives have been ruined by drone strikes in the Middle East. What it did was demonstrate how Democrats are hypocritical. When George Bush won reelection in 2004, the liberal world was abuzz with condescending “What’s the Matter with Kansas” theorizing about how “hillbillies” vote against their own economic interest, because, in the words of Obama, they “cling to guns and religion.” According to the Democratic mentality, the sophisticated voter is one who can set aside such superstition and antiquated cultural loyalty to act as a self-minded utilitarian – seeking only to rationally determine which candidate better serves one’s own immediate interest. The “war on women” and constant references to gay marriage were battles in the culture war that, in a time when poverty is rising, wages are falling, and unemployment is high, superseded economic interest. Suddenly, it was not only sophisticated, but principled to vote according to cultural values rather than economic self-interest. The two major parties will morph into each other – trade tactics and switch costumes – whenever it suits their purposes.
More importantly, “big data” demonstrates the contempt that political elites have for Americans, and when Americans submit to it, as they did in 2012, they enter into a masochistic relationship with political masters. They reinforce all the insulting assumptions and reductive presuppositions that highly paid political consultants and millionaire political candidates have about the general public. The success of “big data” proves that the majority of Americans are comfortable with a groupthink that conforms to the narrow vision of the world delineated by careerists with self-serving agendas of power acquiescence.
It is obvious that “big data” – given its contribution to Obama’s authoritative victory – is the future of American politics. Politicians will become more and more dependent upon tracking people’s consumer habits, categorizing them as narrow entities of predictable preferences and behavior, and specializing themselves in the language that appeals to each target group as they tour the country, acting more as affinity group conmen than leaders, statesmen, or even politicians trying to organize a diverse country under the umbrella of a single, global strategy and vision. Politicians will become slick CEOs viewing the public as categories next to empty boxes, and political communication will devolve into an effort to check off each box. The American political process is continually robbing the American individual of agency and autonomy, and now there is a massive technological and media safe-crack set to secure the swindle.
“Big data” undermines the conception of citizenship that allows for individuality by putting people with individuated needs, concerns, and desires into monolithic blocks and manipulating them according to a lowest common denominator. It also undermines community, because community consists of diverse peoples with varied interests and anxieties coalescing to create a livable and beneficial geographic, moral, and spiritual home. The universality to cultivate and cradle community requires that powerful people don’t limit or decaffeinate people’s differences, but encourage and empower them by identifying their potential to contribute and asking that they contribute as they are. What does “big data” have to say for the rural gay woman who is more concerned about poverty than marriage? What will it say for the inner city, bilingual Latino more interested in public education than immigration policy? What about the churchgoing business-owning woman who is pro-choice, but with deep reservations about it?
These are the complexities that American political culture seeks to deny, and these are the complexities that most voters surrender when they fall into the trap of party partisanship and “lesser than two evils” excuse making. The Presidential Election of 2012 is particularly ominous because it forecasts a hurricane on the horizon – a bizarrely subtle hurricane, but one that will still create catastrophic levels of cultural and political damage. The triumph of identity politics, the unquestioned supremacy of the duopoly, and “big data” show how consultants and campaigners will pulverize voters into conformity. Obama is the perfect figure to capture the American citizen’s willingness to conform. He is the least experienced and qualified man ever elected to the presidency and even before his first presidential victory, he was treated as a messianic figure who magically walked out of the pages of a fairy tale saga and onto the stage of the Democratic National Convention. Chris Matthews – a man with a Master’s Degree in Economics and a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter – confessed to having a nearly orgasmic “thrill up his leg” after hearing the candidate give a mediocre speech. Politico ran a story about the “power of the President’s hand,” which reverentially reported in detail how, like a soothsayer or faith healer, Obama uses touch and body language to endear him to voters and make people feel hopeful. A New York Times columnist, Judith Warner, wrote, without professional or personal embarrassment, that she often dreams of Obama. Newsweek editor Evan Thomas likened Obama to God, saying, “Obama stands above the world – sorta like God. He’s going to bring everyone together.” Good thing he added “sorta,” otherwise he might have looked unprofessional.
Some media outlets and commentators were able to keep their cool and stop themselves from bowing at the “O” altar. CNN famously described an Obama rally as “creepy” and “cult-like,” an Obama supporter, Katleen Geier wrote that she was “getting weirded out” by the devotion of Obama fans, and Paul Krugman, also an Obama supporter, expressed concern that Obama voters won’t hold him accountable to his campaign promises, because they are more like “cult members” than political activists. Obama ascended to Olympus because he so effectively built a cult of personality, and his supporters gleefully carried him on their shoulders. After reviewing his record that advances much of the Bush agenda and betrays much of his democratic rhetoric, it is clear that his supporters care more about the advancement of Obama the person than the advancement of the policies, proposals, and positions he represented and presented as a candidate. That is the classic definition and illustration of a personality cult.
Conmen rely on their personalities more than anything to swindle their marks. It is, therefore, unsurprising that “big data” found its perfect match with the Obama campaign. Even if Romney had tried using the tactics of “big data,” he would have likely failed because his personality was unappealing. The Republican Party undoubtedly has charismatic figures in the dugout preparing and waiting for their opportunity to take a few swings at the American people, and Obama – although uniquely gifted in manipulation – will not be the last charmer that the Democratic Party grooms for transfixing the American people into a state of thoughtless, unprincipled, blank-eyed awe. Now that the election is over, the question then becomes one of self-protection, self-growth, and self-satisfaction.
How does an American citizen find a way of engaging the political system without having her faculties diminished and soul corrupter by it? How does an American citizen remain intellectually independent but connect with allies to contribute to a project of love, justice, and communal improvement? How does an American find freedom in political awareness, knowledge, and expression without existing solely as an isolated alien removed from the on-the-ground stakes of practical politics?
The ultimate concern for rebels, individuals with agency and autonomy, and those who refuse to join the team and play the game is how do you move against traffic? How do you freely and strongly move against traffic without getting run over and steamrolled into the pavement?
Most Americans are content with joining the traffic on one side – too afraid or too conventional to consider ducking and dodging between vehicles or flying overhead – but there will always be those from the East Coast to the West Coast, up the Dixie highway and into the Heartland, who will desire independence and who, like intellectual Vikings, will explore, venture, and conquer until they can plant a flag of their own making on a small piece of territory. It is there that they can move with pride, dignity, and self-earned elegance. It is there that they can find the freedom, faith, and ferociousness to move against traffic in a culture that is not only willing to hit-and-run, but ravenous in its appetite for barbequing road kill. Moving against traffic is an act of self-improvement and self-empowerment, but in an age of politics in which the individual’s power and energy steadily depletes at the soul sucking hand of powerful corporate jackals and governmental grave robbers, it is also an act of survival. It is a form of intellectual, ethical, but perhaps most importantly, spiritual survival. Surrender and retreat – retreat coming in the form of moving with the traffic that runs down people on its way to wealth, power, and political acceptability – leads to a form of spiritual death that haunts the rest of a person’s intellectual and political activity – casting it all under a black, poisonous cloud threatening to expose the individual as a team player lacking conviction and credibility. Such an existence is protected only by a thin layer of white tissue paper, and in the words of Bob Dylan, a “hard rain is gonna fall.”
David Masciotra is the author of Against Traffic: Essays on Politics and Identity. He is also the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books, 2010). He writes for the Daily Beast, PopMatters, and Relevant. For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com.
Mr. Masciotra: I am loath to take issue with someone who has written a fine book about the progressive vision of Bruce Springsteen–thank you for having done that.
Regardless, while there is much in this piece to like, there are at least a couple of points on which I would challenge or at least question you. First, I’d be interested in learning more about what you term “the ‘lesser of two evils’ neurological disorder”; I’m certainly no expert on neurology, but this is the first I’ve heard of this particular disorder. Second, I think you’ve minimized, perhaps inadvertently, the substance of the claim regarding the GOP “war on women”; I won’t go into detail, but surely you must be aware of the increasingly numerous state-by-state abortion restrictions, “personhood” amendments, attempts to de-fund (and demonize) Planned Parenthood, and of course the notorious “trans-vaginal probe” laws. While I agree that the Catholic Church’s opposition (unwarranted, in my opinion, even by Catholic teachings) to the HHS mandate was no part of a “war on women,” the immediate and widespread right-wing support for the Church was certainly consistent with Republican hostility to women’s reproductive autonomy.
Third, and perhaps I’m quibbling, I also think you are far too harsh on both Obama and his supporters–of whom I am one, which I guess makes me a “creepy” cultist of some kind, though I have written scathingly against the President’s drone policies and his continuation of our pointless “war” in Afghanistan. I do concede that it’s crucial for us to have criticism–even strident criticism–from the Left, and therefore voices like yours and Chris Hedges (whom I admire, but who I think quite frankly has started to go off the rails) serve an important purpose. Nevertheless, to hold Obama and all of his supporters responsible for some idiotic fawning statements by members of the media–Chris Matthews, Evan Thomas–is unfair. No one I know who voted for Obama believed him to be a “messianic” figure; we just hoped he would enact some decent policies (and he has, though not enough of them). As for his being the “least qualified” President ever–seriously? You’ve already forgotten the Doofus in Chief who held office from 2001–2008?
I don’t deny your larger criticisms of American politics: both of our national political parties are caught in the corporatist web, both employ similar and sinister tactics of data-gathering, messaging, propagandizing, and fundraising, and both perpetuate an oligarchic elite (though I believe that Republicans do so deliberately and Democrats do it in spite of themselves). Our system currently sucks, and I’m all for reforming–nay, revolutionizing–it; we should not be forced to choose between surrender and withdrawal. Would you care to join me and others in calling for a new Constitutional Convention to address these issues?
Regarding a “new Constitutional Convention”. Be careful what you wish for. The current generation of 10 minute horizons would make a farrago of it.
At the risk of sounding pretty disrespectful – your comment was a several paragraph long expansion of “But the Republicans are worse!!!”.
Not exactly persuasive.
They don’t even realize when they’re proving your point down to the predictable T.
Every argument expressed here was understood by myself at the age of 10 or 11. So what are you going to do about it? get shared on facebook? Cool. You’ve accomplished nothing. The truth is you may have a goal, but you have no work ethic. you have no drive. You will never achieve your political goals especially if blind idealism is your only motivator.
Obama does not need any message. He is the message. If you dare to criticize him you are a racist.
Simple and elegant solution.
Well I thought that was an interesting excerpt, thanks for posting it.
There have been a number of essays recently published, writers looking back on what they wrote 10 years ago when the U.S. prepared for the invasion of Iraq. Those essays plus this have called to mind Burke – I am afraid I do not have the exact words – it was when he wrote it was the people who had traveled round the Ganges and back who were complaining about how he kept changing his position.
Which made me think that while it may feel like moving against traffic, sometimes maybe it’s simply a matter of trying to stay put.
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