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Greider and Goodwyn

By Benj DeMott

William Greider published a piece last week criticizing a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" take on Trump (and Bernie Sanders) that conflated their political theater with American populism. Greider emailed a link to his Nation piece, which he self-deprecatingly described as a "rant," to me (and others). I responded as follows...

Dear Bill,

I doubt it makes sense for you to lean on that "rant" word. Aren't you giving into anti-populist shtick when you use that term about your own polemic?

You're surely right about about the substance of George Packer's line/tone in The New Yorker. (And why not use his name, btw. It's not like you're beating up on some kid. Packer has long been a voice of conventional urban haute bourgeois smarts.) As you can imagine, I love your invocation of the late Lawrence Goodwyn's ageless critique of UHB-ish rubbish about populist moments.[1] But, as I think you'll allow, your piece may leave readers with a misapprehension about Goodwyn's stance on our own (Obama) time. Right before the 2010 midterms when so many leftist critics of Obama were in we-were-right mode, Goodwyn proposed in a Q&A that Obama had already established a large legacy:

For me, Barack Obama remains a president for the ages. Larger than FDR. Larger, by far, than Teddy Roosevelt. And larger than Jefferson. He has infinite patience, far beyond his years, patience almost beyond imagining—as he powerfully demonstrated during the 2008 campaign with his resistance to enormous collegial pressure to throw Jeremiah Wright under the nearest bus he could find...

But it was not until the good reverend's repetitious and, I must say, demagogic pontifications forced Obama to take full ownership of the relationship that the candidate took the bull by the horns. We saw then that when Obama moved, he was capable of moving with great skill: his speech on race in America at Freedom Hall, Philadelphia instantly took its place alongside the Gettysburg Address. It probably will take some time before this appraisal becomes the settled wisdom of American culture but that such a day will materialize I have absolutely no doubt.

Having suggested such sweeping potential, I can add that Obama is not yet larger than Lincoln, but capable of growth on a scale attained, among our presidents, only by Lincoln.

Goodwyn's angle on Obama's potential has proved prophetic. (And perhaps you'll allow it's especially apt now to reflect on what our president's patience has wrought given the Iran deal which is the upshot of a 7 year push that started during the 2008 campaign.) Goodwyn didn't come to Obama immediately. (He leaned toward John Edwards way back in the day. Nobody's perfect?!) His faith in our black president was founded on his recognition Obama was one of those rare politicians who understood "both electoral and movement politics."

I'm glad, btw, you noted Sanders's limitations on this score. Sanders's clunky reaction to those Black Lives Matter protesters hints at the larger problem of his insiderdom. Perhaps you'll agree Sanders is not only not a natural-born fire-starter but also lacks experience of "fire-fighting." (Goodwyn's term for what happens when a movement leader is called upon to respond to fired-up folks on his/her side of history. A true tribune of people-in-motion must know how to keep them lit while keeping it cool!)

Obama has been a sparky presence on so many fronts. (Take Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent contributions to America's "self-understanding," which are almost unimaginable in the absence of the reader over his shoulder in the White House.) Forgive me for underscoring your version of populism seems pretty far gone from what's going on where streets are watching (or on the gay side of town). Perhaps you'll allow it sounds mighty white when you write the following:

Most Americans are reduced to the passive role of spectators, fans, groupies. Or they are persuaded not to bother with politics.

Are you aware African Americans "voted at a higher rate than any other minority group in 2012 and by most measures surpassed the white turnout for the first time, reflecting a deeply polarized presidential election in which blacks strongly supported Barack Obama while many whites stayed home"? (Along with facing the numbers, you might try this felt piece on election day 2012 in the projects.) Not that the 2012 election was all about race. As you'll recall the election turned on the issue of taxes and Obama came out of it with a mandate to raise rates on the rich. (Not a millennial equivalent of the populists' pursuit of "democratic money," but not nothing.)

No American out to cultivate the party of hope should diminish Obama's tactical advances. And—what the hey—you should probably cop to the fact the cat's got good cultural instincts too. There are lots of reasons folks want to climb Denali mountain with him. I'm reminded just now how Obama recently steered his twitter followers to OutKast's "Liberation". Eyes and ears on the prize Bill!!

In Solidarity, Benj D.

Addendum: Greider acknowledged (in a friendly email last week) Lawrence Goodwyn's "fierce praise" for Obama. While Greider wished to avoid a "web back and forth" (and an argument with Goodwyn's ghost), he re-upped on his resistance to Obama, suggesting the president hadn't got enough "blow-back" from liberals. I'll allow it's hard to get my mind around the notion Obama has been bereft of kvetching from his left. (Tony Kushner's flashbacks to progressives' impatience with Obama are on point here:

[T]here were people blogging furiously that he betrayed us when they heard that Rick Warren was going to be speaking at the first inauguration, that it was already over. And then Tim Geithner, Larry Summers—I mean it was one thing after another, just bad news, bad news, bad news, and then of course, everything that he did was wrong...)

Greider faults me and other Obama "fans" for believing the president's "strategy succeeded in getting us out of the ditch." But nobody over here is so beamish. Of course we're all still in that ditch. Some of us, though, have been counting our lucky stars for the past 7 years. I'm sad our blessed sky has seemed like a gleaming leprosy to Greider.


1 http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2013/12/love_is_the_mes.html

From September, 2015

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