The firing of State Department Spokesperson P.J. Crowley for speaking honestly about the barbaric treatment of accused WikiLeaker Private Bradley Manning was hardly surprising to those of us who’ve been paying attention to the Obama Adminstration since its earliest self-organization in the weeks following the 2008 election, as all the top slots that mattered were quickly filled by those directly or indirectly responsible for the very policies that Obama himself had campaigned against. Of course there were a few seeming exceptions–but those were only nominations, which quickly ran into obstacles, and were subsequently allowed to die, with Hilda Soliz as Secretary of Labor being almost the only exception that readily comes to mind.
All of which is to say, there has been far more and far deeper continuity between Bush and Obama than there has been any sort of fundamental change. As is to be expected on the national security/state secrets front, Glenn Greenwald has already penned two excellent posts on this matter, “WH forces P.J. Crowley to resign for condemning abuse of Manning” on Sunday and “The clarifying Manning/Crowley controversy” today.
Rather than rehash any of the considerable territory that he has already covered, I want to hone in on an underlying question that I feel he somewhat glosses over due to his own ideological orientation. (Glenn often gives the impression it’s apparently unsurprising hypocrisy ala “both sides do it”.) That is the question of why and how Obama continues to get by with so little criticism and opposition from his activist and voter base. It’s not that people are entirely silent, but that critical voices who do exist have not made a meaningful impact on the broader mass of activists and/or voters. Obama continues to be perceived more as a liberal than a centrist, and liberals continue to support him disproportionately, despite his clearly center-right policies, not just on national security, but across a broad range of policy areas, including such central ones as economic and foreign policy, on both of which he is well to the right of Bush Sr. and relatively close to Bush Jr.
As Greenwald himself reminds us in several instances, there is a particularly striking disonnect between Obama’s campaign rhetoric and his actual governing practice:
It’s long been obvious that the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers “comes from the President himself,” notwithstanding his campaign decree — under the inspiring title “Protect Whistleblowers” — that “such acts of courage and patriotism should be encouraged rather than stifled.” …. Other than Obama’s tolerance for the same detainee abuse against which he campaigned and his ongoing subservience to the military that he supposedly “commands,” it is the way in which this Manning/Crowley behavior bolsters the regime of secrecy and the President’s obsessive attempts to destroy whistleblowing that makes this episode so important and so telling.
Elsewhere, The Philadelphia Daily News‘ progressive columnist Will Bunch accuses Obama of “lying” during the campaign by firing Crowley and endorsing “the bizarre and immoral treatment of the alleged Wikileaks leaker.” In The Guardian, Obama voter Daniel Ellsberg condemns “this shameful abuse of Bradley Manning,” arguing that it “amounts to torture” and “makes me feel ashamed for the [Marine] Corps,” in which Ellsberg served three years, including nine months at Quantico.
This immediately struck a chord with me, since one of the more noteworthy findings of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler was that Obama voters during the primary were considerable more non-authoritarian than Clinton voters. (Greenwald himself called this “a certain-to-be-controversial chapter” in the book.)
To understand what’s going on here, I think one other factor that Hetherington and Weiler draw attention to needs to be considered, concerning what is most salient about authoritarianism. Quoting from a passage in the book that I quoted in my own comments as part of the TPMCafe discussion of the book:
Our treatment places a need for order at the center. Much emerging work in cognitive science depicts a struggle in all humans to achieve clarity in the face of confusion. To use terms more often used by social scientists, people hope to impose order on ambiguous situations….
Thinking about authoritarianism in terms of order rather than authority itself also helps explain why those scoring high are more inclined to simplify the world into black and white categories while those scoring lower in authoritarianism feel more comfortable with shades of gray. Black and white categories provide order. So, too, does a propensity to submit to authorities, but only to those who promise a black and white understanding of the world. Authoritarians do not view Barack Obama as the same type of authority as, say, George W. Bush. Hence it is not so much the submission that is important but rather a preference for concreteness that is important.
Bush’s language was the very essence of concreteness, as well as dividing the world strakly into black and white. Obama’s language was quite the opposite. And yet, as soon as Obama took power, his actions began paralleling Bush’s actions, rather than his own rhetoric. The reason for this can be seen as quite pedestrian, tracing back to an underlying consistency: Even from the beginnings of Obama’s campaign, he was very concerned about controlling the message and maintianing the discipline of his campaign–arguably even obsessively so. He even managed to convince major donors and outside organizations to silence themselves and allow his campaign virtually exclusive message control over everything coming from the Democratic side.
Thus, even as the campaign encouraged vigorous discussion and “bottom-up input” in its online fora, this had virtually no role in the broader campaign. It could even be seen as a way of allowing supports to ‘let off steam’ so as not to get in the way of the “grownups”. Indeed, within weeks of taking power, Obama completely dispensed with taking any notice of such input, first rejecting calls for holding Bush/Cheney war criminals accountable, then mocking his own supporters for calling for the decriminalization of marijuana.
It’s often been noted that Obama seems to care more about process than end results, and so it’s completely consistent for his own authoritarian bent to emerge almost effortlessly out of his organizational penchant for a smoothly-running machine. For him, much more than Bush or Cheney, it’s the order side of things that drives his authoritarianism, even though the black-and-white categories he ends up embracing are not rooted in anything deeper than the backroom political battles inside his own administration.
Most of his liberal supporters still have yet to catch on precisely because Obama’s authoritarianism comes out of left field for them–not just from a purported “liberal” who even now uses more sophisticated language most of the time, but from someone motivated more by a bureaucrtic need for control in line with battles waged behind closed doors along lines that are often being fluidly redrawn according to criteria that are difficult for non-partipant to follow. Of course, participants and active critics see things quite differently. The numerous parallels between Bush and Obama that Greenwald draws attention to are anything but obscure to active, engaged critics. But decades of research tell us quite clearly that the mass public doesn’t read politics based on this sort of information. Obama’s manner–as well as his most prominent critics–continus to reinforce his appearance as a non-authoritarian, carefully considering and balancing a wide range of factors.
The big picture take-away here is that authoritarianism has gained such a pervasive foothold among the American ruling class that it is no longer even possible for a substantively non-authoritarian political position, actor, organization or movement to be recognized as such. Non- (or even anti-)authoritarian spoofs, set-pieces and fantasies by authoritarian actors of one stripe or another have completely taken over the roles of their authentically anti-authoritarian counterparts, and this is every bit as true of Obama as it is of the Tea Party, however much they may differ from one another in any number of other ways.
When a genuinely non-authoritarian movement arises–such as the mass opposition to Walkers’ Wisconsin coup–the political elites are completely flummoxed by it, and aside from falling back on hackneyed authoritarian-projection stereotypes of “union thugs” and “union bosses” they have literally nothing to say, and consequently simply decide not to cover what they cannot understand.
This, then, is the deeper sense in which the Manning/Crowly Affair reveals the fact that truth is not an option in American political life today.
p.s. Just to make things perfectly clear, nothing in the above is meant to excuse authoritarianism on the left. I am searching for explanations, not justifications. For me there are no justifications. But getting a handle on explanations is the first step to getting a handle in how to combat it.
Paul Rosenberg is not a dirty hippy. He bathes once a month, whether he needs it or not. An erstwhile programmer, he was a freelance op-ed and book review writer from 1994/96 to 2002, and has been a staff writer & editor at Random Lengths News, an alternative bi-weekly in the Los Angeles harbor area from 2002 to date. His October 2002 story “Iraq Attack-The Aims and Origins of Bush’s Plans” shared the Project Censored #1 Censored Story award for 2004.
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