Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The last days of the Obama presidency are being filled with “legacy” talk. Critics have catalogued all the domestic and foreign policy disasters Obama will leave in his wake, from Obamacare to the rise of ISIS. The president himself has held a revival-tent rally and made various public statements that describe an alternate universe in which his manifest failures are transformed into epochal achievements. But in the long view, what do the Obama years represent about our political order and its future?
We can start with the complete discrediting of the mainstream media, the culmination of a degradation that started, like most of our political, social, and cultural diseases, in the sixties. The biased, politicized coverage of the Watergate scandal and the war in Vietnam marks the point when journalism moved from the usual liberal prejudices into activist advocacy. The open contempt with which most of the press covered Ronald Reagan and his presidency was another milestone, in contrast to the generally favorable coverage of Bill Clinton, followed by the malicious, sometimes vicious treatment of George W. Bush.
The candidacy of Barack Obama both climaxed this decades-long abandonment of journalistic ethics and integrity, and raised the press’s advocacy to levels of worshipful praise that would have embarrassed the foppish courtiers and groveling sycophants in Louis XIV’s Versailles: he was a “rock star,” the Democrats’ “Tiger Woods,” a politician “it’s hard to be objective when covering,” who made one reporter’s leg “tingle,” and whose very trouser-crease astonished another; one “so impressive, so charismatic,” “something special,” possessing “chiseled pectorals,” a “keen analytical intelligence,” “prodigious talents,” an “amazing legislative agenda,” and “huge achievements”; “one of our brightest presidents,” a “huge visionary,” “our national poet,” “the most noble man who has ever lived in the White House”; the “political equivalent of a rainbow,” “a sudden preternatural event inspiring awe and ecstasy,” “something special, a man who makes difficult tasks look easy,” the “visionary leader of a giant movement”; a president “able to game out scenarios before the experts in the room,” “a confident, intelligent, fascinating president riding the surge of his prodigious talents from triumph to triumph,” Hegel’s “world historical soul”; “the perfect father, the perfect husband, the perfect American,” a president “better than the body politic deserved,” and “a great speech writer” whose words comprise “one of the most moving, inspiring valentines to this country that I’ve ever heard.”
Add the media’s ongoing deranged, duplicitous coverage of president-elect Donald Trump, and Rich Noyes’ catalogue is a fitting epitaph for the mainstream media. Except with their fellow progressive cultists weeping and cowering in “safe spaces,” they have no credibility or journalistic dignity left. Their collective suicide is Obama’s legacy.
Indeed, reading such outlandish, uncritical comments from the self-appointed “watchdogs” of the republic, I’m reminded of Charles Mackay’s classic Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:
In reading The History of Nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities, their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.
What else besides an extraordinary delusion explains how so many people, including so-called conservatives who should have known better, suspended their critical judgment and elected the most unprepared, unaccomplished, left-wing president ever to run for office in postwar America?
The answer to that question brings us to another Obama legacy, his worsening of race relations and further corruption of our national discourse on racial matters.
The very fact of Obama’s political ascent is the culmination of a social and cultural dysfunction that also arose in the sixties. The progressive embrace of illiberal grievance politics and multicultural “diversity,” mostly among the elites in media, popular culture, and academe, created a sick dynamic for how blacks and whites viewed one another and interacted. Rather than Americans liberated from legal segregation and racial injustice, blacks were transformed into internal “colonial” subjects continually victimized by “institutionalized racism” and the subconscious bigotry it creates among whites.
Thus black identity was predicated grievance, one that could be corrected only by various sorts of reparations from social welfare spending to affirmative action programs affecting hiring, government contracts, and college admissions. In other words, victims without agency and thus needing superior white progressives to improve their lot.
Grievance politics, however, requires a grievance, even if it has to be invented. Thus the great strides in improving black lives and marginalizing racist behavior has to be ignored or downplayed. The incessant complaints of racism––now redefined in ever subtler manifestations like “institutional racism,” or in statistical voodoo such as “disparate impact” ––keep the feedback-loop of black grievance and white guilt humming along, as does an insidious double standard that ignores or rationalizes black bigotry even while castigating microscopic white “microagressions.”
Who benefits? The Democrats find electoral gold in a nearly unanimous demographic voting bloc that put a Democrat back in the White House. At the same time, the smear “racism” provides Democrats a powerful rhetorical bludgeon to use against their enemies, as we have seen in the continuing use of “racism” to discredit Obama’s critics or misdirect voters from his failures. The metastasizing executive branch creates more agencies and more federal jobs to investigate and monitor “racism,” and to manage the federal programs that claim to ameliorate its effects. A whole race industry of academics, politicians, activists like Obama, journalists, and outfits like the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center flourishes. And white, affluent progressives can compensate for their privilege and display their superior virtue by parroting politically correct racial received wisdom, even as they are insulated from the lethal consequences. It’s not the tony progressive enclaves that have suffered an increase in murders because of the “Ferguson effect” created by Black Lives Matter.
Rather than breaking this destructive dynamic, Obama worsened it. His campaign rhetoric about “no black America, no white America” turned out to be duplicitous, as he doubled down on the all-purpose “white racism” explanation for problems created in fact by the libertinism spawned in the sixties, the marginalization of faith, and the virtue-killing dependency nourished by the welfare state. He and his corrupt DOJ fed the lies about “voter suppression,” “white privilege,” and the police “war on black men,” thus misdirecting many blacks from his complete failure to improve their lives by growing the economy and providing economic opportunity. But why would he? The distant disorder and misery of the inner-city black underclass is simply too valuable, for it fuels the racial grievance that in turn gives social, political, and economic leverage to Democrats and race industry operatives––and that elevated Obama to the presidency.
Millions of Americans twice suspended their skepticism and voted for Obama on the desperate hope that this racial dynamic corroding our social and political order would finally be broken. And twice they were betrayed as racial conflict deepened and racial reconciliation faded. The Democrat white working class in particular became fed up with being labelled “deplorable” racists, and lectured on their “white privilege” by black commentators, professors, entertainers, athletes, and politicians who possess more economic, political, and social capital than they. Following Martin Luther King’s advice, they finally ignored Obama’s superficial “blackness” and “hope and change” sophistries, and recognized the flawed contents of his character and his political incompetence. So they rejected his chosen successor, herself a master at exploiting the racial-grievance machine to smear them as “white supremacists” and “racists.” And they voted for a candidate who has promised to set aside that divisive melodrama of grievance and guilt, and “make America great again.”
Time will tell if these legacies of the Obama presidency will endure, and finally mark the end of the bad ideas that for fifty years have corrupted our politics and divided our citizens. It’s a monumental task, given how deeply our notions of racial grievance and activist journalism have burrowed into popular culture, school curricula, and government institutions. Let’s hope that Donald Trump matches deeds with words and makes the Obama years the epitaph for those failed ideologies.