The 2020 presidential election cycle laid bare some egregious contradictions. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser was a Black woman standing up to the bully, President Donald Trump, who used federal police to block protestors from demonstrating on 16th Street. Mayor Bowser promptly renamed the section in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and hired artists to emblazon “Black Lives Matter” in yellow on the asphalt across from Lafayette Square.
Bowser was one of 14 Black mayors cast in a commercial endorsing Joe Biden as the candidate of social justice and, frankly, Black people. In a turn of dramatic irony, Bowser, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms were amongst mayors who either allowed or directed some of the most violent responses to Black Lives Matter police protests in the summer of 2020.
This is a callback to the Obama years. Then-President Barack Obama had to navigate multiple fronts of racist attacks. Meanwhile, the nation looked for him to preserve order while ensuring justice in the face of Black Lives Matter protests against increasingly visible police killings.
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Obama presented himself as proof of social progress in the tradition of the civil rights movement. His election itself was considered a victory for those who had “hope” in the promise of America; those who believed real “change” was indeed possible if only each person did their part. But what was the president’s part?
People have long expressed discontent with this form of politics. Twelve years after “Yes we can” became “Yes we did,” the urgency and necessity of these voices has only grown in volume and in number.
It became clear early on that President Obama’s role would be to set the terms of political debate on the left and to negotiate terms of surrender with the right. This is an evolution of civil rights era, Cold War Black liberalism. Those Black leaders and institutions eager to accept the modest gains of racial integration at the expense of precluding Black liberation vilified antiracist, anti-imperialist, and anticapitalist Black radicals.
Black Studies scholar Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly portends that “Black liberals cast American-centered democracy as the only hope for Black people worldwide to continue the path of racial progress and to improve their general conditions.” As did civil rights legislation in the 1960s, the election of the first Black President would once again “prove that racism had become fundamentally incompatible with the most industrialized country in the world.”
This is the function of representation politics: not to demonstrate change but to embody change, while those who are being represented see little to no change at all. The failure of the political elite to deliver material improvements to poor and working-class Black people has led to a growing willingness to reject or downright oppose an Obama-style approach to progress.
Collective neoliberalism is the idea that if the country does not work for the people, then the people are what is wrong. Not systems or structures.
Obama-era politics can be said to be an evolution of Reaganomics and an extension of Clinton’s “third way.” Obama himself once famously quipped that his “policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican,” unwittingly acknowledging his party’s rightward drift. Clinton championed several idyllic conservative priorities himself.
There’s been a sustained liberal pushback from labeling Obama (or his staff) as neoliberal. Erstwhile Obama defender, journalist Ezra Klein, considered Obama and his administration “market-oriented progressives.” In explaining why neoliberal doesn’t “usefully describe anyone,” Klein defines neoliberalism as how “capitalism mutates from an economic system to a governing and ever moral philosophy.” He would then say that Obama’s shortcomings on stimulus, inequality, and health care were less about the administration’s agenda and more about the agenda that would pass Congress.
Klein’s analysis does not mention Obama’s decision to fold Organizing for Action — a former grassroots organization formed to elected Obama — into the Democratic Party against organizers’ advice. It doesn’t broach the listless Race to the Top which is “the most far-reaching presidential policy enacted of behalf of charter schools.” Unseen is a critique of the $1 billion no-bid contract to Corrections Corporation of America or the commitment to the Carter Doctrine via the Iran Nuclear Deal framework (formally Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA). And it doesn’t reconcile Obama’s grandiloquence about government while choosing silence on the execution of Troy Davis, inaction at Standing Rock, and fast-tracking the secret process of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
While Klein concedes that the Affordable Care Act is a “neoliberal approach to expanding health insurance coverage,” he does not answer the operative question: If a Democratic President with unified government can only get a modified Romney Care through Congress, does “vote blue no matter who” work?
In rhetoric and in legislation, Obama’s appeals were a direct offshoot of the personal responsibility and racial respectability demanded of Black citizens and all Americans who want the government to work for them. Obama cemented the neoliberal order while adding a cultural veneer.
Democrats have since presented themselves as the alternative to the overt white nationalism progressives do not want, even if they most rarely provide a viable path to what those on the left want. As Professor Adolph Reed notes, “Obama’s election called forth in the same breath competing impulses — exultation in the triumphal moment and a caveat that the triumph is not as definitive as it seems.” Many who find objectionable the thought of Republicans in power are happy to exercise this form of agency while the true levers of power are obscured.
This phenomenon is a collective neoliberalism—a kind of blame-shifting from the politicians and the ruling class to the polity. Elite players have privatized politics, commodifying the vote while simultaneously defanging it. Collective neoliberalism is the idea that if the country does not work for the people, then the people are what is wrong. Not systems or structures. Not those who are elected to represent their interests. This elides conversations about the source and location of power and entrenches the status quo.
No longer can people afford to wait for the process of progress. Necessity has sparked a shared imagination leading to collective action.
On Oct. 13, less than a month before the election of Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared on CNN’s Wolf Blitzer show. Blitzer, the long-time friend of Pelosi, challenged her, asking why she didn’t accept the $1.8 trillion stimulus offer from the White House when “millions of Americans can’t put food on the table, can’t pay the rent.” Pelosi responded by repeatedly interjecting “And we represent them…”
Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 73: Jamarlin Martin Jamarlin makes the case for why this is a multi-factor rebellion vs. just protests about George Floyd. He discusses the Democratic Party’s sneaky relationship with the police in cities and states under Dem control, and why Joe Biden is a cop and the Steve Jobs of mass incarceration.
A tweet from Rep. Ro Khanna just days earlier spurred this line of questioning. Khanna admonished that people needed immediate money, and that “1.8 trillion is significant & more than twice Obama stimulus.” Pelosi seemed hesitant to appear to help Trump “before Election Day and for the market to go up.”
The election has come and gone, with President-elect Biden receiving more votes than any candidate in U.S. history. Covid-related relief spending has finally passed Congress in time to beat the New Year. It is about half the amount of October’s bill and contains half the relief funds, half the unemployment insurance funds, and many exclusions. Many Twitter users expressed outrage at the insufficient funds. Pelosi called it “significant.”
Early signs show that a Biden-Harris America will be an effective third term of Obama-era collective neoliberalism. Amidst a brutal year of fighting covid-19, Biden maintains his opposition to single-payer health care. He says he will listen to the science on climate change, but he’s already vowed to not ban fracking. After historic calls to “defund the police,” Biden pledges to increase police spending by $300 million.
When Obama criticized the outcry of “defund the police,” he warned that activists will have “lost a big audience the minute you say it.” Since the summer, several cities have committed to defunding the police. Organizers are successfully raising consciousness around police abolition, and perhaps fortuitously abolishing Obama-style hope.
No longer can people afford to wait for the process of progress. Necessity has sparked a shared imagination leading to collective action. Because as poet and essayist Audre Lorde said, “Nothing neutralizes creativity quicker than tokenism, that false sense of security fed by a myth of individual solutions.”
Joshua E. McCoy is a writer and photographer based in East Point, Georgia. His work examines structures and status quo aiming to find the seams and bare the threads. Twitter: @joshuaemccoy