In commenting about John Boehner’s resignation from Speaker of the House and Congress, President Obama told the Big Lie in American politics. It’s a lie that virtually all mainstream politicians tell and that’s presented positively by most Democrats and negatively by all Republicans.
The lie is that Boehner and Obama are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Now the President didn’t spell it out in detail, but what he communicated to everyone when he said he and Boehner are on opposite ends of the political spectrum is that Obama is on the left and Boehner is on the right. To be sure, Boehner is to the right of Obama, although there are many such as Ted Cruz and Kevin McCarthy who are much farther right than the retiring Boehner.
But Barack Obama, like so many in the Democratic Party, are centrists looking left. Certainly Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are left of Obama, but that doesn’t even begin to cover the possible ground to the left of our president. Think of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or FDR’s best VP, Henry Wallace. If we expand to all the legitimate stable democracies of the world, the right-centrists in countries such as Germany and the Scandinavian countries are to the left of Barack Obama. And then we come to Willie Brandt and Helmut Schmidt and the golden age of democratic socialism.
If we were to analyze the positions advocated in the work of legitimate sociologists, political scientists and historians in the English speaking world—those who don’t depend on think tanks for funding, we would find that Obama would at best be a centrist.
And let’s not forget that Obama typically follows the hawkish right-looking American foreign policy of the last 70 years. He is not as hawkish as the Republicans who want to bomb everything that moves in the Middle East outside of Israel, but Obama is in favor of using drones, developing automated weapons, wholesale NSA spying on citizens, using foreign policy to help large U.S. multinational corporations grow their businesses and projecting a strong U.S. military presence throughout the world. Of course, no person can be elected president who does not accept the basic premises of the military-industrial complex.
It is only in the bizarre world of 21st American mainstream politics, truncated by big money and a rightwing news media, that Barack Obama can imply that he is a the left end of the spectrum with a straight face and not have a dozen journalists call him on it.
The news media has always kept the American public firmly focused on maintaining the myth that a narrow part of the political spectrum represents all possibilities. And since 1980, that narrow part of the spectrum has moved considerably rightward, to the point that on all but the very basic social issues such as gay marriage, Barack Obama and the Clintons are about where Dwight Eisenhower was in the 1950s.
The news media defines the terms of the debate in many ways, including:
- Defining the issues in terms of rightwing language and predilections, e.g., assuming we have to cut the deficit and discussing spending cuts but not tax increases to eliminate the deficit.
- Allowing the ultra-right to have their views aired in the public forum, while ignoring anyone left of mainstream Democrats.
- Selection of Op/Ed experts and academic studies they publish. My favorite example in recent years was the extensive coverage that the media gave to a study that showed that an enormous number of TV weather personalities—half of whom are talking heads and none of whom are experts in climatology—have doubts about global warming, while completely ignoring a study that demonstrated how the world could produce twice the electricity it needs using clean wind energy.
- Using the so-called fairness doctrine to let rightwing lies gain or maintain credence, for example quoting both sides in debates that have already been settled such as human-created global warming and the safety of vaccines. In both instances, a story will quote the one expert who doubts global warming or thinks that vaccines cause autism and one of the 99+% of all the experts who rightfully think that humans are causing global warming or that vaccines are safe.
- Letting rightwing lies stand. The media is willing to go after politicians who lie about their own accomplishments like Carly Fiorina or behave hypocritically (e.g., gay politicians who condemn other gays, such as ex-Senator Larry Craig). But they are much more reluctant to highlight policy lies, such as the lie that raising the minimum wage destroys jobs or that we are undergoing a crime wave.
- Selective coverage, for example, covering right-wing politicians but not progressives; focusing on Republican primaries in which to right-wingers are battling it out, but not Democratic primaries. To see what I mean, try looking up the instances when the “liberal” New York Times calls a Democratic politician “brave” in a feature story over the past five years. In virtually all instance, that politician is fighting unions.
When compared to the corporate factotums who are most of the current crop of American politicians, Obama looks very good to progressives. But compared to the possibilities that exist out there, he is a centrist. A true progressive would favor a wealth tax—a tax that people pay annually on all assets over a certain amount, say $5 million. A true progressive would never favor any movement such as charter schools that hurts unions. A true progressive would clamor for single-payer nationalized health insurance. A true progressive would advocate the unilateral dismantling of all nuclear weapons.
Thus, while we could label Barack Obama a 21st century mainstream progressive, that far from puts him on the opposite end of the spectrum from John Boehner. There is much more to the left of Barack Obama than the mainstream news media and the two major parties would like us to know about.