“I’m not an ideologue.”
“It’s time for something new. Let’s try common sense.”
Obama during his meeting with House Republicans, 1/30/2010
“…Mr. Obama’s coolness, even his seeming detachment, became a political virtue. The corollary to that belief is that he won because he was the anti-ideologue after eight years of an intensely ideological presidency.”
New York Times, “Where Clinton Turned Right, Obama Plowed Ahead”
Every speech by President Obama begins with a discussion of great perils followed by pleas for post-partisan unity and an assurance of a saving power in the resiliency of Americans. Obama’s State of the Union Address tirelessly emphasized utilizing collaboration and post-partisan expert knowledge to fix our nation’s crises. This message also resounded in Obama’s open discussion with House Republicans. Republicans repeatedly raised ambiguous cost-free governmental solutions to both the economy and health care. Though it was of some encouragement that a U.S. president could honor a series of baseless questions with articulate responses, Obama’s invocation of the so-called ‘neutral’ and ‘practical knowledge of experts’ was deeply problematic.
Obama was rightly critical of the ineffectual proposals by Republicans for health care and the economy. The stubborn commitment to minimal government interference is an absurd position in the contexts of a severe economic crisis and corrupt health care system. While Obama ostensibly recognizes the need for a strong government, he falls short of offering solutions when he refers (or perhaps defers) to notions such as ‘what works’ and ‘common sense.’ The current national crises necessitate an interrogation not just of ‘what works,’ but also of the measures and principles used for diagnosing a ‘healthy’ market and for determining a cost effective guarantee of health care.
The idea that we can all agree upon what works in isolation of any ideology is a myth steeped in neoliberal economics and imperialism. It is common parlance in the media and popular discourse to characterize ideology as a negative attribute associated with various forms of ‘extremism’ that plague our lovely democratic world. The eight-year reign of Bush is constantly portrayed as an era of ideology and ideologues, such as Paul Wolfowitz. Paul Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Bush had arguably detestable world-views premised on an aggressive notion of the United States as the world’s sovereign power. While their ideology was deeply flawed, it is not the case that ideology itself was the cause. Ideology is merely the set of principles used to interpret the world. Pretending to operate outside, beyond, or above ideology is arguably ideology’s most pernicious form.
The pretension to post-ideology is a particularly juridical concept, so it is not a surprise that Obama would latch on to it. The concept of a law or power that operates without any force, as if directly transcribed from ‘nature’ or ‘God,’ is problematic on numerous levels. This idea is a type of theology that has no way of constituting itself or allowing for alteration. In legal theory, there is an ongoing debate over functions of negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from infringement upon one’s rights, whereas positive liberty is the freedom to a set of rights. There is a strong fear of positive liberty in advanced capitalist nations, particularly as it is seen as potentially tyrannical form of justice conducive to dictatorial policies. This fear is echoed in allegations that Justice Sotomayor is an activist judge, and her ultimate assurance to the public that the function of justice is not to make laws, but to enforce them. A social context of slavery, segregation, and the informal segregation of today, with banks red lining neighborhoods (such that whiteness has become synonymous with property upkeep) necessitates an appeal to positive liberty.
Historically, the ideology of ‘post-ideology’ is deeply entangled in an imperialism, which (mis)translates things like ‘U.S. interests’ as universal rights and world peace. It is an ideology which rationalizes the United States’s wars in the Middle East as merely peacekeeping missions. A close look at the actual promises Obama made in his State of the Union Address furnishes the following: tax cuts, earmark reform, (an eventual) spending freeze, off-shore drilling, and the notorious oxymoron ‘clean coal.’ These measures reflect not a pragmatic transcendence of ideology, but rather an affirmation of center-left neoliberalism. Aligning these policies with post-ideology, as if politics were an a-historical science, reduces political discourse to shallow buzzwords. The capacity for genuine debate in this context is diminished and overtaken by un-analyzed fictions of nature and common sense. This has the effect of obscuring the actual policies that constitute a given political position. Making one’s ideology visible is the only way for one’s position to be understood in context and for the reader or listener to be trusted as an active participant in the debate.