President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO) reacted last week to the news that a corruption investigation into Mexico’s nationalized petroleum industry, Pemex, had moved on to target his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto. Though aware of the attorney general’s investigation into another personality active during the previous regime — former Pemex CEO Emilio Lozoya — AMLO claimed to have no knowledge of a probe concerning Nieto himself.
Cognizant of the political implications of accusing a former rival, the Mexican president was careful to declare: “We’ve said that we would only present a complaint against former presidents if the citizens ask us to because we think that we should look forward.”
Barack Obama’s Woke Awakening
AMLO may have borrowed this idea from former US President Barack Obama. Days before taking office in January 2009, the newly elected president addressed the question of prosecuting members of the Bush administration responsible for torture by simply dismissing it. Invoking a new judicial principle that apparently applies to the political elite, Obama proclaimed his “belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
AMLO’s position is less hypocritical than it might appear, especially when compared to Obama’s. The Mexican president knows that he would be accused of using his office for vengeance against his former rival if he were the one to take the initiative of prosecuting Nieto. If in the end Nieto is prosecuted, it will be not because AMLO wanted to get even or humiliate a former opponent, but because under the constitution the citizens will have chosen to apply the law. In contrast, Obama chose simply to ignore the law and to protect the Bush administration officials from prosecution, potentially as war criminals.
In his endorsement of Joe Biden’s candidacy for president, Obama has returned to the same theme. He insists that “there’s too much unfinished business for us to just look backwards. We have to look to the future.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Examine the past to uncover serious errors and eventually prosecute crimes, considered by politicians to be an extremely dangerous route to take because of the precedent it could set that might enable their own future successors to do the same thing
Obama’s concept of time reflects some of the basic assumptions at the core of US culture and, at the same time, reveals aspects of US politics that signal a historic decline. Everyone in the US seems to agree that the goal of politics and of the nation itself is to achieve progress and lead humanity as a model of civilization. In his endorsement, Obama specifically expresses his pride in “the incredible progress we made together during my presidency.” After doing his damnedest to prevent Bernie Sanders from getting the Democratic nomination for the November election and finally provoking his departure from the race, Obama has shifted to celebrating the senator from Vermont for his contribution that consists of “moving America in a direction of progress and hope.”
In US culture, time itself is measured in terms of a kind of informal KPI (key performance indicator) that we might call UPAs, or units of progress achieved. This is true for President Donald Trump as well, who simplifies the problem by referring to the Dow Jones stock index and employment figures as the measure of the value of progress during his time in the White House. Obama’s flowing rhetoric allows him to be less clear about how to measure the UPAs he claims to have “made together” with Biden as vice president. Presumably, they can be found in the “unfinished business” he refers to, which implies that his progress consisted of various items of business his administration initiated.
Like Trump’s citing of the Dow Jones, Obama’s criteria are less about the quality of life than they are about what he calls “business,” finished or unfinished. In a society that sincerely believes “time is money,” business is also busyness, the act of being busy and making a pretense of getting lots of things done. The advantage of unfinished business is that the concept defines a future in which it is possible to imagine that further efforts can be made to finish it. This also means it’s important not to finish it because then there would be nothing more to be busy about.
Finishing any business would require first defining the finality of that business and then seeking to achieve coherence in evaluating its progress. It would mean envisioning projects and preparing them for the long term. But the day the consumer society was born, over a century ago, the long term ceased to merit anyone’s consideration.
US culture — and especially its business culture — is aligned on the short term only. It has spawned the managerial culture of quarterly results. The virus of short-term planning — driven by just in time, low inventory thinking — has for some time also infected the “business” of government, which in normal times should be about duration, continuity and preparedness, connecting looking backward with looking forward.
The systematic refusal to look backward, to assess and establish accountability for what has already been done, a refusal evoked in the name of looking forward, reflects another feature of US culture: the insistence on reducing every question to a binary choice with a zero-sum outcome. Why shouldn’t a culture both look backward and forward at the same time? By definition, governance should be focused on continuity, linking the past and future rather than ignoring their connection. Refusing one or the other creates an arbitrary and meaningless rupture.
AMLO could have answered the question of why he chose not to look backward by honestly admitting that he would be blamed for abusing his authority to attack a rival. But, unlike Obama, he didn’t exclude looking backward. Instead, he divided the roles. AMLO would look forward and leave it to the citizens to look backward and initiate any necessary action. Obama framed it as an either/or choice. He peremptorily eliminated the one choice many of his electors hoped — having been told to believe in “hope” — that he would take to punish those who were responsible for the catastrophic wars that were still going on back then (and even now).
Early in its history, the US believed itself a revolutionary, trendsetting, problem-solving nation. But for the past 50 years, its political leaders seem to have settled on a philosophy of incrementalism. This translates as achieving progress only by baby steps. It also neutralizes the capacity for self-appraisal. It requires its leaders to accept and celebrate the recent past, even a one that includes catastrophic mistakes. It’s government by tweaking. The recent past has a tendency rapidly to become not the rich soil of the present whose organically alive nutrients will feed the growth of the future, but the inert status quo, a kind of concrete slab on which we stand that requires everyone’s respect and comprehension.
The modern Democratic Party in the US appears committed to a philosophy of incrementalism. Once upon a time, Democratic presidents promoted a “New Deal” (Franklin D. Roosevelt), a “New Frontier” (John F. Kennedy) or a “Great Society” (Lyndon Johnson). They looked at the present as it was modeled by the past and found it wanting.
By the time of Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party had moved on. It appeared to endorse the premise that “there is no such thing as society.” If, as the UK’s Margaret Thatcher said, society doesn’t exist, it must also be true that its past only exists as the sclerotic memory of random events. For Clinton, the society that Johnson wanted to become “great” was replaced by “the economy, stupid!” This also implied the existence of a “stupid economy,” visionless and focused only on the short term. This reduced the vocation of politicians to finding ruses to keep people happy until the next election.
Once President Clinton was in office, Democrats had realized that to achieve the goal of creating and maintaining an illusion of happiness, political vision — bridging the past and present — is no longer necessary. Incrementalism gets the job done. Some called it the Third Way. It fixes conveniently replaced solutions. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair replaced Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Barack Obama governed in exactly the same way. The only difference was that he had a Prospero-like talent that allowed him to hide his impoverished incremental program by offering a hyperreal vision of hope and “change we can believe in.” Unlike Prospero in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” he never had to step back and point to the “baseless fabric of this vision” and the fact that it was built from “such stuff as dreams are made on.” Now that he has retired from the island he once governed within the Beltway, unlike Prospero, Obama has not abjured his “rough magic” or drowned his book. He’s still at it, now promoting a future that he has confided to master an incrementalist magician, Joe Biden.
Alongside the notion of timidly extending progress into the future, US culture has always promoted a spatial notion of progress. Obama encapsulates it in his repeated use of the word “further.” In his endorsement of Biden for the presidency, Obama said: “We have to go further to give everybody a great education, a lasting career and a stable retirement. We have to protect the gains we made with the Affordable Care Act, but it’s also time to go further.” On the issue of pollution, Obama reminds his audience that “science tells us we have to go much further and it is time for us to accelerate progress on bold new green initiatives.”
The US was founded on the idea of expansion of its frontiers. One of the principal motivations behind the war of independence from Britain stemmed from the opposition of the government in London to the colonists’ desire to expand westward at the expense of the native inhabitants. US history is the story of a people pushing the frontier further and further, mile by mile, state by state, until it controlled and officially owned the expanse between two oceans. The past, which belongs to the native tribes of the land, was wiped from the landscape. There was clearly no need to look backward, partly because it might reveal genocide.
In November, Americans will have a choice between an incumbent president who rode into the White House in 2017 offering the baseless fabric of a vision of the nonexistent past, claiming he would make America Great Again. Deeming that having made it great over the past three years, he now wants to “keep” it great by staying in office.
Unlike both AMLO and Obama, Trump led the attack on his predecessor, Obama. He focused on erasing the immediate past, rather than simply neglecting it. He did so because the Republican Party has never pretended to shape the future and only maintains a nostalgic idea of the past. It believes in the utterly timeless America, an eternal present, made up of unregulated free market capitalism and consumer choice. It’s a vision of millions of trees but no forest, individuals but no society, a people that buys and sells in the present but needs no past or future. It’s the American version of carpe diem, which, translated into English, means to take the money and run.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.