The professional left

Since Barack Obama began to find success in the Democratic primaries of 2008 he and his supporters have attracted virulent attacks from the professional left of liberal commentariat, lobbyists, pundits, think tankers, and academics. The underlying basis for the attacks is class - the class of professional liberals/leftists, cut off from any popular movement, derives its authority, prestige, and income from its status as the official interpreter and judge of "leftism" or liberalism. That's why they get writing assignments, TV invitations, grants, jobs in DC or NY writing position papers for liberal institutions. The term "professional left" describes a group of people who generate liberal/leftist opinion as their profession (these are not organizers). But while the professional right is disciplined and assiduous in supporting the Republican Party, the professional left is disciplined and assiduous in attacking the Democrats especially the Obama Democrats. There are three main reasons:
  1. Professional rightists work under tight corporate management at Koch brothers think tanks, Murdoch or corporate media, billionaire endowed chairs- they know that they work for the corporate elite and any dissent will rapidly lead to an end to the fat contract at AEI or speaking invitations at the Federalist Society meetings or appearances on TV. The professional left depends on the same right leaning corporate media - plus some philanthropists and universities who don't care about the Democratic Party. Nobody is going to get on TV by discussing the work Hilda Solis is doing for poor workers but they will get on TV for agreeing with Robert Reich that the administration is clueless. David Sirota, Ed Schulz, Jane Hamsher, Glenn Greenwald and the like have found attacking Obama to be a passport to the Green Room - as have Tavis Smiley and Cornell West and a number of other people who could not get on TV without taking a hostage before they learned to attack the President.
  2. The pragmatic non-ideological liberalism of the Administration and its emphasis on direct grass roots organizing threatens the core business model of the whole group. If your professional status is based on your academic papers on race and class in America and the Administration is basically declaring your body of work to be irrelevant ideological hand-waving you might get as angry as Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz whose furious (and creepy) indignation surfaced during the primaries or Princeton Professor Cornell West who complained that the President "talked to me like I was a Cub Scout, and he was a pack master, you know what I mean?" On the other hand, right wing "intellectuals" understand that they are employees and that nobody serious takes their work product as anything but propaganda. The Cato institute can publish 100 million articles denouncing corporate subsidies and Exxon management and the Republican Caucus will applaud and hand out merit badges, cookies, and milk, while ignoring them entirely and everybody plays along. The professional left, desperately competing for a much smaller number of slots at universities and a much smaller pie is constrained to take itself more seriously.
  3. Finally, the natural political affiliation of American professional intellectuals of any stripe is (American) libertarianism because it reflects their class interests. Libertarianism is socially liberal (at least for people with money in metropolitan districts), individualistic and scornful of the solidarity ethos of the labor/civil-rights movement, status conscious, obsessed with wording and process and profoundly indifferent to the economic interests of the larger working class. People don't mechanically follow political theories just because those correspond to the interests of their own profession but they tend that way. That's why "progressive" Glenn Greenwald extols the candidacy of Republican child labor champion Gary Johnson. Johnson is a classical libertarian - as the joke goes, a Republican who wants to smoke pot. Greenwald's business partner and ally Jane Hamsher worked with right wing libertarian Grover Norquist to attack the Obama White House. And Professional Left favorite Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone often sounds the same alarms about the conspiracy at the Federal Reserve that one would otherwise associate with the Ron Paul Republicans.
The revealing thing about the professional left attack on President Obama is that so much of it is demeaning and aimed at personality. One reads Wilentz's article with a sense that he's pounding the keyboard in anger directed personally at Mr. Obama. Or consider "environmentalist" Glenn Hurrowitz's article "Obama as Snuffleupagus: Expect our imaginary friend to skip out on Power Shift again"
So no one's waiting for Obama any more. We've realized that in the great battle between Big Bird and Big Oil, President Obama is Snuffleupagus -- our imaginary friend. When we're alone together, we can dream of a bright future. But when the dirty energy lobbyists show up looking for a fight, somehow he's never there. Suddenly, you're alone up against their billions -- and when you look in the distance, it occasionally seems as if he's reappeared on their side. Also, you realize that he's not as furry as Snuffy, and doesn't have a Snuffle. WTF, Barackalupagus?
That's at the level of invective one might expect at a Tea Party protest. But nobody is as visceral as Glenn Greenwald.
As for the Democrats themselves, he can barely contain his disgust.
Greenwald is a great example of the professional left in a number of ways. First, he's totally financially dependent on talking engagement, journalistic assignments, and book sales for his material attacking the Obama presidency. Second, his slashing style and utter disregard for fact is unfortunately representative of the type. Here's Greenwald in the "liberal" on-line magazine Salon:
In December, President Obama signed legislation to extend hundreds of billions of dollars in Bush tax cuts, benefiting the wealthiest Americans. Last week, Obama agreed to billions of dollars in cuts that will impose the greatest burden on the poorest Americans.
Let's look at the second sentence and the AP analysis

As a result of that sleight of hand, Obama was able to reverse many of the cuts passed by House Republicans in February when the chamber approved a bill slashing this year's budget by more than $60 billion. In doing so, the White House protected favorites like the Head Start early learning program, while maintaining the maximum Pell grant of $5,550 and funding for Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative that provides grants to better-performing schools. Food aid to the poor was preserved, as were housing subsidies.

Instead, the cuts that actually will make it into law are far tamer, including cuts to earmarks, unspent census money, leftover federal construction funding, and $2.5 billion from the most recent renewal of highway programs that can't be spent because of restrictions set by other legislation. Another $3.5 billion comes from unused bonus money for states that enroll more uninsured children in a program providing health care to children of lower-income families.

In reality, faced with an intransigent right wing Republican House majority and a fractured Democratic Senate, the President outplayed the Republicans and saved his social spending budget. But the professional left was outraged anyways. Now let's consider the first sentence which is even worse. The reality is that the President traded tax cuts for the rich in exchange for keeping millions of people's unemployment insurance alive, funding for green energy, tax breaks for the poor and middle class, DADT repeal, and a food safety reform bill. Certainly one might disagree with the tradeoff and possibly there is an honest liberal argument for why letting millions of people lose their last lifeline is a good thing, but Greenwald's not making that argument because he pretends that the entire package was tax cuts for the rich. The sheer dishonesty of these two sentences as description of the President's activities, however, is nothing compared with the dishonesty of Greenwald's pretense to care about these Democratic Party issues at all. Here's Greenwald in 2005, during the Bush administration sounding like Jan Brewer on the campaign trail.
There already is a “closed sign on the border” when it comes to illegal immigration. It’s called the law. The problem is that the “closed sign” isn’t being enforced because the Federal Government, which has its interfering, power-hungry hands in virtually everything else, has abdicated its duty in one of the very few areas where it was actually meant to be: border security.
It's worth reading Joy Reid's second article and this article by Dana Houle to get a sense of the underlying politics of someone who has been able to make a living and gain a large following as a champion of "progressive" morality. Greenwalds positive remarks about Gary Johnson are really revealing (he thinks Johnson should run with Russ Feingold!). This is Johnson on civil rights.
KEYES: Do you think that the Fair Labor Standards Act, for instance, would pass constitutional muster? JOHNSON: I think that they do go overboard, that these protections do really exist. We elected a black president. I think that we clearly have shown that we are colorblind. Colorblind and we’re not a discriminate (sic) nation. TP
Johnson thinks child labor laws are unconstitutional and has gone so far as to endorse the old segregationist "nullification" platform
In a wide-ranging conversation, Johnson endorsed the nullification movement — a radical view pushed by right-wing pseudo-historian Thomas Woods that states can invalidate federal laws which they don’t like — calling it “terrific.”
So here's Glenn Greenwald, who portrays himself as a strict constitutional defender and a progressive outraged by the President's knuckling under to the Plutocrats and Oligarchs (to use another PL star's language), and yet the thrilled Young Americans for Liberty (Ron Paul fans) report
The speech was stellar with too many good points to touch on in a single blog post. I would like to point out that in the Q&A at 38:00 Greenwald specifically addresses a possible alliance between progressives and Ron Paul libertarians. He also mentions Gary Johnson as a unique candidate with possibly the best chance of bringing this coalition together in a 2012 run for president.
That is, as Dana Houle points out neither a liberal nor a progressive point of view, but it's perfectly consistent with the libertarian politics of a professional leftwinger. It's a job and, I guess, someone has to do it.