Nikhil Singh Interview Transcript 2

MATT JACOBSON: OK, just as a start, would you mind saying and spelling your name? NIKHIL SINGH: Nikhil Singh, that's N I K H I L S I N G H. MJ: So here we are. Exactly a year ago today was inauguration day for Barack Obama. And a couple of days before that, we sat at this very table, talking at, at the time, was an extraordinary, almost unimaginable moment of promise and hope. Here we are a year later. I'm hoping you'll talk in two different registers today, maybe talk as a historian, but also your own kind of personal experience of this year. We can talk about the Obama presidency, the state of the nation, how things have unfolded over the last twelve months. So first, give me that historian's eye view of the first year of the Obama presidency, in terms of, from the standpoint of analysis, policy, cosmos kinds of things. How would you assess the first year of the presidency, and as a narrative, what does it look like? What were some of the key moments, what were some of the key decisions? What does this look like as a story told by a historian? NS: It's a wonderful question. It's a bit early to say, so. And it's interesting to see how the presidential historian kind of narrative is used to talk about Obama. In other words, one of the things that's always been interesting, or that has really been interesting about Obama, since the beginning of his presidency, maybe even leading into it, was, you know, was he going to be like X. Was he going to be like FDR, which is in some ways his sort of chosen figure, and a figure whose presence as a historical figure developed and grew as a result of the so-called great recession that we're in. Was Obama going to be like a Ronald Reagan figure, in the sense that he was going to be a figure who augered a political realignment that was enduring and long-lasting and consequential for politics for a generation, in other words, was he going to be that kind of a figure? Was he -- more recently the comparisons have become less favorable, less flattering. Is Obama going to be like a Lyndon Johnson as a result of fighting two wars and also trying to have an ambitious domestic agenda, essentially, guns and butter in the context of an economic downturn, which would ultimately then wreck his presidency? And then finally, of course, there's the worst comparison of all, which is Obama as a sort of a Jimmy Carter figure. You know, kind of a-- I mean, I think Carter ends up being a sort of a misunderstood and underappreciated president, but a one-term, rather ineffectual, naive, bit of a greenhorn even, and someone who really never mastered the art of governing, and really never got any traction in terms of his policy initiatives. So it's sort of typical of Obama that he's kind of a Rohrschach test. And so I suppose I'm trying to answer the historian's question in a way to sort of put all of those options on the table, and to suggest to some degree that they're still all options, without fully committing myself to any of them. I think it was my-- and stop me if you want to redirect-- but I think it was my hope that Obama would be a figure somewhat like Reagan for the left of center, progressive forces in the country, which is to say that his election would auger, you know, what political scientists and theorists have talked about as realignment. So substantive and irreversible changes in party identification attached to the development of a very different kind of narrative that then orients policy in a sort of broad way. And creates new possibilities for maneuver in a sense for people on the left, or on the left of center, let's say. I mean, certainly Reagan accomplished that. I mean, Reagan accomplished that with the mantra, you know, low taxes, small government, individual initiative, and so on and so forth. And those were sort of rather simple and easy slogans for people to digest, but they became the framework for a series of policy initiatives that in some ways have not stopped really into the present day, and continue obviously to have a lot of traction. It seemed to me that by trying to make the argument that we needed government, and that government could be intelligent and effective and efficient, that Obama was trying to begin a process of kind of rolling back that narrative, and even trying to suggest that there is some connection between the services and the sort of public life and public institutions that we come to rely upon, and the ability of government to levy taxes, among other things. And then to distribute the income that comes from that taxes in ways that are fair. And obviously, we've lived through a period where we've had a vertical distribution of wealth, a lowering of marginal tax rates along every indice, and a great accumulation of wealth at the top of society, even as public infrastructures of every kind have not really shown great appreciable improvement. In fact, they've decayed in the last thirty years. And so it seemed to me that part of what Obama was going to offer, in a substantive way, was in addition to sort of that reorienting narrative, was the beginning of a kind of repair of the sort of the deep erosion of both public-spiritedness, to use a kind of Tocquevilleian term, but also sort of literally the things that we need to sort of bind us together as a society, from educational institutions all the way down to the very water treatment systems, and ports, and roads, and everything else. And he's never really supplied either the narrative for public renewal, even though I think he was during the election, nor has he pursued the policies that would actually enable that to emerge as something that people could identify as a tangible achievement. Instead, I think he did two things when he came into office. Reacting to the financial emergency, he built on the Bush-Paulson policy of bailing out the banks, and essentially he put in people who would reassure the markets into his cabinet. And they were essentially Clinton retreads that were fully consistent with the kind of neoliberal agenda that we've really seen since the 1990s. And they didn't extract much in the way of a quid pro quo from the banks. It was not a disciplined or far-seeing set of policy choices. Now, one could argue that Obama was somewhat constrained there, as he has been on everything, by what came before-- MJ: Let me pause just for a second. The selections that he made, the whole kind of, I mean, really, almost lock, stock, and barrel, the Clinton crowd, who then became the Obama advisors and cabinet. Was that, in your view, was that a decision of political expediency on Obama's part, or was that who he's been as a policymaker all along? Was that the Obama that we should have recognized? NS: Unfortunately I'm starting to think the latter is true, that one of the characteristics of Obama that I've begun to sort of, I think, has begun to become fleshed out for me, his sort of mode of governance, seems to be to try to split the difference in every kind of possible policy configuration. So he's very thoughtful about it. But he'll sort of look and see, well, what are the polls here? And how can I kind of split the difference? So in the economic project, it's sort of splitting the difference between a kind of neoliberal, supply side, low tax-oriented kind of economic stimulus, and a public spending sort of employment-directed kind of stimulus. Now clearly, the stimulus erred on the side of the tax-cutting rather than on the side of direct public spending in the name of, say, infrastructure projects and putting people to work. Clearly that was-- So both emphases are kind of there, but clearly it's weighted more towards the sort of neoliberal pole. It seemed to me that in some ways, that was partly based upon this sort of promise of post-partisanship. So to some degree, Obama was bending over backwards to try to recruit Republican support. Not a single Republican voted for the stimulus. MJ: Not a single Republican has voted for anything! It's just been remarkable. NS: Yeah, it's completely remarkable. So I think he should have figured that out more quickly, and then begun to sort of think about, what would the agenda that he would like to see happen, and what would be the agenda that would really benefit the kind of broader political and policy vision that he has, be. It doesn't seem to me that he stopped to do that. But what gives me pause that this is actually Obama's mode, and that this is the way Obama makes decisions, and that in making these decisions, in some ways he tends to privilege the dominant pole, or the more conservative pole, shall we say, in the range of possibilities, is also the sort of similar way he reacted to the Afghanistan decision. MJ: Right. Which is also exactly what you said. He split the difference. NS: He split the difference. And he split the difference in a way that was supposed to be this kind of magic, you know, magical reflection that was immediately going to produce consensus. Of course, it produced no such thing. It disappointed most people. And in a sense, it played, I think, in the end, much more strongly to the kind of neocon side of the argument, which is that the United States needs to continue to have a significant military footprint all over the world, and that the United States, as Obama said in his Nobel Prize Speech, of all things, you know, underwrites global security and has underwritten global security for the last 60 years. Suddenly now, effacing and erasing all the ways that the United States has contributed to global insecurity, including the insecurity of the United States in the world, which has been on display for the last ten years. There's never been a really decided effort on Obama's part to really change the narrative, you know? And I think, you know -- one could say, OK, he's more hemmed in on national security, that national security has been so much the provenance of the right, that being seen as weak on national security can completely unravel your presidency, and blah, blah, blah, and that Obama's real interest is being a domestic president, a domestic policy president. So he was kind of covering his flank there. But this formula's repeated again, and again, and again, and again in every instance. So healthcare ends up becoming the same kind of splitting the difference. I mean, you take the most progressive option off the table, that actually pulls in a very popular way, the single payer idea. And then you farm out the negotiations for healthcare to the Senate, in the interest of getting a couple of Republican votes, -- MJ: which you never get – NS: that never materialize, and you end up with a very conservative bill, that most of the left and progressive forces of supporters don't like, and which the right's not going to vote for, anyway. Now, again, all of this is not Obama's fault. I think that we have a deeply broken political system. I mean, when the American Senate, when 40 senators, or 41 senators now, who represent the population of like, I mean I think I heard a figure recently, like 23% of the country, can basically decide what's going to happen in policy, in social policy-- MJ: And they're willing to use a kind of veto, it is like a veto. NS: Yeah. It is a total veto. MJ: And it's been astonishing to hear the proposition completely normalized over the last several months that 60-40 is the necessary majority, that anything less than that is a non-governing body. NS: It's completely unconstitutional. Because it's just an internal Senate rule. There's no, there's nothing that says the Senate should operate that way. So the fact that it continues to operate that way is a little baffling to me. MJ: And that it's becoming just a normal of, nobody's even questioning it anymore. NS: No one questions it, no one questions it. But it obviously has produced absolute, absolute gridlock. And so at that level, I don't think that the loss of the supermajority is a bad thing, necessarily, in the current moment. I mean, the Democrats still have 50, I mean, now I'm turning a little bit to the current, this election from yesterday, which is such a, you know, a kind of a new bellwether, it's very ironic, obviously, to be talking about the election of a far-right-wing Republican in Massachusetts a year after Obama took the state by 65% as the new sort of symbol of change, if you will, just one year out, and in a period in which the Republican Party has all but virtually been wiped out in the Northeast. It's a remarkable turnabout. MJ: It is. Although, I mean, exit polling suggests that it was just a protest vote, of the sort that makes no kind of ideological sense, or no logical sense. It was just a pure, kind of, punish the Democrats. NS: Here's the ideological sense I think it made. This is what I wrote, you mind if I read something a little short that I wrote this morning? It's a little bit repetitive around what I've said already, but I think there's a lot of self-serving instant analysis and hand-wringing about the election. And I also think, you know, politics is local. And there are huge local issues that are going on in Massachusetts, in the Massachusetts Democratic Party, in the Coakley campaign, everything else. All of those, I take all of that on board as important in explaining this outcome. But what I find interesting is this sort of intuition that I've read in a couple of pieces that I've been reading online about this, is that we're in the midst of a kind of convergence of right-wing and left-wing populism around a rejectionist stance vis-a-vis the Obama administration. I mean, Howard Dean, for example, saying, vote down the healthcare bill. I mean, Scott Brown won on the basis of basically saying he's going to be the one to stop healthcare. So there was an articulate segment of the left of the Democratic Party basically saying this. Just as, obviously, there's a right position. And I think Obama's played into this in a really profound away. Because on the one hand, Obama is seen as someone who serves the banks, he's a, kind of a servant of the financial industry, where he has, in truth, gotten enormous amounts of contributions. And then Obama, on the other hand, is interested in redistributing the hard-earned money of middle class people to the poor, who are basically represented among the uninsured. And I think that that is a subtext in the healthcare discussion that doesn't often get fully remarked upon, but I think it's there. That's more there on the far right, you know, that Obama's kind of taking away our country, the sort of middle-class kind of white American entitlement, that's going down the drain, frankly, for other reasons that have nothing to do with Obama, that have actually a lot more to do with the last 30 years of right-wing economic policy, can now be sort of laid at Obama's doorstep, and that healthcare reform – MJ: Is the symbol – NS: kind of looks like a symbol of that. Now, and as we know, in such an equation when right-wing and left-wing populism kind of tend to converge, the right comes up trumps, and the banks and the insurance companies still win, you know? That's the great sort of painful irony of the history of populism, in some sense, in the United States. That one could argue that there never has been a really effective left-wing populism, perhaps outside of that period in the 1930s when you had a really significant labor movement. So you had a lot of outside forces pushing on the political establishment, in a certain kind of direction. We have nothing remotely like that right now, it seems to me. And I think in this context, again, Obama tends to be too clever by half, which is to say, on the one hand, he's had this very ambitious agenda, when you think about it. I mean, the amount of things he's been willing to take on blows your mind, and it's truly impressive. He'll take on cap and trade, he'll be assertive in sort of trying to reframe U.S. foreign policy, healthcare, obviously the economic crisis, stimulus, financial regulation, and so forth. And it's all out there. I mean, these guys are working hard. And when I think about this in comparison to the Bush administration, it's shocking. I mean, what did Bush do in his time in office? He launched a war. You know? And that basically was it, for eight years. I mean, they launched a war. I mean, they did a lot of other damage along the way. But that's the signature top policy initiative of the Bush years. And it's interesting to think about why presidents might want to launch wars, given the state of gridlock in congress. Like, wars become the one – MJ: The one thing – NS: the one realm of action where you can actually do something at a policy level. And I wouldn't put it past the Bush-Cheney people, that they were thinking, not just about foreign policy, but about domestic policy, in launching these wars. Obama, I think, is the reverse. He's extremely thoughtful about this whole realm of policy questions, and he wants to get it right, and he wants to move the country back onto a sort of, again a sort of a sure footing domestically and within the world. But one, he never offers this broader framework that explains what he's doing to people. And two, he really thinks that the way you make policy is by constantly, as I said, splitting the difference between different sides, as if that's sort of going to give you a kind of a formula. Nobody ends up being happy, and he ends up appearing sort of out of touch. You know, not as a political leader, or even a political figure, but as somebody who's kind of reactive, almost. And so, I don't know. I mean, this is really concerning to me right now. Because I feel like the bottom could start to fall out pretty quickly, because I think that the conditions in the country are not getting better at an everyday level, at an economic level. And there was a lot of scary stuff in that Massachusetts race. And one of the things we've clearly seen is that support has eroded for Obama among white voters, very-- MJ: Both Democrats and Independents. NS: --very dramatically, actually. I mean, in some ways Obama's still popular, and I wouldn't want to overplay the argument that he's not. I mean, he still has 50% popularity ratings and people still sort of tend to like him. But there has been a way in which the Republicans have been trying to take him down from the very beginning. And the way they've tried to take him down has had a very racialized cast to it. MJ: I wanted to talk to you about that, I wanted to get to that, but first let's just back up for one second. In retrospect, I mean, now this battle is still raging, and it's not clear what the bill is going to look like when it passes, or if it's going to pass, or what's going to happen with the healthcare reform. But it's not looking good at the moment. From the vantage point of right now, do you think it was a mistake on Obama's part to start with that as his first major policy initiative, or was there no way around it? I mean, one argument is that he had the majorities, he had the congress, he had the Senate, he had the honeymoon. You know, when else do you try to do something so huge? NS: Yeah. Well, I do think the proof is still, I mean, the proof will be in the pudding, and it's still to be determined. I tend to believe that if they pass something, that it will be a major achievement, as flawed as it will be, and there will be opportunities to do things with it, and to tinker with it, and that eventually it will become popular. MJ: Like Medicare. NS: Yeah. That's the history of American social policy, you know, in some sense. MJ: And Republicans will take credit for it, 40 years from now. NS: Yeah. They'll have trouble touching it, potentially, in the way that they still can't mess with Social Security and things like that. But there's a big threshold still to be crossed, and I think, you know, it's not an accident when that Senator Jim DeMint said, if we can stop him on healthcare, we'll break him. And I have to say, I know we're going to get to this, but there are echos of the slave driver in that, obviously, the South Carolinian, we'll break him. And I think that if he's not successful in passing something, then of course it's going to go down as a huge tactical blunder. Because so much time has been spent talking about it. People are clearly worried about the deteriorating economic situation. And as I said, that sort of combination of the sort of, bank bailout, and what's seen as a socially redistributionist and costly entitlement program, which is how it's seen by voters who already have healthcare. Which is, I mean, I don't know exactly what the statistics are, but my guess would be that people with healthcare probably are voting in greater numbers than people without healthcare. That would just be my guess. Could be could be wrong. That would be, actually, probably a useful thing to know. But I mean, clearly that was a dynamic in Massachusetts. Essentially they have healthcare, precisely the kind that everybody could have, but you know, they're justifiably, or at least understandably, worried that this is not going to do anything for them. MJ: So let's go back to the opposition that Obama has encountered. I mean, I think that these things are fused in a certain way, but also maybe we can separate them out a little bit, too. There's the opposition in the halls of Congress, and then there's the opposition kind of at the street level. Characterize that for me, and kind of talk, if you can, about-- first of all, have you seen anything in the response to the opposition to Obama that has taken you by surprise, or was this all to be predicted? And what is that narrative of opposition over this past year? How has it unfolded? The way we receive it through the media is that it's kind of building to a crescendo, so that's the narrative. That it's building. But I don't know that that's actually true. NS: Yeah. Well, what is it that, I think it was Paul Gilroy who wrote a few years ago, fascism hasn't been defeated, it's merely on hold. And I think I would transpose that in the following way. That the Jim DeMints and the Joe Wilsons of the world are essentially enraged by the idea that a liberal African American from Chicago is president of the country. Enraged. And they reflect a rage about a loss of country that is deeply tied to a kind of racial nationalist history and tradition. You know, there's that clip they showed over and over again, of the white woman crying after Obama was elected, saying, I feel like I'm losing my country. There's some kind of visceral feeling around that that's been stoked, and clearly the kind of representations of Obama that came out of the Tea Party rallies, Obama is Hitler, Obama is the devil-- they're deeply rooted in a kind of racial psychosis. Blackness as evil, as trickery, as devilry, as demagoguery. Et cetera. And the very fact that that can be conflated with Hitlerism is a fascinating sort of sign of the kind of maniacal fusion of sort of different kinds of emblems that this kind of thinking represents. And how it is-- it's out there. And I think it can be characterized as fringe thinking, to some degree, except that it has strong adherents who know how to-- well, it has people who are adherents who are actually also kind of the rational practitioners of political hardball as well. And also who are kind of looking for every opportunity to mobilize that kind of sentiment, and to graft it onto a wider strategy. We've seen this happen again and again in American electoral politics. I mean, if anything, I think one of the things that-- to go back to almost the first question you were asking me, about the historian's view-- I was thinking about this today, how this whole postracial narrative that came out about Obama. That Obama is sort of this symbol of a kind of post-racial turn. And I must say, I was among those who was very skeptical of the idea that this country could actually elect a black president. I was very skeptical, and very surprised and very euphoric when it happened. But I think what we're seeing now is probably similar to what people saw in the 1960s. Because imagine the euphoria in 1963, when King gave the I Have A Dream speech, in D.C. Right? And two years later, Watts was burning. And three years later, Lyndon Johnson was passing the biggest crime bill that had ever been considered in the United States, in the interest of law and order. It was really Johnson that really began that. And so the defection, the rapid defection from any kind of substantive commitment to civil rights among the majority of whites, you know, it was so fast that one could say that the commitment was weak to begin with. But there was also something there, right? And I think that these really powerful, progressive, revisionary moments in U.S. history are ones that we need to remember, and hold onto, and lay claim to, and sort of understand that they, too, have a continuity and a recurrence that is really important. But we shouldn't be surprised at all to see the pendulum swing the other way, to see the fact that there are no gains that are irreversible, here. Derrick Bell used to say, racism is permanent. You know, I think that's true. It takes different forms. And by racism, I don't obviously mean something simple, like prejudice, or attitudes, or even just anti-black hatred. I mean a kind of a deep-seated sense of the boundaries of membership, and claims upon the nation and upon the state that are arrogated to one group. And it constantly reinforces its sense of groupness precisely by laying claim to that entitlement. And I think that that, the possibility of that kind of politics, which sort of divides the country, is always present. And I think the Republicans are having trouble with that. I think they're still very much on the back foot in that sense. It's very hard to come out and be an overtly racist politician in America. Demographics are changing. I think that this is the great opportunity that Obama represents. That there could be a continued push towards becoming a truly multiracial, multicultural democracy, especially as we sort of embrace the sort of diverse constituencies, and those constituencies become mobilized to actually do the work of politics. Because I do still think that is the great promise of the United States, and what it kind of offers to the world at some level. You know, the possibility of a kind of art of politics, and a self-renewing kind of investment in democratic politics. I really think that that is part of our political culture, and something that we can kind of celebrate about our political culture. But the institutions are in trouble, and there are obviously these more troubling strands, that really want to divide the world into friend and enemy, and who know that it's a very easy thing to do. It's a very easy thing to do, both internal to the country, and in relationship to the world. And the scary thing about the current moment is how those could sort of begin to converge. That not only do we have an anemic democracy at the institutional level, in the sense of like the way an obstructionist politics can basically block things from happening, we have the erection of a kind of a legal architecture that has radically eroded our civil liberties as individuals, and empowered corporations, but also empowered policing bodies and so forth. One thought that Obama would do something about those, but he's done almost nothing on that front. That's not propitious at all. And then we have a situation, obviously, where we're in a global recession, where there's a sense of a decline in the American standard of living. One can easily imagine that slipping into a much, an even more polarized, at the popular level, society. Because I actually think in some ways, at the popular level, that society is less polarized, especially along racial lines. MJ: Less than it was when? NS: Than it was, say, in the Reagan era. In the immediate post-civil rights period, or through the 1980s. I mean, I think there is something that Obama's election indexes in terms of a kind of a different level of comfort with difference in everyday life. But that doesn't mean that fears and xenophobia cannot be stoked and reignited and reinitiated, because they're really all there. They're latent and the lines have been drawn. And especially as those can get attached to anxieties about the foreign, it's a dicey situation. So I mean, I think that on those levels, those are not the things that tend to be part of our political discussion in this country. But I think those are part of the calculation that people are making. I mean the way that that Christmas incident, with Abdulmutallab, the so-called, you know, undie bomber. I mean, the way that, a nonsuccessful terrorist act, if anything an example of, in some ways, the lack of sophistication of al Qaeda. Its sort of somewhat jerry-rigged and kind of improvised quality becomes a moment of national hysteria, and a kind of a broad attack on the administration. I mean, I think they weathered that fine. But imagine if that had been a successful bombing, what the fallout would be from that. It's a very fragile period, politically. And we don't have a country that, despite what I said earlier about the sort of wonderful democratic tradition, and the sort of self-renewing aspects of that, it's not built upon a deep sense of knowledge or political intelligence, necessarily. I mean, there may be a kind of vernacular spirit, that's sort of like, throw the bums out, and people will mobilize to do that, but people are not thinking -- I mean, I thought people might be when they elected Obama, thinking about the long-term. And Obama, to his credit, is a long-term kind of thinker. But in the era of short-termism across every aspect of the society, most of all the financial side of it, it's very hard to sustain the kind of long-term thinking and application and work that is really going to be required to dig us out of these dilemmas. And it seems really clear to me, that in a funny way to go back to Jimmy Carter, that Carter was right, in the late '70s. Americans need to start adjusting to a different sense of, to a reduced standard of living, to a reduced footprint in the world, to a reduced sense of national importance, to become, in some sense, a more ordinary country. And to sort of tend our own garden. And that's not an isolationist position. That can happen in concert with other people in the world, very much so. Especially because of what the United States has to offer, I think, politically. MJ: And also because of the global nature of so many of our problems. NS: Exactly. It's a different moment, it's a different period. And the United States is still an enormous market, and an enormous source of innovation and enterprising possibility. So all of that remains. But man, there is going to have to be a very serious readjustment at the level of our public culture and political culture. And Obama, it seems to me, I mean the hope I had for him was that he was, in addition to being a realigning figure, at the sort of level of how political contests gets decided, that he would be that kind of figure at a cultural level. But he doesn't seem to be that, yet. He could develop into it. But he almost rests a little bit on the symbolic laurels now, of, you know, I did it, I'm a figure of transformation in virtue of what I represent in terms of the American racial narrative. But there's a much bigger story there. And when you think about say, the, and we talked about this last time, when you think about the impasse that King confronted at the end of his life, didn't matter that he was a transformative figure. When he started talking about the problem of militarism and materialism, you know, it was like, we don't want to hear you anymore. And yet those are centrally our problems, aren't they? MJ: So can you come down to street level a little bit, and talk about your own experience of this past year? NS: It's been so interesting, hasn't it? I mean, I felt so-- I mean, I still have posted some things that I wrote, that I posted on my website, that now look positively naive to me. They really do. I was so exuberant about Obama's election. And this has been such a sobering, sobering period, from almost the beginning of his presidency. And I have to say, despite that, I've remained incredibly impressed with him, as a person, and what he is managing. So my tendency has been at each juncture to kind of give Obama the benefit of the doubt. So I think I retained significant optimism throughout the first half of the year. And I found it obviously frightening to see the emergence of this kind of right-wing discourse and seeming, although I think somewhat simulated, grassroots movement. In quotes. You know, it's clear that the battle is just beginning. But then it seemed to me that Obama made some really, really, really big missteps. And I think the Afghanistan decision was a very, very bad decision. I mean, again, as I said before, I can rationalize it by saying he was trying to cover himself politically, but I think we'll find ourselves in very much the same place a year from now. We'll be having the exact same conversation about what to do in Afghanistan. And one can hope that Obama's laid the groundwork for withdrawal, at that point. We tried it, blah, blah, blah. But we'll see. We'll see if that's even possible politically, because I think-- MJ: Right. Withdrawal is not something that this country's good at. NS: Yeah. Not very good, not very good at it at all. I think that the moment that things kind of turned for me, though, and I think the moment that my sense of optimism really cracked, was when he gave his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. It was a masterful speech, maybe the best speech he's given all year. But it was a speech that, it seemed to me, placed Obama squarely within the tradition of Cold War liberalism. And by that I mean it was a speech in which he aligned himself with really the most expansive vision of American hegemony that came out of World War II. Which essentially said that the United States really is the indispensable nation that must underwrite global security, and become the guarantor, at some level, of global capitalism. Whatever the cost. And that position is sugar-coated, and obscured all the sort of dark places that has taken U.S. Policy. And Obama did that as well, in that speech. And of course, he couched it all in a much more reasonable frame, the frame of what some commentators have called ethical realism. Which is that the world is really a dangerous place, and if the United States doesn't do it, there's assumed to be this kind of vacuum, but we have to go about it in an ethical way, we can't torture people, blah, blah, blah. But you know, that's really just a kind of a rhetorical gloss that the Bush administration thought it could dispense with, for reasons I still sometimes have a little bit of difficulty understanding. MJ: Why they didn't just go ahead and sugar-coat it the way everyone else does? NS: Yeah. It's like, make them find the black sites, make them prove torture. Don't come out and say, we're going to torture people, essentially! But I mean, I think it's more complicated than that. And I think the differences are, as the lawyers will say, the differences are probably more significant than I'm making them out to be. But I really felt that that was a really low moment for me. And it's interesting, because the really honest neocons, like Robert Kagan and people like that, I mean, they were-- Robert Kaplan, I'm thinking of. But Kagan as well, I think. Anyway, one of those two. They were crowing after that speech. And all the sort of centrist liberals who had been kind of hostile to Bush, they were crowing over that speech. You know, Peter Beinart and people like that. You know, all the people that want kind of a muscular U.S. military presence in the world as a sort of sina qua non of American greatness, without any sense of the relationship of that kind of global footprint to the situation of global insecurity, and to the ongoing deterioration of the United States' broad position in the world, economically. I mean, Paul Kennedy wrote that book, The Decline, whatever, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, your colleague, many years ago. And people were sort of talking a lot about it, and is America really in decline, blah, blah, blah? And you know, essentially Kennedy got kind of rejected at that point. You know. It really doesn't apply to us. We're the sort of endlessly renewing empire. The empire on which the sun will never set, as the British said. I don't know what the Americans say, but, you know, the next American century. Americans tend to think of it more in temporal terms, rather than maybe spacial terms. Although the Nazis did too, come to think of it, the thousand-year Reich. But it's just not going to happen, you know? We're entering into a very, very different period, and it's not clear to me that the country is at all prepared for it. And I don't necessarily have any specific answers, myself. I think that there's got to be some kind of different collaborative spirit around thinking about both the limits of the nation-state, as an object of our investments, both emotional and material, and otherwise. That we live in a bigger world that has to be somehow, that impinges on us in ways that we have to be involved with. And we have to find mechanisms to make that involvement mean something. And I think that is, in some ways, developing whatever the global infrastructures of NGOs, and so on and so forth. But at the same time, there is this question about how do we preserve the possibility of people being able to determine the conditions under which they're governed? And we don't know a model outside of the nation-state and national sovereignty for thinking about that. And the U.S. hasn't been the worst model of that, you know? I mean, it's certainly not the only model. But it's not, I don't think one could call it necessarily a wholly unsuccessful model, either, in the big scheme of the real world, right? So I think it's sort of been my position for a long time that the renewal of American democracy should not be something that we turn away from, as progressive-minded people. It should be central to what we're thinking of. But it doesn't exhaust the scope of what our politics need to be in this current moment. So I guess that's where I would, yeah. MJ: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is your experience, or your first-hand view of, I mean by view I don't mean your opinion, but your sighting of the economic crisis. I've spoken now to a couple of people who are unemployed who have talked about how lonely it is to be unemployed. Because unlike the Great Depression, there's no sense of being part of a mass. There's no vista of the scale of the economic crisis. You can read about it in the paper, you can see the unemployment rates, which are as high as 20% in some places, 10% nationally, but you never feel that you're part of that. You're atomized, because it's you and your computer. You're never, everything you do. Whether it's applying for unemployment, or looking for jobs, or anything else. There's never a line for it. It's just you and your screen. And it's interesting to me, because there are few real kind of public markers of the crisis that we're in. I'm wondering how New York City looks to you, or your institution. What are the signs that you see that we're in a kind of different era? NS: Yeah, it's a great question. It's confusing. And I would say that most of us who are in good jobs in academia, and have tenure, I mean, there's a weird feeling of being among the very privileged right now, that I don't think necessarily was always true. Especially in a city like New York, where you've got 20 year olds walking around with $1000 in their pocket. You know? That's changed, clearly, in New York. But oddly, we work for these institutions that seem to be relatively healthy, although it's very, very hard to tell at a place like NYU, where it's such a top-down kind of university that we don't really know what the state of the finances are, or how things are going to eventually affect us. So I think everybody is kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. I think a lot of people feel that way, who are employed. I'm on the employed side, the stably well-employed side right now. One place I really see it, though, is among the students. I taught a course last semester called Intro to Concepts of Social and Cultural Analysis, which attracts a lot of the kind of progressive, you know, queer, students of color, leftie students. Great students, wonderful students, and very engaged. I had probably, in a class of 80, at the end of the class, I had no fewer than eight students, maybe nine, come up to me and say they were going to have to leave college because they couldn't afford to pay for it. Either they were amassing too much debt, and they didn't see a future in which that debt would be serviceable or reasonable to have, or they just could not afford NYU anymore, so they were going to try to go to a state school, or they were going to try to go to a community college, or whatever else. That's like 10% of the class. And those are just the ones that came up and told me. Which is a hard thing to do. That's a pretty dramatic sign to me that things are not well, here, in this institution, and that it's going to begin to bite at those of us who work here in some way or another. Because in some ways, that's where these institutions, they're paying out most of their costs. So I think there's a worry. There's just a worry that a lot of the problems that we're facing are still being deferred, are still being pushed off. I mean, it's certainly clear at the level of the New York state government, which is a mess, and has this enormous deficit that it's not dealing with. So it's a very worrying moment, an anxious moment. And I think that's a really interesting story about the unemployed today and how atomized they are. I mean, I did read an interesting piece in the New York Times about people in unemployment offices finding camaraderie, but it's really interesting to think that those spaces are few and far between, and there are certainly no organizations of the unemployed like there were in the 1930s. There's nobody organizing rent strikes, and debt strikes. MJ: And bonus marches. NS: Shouldn't we be having organized refusal of debt in this country? Given all the money that the banks were forgiven? Shouldn't there be something out there of that kind? Instead we have this tea party ridiculousness. Which ends up mouthing, we need smaller government and lower taxes. Which makes no sense. I don't understand. I mean, that, to me, is something that I don't understand, I don't really understand, why we don't have any organized left presence in this country today. MJ: I spoke also with a young, a twenty-something investment counselor in Colorado, who said that he thought that Obama should have just let the banks fail, just let them crash. Because in his view, it's part of the deferring that you're talking about. That the patterns of debt, the whole house of cards, is just going to be jerry-rigged to stay up. But nothing's going to be resolved, the problems will still be there, people and institutions will be overextended and be taking on ridiculous rates of debt, and ridiculous levels of risk, and that that's just going to continue because of the bailouts. Can you envision that decision? NS: I think that's a profoundly naive view. I think the intertwined -- I read an article one day recently, where it was something like, I'm not going to get it right. But something like there's $600 trillion worth of loans out there, in the world. Which is, you know, so much bigger than the whole economy of the United States. There's so much money in circulation, and there's so much debt that's also tied to there being a lot of liquidity. So there's a lot of money that people have, too, that they're looking to deploy. That's partly why there's so much debt. I mean, you let all these huge, intertwined institutions start to fail, and yeah, you would wipe out a lot of rich people, but you'd also grind everything to a halt. I mean, people wouldn't be able to get, they wouldn't be able to pay their paychecks. It's nihilistic. And I think that it's such an easy answer to a much more complicated problem. I think the intermediate position would be, though, that you could've thought about unwinding it differently. And I think one of the best things that Obama's done, and it's interesting that he's done it just in the last few days, is to really talk about this bank tax. Things that are too big to fail, you tax them. Try to make them smaller. Make them smaller. Don't necessarily break them up or let them fail, but make them smaller. Force them into a situation where you use that power of government, and you raise revenue, and you also create a different kind of, you create a policy trajectory, and a different kind of outcome and set of possibilities. That seems to me to be very sensible. And look how they're crying about it! I mean, there was a great piece yesterday by David Stockman, of all people, Reagan's budget director, supporting the bank tax. On supply-side grounds! He said, the thing that these supply-siders all forget now, is that supply-side economics was not just about creating favorable conditions for capital by lowering taxes. It was also about using taxation, powers of the state, to eliminate things that were seen as economically pernicious. Interesting how they forget that! And so I think that's a good thing, and I hope that he follows through on that. I mean, but, I don't know. It baffles me a little bit, again, to come back to this Massachusetts thing, how this Scott Brown guy could be elected in opposition to healthcare. But also, in opposition to the bank tax! He's a total free-market idealogue. And so I still have trouble figuring out, maybe you can help, how free market idealogue discourse, and I'm not even going to call it ideology, can so readily dovetail with this kind of populist rhetoric, as well. I mean, I know it works on the anti-status grounds. They're all against government intrusion into the free-- MJ: Well, it only works on, I mean, it works at a rhetorical level, but not at any other level. I mean, try to start taking all of these entitled people's actual government-sponsored entitlement away from them, and see what happens. See how they feel about government then! That's not happening. It's really just at the rhetorical level. But it's amazing how powerful it is, and what one can accomplish by wielding that language. NS: Yeah, it really, really is. MJ: Well, perhaps we'll speak again, a year from now. NS: Yeah -- I hope it's better. I hope it's looking up. I kind of think Obama's going to hang in there, and I think he's going to get another term. MJ: Well, OK, so let's end on that. Your confidence -- though you have qualms, and maybe more than qualms, with some of his policy decisions -- your basic confidence in him as a politician is not shaken, is that what you're saying? NS: Not yet. I mean, my doubts about him and his actual, I mean, I think some of the scales have dropped from my eyes, is what I guess I'm saying. The things that I hoped he would be, politically. I mean I see it a little more clearly. But I remain hopeful that he has obviously capacity to grow and develop, and it's not all dependent on him. It's dependent upon wider forces in the society. And we need to get going again. The people who elected him need to get going again, especially the people who had a more progressive vision of what his presidency could be need to get going again. I think that can happen. That, to me, sometimes is the odd thing about these setbacks. That they're somewhat energizing as well, potentially. You see something like this happen, and it's kind of like, wow. You know? That hopefully will be the case here. I don't know. I'm not enough of a political insider to know how an administration works, and how that administration is going to react and reinvent itself. I mean, like I said a couple of minutes ago, I think they started to go in the right direction in the last few days around the banking stuff. And a lot remains to be seen. The Afghanistan decision's been taken. We're going to have to see how the healthcare thing plays out. That's not completely in Obama's hands, I don't think. But I think the big issue, really, which is the most worrying thing, is what are they going to do about this economic mess? And are they going to be able to make any meaningful impact on it, or is it just going to play itself out the way it plays itself out? In which case, I think it doesn't look that great going forward. Because I don't know where the jobs are going to come back, how the jobs are going to come back. There's going to be just higher unemployment. And there's going to have to be a different kind of adjustment to that. Which is ironically why that healthcare stuff so important! But I mean, imagine him coming out and saying that. You know, we need this healthcare thing because unemployment is not really something we can control. This is a global, structural adjustment of the American economy that's happening here. MJ: That would go over well. NS: It would go over very well. But we can just make sure that everybody has certain kinds of minimal care that is available to them. Yikes. So I don't know. But I think the other side is not that impressive. I'm not that convinced by them. I don't think they have good arguments. I don't think they're really persuading people. I think they have, there are danger signs, there are things I'm worried about, there are things that fill me with dread that I've talked about. But I still think Obama's election, on balance, is an incredibly positive sign. I think we need to ride that, we need to keep riding that. It's not the kind of thing that one can simply-- I mean, I've been having these arguments for the last year with a lot of people who are comrades, and we have sympathetic politics, kind of want to really dismiss Obama and his importance. MJ: Right. Well, did you see the Village Voice piece by Nat Hentoff? It's called George W. Obama. NS: Well, Nat Hentoff's a cranky figure. He's a little hard to figure out in terms of his actual politics. But I think of that other piece by Matt Taibbi, Obama's Big Sellout, which got a lot of circulation as well. There's a lot of that kind of stuff. I don't find it really that compelling. MJ: No, I don't either. I think it's ridiculous to say that there's nothing good that has come out of this. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Do you remember? With the last day, I mean up to the last minute, of the Bush-Cheney administration, just how awful everything looked, and was. The thing that's taken me by surprise, the thing that struck me through that election cycle, was thinking about Obama and McCain and Palin. But thinking about the alternatives facing the American people, and just thinking about, I mean, it was like the most absolutely hopeful thing that could possibly happen, and the most dreadful kind of despairing thing that could happen, and they were just sitting side by side, through the election cycle. The thing that's taken me by surprise is the way that since the election, the despair side hasn't receded all that much. It still feels like hope and despair are just sitting right there. And it's been, in my experience it's been unique to this moment. This hasn't been something that I remember living through exactly this way. NS: I think in that sense we are living through a political realignment of pretty profound dimensions. I think we're definitely, as historians, you know, we're unorthodox historians, but as historians, we don't often, I mean, I think we recognize that there are some periods that are more historical than others, you know? I definitely feel like we're in a period of transition, if not transformation. It's not exactly easy to know what it's going to look like on the other side. And we haven't even talked about the ecological crisis, that has also been punted! You know? Punted off. When a lot of scientists are really saying, like, 2050. It's not that far out. Hopefully we're still going to be alive! Maybe not, I don't know! And I'm not just talking about, the world coming to an end because of the climate being unlivable. That's not going to be the case. But I'm talking about climate change-oriented conflict, that we're not going to have any kind of resources to really address. That's terrifying. I mean, how can you not look at things like Haiti and Katrina, and not say, and I'm not saying they're of the same magnitude, that this is the canary in the coalmine? The only way you can say that it's not the canary in the coal mine is by saying, you know, these are poor black people, and this can't happen to us! MJ: There's been plenty of that kind of commentary. It's just been kind of unbelievable, some of the things that have shown up in print. NS: David Brooks. MJ: Yes, that was the one I was thinking of, actually. NS: What did he say? Culturally, culturally retarding influences, or something. I don't know. He had a phrase that was really unbelievable. Basically warmed-over culture of poverty. MJ: Exactly. Well, on that note. NS: OK. Wow. It's a dark moment. But it has been a dark moment for a long, long time. MJ: As Hilaire Belloc once said, things are and always have been horrible. NS: It's enough to make one a cranky conservative! MJ: That's right.

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