Blue State Blues: Barack Obama, the God That Failed
The decision by over 60 House Democrats — and counting — to boycott Donald Trump’s inauguration is more than a sign of the divisions that are Barack Obama’s legacy. It is also a sign Democrats are not just a defeated political party, but also a failed religion.
Superficially, the boycott looks like any number of protests by the Democrats’ “progressive” caucus in recent years — the all-night climate change talkathon on the Senate floor in 2014; the boycott of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran deal speech in 2015; or the gun control “sit-in” last year.
But this boycott is different, because it is not merely aimed at rallying the party base, raising money and rousing the media. It is an attempt to deny the legitimacy of the election itself.
For many Democrats, the shock of Trump’s win on November 8 has not faded. If anything, it has become more intense. They were surprised that Trump beat the odds — but more than that, they are surprised that it was even possible for them to lose.
For them, Obama’s win in 2008 was no ordinary election victory, but a kind of millenarian, messianic moment, beyond which future elections would never again be in doubt, or even necessary.
They believed Obama had a mandate to “fundamentally transform” America, and they believed once that transformation had happened, it would be institutionally irreversible, as well as wildly popular, and guaranteed by demographic changes that immigration reformers were doing their best to hurry along.
It is common, among partisans on both sides, to believe that a big election win in a particular year guarantees their party will stay in power for a very long time. Where Democrats differ from Republicans, however, is they believe they are entitled to rule.
Obama’s victory not only represented the triumph of an individual campaign or set of ideas, but the rightful ascent of the ideas of the 1960s, and the coming-of-age of a millennial generation that would fulfill their parents’ deferred political dreams.
In that way, Obama’s rise resembled that of the new governments of post-colonial Africa — an analogy that is relevant partly because of the importance of post-colonialism in Obama’s political development. These parties came to power democratically, but have been reluctant, in the decades since, to yield to defeat at the ballot box.
The South African political observer R. W. Johnson wrote in 2001 that the left-wing parties of post-colonial Africa shared what he called a “common theology”:
They do not merely represent the masses but in a sense they are the masses, and as such they cannot really be wrong. Second, according to the theology, their coming to power represents the end of a process. No further group can succeed them for that would mean that the masses, the forces of righteousness, had been overthrown. That, in turn, could only mean that the forces of racism and colonialism, after sulking in defeat and biding their time, had regrouped and launched a counter-attack.
Johnson had in mind formerly “progressive” parties such as the Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (Zanu-PF) and South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC). But his description could apply just as easily to Obama’s Democrats.
For a party that has increasingly relied on identity politics to fill the intellectual void in its policy platform, Obama’s win in 2008 had a certain finality to it. To Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), for example, testifying against Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) last week, it seemed unthinkable, after Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, to confirm a man who is merely committed to enforcing the law, and not to bending “the arc of the universe” towards “justice” in facing “challenges of race.”
Race, gender, and sexuality have become all-important to Democrats — not just as a political tactic used to cobble a coalition together, but as the foundation of political legitimacy.
To the boycotters, the danger is not that Donald Trump says offensive things, but rather that he refuses to acknowledge the offense. Or, put another way, the problem is not that Trump insulted Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), but that he insists Lewis be judged by the same non-racial standard as other politicians, for whom the question is “What have you done for me lately?” and not “How can we better appreciate your iconic status?”
Obama convinced Democrats they would govern for 40 years — and that if they were displaced, it would be by a new party, not today’s GOP. As his policies collapsed, and he lost Congress, he hovered above it all — “sort of God,” a Newsweek editor said.
But time, and term limits, happened to Obama. He is mortal. He is the God that failed.