Talking with Obama supporters

They say that at social gatherings one should avoid politics and religion to avoid disharmony. But this rule is frequently broken when people feel that they are with like-minded people where they can say things without fear of being contradicted. My social circle consists of self-described liberals who are all Obama and Democratic party supporters. They are people who view themselves as politically conscious and they raise issues of politics all the time and, at least in the US, politics is closely intertwined with religion, so that supposedly taboo topic comes up too.

During the period leading up to the elections of 2008, these social gatherings were pretty much a love fest, with all of us hoping that Obama would win and bring to an end the atrocious policies of the Bush/Cheney era. Of course, I was skeptical even then that Obama would be anything other than a faithful servant of the oligarchy. The massive support his campaign received from big business and Wall Street during the primaries, his circle of financial advisors consisting of the usual suspects from the major investment banks, and his abrupt reversal during the campaign of his promise to block retroactive immunity to the giant telecommunications companies for illegally sharing people’s private information with the government, all signaled that he would pursue policies that would be friendly to the oligarchy, though many of his supporters either were not aware of this or willfully ignored it.

But I did have hopes, based on his ringing endorsement of the rule of law and constitutional protections during the campaign, that he would reverse the dangerous trend of the Bush/Cheney regime towards eroding civil liberties and would pursue a less bellicose foreign policy. Those hopes were soon dashed. Obama has continued to do harm to our fundamental rights, matching and even exceeding the excesses of the Bush/Cheney in some areas, by detaining indefinitely and torturing anyone he chooses, by asserting the right to murder anyone anywhere that he deems should die, protecting torturers, vigorously prosecuting whistleblowers, continuing the absurd fear-mongering on terrorist threats, expanding the program of drone murders, raising tensions with Iran to dangerous levels, and continuing the policy of obsequiousness to the Israel lobby.

This has made for an interesting change in the dynamics of my social circle, at least as far as my role is concerned. Much of the political discussions still consist of them talking about how the nasty, mean old Republicans are obstructing Obama and that if only he had a free hand, he would do all these wonderful things. This puts me in an awkward position. At that point I have the choice of remaining silent for the sake of peace and thus seeming to tacitly agree with all the views expressed or pointing out all the things that Obama has done on his own initiative that are harmful, especially during the period from 2008 through 2010 during much of which his party controlled both houses of Congress with a filibuster-proof majority.

I often choose the latter course. Their initial surprise at finding a dissenter in their midst is I imagine similar to the reactions of religious believers to finding an atheist at a Bible study meeting. The discussion can then get quite heated. What shocks me is that they are unaware of many of the things that I tell them about the policies that Obama has followed, even though they read newspapers and watch a lot of TV news (although they disdain Fox News, naturally) and see themselves as well-informed. This is because whenever there is a bipartisan consensus on something, however important, those issues rarely get discussed. Glenn Greenwald points out that he experiences in print the same kind of response I experience in private, and adds:

The chances that any of these issues will be debated in an Obama/Romney presidential contest are exactly zero. On all of these issues — Endless War, empire, steadfast devotion to the Israeli government, due-process-free assassinations, multiple-nation drone assaults, escalating confrontation with Iran, the secretive, unchecked Surveillance and National Security States, the sadistic and racist Drug War, the full-scale capture of the political process by bankers and oligarchs — Romney is fully supportive of President Obama’s actions (except to the extent he argues they don’t go far enough: and those critiques will almost certainly be modulated once the primary is over, resulting in ever greater convergence between the two). As National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh put it yesterday: “In truth, Obama and Romney are far closer in mindset and philosophy than anyone is willing to acknowledge just now.” [emphasis in the original]

But even when I inform them of some of these the facts, they proceed to defend Obama as having good intentions. They even defend his claim that he has the right to indefinitely detain and even kill US citizens without trial, saying that they trust him to do so only with bad people. Even when I make the obvious point that all these powers that Obama has accrued to himself would also be at the disposal of future administrations, many of them likely to be even worse than the Bush/Cheney duo they so despise, they do not back down. At a recent function someone said, to general approval, that he trusts Obama to use these extraordinary powers wisely and only against the guilty and not against innocent people, in order ‘to keep us safe’. In other words, they were reiterating the entire Bush/Cheney rationale for going to war and restricting civil liberties, the very things that they had condemned just a few years earlier when the Republicans were in power. They sounded just like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and all the other Republicans whom they despise.

One of them said, with others nodding in assent, that he approved of Obama’s actions because he actually thinks that the US is at war and fears being personally harmed by a terrorist attack on the US and that these actions were thus necessary as precautionary measures. My sarcastic response, that the way we live our daily lives flatly belie the idea that the country is at war and that one has a greater danger being killed by a stampede to buy new sneakers on sale than by a terrorist attack, did not go over that well.

I now feel as if I am an infiltrator in an Obama cult and may be rapidly becoming an unpopular dinner guest. So be it. Being seen as an annoying minority viewpoint is a trivial price to pay for trying to break through that cocoon of ignorance and complacency.

UPDATE: Thanks to Henry, here’s a video of a conversation between a progressive and an Obama supporter. Sadly, some of it reflects actual conversations I have had.


  1. Henry Gale says

    If you’ve never seen it, this YouTube video of an Obama supporter talking to a progressive is hilarious:

  2. says

    This is a real problem. While Obama has moved far to the right during his presidency, those of us who hoped for a real reversal have been disenfranchised. If he is the soul of the Democratic party, what is left for progressives and liberals?

    This is a frustrating position. While I firmly believe Obama was a better choice than McCain (and especially Palin), I’m not sure there would’ve been a major difference. Women’s rights are still under attack, LGBT rights are defended only in the courts (and there very lightly), and I can’t help feeling we’re pulling out of Iraq only because we’re going in to Iran.

    We know the problem, but what is the solution?

  3. M.Nieuweboer says

    I have never understood all those high expectations when Obama was elected. The only thing that goes for him, as far as a Dutchman living in remote Suriname can see, is that he is competent. Bush simply wasn’t.

  4. Glenn says

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, Dr. Singham; your social experiences closely parallel mine.

    I have lost some respect for many people whom I previously regarded as being thoughtful and intelligent, who now can only react to facts that call their opinions into question with ad hominem attacks.

    I have been criticized as being too far to the left (and, amazingly, a Republican). My response is that I have not changed but that everyone else has moved to the right; their perception of me is obscured by the problem of political relativity and their inability to perceive their own political rightward motion.

    Many baby-boomers have taken the political position held by my late father, who, as a union steward, became a Reagan Democrat. I disagreed with the politics of my father and his social circle when I was in my thirties and he was in his sixties; I continue to disagree on the same basis now that my social group has reached their sixties and moved to an Obama-Reagan-Democrat political consensus.

  5. says

    The problem is that the mainstream media is not exposing these rights violations. Even here in Canada, I find very few people who receive their news from our national networks woefully ignorant of Obama’s actions, even though most are aware of the craziness of the Republicans.

    The Republicans are nuts, therefore the Democrats must be OK.

  6. jamessweet says

    I find myself in the interesting position of agreeing with you in my strong displeasure at Obama’s record on civil liberties, and yet agreeing with your friends in that I am still very much an “Obama supporter”, to the extent that I will undoubtedly be voting for him this November and urge others to do the same.

    It is true that Romney and Obama are more alike than most people want to admit. It’s also true that there are important differences between the two. You can say that by adopting this attitude I am simply feeding the existing two-party system, but that’s not entirely true: A two-party contest is virtually a mathematical inevitability given our voting system. I am playing according to the rules of the game, even if I think those rules are not so hot.

    (The plus side of a voting system such as ours is that it tends to encourage centrism, which can be a positive thing for stability and for avoiding takeovers by extremists. It’s worked pretty well that way for most of our history, but that “center” has recently undergone a disturbing shift to the right which is turning that advantage into a disadvantage.)

    Anyway, I simply don’t see any way that someone could in good conscience not vote for Obama, particularly if you live in a swing state. OTOH, I think it is vitally important that we speak out about Obama’s many flaws and make people more aware of them. When a friend posts some fawning thing about Obama to Facebook, I do indeed often take the chance to point out the ways in which he is not so great. But I’m still going to vote for him.

  7. lindajansen says

    Looks like your friends won’t have to worry: 83% of Americans agree with Obama’s drone policies

    here is analysis from black agenda report on the decline of black progressive politics since obama:

    in answer to the person who will vote for obama anyway: what does your vote mean if you go against your principles with it? i say we should organize around issues and pressure WHOMEVER is in power, rather than go along with the Demopubs.

  8. sanford says

    Excellent article. I suspect there are some on the right who have or had the same problem discussing Bush Cheney actions. I know David Frum has gotten some heat for some of the things he has written. Andrew Sullivan has also taken some heat as well.

  9. Sanjay says

    I could have written this article almost word for word. My experience has been eerily similar to yours. Then again, perhaps that’s not surprising, human nature being what it is. Thank you for sharing your experience. Sometimes it’s just nice to know you’re not the only one.

  10. says

    They sounded just like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and all the other Republicans whom they despise.

    Or Britney Spears: “Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes and we should just support that.”

  11. bluepillnation says

    Forgive me for quoting an existing comment on my first time here, but I don’t think I could rewrite it better right now:

    Of course there are legitimate complaints to be heard -- however at the same time achievement is constrained by possibility, and it is a sad truism that the higher up the pyramid you get, the less room for manoeuvre you have.

    Today Clinton is vilified almost as much by progressives for not doing enough during his two terms as he was by conservatives during his time in office -- and yet those same conservatives howled from the rooftops that he was some kind of un-american socialist for the changes he did make. I suspect that a lot of the things progressives now vilify him for (passing NAFTA for example) were essentially a quid pro quo to get some leeway for small progressive reforms with a pathologically antagonistic Republican Congress -- but his greatest legacy in office was turning a sizeable deficit into a respectable surplus, which I’m sure he intended to pass on to Al Gore to keep things moving in the right direction.

    Instead, you had the Bush Administration piss the whole thing away on military and security boondoggles (most of which were resurrected Cold War projects -- completely useless against terrorist cells), which has left Obama even more limited than Clinton was in terms of room for manoeuvre in terms of financial standing alone -- and like Clinton, even the little he has managed to do has come at the expense of being called an un-american socialist by the Right, which has consolidated it’s hold on media even more aggressively than it was in Clinton’s day.

    If President Obama were to do all the things being asked of him by progressives, I could guarantee you a one-term presidency followed by a lurch even further to the right. Both Clinton and Obama know this -- they (and the Democratic Party as a whole) saw what happened to Jimmy Carter and changed tack accordingly -- just as the Republicans did following Nixon’s defeat in 1960 and resignation following Watergate.

    The issue is that the very nature of progressives, being humanist in nature if not in name, is that they tend to take “First Do No Harm” as a baseline. Even self-proclaimed “fighting liberals” like the beloved and much-missed Steven Gilliard took the fight only to those who were causing harm and deserved to be rhetorically threshed and politically sidelined. Regressive conservatives don’t care who they steamroller as long as the result suits them. This is why Democratic politicians try to find consensus even as the Republicans wilfully double down on the crazy -- because the former care what’s at stake and the latter clearly do not. Combine this fundamental drive with the woeful financial situation and the aggressive antagonism of the right-wing media and you have your answer.

    Yes it’s frustrating, but it may bring some comfort to remember Aesop’s tortoise and hare. Push too far too soon and you’ll get cocky and lose (which is particularly true of the previous administration). Slow and sure is the way…

    For all things seem disappointingly slow, Obama has neither moved to the Right since taking office (he was always a centrist), nor has he expanded the Bush Doctrine in any meaningful sense. To clarify that, he has not reversed it (which is a valid criticism), but you can bet it’s not because he believes in it. The truth is that Democratic administrations since the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine have to fight a rearguard action against a conservative media machine that has practically unlimited funding -- it’s not a lack of moral conviction for fear of what conservatives will say about them, it’s a genuine concern that to go too far too soon will result in losing the next election, which will set the progressive goal back even further.

    Think about it -- for all the progressive movement has chastised him for not doing enough, the airwaves and cables are saturated with accusations from the right of him being some kind of anti-american socialist on the basis of what little he has managed. Imagine what would happen if he prosecuted the Bush lackeys and Wall Street crooks and the backlash lost him the election. You’d be looking at two terms of resurgent Republicans driving the USA off a cliff -- just as happened with Reagan following Carter and Bush Jr. following Clinton. The Democrats will be forced further to the right, and as much as I hate to say it, no third party will be able to raise the billions of dollars to stand a snowball’s chance in hell of even coming second in a Presidential election.

    Keep your powder dry and try to keep your eyes on the long-term prize -- it may not happen in our lifetime but it’s got to be better to move things in the right direction, however small, than spread all your chips around the next Great Progressive Hopes and risk losing it all.

  12. clarencejohnson says

    A thought experiment.

    1ST CONDITION: You are a principled civil liberties voter. It wouldn’t matter who instituted or what justification they used, there is never, in your moral universe, an excuse for assassinating your own citizens, based on secret evidence, justified by a secret law, and decided upon by a panel whose membership is secret, not subject to oversight, and has exercised this power at least once.

    2ND CONDITION: You are a citizen of the United States, and given the current conditions of the electoral system, your vote is statistically insignificant. The vote of any single voter, effectively, means nothing to the larger process. No single voter ever affects the actual outcome of a presidential election, only the aggregation of votes.

    3RD CONDITION: The opinion of the average US voter is that 3rd party votes are wasted, perhaps even counter-productive, and 3rd party voting is historically statistically insignificant.

    If these three conditions are true, then you are morally obligated to vote for a 3rd party who does not support the actions described in CONDITION 1.

    “Why’s that?”

    Because if you vote for the lesser of two evils, no matter which one you pick, you have also voted for taking on a small piece of the guilt for oversight-free assassinations of your fellow citizens. If this is not the moral principle that is being violated, simply slot that principle in place of oversight-free assassination.

    “But…are you saying I own a piece of the guilt for the existence of this program? That the deaths of the people under this program are, in part, my fault?”

    That’s what I’m saying.

    “But what about you, you pay taxes!”

    True, but taxes are coercive, to an extent, and if not paying them would substantially affect your own personal freedom and safety, then yes, there is an understandable out, morally speaking. Yes, my taxes do support these programs, but if we’re assuming ourselves to all be law-abiding citizens, then I don’t have a choice on that.

    “But isn’t voting 3rd party just throwing my vote away?”

    Well, does your vote change anything to begin with? If you agree with CONDITION 2, then answer is no, your individual vote means nothing. It is as effective as cheering. You are already throwing your vote away if you vote Democratic in a state that is guaranteed to go Republican. You are already throwing your vote away in the opposite case, as well. If the price of relieving myself of the moral culpability described above, sharing the some of the guilt for violations of the tenets of civil liberties as they’ve been understood since the Magna Carta is “throwing my vote away,” under these conditions, is that not a logical, morally sound choice?

    “But what if everybody thought the way you did?”

    We would have much more viable 3rd parties and a much healthier political environment.

  13. clarencejohnson says

    “nor has he expanded the Bush Doctrine in any meaningful sense.”

    Obama has expanded the Bush doctrine in a few meaningful ways, though.

    -While, when it came to the issues of civil liberties infringements and torture, Obama told us we must “Look forward” meaning not prosecute nor attempt to consider what it was wee’d been up to, the Obama administration has more aggressively targeted Whistleblowers than the Bush administration. There is a greater effort to cover up torture and refuse to provide accountability for it, and a greater effort to punish people for exposing the misdeeds committed in our names:

    This from an administration that promised to be “the most transparent ever”.

    “but you can bet it’s not because he believes in it. ”

    It is utterly useless, unless you are trying to alleviate your own guilt, to speculate what Obama does or does not believe in. We can only judge him by his actions.

    “Imagine what would happen if he prosecuted the Bush lackeys and Wall Street crooks and the backlash lost him the election.”

    He’d have sacrificed his political career on the altar of principle, something no president has ever had the courage to do? Moral cowardice is always excused by the establishment as expediency. And what has it gotten us? Nothing I can vote for.

    Exactly how far will you let it go? What’s your bright line? It’s obviously not a government that can assassinate its own citizens, an idea spawned and endorsed from THIS administration--there was no need to do that, and according to your logic, Obama didn’t want to?

    Obama didn’t want to institute the secret program that he instituted, that if it was handled properly, none of us would have known about?

    You are driving logic off a cliff, and Hopeful Idealist Projection is the name of the brick on the gas pedal.

  14. bluepillnation says

    Guilt? I’m from the UK and have no say in any US Presidential election. Neither am I an “apologist” -- I’m just trying to inject a little reason here.

    Look -- I’m not happy about the civil liberty issues he’s let slide, don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see the Bush Doctrine repealed in full, US citizens getting healthcare free at the point of service as we do -- almost all the things you’re asking for. However you have to work with what’s possible and given the current political climate in the US and financial climate globally, these things are *not* possible.

    He’d have sacrificed his political career on the altar of principle, something no president has ever had the courage to do? Moral cowardice is always excused by the establishment as expediency. And what has it gotten us? Nothing I can vote for.

    It’s not just his political career he’d be sacrificing though. If the lessons of the recent past hold true, he’d be sacrificing the middle and working classes to two terms of regressive Republican policy. Be prepared to kiss goodbye to Medicare, Social Security, reproductive choice for women -- you name it, all the Republican contenders have these and more on the table. Principles can be noble, there’s no doubt about it -- but at what cost?

    Put another way, you’re driving a compact car on a two-lane road with your kids in the back when you see an SUV on the wrong side of the road headed straight for you. The guy driving it is talking on his cell, drinking from a can of beer -- it’s obvious he doesn’t care whether he hits you or not because his kids are safe at home and he knows that his SUV will tear your sedan into aluminium strips in any case. Do you risk your life (and more importantly your kids) for the sake of being in the right, or do you do everything in your power to avoid him even if it means mounting the kerb or going into the wrong lane -- which would put you in the wrong to some extent, but you and your kids would be safe?

    It’s a sad truism that is shared between the US and UK political systems -- sometimes the only way for progressives to gain even a small victory is to vote *against* something rather than for it.

  15. bluepillnation says

    Sometimes third parties bite you in the arse though. In dear old Blighty our third party built a significant amount of support and was generally perceived as a left-leaning bunch of social democrats. Given a sniff of power through a hung parliament, the centre-right of the party elected to join the Conservatives in coalition and the government is now presiding over the most regressive set of policies and cuts to the social safety net since Thatcher was at her zenith.

    Not that it’s going to be an issue in the US -- the barrier to entry for a significant third party is not down to lack of political will, but the simple fact that it takes billions of dollars to stand a chance of even coming second, and the only way even the established parties can raise that kind of war chest is to cosy up to big business lobbyists.

  16. clarencejohnson says

    Why do we expect progressives to need to compromise, yet it seems axiomatic that conservatives or reactionaries will not need to?

    It’s fundamentally untrue--the civil rights gains of the 60s, for instance, were often taken, rather than given, over the protests of the white majority.

  17. bluepillnation says

    In part because progressives care who gets caught in the crossfire and conservatives and reactionaries do not. You’re neglecting to take into account that in the ’60s there was no billion-dollar conservative propaganda machine pumping their dogma into people’s minds and rewriting history (e.g. “Tax cuts lead to growth”, “Financiers are wealth creators”, “Reagan never raised taxes”)

    You’re also neglecting to mention that over a century passed between the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Civil Rights Act 1964 -- given or taken, it took a long time to get to where we’re at. Lincoln’s a hero to many progressives, but the truth is he believed that citizens of African ancestry were not the equal of their European counterparts. Even then it took two world wars in which the segregated black combat units were every bit as brave and effective as their white counterparts (despite inferior equipment and a tendency to end up posted to known troublespots) to get things done even by the ’60s.

    Neither Clinton nor Obama are stupid -- they know that the last two Democratic presidents to take the conservative orthodoxy on directly were JFK and Jimmy Carter, and what happened to them is a matter of historical record. I strongly believe that the Republican quid-pro-quo demanded of LBJ for the Civil Rights Act was the escalation of the Vietnam War. Nixon put the brakes on progress, Reagan began to roll it back, all Clinton could do was slow it down some, and the ascension of Dubya basically turbo-charged Reagan’s policies. You’re looking at a wealth gap unheard of since the Gilded Age, the current Republican contenders are openly talking about destroying the last vestiges of the postwar social contract and you’re talking about principles?

  18. Tim says

    I echo Dan’s sentiment. I’ve been in similar social conversations as you describe, Mano. I usually chose silence. I applaud your speaking out.

  19. Tim says

    Fascinating thread. Thanks to everyone for contributing. I’m learning a great deal. Much to ponder …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *