WTF Barack? Historians on the left hold Facebook roundtable on Obama

Historians in the News

In a rather startling (and refreshing) use of social media by academics, Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, sparked off an impromptu Facebook roundtable between leading academic figures on the Left about President Obama.

Robin, reacting to this piece by Glenn Greenwald on the debt deal—in which Greenwald argued that Obama actually wanted to slash government spending as opposed to being forced to by the GOP—asked his Facebook friends whether Obama is “politically inept” or if he’s “a true believer in neoliberal economics.” He got responses from Rick Perlstein, Jay Driskell, Adolph Reed, Thaddeus Russell, Joe Lowndes, and Tom Sugrue, among many others.

Some highlights:

Rick Perlstein‎: “The people hate partisan gridlock”; “I defeated partisan gridlock”; “The people will hail me as a hero, bearing me aloft on their shoulders.” The fellow’s not quite well….

Jay Driskell: To me, [Obama] reads like a classic late 19th century progressive – that there are smart people who know smart things and it is they who should sit down in a room and hammer out the details above the “partisan fray.” The problem, then as now, is that there is no way above that fray – especially when one or both parties are trying to game the non-partisan/bi-partisan negotiations for their own partisan advantage. However, I really do think that Obama really believes that he is making progress. Otherwise, his negotiating strategies make absolutely no sense. I’d like to think he’s in the thrall of capital, but more and more of me think that he is naive and clueless and out of his depth. That is, if he were in the thrall of capital, that would at least be comprehensible (and reprehensible) to me….

Adolph Reed: He’s a one-trick pony, always has been, and that trick is performing judiciousness, reasonableness, performing the guy who shows his seriousness by being able to agree with those with whom he supposedly disagrees and to disagree with those with whom he supposedly agrees. He has never — not at any moment in his political career — stood for anything more concrete than a platitude. He is also one of those get all the smart people in the room to figure out what’s best for us all technocratic left-neoliberals and at the end of the day (well, even at dawn) believes that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us….

Tom Sugrue: I am with Adolph. There is little about Obama’s trajectory on economic issues that is surprising, except to those who believed that (despite both his words and his record) he was a crypto-leftist waiting for the right moment. Whether or not Obama believes what he practices is immaterial. I would also add that we are where we are because BHO glamored “progressives” including the Nation‘s editors and so many more who should have known better. Without a well-organized, vocal left, we can’t expect any better. FDR did not tack leftward in 1935 and 36 out of principle, but because he was pulled there. (And remember that he veered just as quickly rightward in 1937, when he succumbed to bipartisan deficit-mania.)

Thaddeus Russell: I am struck again and again by how closely Obama’s rhetoric and policies adhere to Kristol’s and Podhoretz’s founding documents of neoconservatism: imperialism, cultural homogenization (e.g., his “post-racial” discourse and especially Race to the Top), and the dismantling of the welfare state. So, to me, this explains his “willingness” to sacrifice SS and Medicare. Also, the elitist attitude toward policy-making, which the neocons got from the original progressives.

The posts on Facebook ended up on Robin’s blog, where it went viral after Katrina vanden Heuvel and Peter Daou tweeted it. Vanden Heuvel and Daou have between them around 150,000-175,000 Twitter followers.

Even the Wall Street Journal has picked up on the story, making the transition not just from new media to old, but from the Left to the Right, as well.

The nonpolitical lesson? Historians and academics can get serious results from social media. It does seem oddly fitting that a website that originally rated the looks of Harvard’s undergraduates has been appropriated to serve as a forum for serious political and intellectual debate.

Hat tip to Tom Sugrue.

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