Saturday, February 9, 2008

Obama's War

A friend was making the case the other day for Barack Obama, to the effect that he'd be able to rehabilitate liberalism in the political worldview of an entire generation. He argued that with the comfortable Congressional majority the Democrats will in all likelihood have, he'd be able to govern effectively and demonstrate that liberal policies work, while seducing some centrists with compromise. My counter-argument was that with a comfortable Congressional majority, Clinton would be able to pass a more liberal agenda, so compromise wasn't necessary.

Thinking it over, though, I think my friend has a point. I'm an advocate, after all, for the idea of Israel offering the Palestinians in particular, and the Arab world in general, a generous peace. So the logic of that sort of approach in domestic political terms does appeal to me.

But here's the thing. The problem with Obama's rhetoric of unity and bi-partisanship is that it ignores two fundamental aspects of the formation of group identity. First, that there has to be a distinct and easily recognizable boundary separating inside from outside. (Like a cell wall, this boundary can be permeable, but it needs to be identifiable.) And second, in order to form that boundary, fighting for something works, but fighting against something works better. Whether or not you subscribe to Rene Girard's theory of the origins of human religion, the scapegoat mechanism is a historically proven component of human collective behavior.

Take Ronald Reagan, who Obama has repeatedly cited as an example of the kind of game-changing political mandate he hopes to generate. Reagan had two made-to-order scapegoats: the enemy without (the "evil empire") and the enemy within ("welfare queens"). The former allowed him to cherrypick blue collar Democrats who were alienated by the defeatist image that had, fairly or unfairly, stuck to the party of Carter like a wad of chewing gum on the sole of a shoe. The latter combined racial/racist dogwhistle appeals with a call for fiscal responsibility that got him the support of white collar Democrats who understood the value of a balanced checkbook. But while Reagan's new majority grew in part out of a national zeitgeist (whereby a return to American triumphalism compared favorably to the prevailing sentiment of fatigue, self-doubt and defeat), it certainly didn't represent a collective yearning for unity.

A few months ago, when Obama was still intriguing the electorate but not quite sealing the deal, Josh Marshall suggested that he needed a signature policy for his campaign to shift gears. I'd go a step further. He needs a signature enemy. In the logic of his oft-repeated formula for opposing the Iraq War (ie. he's not opposed to wars, he's opposed to dumb wars), Obama needs a smart war.

Now at first glance that might seem to be diametrically opposed to the inclusive logic of his campaign, as well as his refusal to use fear as a political tool, but it needn't be so depending on the enemy he identifies. Before Bush's War on Terror (to say nothing of the Constitution) or Reagan's War on Drugs, after all, there was LBJ's War on Poverty.

It might be too late for it to have much of an impact on the Democratic primaries. But in the event that Obama does win the nomination, it would set him up effectively for the general election.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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