Last call for drinks. Last chance to find someone new before the night is done. It’s closing time at the Club of Disaffection.
I spent a good deal of time at this club during the turbulent years of 1964 to 1968 at Stanford. But then I changed. Within two years of graduation, I had what Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe” — meaning wife, child and a demanding job. I left the club never to return.
But the club continued to thrive in my absence. Certainly, it was going strong in 1979. That was the year that Barack Obama graduated from Punahou — the fanciest private school in Hawaii — and entered Occidental College in Los Angeles. As he writes in a quasi jive-talking way in his memoir Dreams from My Father:
I had discovered that it didn’t make any difference whether you smoked reefer in the white classmate’s sparkling new van, or in the dorm room of some brother you’d met down at the gym, or on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids who had dropped out of school and now spent most of their time looking for an excuse to brawl. Nobody asked you whether your father was a fat-cat executive who cheated on his wife or some laid-off joe who slapped you around whenever he bothered to come home. Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection.
In retrospect, one of the great ironies of the 2007/2008 presidential primaries was Mr. Obama’s success in labeling Hillary Clinton as the 1960s leftover and himself as the bright new hope who would be the bridge over the still troubled waters of that era. His ability to project himself as “a post-partisan politician” was based in no small part on his clever takedown of Hillary as someone who had been “fighting some of the same fights since the ’60s” and who therefore would have “a very difficult time in trying to bring the country together to get things done.”
That worked as political tactic. Unfortunately, as anyone who has read his memoir and studied his performance as president knows, it is also false. It would be hard to find anyone who is more steeped in that part of the nation’s past than Barack Obama. He’s a man frozen in time. His clock stopped before Ronald Reagan came to the presidency. It remained stuck when he went on from college to become a community organizer, a Harvard law school student, a law school lecturer at the University of Chicago, an attorney for ACORN, and a politician consumed with ambition for higher office.
As much as he talks about the “failed policies” of George W. Bush, Obama wants nothing more than to return to a set of the failed policies of a much earlier era — the policies of the ’60s and ’70s. These were the policies that drove the “misery index” of inflation plus unemployment to undreamt of heights, that led to the creation inside the United States of a permanent underclass of nonworking, fatherless families subsisting on welfare payments, and that undermined our ability to project force and command respect abroad.
It is difficult to recreate those two decades in a few words for those who did not experience them (and a long-standing joke is that the drug-addled people who lived through this time cannot remember it anyway). If I may take a stab at such a recreation: The ’60s were a time of protest, riot, and sexual liberation; the ’70s were a time of military defeat (in Vietnam), economic stagflation, and declining national confidence in our ability to compete either economically or militarily. One factor that connects the two decades is the continuing growth in government and the thought that a more active government was somehow needed to deal with the problems that the private sector and a more free society could not handle. Of all people, Richard Nixon himself declared in the early ’70s that “we are all Keynesians” — which, in an economic downturn, basically means you should borrow and spend, keep your foot on the fiscal accelerator, and figure you will die before the bill for your profligacy comes due. No one who believes that will work can convincingly cite a single instance in which it has worked. Others can cite numerous instances where it hasn’t.
Obama grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. In his memoir, we find this revealing passage about his time at Occidental:
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes on the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society’s stifling constraints. We weren’t indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.
Many of the privileged and yet “alienated” people from that time have gone on to become smug and successful. They no longer grind out their cigarettes on the carpet (indeed, they no longer tolerate smoking in public places). But they continue to believe that they occupy the intellectual and moral high ground — and they continue to look down their long noses at “bourgeois society’s stifling constraints.”
Like the young Obama, we as a people have learned to choose our friends carefully — or if not our friends, then our employees and colleagues. We all publicly celebrate the idea of “diversity.” Can’t have too much Eurocentrism, can we, when we think of our history or our place in the world? Who dares to say he is not a feminist? Political correctness, it may be said, is the homage that most of us ordinary people pay to the elitists who inhabit our universities and the worlds of art and entertainment, and who surround Obama and share his views.
Sometime between 1979 and today, the Club of Disaffection metamorphosed into the Ruling Class, as it was defined by Angelo M. Codevilla in his brilliant essay in this magazine earlier this year (now available in book form). As a result of the 2008 election, which not only gave Obama the presidency but resulted in super-majorities in the House and Senate, the ruling class has been able to rule as never before. And of course it has made a total mess of things — running up trillions of dollars of debt and putting the economy into a straitjacket that does not allow it to grow or to create jobs for people who are coming into the workforce for the first time. In coming to power, the alienated blowhards from the 60s and 70s — not just Obama, but Barney Frank, Pelosi, and the rest of them — have succeeded in alienating most of the American people.
Because of that, as Codevilla observed in his article, the gulf between the ruling class and the rest of America is greater today than it has ever been: “The ruling class’s appetite for deference, power, and perks grows. The country class [the rest of America] disrespects its rulers, wants to curtail their power and reduce their perks. The ruling class wears on its sleeve the view that the rest of Americans are racist, greedy, and above all stupid. The country class is ever more convinced that our rulers are corrupt, malevolent, and inept.”
On a couple of occasions during his battle with Hillary back in 2007, Obama allowed his post-partisan mask to slip. The first time was when he bad-mouthed the idea of putting a little American flag on his lapel as a sign of patriotism. Realizing this was a political gaffe, he has never appeared in public again without having the flag on his lapel. It is like the military salute that he always makes in descending the stairs of Air Force One.
His other, more comical mistake was the remark about arugula. “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” he asked on his first visit to an Iowa farm. “I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff.” Not being familiar either with Whole Foods or Obama’s leafy green of choice, some Iowans must have wondered whether he had dropped in from the Red Planet — or Harvard Yard.
It was at Occidental that Obama first learned that he could electrify an audience with mere words. “As something of a lark,” he recounts in his memoir, he became involved in a campaign calling for disinvestment in South Africa. Obama says he approached the microphone “in a trancelike state” and began:
“There’s a struggle going on,” I said. My voice barely carried beyond the first few rows. A few people looked up and I waited for the crowd to quiet.
“I say, there’s a struggle going on!”
The Frisbee players stopped.
“It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we know it or not. Whether we want it or not. A struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. No — it’s a harder choice than that. It’s a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and justice. A choice between right and wrong.
This, then, was vintage Obama — at the tender age of 20 — speaking in a way that seemed to transcend race and class… and using a mish-mash of rhetoric to play the part of a modern-day messiah. It worked once, but will people fall for it ever again?
I don’t think so. The next time he says, “I say, can anyone out there hear me?” my guess is that the Frisbee players will go right on playing their game and nobody will look up from what they are doing. People will tune him out. They know he is not any kind of a unifier and they know that the policies he favors represent an old but still potent blend of poisons.
It’s not yet closing time for his presidency, but it is closing time for the Club of Disaffection and its hold over the way people think. To quote Marx (Karl, not Groucho), the expropriators are about to be expropriated.
I think that will be the message from Tuesday’s election.