In certain contexts, this framework is powerful. Hodge’s attack is strongest when he focuses on Obama’s extraordinary, and extraordinarily disturbing, assertions of executive power in the name of national security. The author lambastes the administration’s claim that it can target for extrajudicial killing the American citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, who has become an influential Al Qaeda-affiliated operative from his base in Yemen. In late September, well after The Mendacity of Hope went to press, the administration asserted that its unprecedented decision should not be subject to judicial review, because a court hearing would reveal state secrets. Against this backdrop, Hodge’s citation of Madison’s warning—“The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny”—rings true.
In the context of domestic policy debates, though, Hodge’s quest for a liberalism that stems from a “coherent political philosophy” (no hodgepodge of ideologies here) is far less persuasive. During last year’s battle over health care reform, liberals endlessly bickered about whether the deal on the table—a jerry-rigged tax/subsidize/regulate contraption that reinforced many pillars of the existing, inadequate system—offered enough material benefit to enough people to be worth taking. Hodge acknowledges the debate just long enough to dismiss the idea that there might be any benefit at all. The bill, he writes, was “best understood as a private health-industry bailout.” Later he adds:
A basic premise of the republican form of government is our agreement to submit to law that we arrive at publicly, through a legitimate deliberative process. The illegitimate bargains on which ObamaCare is premised manifestly fail to meet this standard.
It’s not much of a step from there to holding up placards declaring that health care reform is tyranny, too. Indeed, in the book’s closing pages, Hodge tells his liberal readers that “the Tea Partiers are not wrong to be angry with Obama,” and that they should forge alliances with “self-styled conservatives and rightist libertarians like Ron Paul” against big business and its minions in both political parties. (Unsurprisingly, one of the glowing blurbs on the book jacket is from Naomi Wolf, who has also touted the Tea Party’s alleged fascism-fighting potential.)
Hodge’s rigorous liberalism turns out to be rigidly Manichean. His view of American history resembles something out of Tolkien: the embattled, outnumbered Madisonians against the autocratic orcs, who fight under the banner of that Federalist witch-king, Alexander Hamilton. This leads to some painfully overwrought prose: “What we are left with today, with the ascendancy of the Archangel Obama, is the Triumph of the Hamiltonian Will.” More to the point, it leads Hodge to neglect some of the political decisions that most immediately affect the lives of actual people.
Hodge goes on at great length about the pernicious consequences of corporate clout, and excoriates Obama for not doing more to check the influence of the finance sector in particular. The pervasive power of money in politics is a fine thing to rail against, and Obama and his advisors can fairly be faulted for their cozy relationship with Wall Street. But skilled, practical politicians find ways to navigate the maze of lucre, sometimes benefiting from it, sometimes advancing goals that are opposed to it. Hodge, convinced that politics as practiced in America is irretrievably corrupt, has little use for, and little interest in, this process.
For all its focus on the evils of high finance, The Mendacity of Hope has surprisingly little to say about the current economic crisis, or the administration’s response. Meanwhile, the most pressing problem of the moment is that fifteen million Americans are out of work, six million of them for six months or more.