On Ben Rhodes and the Dangerous Fecklessness of Modern Democrats

During my decade as a speechwriter for Barack Obama, he used to say that our entire job was to tell a really good story about America.

– Ben Rhodes, Former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting for Barack Obama

What is America and who gets to define it? Ben Rhodes’ recent piece in The Atlantic takes on this very question. Parsing the concept of patriotism throughout his essay, Rhodes attempts to address why an inclusive American narrative is important to countering Trumpism and the anti-democratic Republican Party. Although a fine albeit boring subject on the surface, Rhodes’ work is actually more problematic than it appears to be. It reflects a continuation of the politics he practiced while he was a high-ranking member of the Obama administration – which eventually decimated the Democratic Party’s ranks in 2016. These politics routinely blame the left for the Democratic Party’s ills; advance a non-materialist, almost post-ideological view of political power; and sap the Party’s base of its enthusiasm. They are also flagrantly irresponsible, as the Democratic Party desperately needs to rediscover working-class solidarity ahead of the 2022 and 2024 elections.

Rhodes begins his treatise on patriotism by describing how America has debated who we are and who gets to be part of the country since its very founding, repeatedly asking itself who is a “real American” and who is not. Barack Obama fashioned his presidential runs around a positive, inclusive and mobilizing message: “Everything from the words he spoke to the way he carried himself to the policies he advocated had to add up to a single story about the pursuit of the promise of multiracial, multiethnic democracy,”[i] Rhodes writes before the essay’s halfway point. Obama attempted to create a “national story” by pronouncing that America “was a great country precisely because it gave us the capacity to try to fix what was wrong with us” and that “change is an affirmation of American greatness, not a rebuke of it.”[ii] But in 2016, Donald Trump and his acolytes put forth a new American story of an oppressed white majority under assault by outsiders and woke, coastal elites. It was an “America First” narrative, and it worked. He grabbed power. For the next few years, he weaponized his American story to wreak havoc on the non-white, the non-rich, the non-straight and the non-binary.

These developments are part of the rabid segmentation that has engulfed our country and culture. We increasingly live in different places and consume different news. We even disagree about the results of presidential elections – which, as everyone knows, led to the ridiculous events of January 6. Rhodes sees this as the natural culmination of the Republican Party’s drift away the basic tenants of democratic governance, a “once unthinkable political outcome underscores the extent to which we no longer have a shared sense of national identity.” It is a trend that continues to the present day, which has seen the Republicans enact a rash of anti-voter legislation across the states they control, and which can only be “a recipe for sustained political instability and social disruption, if not outright conflict.”[iii]

To combat it, Rhodes encourages a return to the Obama-style narrative and Obama’s winning electoral coalition from 2008 and 2012. But there is a roadblock to achieving that electoral groundswell. You might assume that this would include some fraction of the right wing. Yet in true liberal form, Rhodes sees the left as the great threat to Democrats building winning coalitions for 2022 and beyond. The rise of Trump and his faux populism created an unintentional consequence, “a trap” that leftists fell into like little children. Trump was a confirmation of their worst fears about America, says Rhodes, and in response, they ceded the national narrative to the right: “If you are led to believe that America is inherently corrupted, then why would you decide that American democracy is worth saving?”[iv]

Diagnosing the sins of America’s founding is an ok thing to do, he says, but only if it is accompanied by a vision of how to fix them. You can cultivate a sober, clear-eyed view of our country’s tortured past, but only if it doesn’t sap the energy (and donations) flowing into the coffers of the DNC. To help drive his points home, he evokes American heroes like MLK and Abraham Lincoln, stating that if they “had simply lamented the reality of America’s imperfections and the hypocrisy of its aspirations, they would have rendered the political movements they led incapable of achieving change.”[v] By doing exactly that, the crazy left has handed over the “terrain of national identity to its worst elements, [and are] playing straight into the hands of autocracy, which counts on a blend of cynicism and apathy among its opponents.”[vi] In short, leftist are imperiling this great country of ours, right when our democracy and institutions are hanging on by a proverbial thread.

__________________

Naturally, anyone who is not a true believer of the Democratic Party can see the problems here. First, the Democrats haven’t been particularly good at motivating their base for quite some time. Second, this is not the fault of the left but of the liberals populating the Democratic Party establishment. They’re the ones who abandoned the material needs of workers long ago, adopting a vapid, post-ideological worldview riddled with jargon like “professionalism,” “meritocracy,” “consensus” and “inevitability.” They lost a sense of who they are and what they’re fighting for, alienating the working-class that historically helped them win elections and produce watershed legislation like the New Deal and the Great Society. While imperfect, those pieces of legislation were marked by a clear ideology that the people could recognize and passionately support – something sorely missing from more contemporary Democratic legislators and legislation. Those constituencies are now leaving the party in droves, fueling the rise of wanna-be autocrats like Trump in the process.

It wasn’t always this way of course. For a good chunk of the 20th century, the Democrats were authentic champions of labor. But since the 1970s, the party has moved away from working-class coalitions that kept them continuously in control of Congress from 1954-1980. In short, the Democrats have neutered themselves a political force since the time of Lyndon B. “I Take Meetings on the Toilet” Johnson. – which continues today with Joesph “Nothing Will Fundamentally Change” Biden.

There are numerous reasons for this. Legalized corruption, of course, is a major factor; just look at Nancy Pelosi’s insider trading or Joe Manchin’s defense of his coal interests over, well, the health and well-being of the entire human race. But simple bribery doesn’t tell the whole story. Progressive writers like Thomas Frank describe the origins of the Democrat’s downfall as starting all the way back in the late-1960s with the McGovern Commission, which “removed organized labor from its structural position of power in the Democratic Party […] as there was a lot of resentment towards labor during the Vietnam War [, and a sense] that labor was a dinosaur [and that] unionized workers are exploiting other workers.”[vii] The power once occupied by labor was instead given to the “professional classes,” whose political instincts were (and still are) governed exclusively by the worship of individual meritocracy over labor rights and solidarity.

During the succeeding decades, the Democratic shift toward professionals or the top 10% of the income bracket was self-evident in its choice of leaders, people who are “always from this particular stratum of society.” The party’s choice of presidential nominees offers a particularly telling example of this trend. Bill and Hilary Clinton, as well as Obama, “lived lives [that] are a tale[s] of educational achievement.”[viii] and were responsible for advancing the cult of meritocracy. To Frank, this is particularly destructive ideology for the interests of the working class for multiple reasons. It is anti-social for one, valorizing individual achievement over communal loyalty. More insidiously, it overlaps with the right-wing doctrine of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, just that the pulling occurs in an educational arena rather than a business one. It “allows people to think that those on top are there because they deserve to be,” says Frank. “With the professional class, it’s always associated with education.”[ix]

Closely related to the cult of meritocracy is the myth of “consensus,” which for Democrats manifests itself in an almost pathological aversion to exerting political power. Obama represented the apotheosis of such a mentality. An aloof technocrat, “No Drama” Obama spent eight years seeming to almost scorn the idea of getting down and dirty in the muck of politics – and that was not merely a fluke or personality quirk. “Washington is a city of professionals with advanced degrees,” says Frank, explaining the concept of consensus, “and Democrats look around them there and say, ‘We’re all intelligent people. We all went to good schools. We know what the problems are, and we know what the answers are, and politics just get in the way.'”[x]

A consequence of this thinking is that it robs one of the will to fight for anything because you slowly stop believing in anything. The meritocratic elite fancy themselves as “post-ideological” or perhaps even “post-political,” which would certainly be an apt description for the past 30 years of Democratic politics. One only needs to look at the arc of the Obama administration for more recent examples of this mentality. It didn’t take long, for instance, to become disenchanted with his administration. After a few early wins in 2009-2010, the Obama administration basically flatlined. Nothing much happened for the next six years, and what did was mostly nibbling around the edges via executive action (on guns following the Sandy Hook massacre), regulatory policy (the Clean Power Plan) or non-binding international treaty (the Paris Climate Accord). Pushing too hard on structural issues, tackling climate change or, hell, even wielding the Justice Department against the Wall Street sociopaths who had tanked the economy were off the table – or perhaps they were never on.

Many people were wise to who Obama was from the beginning. “The irritating aspect of the Obama campaign and now his presidency is this pretension of being post-ideological and politically transcendental,”[xi] Josh Xiong stated back in 2009. The problem with this is simple. Being post-political or post-ideological equates almost to political nihilism, a vacuous philosophy that tries to reduce “governing to a computer program.”[xii] This is a far cry from the Republican Party, who are animated by a series of core beliefs (not to mention a healthy dose of corruption) and who routinely channel said beliefs into actions that profoundly affect the lives of real people.

Now, nobody within past or present Obamaworld would describe themselves as nihilistic. But many would perhaps cop to being governed by the idea of consensus or perhaps even what’s known as the “politics of inevitability.” Such politics claim “the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.”[xiii] Obama was the poster boy for such thinking. He dismissed those harmed by the Democrats’ love of trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP as merely “nostalgic”[xiv] and that globalization is “here and done.”[xv] His signature healthcare reform bill was similarly conceived within the strict parameters of the world Reagan and others left us – where government does get involved in the economy unless it’s to turbocharge the private market. “The neoliberal health agenda, including Obamacare, emerged […] to promote market-driven health care facilitated multinational corporations’ access to public-sector health and social security trust funds. [xvi]

Even regarding income inequality, which Obama himself dubbed as “the great challenge of our time,” there was nothing could that be done outside of what the consensus, meritocracy and politics of inevitability allowed. Time and time again, the Democratic leadership offer “the same high-minded demurrals and policy platitudes they’ve been offering since the 1980s,” reminding us “there’s nothing anyone can do about globalization or technology. They promise charter schools, and job training, and student loans, but other than that – well, they’ve got nothing.”[xvii]

__________________

Now that we’ve explored the Democrats’ evolution into a party that stands and fights for nothing, we can turn back to Rhodes’ article and note that it’s even sillier than at first glance. One has to marvel at a man with the audacity to blame the left for depressing the Democratic base when it is the liberal establishment that has done so much to actually disaffect workers and subsequently lose their votes. “It’s clear that large numbers of white, working-class voters shifted from the Democrats to Mr. Trump,” said pollster Nate Silver in a 2017 election retrospective. “Overall, almost one in four of President Obama’s 2012 white working-class supporters defected from the Democrats in 2016, either supporting Mr. Trump or voting for a third-party candidate.”[xviii] What these dismal results suggest is that people have finally woken up to the fact that the politics of people like Rhodes, Obama and mainstream Democrats are nothing more than the “the politics of gesture.” Such politics are devoid of real substance, said Nathan J. Robinson a couple of years ago while reviewing the “Obama Boys” memoirs of David Litt, Dan Pfeiffer and, of course, Rhodes. They are performative, ornamental, “where if you want to address some crisis you give a grand speech about it.” He continues by noting, “Obama came in with lofty promises of ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ the change was largely symbolic rather than substantive, and he failed to stand up for progressive values or fight for serious shifts in U.S. policy.”[xix]

By the time Obama left the White House in January of 2017, the ultimate impact of the Rhodes and Obama mentality was brutally clear. The Democratic Party had lost not only all three branches of the federal government but suffered crushing state-level defeats. In 2010 and 2014 alone, “Republicans won hundreds of formerly Democratic-held state legislative seats across the United States.”[xx] The toxicity of the Democratic brand and the uninspired nature of their policies has also increased not decreased in the years since. During the 2020 election, for example, the Democrats suffered another wave of down-ballot losses. Writing in The Jacobin shortly after the election, Walker Bragman described it as such: “Despite Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic that cratered the economy and left more than 233,000 Americans dead, Biden only eked out a win with narrow margins in key states. The down-ballot races were an outright disaster. Democrats failed to win even a single chamber. Instead, they lost ground. Both legislative chambers in New Hampshire flipped to Republican control. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the GOP now controls the legislatures in twenty-nine states with total control in twenty-one.”[xxi]

Much of Rhodes’ Atlantic piece clearly suggests that he and his political brethren haven’t changed. Even after the Obama era was marred in electoral bloodbaths for the Democrats in 2010, 2012 and 2016, and even after the party toiled to regain the slimmest of congressional majorities in 2018 and 2020, Rhodes chooses to remind us that our former Democratic president thought his main job was to tell a really good story about America. Perhaps even more maddening, Rhodes even goes so far to claim that fighting for a policy agenda to address the erosion of democratic norms and America’s myriad other crises “misses the point.[xxii] Not only is this annoying but it is also downright dangerous. Because while Rhodes is dead wrong about the left, he is unfortunately pretty spot-on regarding the Republican Party and the threat they pose to the republic. If minority rule does indeed come to pass, it will be due to the vacuousness inaction of men like Rhodes, who have power, not the strident albeit impotent fury of those on the left, who do not.

__________________

Rhodes, the Democratic establishment he represents and The Atlantic itself should, frankly, be ashamed of promoting this clearly discredited outlook at such a crucial moment in history. Instead of blaming the left, they should instead be focusing on recalibrating to an ideological view of politics that actually motivates them to grapple with America’s structural deficiencies. That entails actually embracing the concerns of working people for the first time since 1968 and using the power of a major political party to bring their dreams to fruition. You don’t even have to do this because it’s the right thing to do. Hell, do it because anything less has proven disastrous for the Democrat’s grip on political power in the past, not to mention the prospect of pushing back on aspiring Republican autocrats in the future.

It is only then that their pleas for votes during each election cycle will no longer be seen as cynical and exploitative, but as a legitimate rally cry that carries real urgency and pushes for real societal transformation. The truth is, we’ve had enough of Rhodes’ and his ilk’s sloganeering about “Hope” and “Change” to last a lifetime – and in our current political climate, we can no longer afford to give them credence or to go unaddressed. You can talk all you want about multi-ethnic coalitions coming together to right the wrongs of our country’s past and to push America into the future. But once you get your self-anointed change agents into office, it’s essential to actually show people what that can mean.


[i] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/01/no-time-passive-patriotism/621377/

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Thomas Frank on How Democrats Went From Being the ‘Party of the People’ to the Party of Rich Elites (inthesetimes.com)

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[iv] http://blogs.britannica.com/2009/03/obamas-post-ideological-and-above-simple-politics-bullocks/

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/16/vladimir-putin-russia-politics-of-eternity-timothy-snyder

[xiv] https://www.npr.org/2016/06/29/484087513/obama-globalization-is-here-and-done

[xv] Ibid

[xvi] https://pnhp.org/news/obamacare-the-neoliberal-model-comes-home-to-roost-in-the-united-states-if-we-let-it/

[xvii] https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/management/thomas-frank-on-how-the-democrat-elite-undermined-the-system-20170206-gu6iyi

[xviii] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/28/upshot/a-2016-review-turnout-wasnt-the-driver-of-clintons-defeat.html

[xix] https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/03/the-obama-boys

[xx] https://ballotpedia.org/State_legislative_elections_results,_2016

[xxi] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/11/establishment-democrats-down-ballot-election-united-states

[xxii] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/01/no-time-passive-patriotism/621377/

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