Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Enter the Demagogue

We needed a statesman and they sent us a demagogue.

The “they” in that sentence refers to the American people. In 2008,, they chose to elevate an aspiring demagogue to the office of the President of the United States.

They are now paying the price.

Nowadays our nation’s capital is consumed by the politics of the debt ceiling negotiations. It’s altogether possible that the contending parties find a last-minute solution, but, for now, the spectacle is very ugly indeed.

A true statesman could lead these negotiations effectively. A Dwight Eisenhower, a George Marshall, a James Baker, a Robert Strauss... any of them could have done the job.

Statesmen, however, are a rare breed. You do not just become an effective negotiator, an effective diplomat, or a statesman by winning an election.

Effective negotiators are made, not born.

Obviously Barack Obama is too inexperienced to lead a negotiation. He simply does not know how to do it.

But, since he is the nation’s leader, and since he is the man in charge, his actions and attitudes will inevitably give the negotiations their character.

In truth, I think it an exaggeration to call them negotiations.

The goal in a negotiation is to bring competing sides to a point where they both feel that they have won. If you make it impossible for this to occur, you are not negotiating.

These days, with David Brooks tries to convince obstreperous Republicans that politics is the art of compromise, someone should remind him of the last Congress, the one that refused to negotiate or compromise with Republicans on the ill-fated stimulus and on Obamacare.

It was Obama’s kind of governance. It set the tone; it defined the game. It had nothing to do with diplomacy or negotiation.

Today, Obama is trying to power his way to victory, at the expense of Congressional Republicans. He is playing a zero-sum game, in the sense that he sees the conflict in us-versus-them terms, where only one side can emerge victorious.

Instead of seeking common ground, Obama is playing a game we can characterize as: heads I win, tails you lose.

Either Republicans will accept increased taxes, thus alienating the voters who sent them to Congress, or Obama will have his Treasury Secretary threaten to stop Social Security checks or to default on debt obligations.

Obama likes the hand he has been dealt. He seems to think that he has backed Congressional Republicans into a corner. He seems to be proud of himself for so skillfully playing this game of political chicken.

He does not seem to care whether bad things ensue, as long as he can  pin the blame on Republicans.

Obama must know that increasing tax rates on the rich will not make a dent in our debt problem. He must know that Herbert Hoover raised taxes, only to see the government take in less revenue. And he must know that changing the depreciation schedule on corporate jets is not going to raise very much money at all.

Yet, he has latched on to these issues in order to paint the Republicans as the party of the rich. It is barely worth mentioning, but the very same Obama is the darling of Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley billionaires.

At the same time, he declares himself to be the champion of “programs,” giveaways designed to buy the votes of the poor and the lower middle class.

Since we have been suffering under the burden of such programs since the beginning of his administration, Obama should ask himself how well they have served the poor and the lower middle class in this country. If he doesn’t want to know, let’s hope the armies of unemployed poor people rise up to vote him out of office.

You cannot analyze the Obama approach without having a firm understanding of what it means to be a demagogue. This morning in the New York Times Roger Cohen was explaining that Fox News was demagoguing issues by seducing the public with opinion disguised as news.

Cohen does not seem to understand that the public may freely choose to watch or not to watch Fox News. And that it may freely choose to read or not to read the New York Times. He does not seem to know that Fox has both opinion and news shows, just as the New York Times has columnists and news reporters.

No thinking person is going to assert that the New York Times is demagoguing issues because it runs opinion pieces by Roger Cohen that distort the meaning of the word “demagogue.”

Yesterday, Victor Davis Hanson, an esteemed classicist, offered us an analysis of the classical meaning and practice of demagoguery. Discussing the term’s historical origin, he explained that demagogues were: “...crass popular leaders who alternately flattered and incited the masses (ochlos). Their trick was to obtain and expand their own personal power by clever rhetoric directed against the better off, coupled with promises of more entitlements for the ‘poor’ paid for by a demonized ‘them’.”

For Obama, like most demagogues, life is not a negotiation; it’s a struggle, of us against them, of the poor against the rich, of the disadvantaged against the overprivileged, of Democrats against Republicans.

Since he sees his side holding the moral high ground, the one that gives it sole access to truth and justice, he must see the other side as representing falsehood, greed, and exploitation. Given the stakes, there can only be one winner.

Obama is not the only one to labor under this illusion. It is worth noting that many of those who see world history as a struggle between competing ideas, or competing classes, believe that their victory is inevitable. They see themselves as the forces of light fighting against the forces of darkness.

This gives them a supreme confidence, bordering on hubris, that allows them to take things to the brink. Not to the brink of what is good or bad for the country, but the brink that is defined in terms of whether or not they can gain political advantage.

If Obama comes to believe that a failure to raise the debt ceiling will work against him, he will deal. If he feels that he can emerge victorious, he will not.


Anonymous said...

sounds like he is holding Grandma and the Republicans hostage.

Anonymous said...

Please stop linking to sites - Peggy Noonan e.g. - which require a subscription or, for that matter, a registration.

Jim Sweeney