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Barack Obama, Eldridge Cleaver, and the American Right

Mark Ames has a fantastic article up about noted conservative writer  V. S. Naipaul. But the article unexpectedly contains a lengthy look at Naipaul’s views of former Black Panther turned GOP Reaganite conservative, Eldridge Cleaver.

From the article:

And here Naipaul quotes an amazing passage from Cleaver’s Soul On Ice:

I was very familiar with the Eldridge who came to prison, but that Eldridge no longer exists. And the one I am now is in some ways a stranger to me. You may find this difficult to understand but it is very easy for one in prison to lose his sense of self. And if he has been undergoing all kinds of extreme, involved, and unregulated changes, then he ends up not knowing who he is….

In this land of dichotomies and disunited opposites, those truly concerned with the resurrection of black Americans have had eternally to deal with black intellectuals who have become their own opposites….

In a sense, both the new left and the new right are the spawn of the Negro revolution. A broad national consensus was developed over the civil rights struggle, and it had the sophistication and morality to repudiate the right wing. This consensus, which stands between a violent nation and chaos, is America’s most precious possession. But there are those who despise it.

The task which the new right has feverishly undertaken is to erode and break up this consensus, something that is a distinct possibility since the precise issues and conditions which gave birth to the consensus no longer exist.

The “new right” of 1968 had become the New Right of 1984, to which Cleaver belonged. Of this New Right I knew nothing until I got to Dallas; and what I learned was bewildering.


Like Ames, I was immediately struck by this passage; not only because it was my personal discovery of the “lobotomized” version of Cleaver, but the striking similarities to the evolution of our Commander-in-Chief & today’s right wing.

First off, Cleaver becomes in the 1980’s what he despised in the 1970’s: a black cultural elite who is in direct opposition of the desires & needs of everyday black Americans. Mainly through his opposition of the “welfare state” and negative views of programs like the New Deal:

We need entities where people could belong to organizations that are not controlled by government. The organizations could come up with projects that would benefit society and then they could earn money that would come out of that national product and not filter through the state. If we do it through the state like, say, President Roosevelt did it with the New Deal, you augment the power of the state. But if you do it through decentralized structures that are controlled by the people, then we maintain our freedom, within a free institution. I don’t want to see the government get control of the economic system…

I won’t bore you with comments from Obama about his love for unfettered free market nonsense; I’m sure you already know. If not, just check out FDL’s coverage of just KORUS. Also, note that most of the budget cutting Obama is obsessed with will disproportionately those who benefit most from the freedom killing “welfare state.” Or what little is left of it.


Second are Cleaver’s astute observations about the unity that enveloped the nation during the civil rights struggle. One is that this unity was a national treasure, and secondly, and perhaps most frighteningly, this unity was seen as a direct threat to the well-being of the New Right.

A fractured society is an attribute that actually gives the right strength; it is not just a political or legislative tactic. Divisiveness is and has been a rallying cry; it is a necessity for their mere existence. National unity is suicide.

Further, divisiveness is a very cheap, easy tactic to execute; much easier than building coalitions or organizing.


Third, and worst of all, the conditions that created unity, that national treasure, no longer exists. Left of center institutions & organizations have been decimated. Our leaders are no longer motivated by principle, but by access.

One of the biggest tragedies of Obama was his ability to do the impossible: quickly build an amazing coalition, and dismantle it with extreme prejudice even faster. He may have single-handedly ruined youth organizing for an entire generation.

There are other conditions that are different today, these are just a few. Unfortunately, the conditions on the Right are quite similar to the ones in the 1960’s: radicalism, divisiveness, and a self-destructive nihilism.

The larger point is that the conditions we face today are far more conducive to additional divisiveness, which serves to weaken the Left more and more each day. And triangulationist policies from modern day Cleavers who reside in the White House will only hasten this. The American Left has never been more fractured than it is today.

We saw Cleaver look to the New Right of 1968 with disdain, only to join the New Right of 1984 with enthusiasm. Much like Obama looked to the right with disdain, only to embrace, if half heartedly, many of the core beliefs of the contemporary Right.

Obviously Obama and Cleaver feel shackled by the past. Both men are tied to a black pride movement, which for obvious reasons had wealth equality as a core belief. And both men have tried to cleave, relatively unsuccessfully, this excess baggage from their political aura, damning whatever else is attached to it in order to impress Cleaver’s “New Right” or Obama’s “New Center”. Whether it be some attachment to their (our) collective past, struggles, or dreams. However, that never prevented either man from trotting out whatever could not be cleanly amputated whenever these vestiges were politically convenient.

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