As attention shifts from the Republican presidential primaries to Barack Obama’s first term in office, a look at the ideas of writer and critic William Deresiewicz helps explain why Obama was elected, and why the Left shouldn’t have expected anything from him in the first place.
For a while now William Deresiewicz has been complaining about “kids these days”. The Millenials, he gripes in a recent blog post, are “motivated more by narcissism than by anything else.” At a time when the country is in crisis young people have withdrawn from politics in favor of social entrepreneurship, preoccupied by their attempts to fix “the world by making things and selling them.” According to Deresiewicz, Millenials see politics and activism as destructive and would rather work outside the system than change it from within, take it over, or even destroy it. “The whole ethos of do-it-yourself social engagement seems to go along with a withdrawal from politics, inherently a sphere of conflict and large institutions.” “Two things,” Deresiewicz writes, “Millennials often say they can’t abide.” Taught from young age to play nice with others in the sandbox, the Millenials favor consensus and shirk from confrontation. Therefore, any dissent or disruption of everyday life to draw attention to a problem that cannot be solved by the “entrepreneurial ideal” is considered by Millenials to be unproductive. Agitating for a cause does not change the world, but creating some sort of socially conscious business venture does. “A Stanford professor told me,” writes Deresiewicz, “about two internships that were open to students at his college last year. One, for a small East Bay nonprofit, drew several hundred applications. The other, for the office of the Speaker of the California State Assembly – the second-most-powerful person in the eight-largest economy on the planet – drew three.”
Deresiewicz’s critique of the Millennials is not just that they are narcissistic and consciously apathetic; it is that they have abandoned the most logical avenue to effect change – politics. But what we learn from Deresiewicz’s essays, despite his broad and sometimes reckless generalization, is that the problem is not the self-aggrandizement and narcissism implicit in the Millenials’ belief that entrepreneurial activity rather than political involvement can result in meaningful societal change. The problem, and what I argue shows why the Left should not have placed any hope in an Obama presidency, is the word “change” itself.
Barack Obama was elected as the candidate of change, supported ardently by the vast majority of Millenials. Young, multi-racial, fresh – Barack Obama was one of them. He had stylish posters with the hipster stamp of approval thanks to Shepard Fairey. He had a presence on social media and a slogan behind which anyone raised in the era of scheduled play-dates could rally: “change.” Obama’s candidacy made it acceptable for Millenials to engage, albeit cautiously, in the political process. This is because the rallying cry of “change” carried with it none of the baggage that once made politics untenable for Millenials. “Change” was vague but generally inspiring; it suggested action without specifying direction. Furthermore, Obama embodied the paradigmatic personality of the present. “Today’s polite, pleasant personality is, above all, a commercial personality,” writes Deresiewicz. “It is the salesman’s smile and hearty handshake, because the customer is always right and you should always keep the customer happy.” The Obama campaign didn’t just speak in the commercial buzzwords with which the Millennials had grown up; it possessed the characteristics Deresiewicz sees as lamentable in the Millennials themselves –“no anger, no edge, no ego.” It was as if the Obama campaign had lifted the slogan and even its entire ethos from some California startup. Naturally, this made Obama the favorite candidate of those most enamored with the cult of entrepreneurship – the social creed of the Millenials. The way Obama appealed to these young voters – with the incessant repetition of change, the sleek marketing campaign, and the call for a “post-partisan” presidency – should have been a warning to the Left that the Obama presidency was destined to be bland, inoffensive, and ineffectual.
When Barack Obama campaigned with his platform of “change”, his candidacy did not suggest a drastic change in policy or systemic reform. Instead, he represented merely a cosmetic change: for the Millennials, a change from leadership by the older generation to leadership by the newer generation. Equipped with corporate-approved and saccharine rhetoric, Obama presented a packaged promise of a nondescript political future.
The anti-politics of “change” is due to the fact that it implies neither revolutionary nor reactionary movement. Due to its lack of specificity, a call for change in the language of today’s politics is actually a call for exchange – of issues, compromises, constituents, and anything to maintain the status quo. “Change” does not herald the arrival of something new; it simply notes the transfer of an idea or policy from one hand to another. The healthcare plan put forward by the Obama administration exemplifies this. Initially a Heritage Foundation counterplan to Hillarycare, the idea of an individual mandate first belonged to the Right. In fact, the assumed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney instituted this plan in Massachusetts. But then change happened: The individual mandate switched hands and the best deal for private insurance companies in the history of mankind was championed by the president many assumed would be the most progressive in a century.
Many on the Left have been disappointed with the way President Obama’s first term has played out. In 2008, “change” appeared as salvation from the nightmare of the Bush years – it has since been translated into few if any political gains. Liberals and many on the Left projected onto Obama their desires for progressive policy reform, most of which have not been realized. However, President Obama’s inaction should not have come as a surprise.
As much as liberals would like to believe otherwise, Obama’s “change” promised nothing in the first place. Indeed, the key to understanding Obama’s surprisingly Right-leaning agenda is found in his rhetoric. He did not advocate progress, which would suggest an alteration of the status quo. And he did not advocate reaction, which would attempt to undo reforms that had previously been made. Obama offered no direction and no objective other than the preservation of the status quo – a kind of passive conservatism. The change he promised was solely cosmetic, designed to preserve and put a human face on a status quo that was becoming increasingly unpalatable for many Americans.
The birth of the Tea Party and the growing strength of the Occupy movement show that the American public has grown tired of the status quo – tired of the exchange of old ideas dressed up in the language of change. Partisans on the Left and the Right, much to the chagrin of many Millennials, want direction. They want to be participants in the grand clash of ideology, as old as the state itself, between reaction and revolution. Naturally, Millennials shy away from even the discussion of this clash: and not simply because it violates their general rule of non-confrontation.
The Millenials have become remarkably successful because of their docility, eagerness to conform, and nearly unthinking respect for authority. Reaction and revolution alike would threaten the Millennials’ acquired privilege. Reaction, with its accompanying austerity, would strip them of their privilege by increasing indebtedness and inequality (this may happen even with Obama in office). Revolution, or more pragmatically progress, would negate their relative privilege through redistributive policy and strengthened social democracy. The Millennials want none of this, so they vote for change because they know it will not alter the status quo, except for a few cosmetic shakeups here and there.