President Obama seems exhausted, and for good reason. With the success of the Paris conference, he may now add significant action on climate change to his already sizable legacy. The triumph of marriage equality, the beginning of the end of the drug war, the opening of Cuba — that would have been enough for any other president. The unemployment rate, which peaked at 10%, has now fallen to 5.9%. Thanks to Obamacare, the number of uninsured American adults has declined by 35%. As he prepares to deliver his final State of the Union address, Obama has been squeezed nearly dry.
What will the left look like after Obama? In a little under a year, progressive America will have to live without its biggest winner. The scope and magnitude of Obama’s achievements provoke a unique type of political despair. In the shade of his many successes, what hope can there be to solve the problems that have not just continued unabated but grown in ferocity? Under an African American president, we’ve grown used to the fact that white police officers kill unarmed black civilians. Under a liberal president, the rich have gotten richer and the middle class has stagnated. Fully 95% of income gains in the recovery between 2009 and 2012 went to the wealthiest 1%.
The political crises of the moment are so profound ... that only the starkest, most radical change would bring hope or change.
Good policy no longer seems sufficient to the situation. Who can come up with a plan to confront income inequality when the average congressperson spends 30 hours a week fundraising? The underlying structures of the economy and government and culture are the sources of the problem, rather than whatever can be accomplished within those structures. The political crises of the moment are so profound, so under the current of what the democratically elected government can do, that only the starkest, most radical change would bring hope or change.
The despair provoked by this paradoxical state of defeat in the middle of victory defines the best of progressive thinking at the moment, in particular the writings of Thomas Piketty, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Naomi Klein. Their work shares a further, related contradiction that defines the progressive politics of the moment: They combine unimpeachable analysis with policy conclusions that are totally unfeasible.
Never have the arguments of the left been so rigorous or data-focused. A single graph in Piketty’s “Capital” compiled 200 years of income and wealth records from more than 20 countries. Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” in the Atlantic, was remarkable mainly for the specificity of its claims; rather than a vague spirit of racism on one side and poor outcomes for African Americans on the other, Coates sifted the fine details of property values and urban regulation. In “This Changes Everything,” Klein stressed that righteous personal decisions cannot prevent climate change; responsibility lies at the feet of corporations and the government regulations that permit the destruction by corporations to continue. Whether you drive a Prius makes no difference; whether you live in a jurisdiction that permits coal-fired power plants does.
The problem the post-Obama left faces is what to do about the realities it uncovers. The answer, for all three authors, is to dream. Their policy proposals are so grand as to verge on the absurd. The solution to inequality according to Piketty is a global tax on capital, which Piketty himself describes as “a utopian idea.” Similarly, the major flaw in “The Case for Reparations,” is Coates’ refusal to cost the proposal. “Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed,” he writes. Klein wants an end to “extractionism,” nothing less than the defining feature of humanity since Homo habilis.
These ideas belong more properly to science fiction than politics. The post-Obama left is an ethereal left: vastly important ideas, rigorously developed, unmoored from anything that can actually be achieved.
Whether the Democratic Party chooses Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton as their nominee, it will be like going from an iPhone 6 to a flip phone, a gesture backward. Old-school politics may be a relief, at least for a while. Obama is the president who achieved more than anyone could have hoped for, and nowhere near enough.
As he faces the prospect of his departure from the White House, and the rest of us face it with him, he has started crying and swearing more too. Who can blame him?
Stephen Marche is a novelist and a culture columnist at Esquire magainze. His most recent book is “The Hunger of the Wolf.”