Obama’s Farewell Speech and a Direction for American Liberalism: Part 1


Note: You may have noticed that the Mad Sociologist Blog has been strangely silent in the past couple of weeks considering the enormity of the events transpiring this month. I blame Obama! No, really. When I heard President Obama’s Farewell Address I wanted to comment on the challenges he highlighted. I sat down to hammer out a blog and, three thousand words later, I realized that maybe, just maybe, this post was getting a little lengthy. I know–shocker! So, in the interest of those who’ve accused me of being a bit too wordy (not that I’m agreeing with them, or anything) I decided to divide this post into two parts. Then I realized I needed to divide it into three parts. So this is the first of a three-part series covering what I believe to be President Obama’s most left-leaning speech to date. Part 1 deals with economic justice. Part 2 will address race relations. Part 3 will focus on social insularity.

President Obama gave his Farewell Address last week. (I know I’m tardy on this post, but I work for a living).  It was masterfully done when one considers the enormity of the task he had in front of him.

Let’s face it. Under normal circumstances, it is incumbent upon the outgoing president to remind everyone of his accomplishments. It’s also his last opportunity as head of state to try to steer the political agenda with an overview of some of the challenges the nation faces as he is leaving office. Two of the most famous such warnings was Washington’s admonishment to avoid foreign entanglements and Eisenhower’s warnings about the growing Military Industrial Complex.  Washington’s Farewell Address defined and influenced U.S foreign policy until Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Eisenhower’s? Well…not so much.

These are not normal circumstances, however. Washington was handing over the presidency to John Adams, a political ally. Eisenhower may have been handing the keys to a member of the opposition party, but the election was razor thin and John Kennedy was hardly a radical departure from Eisenhower’s America. Whereas there have been some schismatic transfers of power in presidential politics, 1801, 1829, 1861, I would suggest that our nation has never seen anything quite like this.

This year marks more than a typical transfer of power from one party to another. Here we see a poised, intellectual, seasoned statesman being replaced by a reality television circus clown. The first black president, known for his aversion to “drama,” is handing the white house over to a white nationalist who is walking into the capital with a veritable binder full of scandals, not the least of which is the possibility that he might owe his presidency to a Russian dictator. Eight years of fake news, political obstructionism, increased partisanship and racial animus is coming full circle as the authors of this conflict are now in full control of the government. Despite growing and obvious economic inequality, the new administration is composed of millionaires, billionaires and cronies to the corporate elite. Despite the certainty of a looming global environmental catastrophe, the incoming administration is dedicated to doing exactly the opposite of what is needed to deal with global warming.

Furthermore, the opposition party, that represented by the outgoing president, looks like dropped mirror.

So the President had his work cut out for him. It’s clear that nothing…absolutely nothing…that he said during his Farewell Address was going to influence policy in any way. No. President Obama was addressing his final words as president to the people and to his party. First, he took it upon himself to try to staunch the democratic hemorrhaging in our nation. Secondly, he had to recognize that if American democracy is to survive the installation of a narcissistic autocrat, then the Democratic Party is going to need an infusion of courage and a reminder of its traditional, small “d” democratic heritage, as frayed and messy at is. The bottom line is that the corporate elite only needs one party. Any opposition party must be one that represents the people if it wishes to remain viable–and at this point, the Democratic Party is not seen as representing the people.

“That’s what I want to focus on tonight: The state of our democracy. Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued. They quarreled. Eventually, they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.” Rise or fall as one. The most recurring theme in Obama’s speeches has been unity. Since his seminal “One America” speech, Obama has spoken on the importance of unity even in the face of political disagreement. To no avail. His presidency is, arguably, marked by the most pointedly divisive political environment since the 1850’s. Furthermore, this divisiveness was entirely constructed by movement conservatives, the Republican Party, and their corporate patrons.

This strategy, a combination of political slash and burn and stonewall obstructionism, was successful and is now in the political toolbox for everyone to use in the future.  This bodes ill for our political future.

So President Obama’s task was to do nothing less than to redefine American democracy in the face of proto-fascist autocracy and to refocus the role of the so-called Democratic Party within that democracy. President Obama is one of our nation’s most talented rhetoricians, and he did not let us down.  In the process, President Obama, a largely centrist political figure, gave what I think was the most left-wing speech of his carreer. He may have opened a door for left politics in the Democratic Party. I’ll start with Obama’s assessment of our economic challenges.

Economic Challenges

An early, left criticism of President Obama is that, with all of his rhetoric on “Hope” and “Change” he said very little about economic inequality. His hesitancy may have had something to do with his encounter with Joe the Plumberish in which he took political heat for suggesting we should “spread the wealth around.” By the time of his re-election campaign, however, the Occupy Movement rallied thousands in cities all across the country as members of the 99 Percent left behind by an economy built for the one percent. Economic inequality had its slogan and its voice. Elizabeth Warren became one of the chief spokespeople of the 99% when she advocated for fair taxation in her senatorial campaign.

With this political wind at his back, Obama really started to address the economic inequality that was continuing to grow during his first term. He tried to borrow some of Warren’s tools in 2012, but uncharacteristically flubbed his lines when he made his famous “you didn’t build that” blunder. Fortunately for Obama, however, he was running against the very embodiment of the one percent who believed that “corporations are people, my friend.” He won re-election, albeit with lower figures than his 2008 landslide.

Obama’s impact on economic inequality has been positive, but hardly impressive.

Since then, however, President Obama has become more articulate on his advocacy for economic fairness. His awakening to the cause of economic justice was too little and much too late, but his embattled administration did, at the very least, stop the unrestrained growth of inequality as measured by Household GINI rates (above). In his Farewell Address, economic inequality and its impact on a supposedly free people was a central theme. “Stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideal. While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and in rural counties, have been left behind — the laid-off factory worker; the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills — convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful — that’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”

Economic inequality has been a mainstay of American liberalism since the late 19th century. Yes, it’s a contribution of socialism and the labor movements of that time. It was a central concern of the Populist Movement in the late 19th century and the Progressives of the early 20th. The New Deal was, perhaps, the Golden Age of economic justice in the United States, with The Great Society representing the last great achievement of progressive liberalism. In the 1970’s the Democratic Party started to turn away from economic justice and, by 2000, the party of the New Deal and of the Great Society no longer existed. Economic justice was relegated to the left while the increasingly conservative Democratic Party embraced a pro-choice, corporatism that was willing to defend Social Security and Medicare, but offer little more than lip service to unions and the left.

Ironically, Donald  Trump was able to capitalize on this Democratic apathy to economic inequality and to twist economic populism into a racist and isolationist scam that too many were willing to blindly accept. Hillary Clinton, an architect of the Democratic turn from its New Deal/Great Society traditions, may have been sincere about her new found appreciation for economic justice, but she was not an effective spokesperson. Even many of her supporters did not believe that she would follow through with her promises, especially if the political wind took her in a different direction.

The left and progressive liberals have never abandoned their emphasis on economic justice. We’ve just not been listened to in so long that we’ve been acting defensively and in desperation. On the one hand, we’ve worked tirelessly to preserve the tattered remains of the social safety net. On the other hand, we’ve voted against our interests in order to keep destructive candidates out of office–which we’ve largely failed to do. This has served to discredit the progressive left.

If the left is going to build on its recent momentum, playing defense is not going to cut it. We have to come up with new solutions for promoting economic justice. The fight for fifteen is great, though we should be fighting for twenty. We should certainly support this effort. The economy is such, however, that a living wage alone will do nothing to bring economic stability that so eludes most workers.

The left, in many cases, defends economic policies reminiscent of our manufacturing, urban past. We no longer live in that country. We will never live in that country again.  Obama pointed out, “the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” Jobs, by themselves, may not be the ladder to the middle class that it once was. So our values and processes with regard to the middle class must change. The left, with our emphasis on class, must be innovative about this new reality. If the goal is to eliminate class as a barrier and as a relation of power, then our analysis and praxis must provide a meaningful vision that goes beyond liberal social safety nets and ladders to the middle class.

The sorest casualty of the last forty years of neo-liberalism is the foundational idea of a social contract. Obama recognized this. “And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now, and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.”

A compact is meaningless in the face of elite power that has no incentive or need to respect that compact. Now that it is clear that our government is little more than a wholly-owned subsidiary of the corporate elite, left movements must focus on strategies that empower the demos in the face of the elite. Our very concept of “union” will have to change in the face of corporate institutions that can be run from laptops on beaches in Fiji while workplace doors are slammed in the face of workers demanding nothing more than fair remuneration and to be treated with basic human dignity. We must advance the universal principle of humanity, that we are all in this together, and that the fate of our brothers and sisters is, in the end, our own fate.

That government must have a role in promoting economic justice is paramount. As it stands, conservatives own the American discourse on government. They repeat and echo the Reaganite mantra that “government is the problem” “government is the problem.” So long as conservatives and milquetoast liberals swarm the halls of government, Reagan and his followers fulfill their own prophecy. Of course, government is a problem, especially in the cold, uncalloused hands of boardroom denizens. Government that must bend to the demands of the aching, calloused fists rising from the streets, however, becomes a check against the power elite. To get there, the left must present a vision of government that breaks away from the Reagan Mantra and that the rest of the country can embrace after two generations of democratic atrophy at the state level. The left must promote a vision of government that functions for the common good, that liberates rather than oppresses, that acts as a steward for the commons (also an idea that has been destroyed by neo-liberalism).

Government might be the original sin, from the perspective of many on the left, but if it is to serve any kind of democratic function, it must be to act as a check against the abuses of the power elite. In the twenty-first century, this power elite is composed of multi-national corporations. In the United States especially, these corporate entitities, social structures that exist largely outside of the parameters of the nation state, almost completely own the government. The Democratic Party, ignoring the left, is one of the architects of that fact.

If the Democratic Party, with a strong left coalition, is to win out, then it must be able to make the case that our only hope is a unified and empowered demos organized against the corporate elite and in support of economic justice. To accomplish this, the demos must be made to abandon other forms of cultural tribalism that make unity impossible. Namely, the Democratic Party must build alternative paradigms to the standard racist, ethnocentric and xenophobic cultural values that have served to weaken the demos for two hundred years while empowering the otherwise impotent elite.

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