The Empire’s New Clothes - Part Two

by Paul Street, Alex Doherty

The concluding part of our exclusive interview with Paul Street on his new book on Barack Obama ‘The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power’

First published: 18 November, 2010 | Category: International

In part two Paul Street considers Obama’s impact on race relations, the decline of the American left , and we get his reaction to the US mid-term elections. Read part one here.

How do you perceive Obama’s premiership to have effected race relations in the United States?

Well it was obviously historic and at one level inspiring to see a black president elected in the land of chattel slavery, but Obama may actually end up being a net minus for race relations.  His election helped reinforce the self-comforting white illusion that racism no longer poses significant barriers to black and minority advancement and racial equality in America.  Reflecting their hyper-sensitivity to white racial anxieties – already sufficiently stoked by the simple fact that Obama is half black as far as is advisors are concerned – Obama as chief executive has certainly been less willing than a white Democratic president (say a Hillary Clinton) would have been to undertake any kind of meaningful federal initiatives against any of the numerous significant institutionally racist barriers that continue to perpetuate deep racial inequality in the U.S.. The fact of Obama’s technical blackness – a sufficient trigger to white racial fears in and of itself, as far as David Axelrod (the president’s image chief) is concerned – has made his administration if anything more reluctant than a white Democratic presidency would have been to tackle racial inequality and injustice in any kind of relevant policy way. Obama and his team know he barely survived or overcame being black in the last presidential primary and election cycle.  They have hardly shown any eagerness to “press racial buttons” any further with real policy actions against any of the large number of racist structures, practices, and policies that continue to plague American society.  For the same reason, the Obama White House was remarkably cowed in response to ridiculous right-wing racist campaigns against: (A) the brilliant black Obama appointee and short-lived “Green Jobs Czar” Van Jones (let go quickly by the White House after the proto-fascist neo-McCarthyite lunatic Glenn Beck absurdly labeled Jones a “Black Nationalist” and “Communist”); (B) the minority-based activist group ACORN; and (C) former black Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod, instantly fired by Obama’s Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack after Republican hacks threw up transparently falsified video nonsense purporting to show that she was an anti-white racist.

The Obama presidency has helped pacify a significant number of black Americans – long the leftmost ethno-cultural segment of the U.S. citizenry and electorate (for some very good reasons) – by generating an illusion of racial progress when real life black economic circumstances are being pushed ever further into crisis.

The “first black president’s” service to concentrated wealth has reinforced some working class whites’ “backlash” tendency (encouraged as usual by right wing activists and media) to associate black equality and Civil Rights (however imperfectly and deceptively identified with Obama) with upper-class elitism and privilege, not with the struggle of the multiracial Many against the privileged Few. Combined with the strong identification that many white liberals and blacks in general feel with the President, Obama’s cold corporatism encourages the so-called Thomas Frank Kansas effect: the ease with which the regressive, repressive, authoritarian, messianic-militarist, sexist and racist right is able to pick off and pick up white working class recruits and votes and to channel white populist rage in ways that are contrary to the interests of working people and the common good.

It is possible the Obama has increased violence against poor African Americans by racist white police officers, prison guards, and other “security” personnel who are troubled by supposed black authority in the White House and who take their resulting frustration on blacks who are unable to defend themselves. Another factor to watch is the possibility that the Obama’s institutionally mandated failure, largely unavoidable (we must not exaggerate the role of the individual in history), to overcome or even meaningfully address the major and severe difficulties facing the working class American majority ends up feeding vicious white racist narratives (a modern day version of the racist white slander of southern black Reconstruction governments after the Civil War) Black incompetence and inferiority. All of which tells me the following: maybe it’s not about running for higher/highest office or getting behind others who run. Maybe it’s not even a particularly good thing to put a black person (however intelligent, eloquent, and charismatic) in the White House under the prevailing institutional realities of de facto corporate and imperial dictatorship. Maybe it would be better for racial progress to have a white face as the public face of the dismal policy results imposed by “the hidden primary of the ruling class.”

The final chapter of your book is titled “The sorry surrender of the so-called radical left.” Could you summarize your critique of the American left for us?

What American left? Where is it? I’m kidding, sort of.  I mean to get a sense of what passes for a left in this country, look at the Vanden Heuvel comment I quoted above. Or look at the left American icon Michael Moore, who developed an epic liberal man crush on Obama in 2007 and 2008 and much of 2009.  Last December Moore admonished leftists for raining on the president’s big Nobel Peace Prize day by having the audacity to note that the prize winner was a war president – this as civilian survivors from Obama’s escalated South Asian war told harrowing tales of children and wedding parties blown to pieces by the not-so antiwar president’s predator drones, bombs, and Boeing-made Blackhawk attack helicopters

The problem on “the left” hasn’t just been the in-power Democrats.  The nation’s relatively moribund Democratic Party-captive liberal activist and policy infrastructure has responded to the social and economic crisis and the corporate and imperial direction of policy under nominal Democratic rule with remarkably little in the way of serious criticism and protest. As John Judis noted in The New Republic even before Obama’s administration was more than one month old, “there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for [Obama] to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go…. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama’s pocket.” By Judis’ analysis, the U.S. labor movement and groups like “Moveon.Org” were repeating the same “mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the [Democratic] party and its leading politicians….” 

Little has occurred in the first two years of Obama’s presidency to seriously question the wisdom of Judis’ judgment.  The nation’s liberal and progressive political and activist infrastructure has been unable and perhaps unwilling to capture and channel “populist rage” while the political class has acted in accord with the standard elite principle: government subsidy and protection for the rich and market discipline for the poor and working classes. It’s been missing in action, at once bedazzled and disciplined by the nation’s first black president,  whose chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel threatened egregious retaliation against those liberal Democrats and activists who dared to substantively challenge the corporate and militaristic direction of policy..  As the progressive author and journalist David Sirota noted after White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs launched a tirade against “the professional left” in the summer of last year, “ much of the ‘American Left’ is organized around the Democratic Party and specifically around Obama. The professional Left,” Sirota noted, “are all the major, well-funded liberal interest groups (what Jane Hamsher sometimes refers to as ‘the veal pen’) and [those groups, Sirota correctly notes] have repeatedly shown themselves to be more loyal to the Democratic Party and Obama than their alleged policy/ideological missions…That kind of Left,” Sirota added, “is not built like successful social movements of the past.”  It ‘doesn’t have the structure, independence or stomach for oppositional politics…’” 

It has been all too ready to surrender the mantle of populist anger to the dodgy, regressive, and authoritarian right represented by The Tea Party – the latest incarnation of the right wing version of “the Paranoid Style in American Politics” and the most powerful such embodiment of the version in more than half a century.  As Progressive magazine editor Mathew Rothschild wrote prior to the elections:

“The very character of our country is at stake….With economic pain at the highest level ever seen by most Americans, and with minorities especially hard hit, we’re seeing a revolt not by people of color, not the unemployed, nor the foreclosed upon.  Instead, we’re seeing a revolt by the white middle class [emphasis added] It’s a revolt against the very notion of a positive role for government in helping people.  It’s a revolt against Latin American immigrants.  It’s a revolt against Muslim Americans.  And it’s a revolt against our black president…”
The comparison with Europe was extremely pronounced last September and October. As millions of European workers and citizens flooded the streets in major social movements and marches to resist public budget, wage, and pension cuts imposed by the global economic crisis, the American “progressive movement” could muster only a modest turnout in an October 2nd “One Nation” Washington rally that functioned primarily as a pre-election get-out-the-vote rally for the centrist, corporate and imperial Democrats and not as a significant statement against the bipartisan elite. 

The Republican Party made sweeping gains in the mid-term elections. How would you interpret such a result?  What do you believe American voters are saying?

Let me say first and foremost that the best analysis I have seen is Robin Hahnel, “Election Redux: Learning From The 2010 Midterm Elections,” ZNet (November 4, 2010), read at The terrible economy – in the midst of an Epic Recession (Jack Rasmus’ term) – made a big mid-term turnover from Democrats to Republicans inevitable in the American two party winner-take-all system. Another part of my take is that popular resentment abhors a vacuum. The corporate- and Wall Street-captive Obama, the Democrats, and what passes for a progressive movement and a left in this country have completely failed to meaningfully acknowledge, represent, and act on legitimate popular anger amidst an epic, inequality-deepening recession in what is already the world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society (the U.S.).  The fake-populist, billionaire funded, harshly reactionary, arch-regressive, paranoid, and deeply racist, Republican-affiliated “Tea Party” and the right wing talk radio and Fox News empire have naturally come into the vacuum and dangerously misdirected some of the popular anger in ways and with policy results that are guaranteed to deepen the existing economic, ecological, and democracy crises at home and abroad.  Voters are saying that the system is broken and that the current administration has failed to solve core problems – especially rampant poverty and unemployment – but their legitimate anger is being dangerously captured by some very ugly and I think partly proto-fascistic forces.  It is not a pretty story.

One thing that is clear in the wake of the mid-term elections is that we really must abandon all hope for moving any part of a progressive agenda forward at the national level for at least two years. As Hahnel notes, if Americans progressives were unable (I would add “and/or unwilling”) to significantly advance a serious, genuinely popular and progressive agenda in 2009 and 2010 – a period of Democratic Party control of both White House and Congress – they most certainly will not be pushing the progressive policy ball forward in Washington in the wake of the super-Republican mid-term triumph: 

“Don’t be fooled by plaintive hype about ‘progress if not perfect,’ or the passive-aggressive line ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good.’ No part of the progressive agenda moved forward over the past two years despite the fact that Obama won a significant electoral victory in 2008 both in terms of the popular vote and especially the electoral college by asking people to ‘Vote for Change.’ The Presidential election of 2008 was no ‘cliff hanger’ like George Bush’s stolen elections in 2000 and 2004.  And unlike Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, which was a gift from Ross Perot, and his re-election in 1996, which was due to an unprecedented (albeit unsustainable) economic boom,  Obama’s margin of victory was truly a mandate for progressive change and whatever proved necessary to address the biggest economic crisis in over four generations. Moreover, from 2008-2010 the Democrats had larger majorities than the Republican Party enjoyed at any point over the past 80 years in the House of Representatives and the US Senate, all whining about Republican filibuster threats in the Senate notwithstanding. Lesson for progressives: If a progressive agenda could not move forward in the last two years, if effective responses to the highest unemployment rates in 80 years were ‘off the table,’ if the White House refused to get behind any climate bill, and the Senate would not even bring a single piece of climate legislation up for a vote, then only a fool would expect any better results in a Washington awash with triumphant Republicans and cowed Democrats.”

Today, as in the past serious progressives would do well to heed the genuinely populist and grassroots words of the late radical historian Howard Zinn: “the really critical thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories.  Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”  Who indeed? There are some good examples of Americans doing what Zinn called for and they are part of what he called “the unreported resistance.”  But there’s just not enough of that.  The left has to come back to life before it’s too late

The fake- and rancid-populist,  business-funded, paranoid-authoritarian and arch-Republican Tea Party pseudo-movement has thrown down a gauntlet of sorts, I think, to those who would be true populist builders of genuinely social, democratic, and progressive movements. . As the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne wrote in September of 2010, anticipating in his own milquetoast way the deadly consequences of the pacification and depression of what passes for a left in the U.S.: “where are the progressives? Sulking is not an alternative…the Tea Party may be pulling a fast one on the country…But if it has more audacity than everyone else, it will, I am sorry to say, get away with it.”  Of course, “the Tea Party” is largely a corporate media concoction and it is largely a front for corporate interests and elite Republicans, the real party “the Tea Party” is designed to re-brand.

As Tony Dimaggio and I argue in our forthcoming book Crashing the Tea Party, the mass media’s recurrent and often favorable treatment of the supposedly great and popular-grassroots Tea Party “movement” and the media’s self-fulfilling inflation of the phenomenon helped “the Tea Party” become something of what New York Times reporter Kate Zernike recently called “a blank screen on which they have projected all kinds of hopes and frustrations — not always compatible or realistic. “  Many Americans voicing “sympathy” and “approval”  for “the Tea Party” had little or no understanding of its actual, hard-right policy agenda and do not support that agenda.  Dominant corporate media’s role has been central here, with the leading national print and electronic outlets generally failing to provide an accurate picture of the “populist” Tea Party’s deeply reactionary and elite-directed, top-down and manipulative and partisan (“super-Republican”) essence.  The media-generated “blank screen” and related (false) novelty dividend – with vague and ephemeral branding trumping policy substance – is, it is worth noting something that the Tea Party’s bete noire Barack Obama benefited from to no small degree from late 2006 (some might even say from late July of 2004) through the presidential election of 2008. 


[1] A ruling corporate and political ideology in post-New Deal America (1980 to the present), neoliberalism largely recycles the classic bourgeois liberal “free market” political-economic doctrine of the 19th century.  It holds that the “free market” and possessive-individualist economic rationality are the solution to social and even personal problems.  By neoliberal dictates, “the market should be allowed to make major social and political decisions…the state should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy…corporations should be given tottla freedom….trade unions should be curbed and citizens given much les rather than more protections.” I quote from Susan George, “A Shorty History of Neoliberalism” (Conference on Economnic Sovereignty in a Globalizing World ( March 24-26, 1999).  For useful discussions of the origins, nature, and contradictory practice of neoliberalism, see Noam Chomsky, Profits Over People; Neoliberalism and Global Order (New York: Seven Stories, 1999), 65-120; Henry A. Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm), pp. xiii-xviii and passim.

[2] Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage, 1989 [1948]), pp.xxxiii-xl

[3] Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), p. 328

[4] Medicare is the United States’ single-payer system of government health insurance for Americans 65 and over.

[5] John Judis, “End the Honeymoon,” The New Republic, February 13, 2009, read at
[6]See the chilling account in Christopher Hayes, “Tuesdays With Rahm,” The Nation (October 26, 2009).

[7]  David Sirota. “Will Obama Get a Primary Challenge in 2012?” Huffington Post (August 13, 2010). For critical reflections on the performance of the American “progressive movement” in the first yea of Obama’s presidency, see the Afterword to Street’s The Empire’s New Clothes, titled “The Sorry Surrender of the So-Called Radical Left.”
[8]  Matthew Rothschild, “Rampant Xenophobia,” The Progressive (October 16, 2010). 8.

[9] On the October 2nd rally, see Jared Ball, “One Nation Under a Grip, Not a Groove,” Black Agenda Report (October 6, 2010); Glen Ford, “Ignominious Surrender on the Mall,” Black Agenda Report (October 6, 2010), both at  On the remarkable European protests and the telling contrast with the comparative demobilized and Let-bereft United States, see Richard Wolff,  “European Workers Distance from U.S. Through Action” RealNews video interview posted online on ZNet (October 6, 2010) at; Richard Wolff,  “French Labor Activism. U.S. Labor Passivism,” ZNet (October 16, 2010) at


[10] Robin Hahnel, “Election Redux: Learning From The 2010 Midterm Elections,” ZNet (November 4, 2010), read at

[11]  “The Legacy of Howard Zinn,” Socialist Worker (November 2, 2010), read at


[12]  For the concept of “rancid populism,” see William Greider’s classic text Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 274-75. , The GOP’s more transparently aristocratic and corporate essence has hardly prevented it from acting in accord with Hitchens’ “essence of American politics” – “the manipulation of populism by elitism” – by working to create popular, “grassroots” illusions about its regressive agenda and character. The Republicans require votes from tens of millions middle and working class people to gain and attain elected office and therefore also and quite logically seek to manipulate populism – a sense of being of and for “the people” in opposition to concentrated wealth and power. The result is highly unattractive. Grieder noted in Who Will Tell the People? the Republican Party is plagued with a critical dilemma when it comes to winning elections in a democracy. “After all,” Grieder wrote, “it is the party of business enterprise…the party that most faithfully represents the minority, namely wealth holders.”  It “overcomes this handicap,” Greider observed, with no small help from the Democratic Party (which has “retreat[ed] from its own [onetime] positions as the party of labor and the “little guy””).  The G.O.P. also succeeds, however, by blurring partisan differences in “sexy advertising [candidate] images,” by pushing patriotic themes, and “mainly by posing as the party of the disaffected.  From its polling and other research data,” Greider noted – in a passage chock full of rich meaning for our understanding the 2009-10 Tea Party phenomenon –  “it concocts a rancid populism [emphasis added] that is perfectly attuned to the age of political alienation – a massage of antipower” and “us against them…”  In the Republican version of “us against them,” the “us” is God-fearing, white and patriotic Americans and their traditional values and institutions.  The “them” is “drawn from enduring social aggravations – wounds of race, class, and religion, even sex.”  Conveying a political mood of “resentment against established power and “elitist liberals,” distrust of major institutions, and a sense of powerlessness even as it is “concocted” by right wing elites, this “rancid populism”  gets very, very ugly: “The other party’s candidate is not simply depicted as unworthy of public office, but is connected to alien forces within the society that threaten to overwhelm decent folk – libertine sexual behavior, communists, criminals, people of color demanding more than they deserve. [emphasis added]. The Republican Party, thoroughly modern itself, poses as the bulwark against unsettling modernity.” 

[13]  E.J. Dionne, “The Tea Party Movement is a Scam,” RealClearPolitics (September 23, 2010)

[14]  On Obama and the Obama phenomenon as a heavily mass-media-ted, expertly marketed clean slate “man for all seasons” development and on Obama’s remarkable and vaguely defined open-brand “novelty dividend,” see Street, Barack Obama and the Future, xvii-xxxvi, 59-72; Street, The Empire’s New Clothes, 1-5.


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