Want to know why Obama now seems prepared to throw the county into another recession in pursuit of solving global warming? Want to know why he has been so clueless in dealing with the Bowe Bergdahl mess? It’s been said before but it’s worth saying again. The “first African-American President” has very little of the African-American experience in his background. Instead his home base since he matriculated has been groves of academe.
Obama is the President that liberal academics have been trying to give us since George McGovern. He is running the country the way Michael Dukakis would have. In the Wall Street Journal this week, William Galston argues that conservatives have gone over to the extreme in the last 30 years and that’s why we’re now so polarized. That’s more than half wrong. What the figures actually show is that liberals were already polarized in 1972 and conservatives have taken 30 years to catch up. Liberals were never able to elect one of their own as President, however, until they hit upon the formula of nominated the “first African-American President.” Now he has put academia in the driver’s seat.
So what is this academic perspective like that is now running the country? I was at my college reunion last week and got a very strong reminder of what it’s all about. My alma mater is one of those top-ranked institutions that sits just off the leafy commons of a small New England town. We had a very distinguished class — one Nobel Prize winner and another likely candidate in waiting. All of my classmates have prospered to a degree that none of us would have anticipated when we were swilling beer and pulling all-nighters back in the day.
There’s a predictably high portion of doctors, lawyers, research scientists, and college professors, but also an uncommon number who seem to have stumbled into finance, almost inadvertently. Another fascinating trend is that all the former jocks have become environmentalists. I supposed this is inevitable under 18th century mathematician Daniel Bernoulli’s principle that as wealth increases, the marginal value of greater wealth declines in value. After you’ve reached a certain level of affluence, saving the planet becomes much more interesting than promoting more growth.
One of our classmates is now a world-famous economist who served in the Clinton Administration, is often on President Obama’s lips, and goes around the world warning that inequality threatens our future and that “we no longer live in a democracy.” There was a lot of email exchange before the reunion and somehow all this coalesced into the idea that our class should form an organization to lead the nation out of its quagmire. A small delegation even visited Washington beforehand to discuss the matter with Senators and Congressmen.
At the reunion the famous economist gave his usual presentation to the usual standing-room crowd and then there was a panel discussion with several financial services specialists and academics, mulling how we should address the problem. The litany was familiar. “We no longer live in a democracy, the people no longer have a voice, black votes are being suppressed, the 2010 election proves this, money rules politics, Citizens United has turned the country over to the corporations,” etc., etc., etc. After an hour of this I finally stood up and said I had to disagree with almost every word that had been spoken but would file a dissenting opinion later. Instead they invited me to a more informal session next morning at our reunion headquarters.
When I arrived around 9 a.m. an earnest group of about 50 classmates and their wives was already deeply engrossed in the question of how to save the nation’s spirit. This time the discussion was more unguarded. “We’ve got to make this non-partisan,” said one panelist. “We’ve got to get Republicans involved.” “Of course Republicans are wrong about everything but we’ve still got to make them feel like they’re a part of it,” said another. After another hour of this I stood up and said once again I disagreed with every word but didn’t want to take up people’s time. “No, tell us what you think,” they insisted. So I let loose.
“I don’t think we’re not living in a democracy. I think our democracy is working very well,” I said. “The House of Representatives has flipped three times in the past two decades, the Senate has twice and was split 50-50 at one point. What more do you want? If there are extremes on both sides, there’s also a huge bloc of independents in the middle and they’re the ones who decide elections. If there’s too much money in politics it’s only because everything is now decided in Washington. You can’t do anything in this country anymore without clearing it with several federal agencies.” I cited a recent story I had done about a small museum in Colorado that wanted to divert a stream 50 yards in order to install a 60-kilowatt waterwheel to power its visitors’ center. It had spent two years dealing with federal agencies and still wasn’t making any progress.
By this time there were several gasps of disapproval from wives in the audience before one classmate finally piped up, “If you lived out in Idaho where everybody wants to divert a stream, you’d understand why we need help from Washington.” Of course this suggests that nobody in Idaho knows how to deal with streams and all the wisdom in the country resides along the Potomac. But the real message was, “Everybody in Idaho seems to want to develop something. The only place we can get any leverage against these people is in Washington.”
So it went, on and on. Another great campaign my class decided to embark upon was — who would have guessed? — global warming! One classmate has sat on the National Research Council’s Committee on the Dimension of Global Change for 23 years and sounded the alarm — global warming is history’s greatest threat to mankind! This led to talk of another panel to consider the issue. When a faculty member insisted that no “deniers” should be allowed to speak, however, some participants dropped off and the remainder shifted it to a discussion on how to get the college to divest from fossil fuels. In addition to the scientist there was another financial services specialist who handles college endowments plus a lawyer and former school principal who recently retired to Ithaca and quickly joined New York’s celebrity-studded anti-fracking campaign. He assured us “fossil fuels are on the way out.”
After another hour of this, I tried again. This time I wasn’t so polite. “Look,” I said, turning to the audience of about 100 alumni of various vintages, “you’re a very affluent slice of the population. If you’re not the top 1% or 10%, you’re certainly the top 25%. But what you’re talking about here is impoverishing whole swathes of the country. The entire Midwest is dependent on coal. Driving up the price of oil would set off another recession. Now I happen to believe we should do something about global warming but the only thing that’s ever going to have any impact is nuclear energy. So why aren’t we developing nuclear? Because the same people who now lament about global warming stopped it thirty years ago. Everybody who looks at nuclear agrees its dangers have been exaggerated. So instead of wasting your time on this divestiture stuff, why don’t you do something useful and try to revive nuclear in this country?”
That got a solid round of applause from about one-third of the audience. But the Ithaca lawyer mumbled something about how Mark Jacobson of Stanford has shown we can all live on wind and solar and that was the end of it. (Jacobsen is a charlatan whose work not even major environmental groups accept.) On the other hand, the Tennessee filmmaker whom the class had hired to film all our discussions did approach me afterwards and asked for more. (The class is hoping to get a documentary of its efforts on PBS.)
So what does all this have to do with Obama? Well, Obama lives in the bubble created by these elite institutions. He’s surrounded by people like my classmates who start with the assumptions that Republicans are wrong, most Americans are stupid, and then move to the premise that if global warming means shutting down half the Midwest and putting tens of thousands of people out of work, well what’s more important? Anyway, somebody somewhere has published a paper showing they can all live on solar energy.
It also explains to me how a President could become embroiled in such a tawdry affair as the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. In addition to being a pure product of academia, Obama is an unreconstructed college radical who came along when the bubble had expanded to include all of left-wing politics. There is nothing unusual in our history about left-wingers being in touch or even collaborating with the other side. Yesterday it was the Soviets, today the Taliban. Read Ann Coulter’s Treason for a history of that. As a graduate student I was involved in SDS for a while. I remember attending one meeting where one of our leaders said he had been in contact with the Soviets asking for financial support. They had turned them down and he was very embittered but nobody blinked an eye. (It was at this meeting and a few others that I decided I was in the wrong movement.) Whole planeloads of people went to Cuba to harvest sugarcane. I remember meeting Jews who had crossed over to the Palestinians to confront the Israeli Defense Forces from the other side.
Another thing about being a radical in the 1960s was you realized how many weird anarchists like the Bergdahl family were still floating around from the 1930s. I remember listening to one irascible old codger giving us careful advice on how to lob a bomb into a squadron of police officers. The woods are full of eccentrics who hate all kinds of authority, can’t reconcile themselves to American freedoms, and think that anything on the other side of the world must be a vast improvement.
The point is, nobody in the Obama administration has any radar for this kind of thing. For them, the Bergdahls are just another wholesome American family worth celebrating in the Rose Garden. If Rolling Stone had written a flattering profile about Sgt. Bergdahl portraying him as a sensitive hero who understood the sinister narrative of American policy much better than his fellow platoon members, well that just proves the point. And if conservatives such as Ralph Peters were suggesting as far back as 2009 that Bergdahl might have deserted to the Taliban — well, that’s just exemplifies the right’s failure to understand the American principles of free speech. (Rolling Stone dismissed Peters as “an action-thriller writer who serves as a ‘strategic analyst’ for Fox News” without mentioning he is a retired colonel.) So if President Obama suddenly finds he has freed five top terrorists to rescue a deserter who is probably responsible for the deaths of six American soldiers who tried to rescue him and whose parents used their Rose Garden appearance as an opportunity to recite a Muslim prayer, it is only the end point of a long, long road of academic scorn and dismissal of mainstream America.
The spring of my freshman year a couple of us were getting drunk at an outdoor fraternity picnic when someone got a bright idea. Let’s all hitchhike over to the women’s college ten miles away! Soon enough three of us were standing on a corner at the edge of town thumbing a ride. Nobody picked us up but after a while town kids started cruising by making fun of us. We were wearing Bermuda shorts, which seemed very fashionable on campus at the time but suddenly made us feel a little conspicuous in a small New England town. “Ooh, I’ve got a pair of shorts just like that!” mocked one girl as she drove by. After another ten minutes of this, we slunk back to campus.
Although we hadn’t realized it, we were living in a bubble. Outside was a big wide world called “ordinary America.” After fifty years, many of my classmates are still living in that bubble. Granted, the bubble has now grown to encompass much of the nation’s capital plus the vast majority of Washington’s “policymakers.” But it is still a bubble. President Obama also inhabits it. Only now is he beginning to realize that there is a big wide world out there as well.