Barack Obama came to us with such great promise. He pledged to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantánamo, restore the constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass. As president, with few exceptions, Obama has merely changed the wallpaper and rearranged the furniture in the White House: his financial policies are in essence those set in motion by George W. Bush, and when it comes to the eternal Global War on Terror he has stealthily embraced the unconstitutional war powers claimed by his predecessor or left the door open for their quiet adoption at some later date. The early executive orders that temporarily warmed the hearts of civil-liberties lawyers everywhere were soon eclipsed by slippery and insidious policies that by virtue of superficial changes in tone and presentation have largely avoided damaging publicity.
Obama’s director of the Central Intelligence Agency declared that the kidnapping and rendition of foreigners will continue, and the Department of Justice persists in using the Bush Administration’s expansive doctrine of state secrets against those wrongfully detained and tortured by our security forces and allies. Obama has adopted military commissions, once considered an unpardonable offense against our best traditions, to prosecute terrorism cases in which legitimate convictions cannot be obtained; when even such mock trials provide too much justice, he will make do with indefinite detention. If, by some slim chance, a defendant were to be found not guilty, we have been assured that the president’s “post-acquittal” detention powers would then come into play. The principle of habeas corpus, sacred to candidate Obama as “the essence of who we are,” no longer seems so essential to a president who maintains secret prisons hidden from due process, judicial and congressional oversight, and the Red Cross. Waterboarding has been banned, but other forms of torture, such as sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation, and force-feeding, continue—as do the practices, which once seemed so terribly important to opponents of the Bush regime, of presidential signing statements and warrantless surveillance.
The rule of law has not been restored; it has been perverted. What had been outlawed but committed, the law now simply permits. Obama’s lawyers, benefiting from Bush-era litigation and recent craven legislation, can claim conformity with law, but the disgraceful policies continue largely unchanged. Better, more sophisticated legal arguments obtain for acts that should give any decent human being nightmares. Our torturers and war criminals and illegal spies and usurpers remain at liberty, unpunished. The wars of choice continue and threaten to spread, while some 100,000 soldiers and at least that many private contractors attempt, as Obama so delicately put it, “to finish the job” in Afghanistan’s graveyard of empires and our flying robots bomb villagers in the mountains of Waziristan. This, we are told, is progress.
Admirers of the president embrace actions they once denounced as criminal, or rationalize and evade such questions, or attempt to explain away what cannot be excused. That Obama is in most respects better than George W. Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin, or Joseph Stalin is beyond dispute and completely beside the point. Obama is judged not as a man but as a fable, a tale of moral uplift that redeems the sins of America’s shameful past. Even as many supporters begin to show their inevitable displeasure with his policies or his job performance and his poll numbers decline, to his liberal supporters the character and motivations of the president remain above question. He is a good man. I trust him to do the right thing.
It is no surprise that innocent children, naive European prize committees, and professional Democratic partisans continue to revere the heroic former candidate, despite everything he has done and left undone. Nor is it surprising that the Republican Party and the broken remnants of the old White Supremacy coalition hate and fear the man and will oppose him without quarter (excepting, of course, his war and torture policies, which flatter their nationalist impulses). Puzzling, however, is the fact that the president, who until recently was an obscure striver in the Chicago Democratic machine, continues to inspire perfervid devotion among many intellectual liberals who know their history. Even they say, Be patient. Give him time. It’s hard to change the government. Or, more cynically: He’s the best we can do. Thus, his most knowledgable admirers assume the burden of Obama’s sins, bite their tongues, and indulge the temptation to frame his shortcomings as America’s own. Obama is not to blame; we are to blame. Obama has not failed us; America has failed him.
If there is a sense in which we the people have failed, it is not that we have neglected to live up to Obama’s ideals, his great and historic hopes to bring change to Washington. If we have failed it is because we have abdicated our sovereign duties in the naive hope that a redeemer would come to deliver us from politics and thus from history.
Americans dislike politics; we take every opportunity to denounce politicians and government bureaucrats even as we pay elaborate homage to the transcendent virtue of the American system of government. One reason for this political schizophrenia is no doubt the substantial gap between the mundane realities of our hopelessly corrupt political system and our ideological image of it. Every political regime, no matter how debased, has its sacred narratives, its myths, dogmas, and tales of glory that are designed to reproduce loyal subjects. America’s mythological narrative concerns democracy, and that narrative is as distant from reality as it is from James Madison’s vision of the republic he helped to establish. Our scriptures are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a loose canon of essays and letters by the Founding Fathers, our national saints, who are treated by the faithful as if they acted and spoke with one mind. As with the Bible and the New Testament, of course, most Americans revere our sacred texts without bothering to study them or achieve basic competence in their interpretation.
According to the conventional theory that appears in our civics textbooks, modern democracy is a political system by which the people decide how they wish to be governed by electing representatives who carry out their will. The ultimate source of authority in the democratic system is thus the sovereign voter, whose solemn and heroic responsibility we celebrate at every national, state, and local election. The basic premise of the conventional view is that the people rule, and so we are told ad nauseam from the time we enter kindergarten—and that, we tell one another at every opportunity, is what makes America the greatest nation in the history of the world.
In our democratic system, the most wonderful system that ever was (the light of nations, the shining city on the hill), the people deliberate over policies and weigh alternatives and come to rational decisions about the public good. In this way we produce what philosophers call the general will, which we communicate (as if by magic or at least by poll) to our elected representatives, who are obliged to carry it out. Even in the face of daily proof that this state of affairs does not exist, the idea that the people somehow rule persists as the first article of our civic creed. All who participate in American politics must publicly confess their democratic faith, no matter what their partisan orientation.
All creeds have their rituals, and central to ours is the national election. Oddly enough, a vital component of the electoral liturgy is the traditional observation that our democracy is broken. Viewed from within the mythological narrative, it is. But if we step outside the sacramental theater things begin to take on a different color, and it becomes difficult to argue that the system isn’t working. The question is: for whose benefit is the system working? Toward the end of answering that ancient and venerable question it might be useful to have before us a more realistic model of our political decision-making, a model of what exists as opposed to what we believe. Perhaps some detachment from sentimental pieties about popular sovereignty might eventually lead to more effective political action on the part of citizens. It might also be of some assistance in understanding the relentlessly pragmatic policies of Barack Obama.