Play It Again, Barack

Sometimes watching historical events are like witnessing a video playing, in slow motion. When you see the ugly things coming, you want to jump up and insert a new scene. But then you remember: the slo-mo is just a tease, the ending is already in the can.

Of course, events are never so tidily predetermined, not even the recent election despite the flaccid and hapless campaign of the Democrats. If they were, we would not be able to examine the carnage and retrieve the black box for explanations of what -- and who -- went wrong.

It now seems clear that liberals and progressives are in way over their heads. The liberal media punditry had a field day on election night castigating Obama for his lack of a compelling story to energize the public. "Vague" and not able to "quite define" the American future David Brooks made a point of noting in the New York Times. Mired throughout his term in pragmatic feints and back-steps, Obama failed to mobilize a Democratic congress and sympathetic electorate to address the national predicament after the Bush II debacle. In place of a larger vision, he calmed us with business as usual.

The problem however, I can report after more than two years trying to catalyze a national progressive agenda, is that these all-seeing pundits have no story of their own to tell, not even a useful one-liner. Nor do the think tanks, Democratic officials and policy-makers, or academic communities.

Behind the pragmatics, the reason we are offered nothing but pragmatics is that the cupboard is bare. Progressives have been cautious, fearful stand-patters because they fear change (hence the ironic salve offered by Obama's empty mantra of change). Many will tell you in private that they know the Constitutional system was virtually broken by Bush II-Cheney's self-aggrandizing arrogation of power across the board and the leverage of the corporate and economic power structure with the assistance of the Supreme Court and media. But they don't want anyone to know that they know -- or people will get scared.

Conservatives, really reactionaries, on the other hand have no such problem with fear. Going for broke, they want to dismantle the last retaining walls of Constitutional protection and legal equity, to throw government and all its mechanisms for restraining raw power and mitigating economic desperation off the heights. They make a point of their heroism in refusing to consider the implications. Where "principle" is concerned, consequences be damned, say the new American patriots who would end the American system as we know it.

The liberal caution reeks to them of Munich -- and liberals don't have a clue how they have been painted into this corner. They continue to chatter about bipartisan legislative initiatives and bill conferencing, the more prescient of technological quick-fixes, pretending (I hope) not to notice the danger at the door.

What liberals do not grasp is that the U.S. is in the throes of an anti-modernist panic. Americans believe they have seen the future, or rather that it is spreading its vast networks and entwining them in iron chains everywhere, and prefer nearly any comfort, any illusion, any sedation that tells them it isn't so. Their complacent way of life is threatened by evil thugs and bugs on television all night every night, and good never fails to right the ship.

In this way, American drift farther and farther away from the world they live in and its complexities, content to imagine themselves as self-sufficient individualists amid voluntary social and political arrangements alterable -- and escapable -- at will. To associate this race from reality (deftly called 'race to the top') with the nation that led the way into the modern age is a bitter pill to swallow. For those particularly who prodded this once decentralized frontier society to develop responsible government institutions, include the marginalized, liberalize its culture, and accept a global role, such a drastic retreat remains unthinkable.

Conservatives heap their bottomless bile upon modernist intrusions and deformations of an earlier perfection, vowing to isolate and recover the traditional core, as if by cutting off the branches and leaves you could save the original tree. They proclaim without hesitation or shame their wish to restore the repressive matrix where rightful authority prevailed, other people knew their place, and government remained the preserve of the self-proclaimed righteous.

In opposition to these principles, which gain greater vitality the more detached they are from reality, progressives and liberals offer responsible management. But to what end? For what reason? In support of what greater good?

Progressives cannot say because they do not know. What they cannot face is their own paralysis, the product of similar anti-modernist longings. They are trying to govern an advanced nation without any faith that freedom and equality can survive the organizational age. Like conservatives, they sense that the nation's best days are behind it, that America's signature individualism is being consumed by forces no one can control.

They have positioned themselves as caretakers of the nation's decline. Thus they soldier on, but their lack of conviction, the muddled thinking and saccharine rhetoric, glows in the dark.

As a final irony of their situation, liberals are left supporting the very system of expansionism, inequality, and elite domination that reactionaries have forged over the past three decades while the conservatives trash it. How did this pathetic scenario, this reversal, occur?

There was a time, in the distant past only for some of us, when progressives, believing in progress, declared the system unworkable without major changes. Not just Martin Luther King and George McGovern, but Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter saw the rifts that would plague and weaken an economically and socially divided country. But as soon as Reagan and his henchmen went to work to build a brighter nineteenth century, liberals rushed to the defense of the status quo, to triangulate the existing regime into a permanent defensive shell against the anti-modernist forces. Applying political formaldehyde, they have worked to preserve this system ever since.

Where does this film conclude? What must come from a liberalism that defends what it doesn't believe, and a reaction that believes to the death what it cannot have? No conviction and no concerted political action will surface to build a future that few have the courage to imagine.

No one should be surprised if the enthusiasts prevail over the accommodators. That is the way nations have fared over the past century, at incalculable cost to justice and peace. If you have another ending, I'd play it now.