In this week’s dose of depressing/demoralizing/disheartening news, we came to learn that Barack Obama is accepting $400,000 from a Wall Street firm to give a speech at a health care conference. People have been rehearsing the arguments around this type of behavior for a while now thanks to Hillary Clinton’s failed run for the Presidency. In fact, we spent so long debating this behavior it would be remarkably easy to assume it’s normal (it’s not). During the election, I often found myself arguing that it doesn’t have to be this way. I even went so far as to confidently assert that Barack Obama, for all his flaws, would never engage in the same kind of rent-seeking after he left office. Unfortunately, I underestimated the extent to which pursuing one’s own self-interest in this country is not only regarded as inevitable, it’s actually considered to be the necessary and decent thing.
Obama inspires a lot of loyalty, and as a result a great many people have defended him against the criticism that has come his way after this news broke. The general theme of this defense has been: Of COURSE he’s cashing in. Wouldn’t you? Others have engaged in impressive fits of fancy, whereby they imagine Obama going to this conference to speak truth to power and dress down the Wall Street Bankers for wrecking the economy. In this telling, he’s taking the money, but only because he knows it’s the only way to access these guys to defend the American people. Some have taken it yet further, arguing that the only reason people are upset is because they can’t handle the idea of a black man making a large amount of money. So within a 24 hour time span, defending Obama morphed from the serious, furrowed-brow adult opinion into the morally upstanding position that all non-racists must have. Even in this day and age, that’s a pretty quick turnaround.
All of this, of course, misses the point. There is a deep level of distrust in our political system right now. Republicans have had electoral success despite the fact that every single one of their non-racist policy proposals are deeply unpopular. As a party, they’re transparently corrupt, and only interested in finding ways to funnel government largesse to their friends and political supporters while immiserating the poor. Democrats, on the other hand, are the party of effective management, whose platform is basically “You don’t have it so bad, and we’ve got the charts and graphs to prove it.” They don’t have a positive policy vision because they think things are pretty much fine the way they are. The two parties really are different in some important ways. But here’s the thing: for the average voter, these differences do not matter. Your typical “uninformed” voter believes – not without evidence – that the parties largely exist to represent the interests of the ruling class. So the question for Democrats is: Do you have even the slightest interest in changing that perception? It looks like we have our answer.
By and large, the people you’ll see defending Obama are from a similar set. They’re generally younger, educated, middle class folks who tend to vote Democratic come election time. (I count myself as part of this group) And it’s not coincidental that many of us from this subset are going through a time in our lives where we are making choices that involve giving up on some of the more idealistic ambitions that we had in our 20s. We are, for a variety of perfectly legitimate reasons, pursuing our own interests, trying to start families, yearning for a predictable, regular paycheck. As we navigate the job market, we are bombarded relentlessly with a crystal clear message: It’s time to give up your idealism. You thought you were going to work in public service? Too bad – the pay is shit and those stable public jobs we told you about are being systematically destroyed. You thought you’d find a job in the private sector that is both invigorating and rewarding? Too bad – you’re now an independent contractor with no benefits who can be fired at any moment for no reason. You want to work at a non-profit? I hope you like kissing up to rich people! Every day, the market for our services presents us with small choices: we can do the right thing, or we can do the thing that is expected of us. And every time we decide to do what is expected of us, we give up a little piece of ourselves in service of our own bottom line.
Over the years, these choices compel a kind of conversion inside of us. This isn’t just the cliched and inexorable march from idealistic liberalism to pragmatic conservatism, it’s the story we spin for ourselves about that conversion. You see, it’s just not possible for us to go through life convinced that the choices we’ve been forced to make have been the wrong ones. We come to believe that those choices were a result of our superior agency. We’ve decided that not only is sacrificing the right choice for the necessary choice the adult thing to do, it’s the right and virtuous thing too. Over time, answering the question of whether or not something benefits us becomes the central consideration in determining whether or not we are making a moral choice.
Its no wonder, then, that people from my subset of society find themselves jumping to Obama’s defense for cashing in. We’ve been conditioned to treat the pursuit of one’s self interest as a virtuous quest. It’s not as if we, who are also virtuous, have been broken by a system of perverse incentives that have led us to be cogs in a horrible machine of large scale death and immiseration. No, that’s not it – we are wise and virtuous, we know things. Above all, we know this: If we were in Obama’s shoes, we’d be doing the exact same thing. Wouldn’t you?