“By the end of my first term, we’re going to make sure that everybody’s got decent health care in this country. We can do that,” ~ Barack Obama, 2008
Last week, we heard from one of Barack Obama’s most fervent supporters — moral philosopher Dr. Cornel West. In 2008, West did 65 campaign events for the Obama campaign, gushing in one article that “Obama’s brilliance, charisma, and organizational genius have ushered in a new era in American history and a new epoch in American politics.” He was, like many of Obama’s supporters, ‘Hooked on Hope’. But West recently expressed not hope but rage, a bitterness of someone who had fallen in and out of love. He tasted betrayal, a breaking of trust. Many of the people that attacked West with equal bitterness are still Hooked on Hope, as they believe Obama has kept faith.
I suspect it depends how you define the problem. First of all, it’s important to realise that acknowledging betrayal is extremely painful. Not only is it cruel, neuroscientists are beginning to realise that betrayal provokes a chemical reaction in the brain. In an intriguing experiment, participants were put into an investment game where they were cheated by a fellow player. Their brains showed neural activity in the “emotion and fear learning” centre, the amygdala. After being ripped off, participants were less likely to take social risks, and showed signs of social phobia. We already know that when people are afraid, “exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off.” Betrayal causes us to stop trusting, but it also causes us to stop exploring and to stop thinking. Repeated betrayals can eventually cause damage to our mental well-being.
This may be why West’s comments provoked such a reaction. Very few of West’s critics focused on his policy critiques, how he pointed out that Obama continued imperialist policies and Rubin-style predatory economics. They focused on the messenger. But if you look at Barack Obama’s transition website, or listened to his campaign rhetoric, you’ll find a host of now broken promises. For instance, Obama promised to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour and index it to inflation. He hasn’t done that — the wage compression of the last 40 years remains unaddressed. He said everyone would have decent health care by the end of his first term. How many uninsured will remain by 2012? Millions. He promised to reverse tax cuts for the wealthy. Instead we hear talk of deficits and slashed funding for social programs after a trillion dollar Bush-Obama tax cut. And he promised to deal with the foreclosure crisis by reforming bankruptcy laws. He hasn’t done so, and so lenders are repossessing a little over 2300 homes a day.
But that is how Cornel West defined the problem, as a question of whether Obama’s policies have improved peoples’ lives. Others define the problem differently. Obama saved our financial system, and preserved the functioning of our bond markets. He prevented another Great Depression, mass bank panics. He expanded our private health insurance system. He removed troops from Iraq. But if you look at the problem as creating a useful financial system, or delivering enough health care, or reducing our imperial posture, then you’re going to see the situation differently.
What West showed is that defining the problem as outcome-based is extremely painful. What last week’s attacks on West’s character instead of the content of his message is that Obama’s supporters do not want to acknowledge that they may be Hooked on Hope instead of Eager for Evidence. It is far easier to believe that Cornel West is some deranged egomaniac upset that he didn’t get tickets to a party, than to acknowledge our own disempowerment. Yet if history is any guide, one possible result of the actual outcomes of the last several administrations will be lower voting participation rates. In 1896, the defeat of populist William Jennings Bryan by a political system drowning in money led to a collapse in voter participation rates. A host of reforms, such as Jim Crow literacy tests and new voter registration requirements, as well as alienation of the electorate, led to the shrinking of our democracy. Will we see a repeat? We are certainly seeing new voter restrictions, and the will to fight for our right to vote just isn’t the same as it was in 2008, when people brought video cameras to the polls to ensure voter integrity. What is the point of taking another social risk, after such a betrayal?
Regardless of what you think of Cornel West’s comments, this is a problem for anyone who believes in a broad electorate, and wants a society that can think, explore, and take social risks. Partisan loyalty, arguments that the political system promotes gridlock, or any other excuse, cannot answer for the lack of improvement in peoples’ lives.
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