Friday, October 21, 2011

That Hope and Change Stuff

I first heard of the contemporary artist Shepard Fairey on a program on the Ovation network. His socially-engaged art, first manifested in his street art (especially his Andre the Giant sticker), has been collected in gallery shows and books like E Pluribus Venom, Mayday, and Obey: Supply and Demand. He became known, as well, because of his "Hope" poster widely published during the 2008 presidential campaign. A few weeks ago, taking atwriting break at “my” Barnes and Noble cafe, I noticed a book which Fairey and Jennifer Gross edited, Art for Obama: Designing Manifest Hope and the Campaign for Change (Abrams Image, 2009)

The book collects a variety of paintings, collages, computer-generated art, prints, and other works from and inspired by Obama's campaign. One by Ron English, “Blue Abraham Obama,” in which the famous 1863 Alexander Gardiner photo of Lincoln, wherein he looks directly into the camera, is rendered with Obama’s features. Another Lincolnesque painting is Scott Siedman’s “The Man from Illinois,” in which Norman Rockwell’s painting “Lincoln the Railsplitter” (depicting young Lincoln walking, reading a book, and saying an axe) is remade with Obama in the role (holding a hoe instead of an axe). There are several prints concerning America’s lack of universal health care; a very forceful print in which a 1950s-era water fountain marked “Colored” is pouring rainbow colors; numerous renderings of the promises “hope” and “change," and art connecting Obama to Dr. King and Gandhi.

Not all the art is painting, collage, and print. There is a dress, designed by Lisa Anne Auerbach, with the slogans “Chosen People Choose Obama” and “My Jewish Grandma is Voting for Obama” woven into the fabric. Sculptures and furniture are also artworks responding to Obama’s campaign. I highly recommend this book if you appreciate examples of socially-involved contemporary art (which makes me wonder if politically conservative people are also producing artworks today: I just don't know).

Exploring this book, I thought, not unkindly, "What happened to all that hope and change?" (or, as former Gov. Palin put it, unkindly, that "hopey, changey stuff"). Then, serendipity! As I sorted files from recent projects) I found a 2010 Time magazine that I’d saved in a pile of research from last year. Peter Beinart's article, “Why Washington’s Tied Up in Knots," gave me some answers to my question(,9171,1966451,00.html). I enjoy pieces like this which help me make historical connections. 

Beinart argues that the two major political parties were, until the mid-1900s, diverse with outlooks and vying interests. One force that caused a change for both parties was the support of civil rights, environmentalism, abortion rights, and "a more dovish foreign policy" among liberal Northern Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s. The Republican party grew more conservative in response, as conservative Southern Democrats became Republicans and Northern liberal Republicans became Democrats.  As this process continued, Beinart writes, "Washington politics became less a game of Rubik's Cube and more a game of shirts vs. skins."

He notes that after Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush left office, "congressional Republicans realized they could use political polarization to stymie government — and use government failure to win elections. And with that realization, vicious-circle politics started to become an art form." By the 1990s, "a new breed of aggressive Republicans — men like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and Trent Lott — hit on a strategy for discrediting Clinton: discredit government. Rhetorically, they derided Washington as ineffective and conflict-ridden, and through their actions they guaranteed it." These congressmen used the filibuster, previously a rare devise, to force the failure of legislation. Meanwhile, conservative Republicans discredited moderate Republicans as traitors to the party. "The Gingrich Republicans" used the "vicious circle" because it worked---and in particular, it worked because (1) Americans dislike political fighting, and (2) American voters tend to blame the party in charge. "By 1994, trust in government was at an all-time low, which suited the Republicans fine, since their major line of attack against Clinton's health care plan was that it would empower government. Clintoncare collapsed, Democrats lost Congress, and Republicans learned the secrets of vicious-circle politics: When the parties are polarized, it's easy to keep anything from getting done. When nothing gets done, people turn against government. When you're the party out of power and the party that reviles government, you win."

To return (in my mind) to the outcome so far of Obama's "hope and change": Beinart further notes that this vicious-circle politics have become even more pronounced during the Obama administration than during the Clinton administration. Democrats who were thrilled at the Obama victory (as well as the Democratic majority in Congress) neglected to appreciate the resultant hardening of the Republican minority--and their unwillingness to cooperate and compromise. "In 2009, Senate Republicans filibustered a stunning 80% of major legislation, even more than during the Clinton years. GOP leader Mitch McConnell led a filibuster of a deficit-reduction commission that he himself had demanded. The Obama White House spent months trying to lure the Finance Committee's ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley, into supporting a deal on health care reform and gave his staff a major role in crafting the bill. But GOP officials back home began threatening to run a primary challenger against the Iowa Senator. By late summer, Grassley wasn't just inching away from reform; he was implying that Obamacare would euthanize Grandma."

Beinart further notes that Republicans have, during Obama's term, not only helped to thwart his goals but to foster the "rising disgust with government not just to cripple health care reform but also to derail other Obama initiatives."

He continues that there is no guarantee that Democrats might not use these tactics, although the Republicans currently use them better. And the tactics don't always work: for instance, when the government is "handing out goodies." But when the government wants people to make sacrifices, this is the point where people are called upon the trust their government: "It's when the pain is temporary but the benefits are long-term that people most need to believe that government is something other than stupid and selfish. Which is exactly what they don't believe today."

In a more recent issue, I found an article even more relevant to the Shepard Fairey book: Anthony Romano, “Wanted: A New Messiah,” Newsweek, Oct. 10 & 17, 2011 (

He writes that "America is desperate for a messiah. Christie Fever would seem a little more remarkable, for instance, if conservatives hadn’t already contracted Bachmania, Donalditis, and Restless Perry Syndrome, then cast aside each of their would-be saviors as soon as he or she showed the slightest earthly imperfection. Meanwhile, on the left, and in the center, the very voters who fueled President Obama’s landslide 2008 victory are now awarding him the lowest job-approval ratings of his career. Christie summed up popular sentiment in his speech. 'If you’re looking for leadership in America,' he said, 'you’re not going to find it in the Oval Office.' Never mind that the administration just assassinated yet another Al Qaeda kingpin, Anwar al-Awlaki, out-Bushing Bush and further discrediting the old canard that Democrats can’t protect America. The belief that there’s someone better out there—someone who can lead us not into recession, but deliver us from unemployment—now extends to both sides of the aisle."

Romano reminds us that FDR and Reagan served during economic crises, but their leadership style (according to the research of Yale's Stephen Skowronek," is "reconstructive": in Romano's words, "both of them blamed the crises they presided over on the failed, un-American ideology of the previous regime and relentlessly positioned their sweeping proposals as part of a grand project to undo the damage and revive real American values." This is a "resilient model" for a president "because it serves as a one-size-fits-all justification for everything the White House does. FDR had high hopes for his central New Deal agency, the National Recovery Administration; to him, it was 'a supreme effort to stabilize for all time the many factors which make the prosperity of the nation.' Two years after the NRA was created, however, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. While this setback may have deterred a nonreconstructive president, Roosevelt simply cited it as further evidence of the old regime’s intransigence and again started 'promising to reconstruct the very terms on which American government operated,' as Skowronek puts it. By 1936—after forcing Congress into the summer session that produced Social Security, the Wagner Act, and the Banking Act, among other reforms—he had. He won reelection with 523 electoral votes." 

Romano notes that although Reagan's approval rating was very low in the early 1980s, when unemployment was over 10%, he stuck to his script of less regulation, lower taxes, and other policies a way to return (in Reagan's words) to “the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers." Romano writes: "Eventually, the Fed rejuvenated the economy by manipulating the money supply and lowering interest rates. But Reagan got the credit because he kept harping on his reconstructive storyline (tax cuts = growth), which provided the public with a more intuitive explanation. In 1984 he carried every state but Minnesota."

Unfortunately, he writes, "Obama ran as a reconstructive leader, but he has governed as something else entirely. It’s absurd to say, as Christie did in California, that the president has been 'a bystander in the Oval Office,' or to claim, paradoxically, that he’s a socialist bent on 'transforming' America into France part deux. As Obama’s advisers often remind us, he has accomplished a lot of unradical things as president (preventing another Great Depression, passing private-health-insurance reform, saving Detroit)." But Obama has tended (in Romano's words, "to look for policy proposals, like the stimulus or health-care reform, that respectfully weave opposing viewpoints into some sort of pragmatic whole. As president, Obama has assumed the role of the bipartisan realist—the leader who prides himself on seeing the world as it is, with all its political limitations, and doing the best he can within those constraints." 

Unfortunately, Obama has also needed to communicate a reconstructive vision which (as it did for FDR and Reagan) "gave meaning to their victories, kept them buoyant during dry spells, and defined the opposition before the opposition could define them. The approach also assured voters that Reagan and Roosevelt shared their deep dissatisfaction with the way things were." To me, the fact that the Tea Party emerged and forcefully voiced a Reaganesque vision during debates about bailouts and health care reform is an example of the opposition doing the defining, rather than vice versa. 

This past week, another article by Beinart caught my eye: "Occupy Protests’ Seismic Effect" (The Daily Beast – Mon, Oct 17, 2011, writes about the demonstrations "against unregulated capitalism" that had just taken place in 900 cities.  He addresses the topic of the hopefulness exhibited in the Obama campaign, and shows how it is taking a slightly different direction.

He writes: "In a great many countries, especially in the West, the political grass is dry. Huge numbers of young people are unemployed, governments are launching harsh and unpopular austerity programs, and the financial elites responsible for the global economic meltdown have almost entirely escaped justice. Millions of articulate, educated, tech-savvy people are enraged and desperate. And they have time on their hands." This movement is quite fertile, he notes, and something like this hasn't been seen since the 1960s. He notes that those movements did not push American politics to the left because, among several reason, "many ordinary Americans were starting to chafe against taxes and regulations that had been growing since the New Deal. Although few realized it until Ronald Reagan’s election, the relationship between government and the economy in the late 1960s and 1970s was actually more conducive to right-wing than left-wing change."

Although the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s was a precursor to what we're seeing now, that movement had more to do with "globalization's impact in the developing world" while the current movement is, according to Beinart, primarily focused on what unregulated capitalism has done to their own societies [i.e., America and Europe]—societies where there is much greater anger and pain than there was 15 years ago. Therein lies the movement’s greater potential to create political change."

But---to return to my interest in the Shepard Fairey book---Beinart argues that a more recent and more important precursor is Obama's 2008 election! He traces the beginnings of the "netroots" activism in Howard Dean's 2004 campaign and the beginning of sites like DailyKos and MoveOn. "But," Beinart writes, "in retrospect, the netroots movement’s focus on candidates as a vehicle for change left it unprepared for the aftermath of Obama’s election, when Obama failed to articulate a story about why the financial meltdown had occurred—and why America’s regulatory system and welfare state needed to be rebuilt—that could compete with the Tea Party’s narrative of a government grown so large that it was stifling both economic growth and personal liberty."

He continues: "What we are witnessing in Zuccotti Park actually represents an improvement over the Obama campaign. That campaign was largely about faith in one man. The Occupy Wall Street movement, by contrast, represents a direct reckoning with the most powerful forces in American life, forces that are not voted in and out of office every two or four years. And it represents a belief that young Americans must force that reckoning by themselves. No politician will do it for them. Those instincts are exactly right, and we’ve never needed them more."

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