Beyond Obama: Politics and Transference

Nicholas Powers Nov 2, 2012

At an October 2008 Obama rally, Peggy Joseph, a black woman, held a palm to her chest and said, “I won’t have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won’t have to worry about paying my mortgage. If I help him, he’ll help me.”

Four years later at an October 2012 town hall debate an older black man, Michael Jones, said to the president, “I voted for you but today I’m not that optimistic. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive.” At debate’s end, Obama walked offstage; a man whose election had electrified the world, now hung by fingertips to a slight lead in the polls.

The contrast between Obama the symbol and Obama the capitalist CEO has created our political crisis. For nearly 70 million U.S. voters and the millions who danced in the global street festivals of election night, he was living a dream. Today the West is on the edge of collapse. And the return of political apathy leaves people like Peggy Joseph and Michael Jones more vulnerable than before. If former Gov. Mitt Romney wins the presidency, he’ll dismantle the New Deal. If Obama wins he’ll make a Grand Bargain with Republicans to cut Social Security and Medicare to pay down the 16 trillion dollar federal deficit. Either way, no sustained public counter force  — not even Occupy Wall Street — exists to block Republican greed or Obama’s vain need for a legacy. How did we get here?


When you were young, did you believe in Santa Claus? As an adult, did you ever kneel and pray furiously to God? Did you feel like the Lord could see right through you and take away the weight of your secrets?

Many of us have experienced belief in someone who knows us better than we know ourselves. We outgrow the childish versions of it but the need to feel lifted from our lives stays with us, as does its opposite, the nightmare of being under surveillance by someone who knows our transgressions.

In adulthood that belief returns when a patient greets a therapist and nervous hope tingles in the handshake. He or she believes the analyst can read the secret of the confused pain s/he carries. It’s that hope that begins the transference, a key of psychoanalytic treatment, in which patients talk, reenact memories, and project repressed desires onto the therapist, who plays the Subject Supposed to Know.

The need to believe in someone larger than ourselves drives our politics. In the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama openly talked of being not a black man so much as a “blank” man on which people projected their desires. When he first appeared on TVs across America, few cared, and initially Black America was skeptical. It was only after he seemed to know how to “read” whites that they, and soon a majority of voters, transferred onto him buried wishes for equal representation.

Every ideology or theology creates its own specific Subject Supposed to Know, a mythic figure that sums up the reality of its worldview by embodying it in flesh and bone. And we need this because human knowledge is innately inter-subjective. We often believe in gossip, political ideas or theories not because we know them to be true but out of our need to be desired by those who believe in them. Maybe a mother or father, maybe a teacher or pastor, maybe a friend or lover; whoever they are, we need them. So often, it’s not the truth of an idea that gives it credibility, but the fact that it is cherished by another whom we desire. The Subject Supposed to Know in its various versions is the guarantee of the truth of a knowledge, precisely because its validity is in the end not knowable, only our passionate need to believe is.

American liberalism had a Subject Supposed to Know; it was a unifier, someone who would solve class conflict by appealing to the “better angels of our nature.” And the prophetic tradition of the black church anticipated a “Joshua” figure that could complete the work of Moses-like Martin Luther King, who brought the people to the edge of a Promised Land that he could not enter. Both of these figures were merged and projected onto Obama.

He seemed to have a guaranteed knowledge of how to bring a nation fractured by racism, sexism and class together, but that’s the trick of transference. The Subject Supposed to Know never actually does anything — it’s the belief that they do that lifts a patient’s or voter’s buried desire to the surface. So when voters blinked, they saw not Obama the symbol but Obama the corporate liberal who in policy terms is farther right than Richard Nixon.


“No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate,” Romney joked at a campaign stop in August. The audience laughed that this rich white man contrasted himself with the “secret” Kenyan, Muslim Obama. They laughed at the not-so-coded racism. And they laughed at the millions of immigrants, gays, non-Christians, poor and brown people who stood behind Obama wanting to be Americans in full.

Romney’s use of code words signals to his supporters that he reads the secret desires boiling inside them, how they want special representation as “real” Americans. But when the rally ends, white working-class Republican voters return to a grim reality. It is the stress of endless bills, broken schools, falling life expectancy, low or no pay and the shame of welfare, all of which is traumatizing when contrasted against the promise of upward mobility. Add to that the loss of the “wages of whiteness,” the privileges that sustained one’s status in the absence of a high-paying job. Add to it the Muslim, black, Latino or Asian families moving across the street, who look to the first black president as their hero.

When the white working poor look through their windows, they don’t see their real neighbor but the Subject Supposed to be Feared. It’s a term cultural critic Slavoj iek used to describe the tales of black criminality during the flood of New Orleans, accounts that were not true but served as a guarantee of one’s racist mythology. It is the nightmare figure created by Fox News and talk radio that flows in code down from the business class of the Republican Party and is translated into the crude vitriol of Red State America.

It doesn’t matter if Romney is not a real believer. Few voters think he is. And it doesn’t matter because they’ll believe for him. They just need for him to give coded signals that he sees what they see, the Subject Supposed to be Feared, the nightmare Other, climbing the gates of the City on a Hill, trying to force entry and steal the back the land.


Too often, political transference blinds. It is a theater built on top of a national puzzle of voting districts, filled with people whose emotional life is translated into the mythos of a political ideology. Many don’t see the system driving the world but only the mirrors held up by officials that reflect our dreams or nightmares. Behind the theater is a structural dynamic of a global capitalist system, whose Western epicenters are in crisis after switching from manufacturing to financial services. After trading in abstract housing debt, the West — specifically Europe — has cratered.

Here in the United Sates 12 million are unemployed, nearly 9 million are part-time and 2 million have stopped looking. It adds up to 23 million who are on the edge of poverty if they have not already fallen in. And this is what’s called the New Normal; the United States has added millions more who are sinking into social invisibility to its already permanent underclass.

They scrounge for a bed, they root through the garbage for food, they numb themselves with drink or drugs, they die in the cold and many burn with the memory that just a few years ago they had a home, a job, a life. In 2008, the U.S. poverty rate was 13 percent or about 40 million. In 2011 it spiked to 15 percent or 46 million people. And not one of our presidential candidates will say their names or even say that it’s a crisis or that people are dying.

Add to this the criminalization of the poor. A recent New York Times article reported, citing a National Law Center survey of 243 cities that “40 percent prohibited camping, 33 percent banned sitting and lying down in public places and 53 percent outlawed begging.” Other cities banned people who smell bad from going into libraries or parking shopping carts near entrances. Add to it the violence visited on the poor, the endless stop-and-frisks and brutal police beatings, of which one example is the killing of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man seen in a grainy black and white video being choked, kicked and murdered.

Our politicians are creating a conveyor belt from poverty to prison. The private prison industry hires lobbyists to pay off politicians. Last year the Associated Press reported that three major private prison industries paid $45 million in campaign donations. In exchange, politicians pass laws like Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB1070; 30 of the 36 co-sponsors received campaign donations from the private prison industry.

Undocumented workers, mostly Mexican, grip the cell bars, jangling in cuffs to the bus where they are taken across the border to hear phone calls from panicked families. The new poor, jailed for begging or sleeping in parks, are released only to become part of the New Jim Crow, stigmatized with prison time so they can get no work, no housing, no love, nothing.

Add to this that in 2050 we are projected to be at 400 million citizens. We will be grayer. Twenty percent of the United States will be 65 or older. We will be browner. Latinos alone will comprise 30 percent of the population. Collectively, people of color will breach the 50 percent mark and whites will no longer be the majority.

If the New Normal becomes just “normal,” if the job market only grows fast enough to absorb the increase in population but no more, then the role of government will become a charged question. Does it have a responsibility to create work or not? How the public answers this will depend on how mass political will is mobilized. And one aspect of that, aside from the on-the-ground organizing is: who is the Subject Supposed to Know that the people will transfer their desires onto?


Seeing the future, Republicans are trying “to shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” The tactic is called “Starving the Beast;” the phrase came from an 1985 article in the Wall Street Journal quoting a Reagan administration official. The tactic is to cut taxes, especially on the wealthy, and then run up the deficit. When the federal budget is squeezed they turn around and demand cuts in social programs.

No wonder Reagan’s campaigns were loaded with coded racism; he reveled in telling white working-class audiences about “welfare queens” who drove Cadillacs on their way to pick up their government checks. It is a tactic repeated by Republicans everywhere, all the time. President George  H.W. Bush did it with the infamous Willie Horton ad and recently Newt Gingrich did it by labeling Obama the “food stamp” president. By invoking the Subject Supposed to  be Feared, the black criminal, the foreign Other, they can terrify white working-class voters into viewing the government as the tool of the internal enemy, which is why the recent imagery depicting President Obama as Hitler setting up Death Panels resonates.

Democracy is the avenue through which the New American Majority, brown, young and Spanish speaking, can use the state. The conservative goal is to kill the federal government, decentralizing power to private companies until the United States is a network of near-feudal corporate city-states, protected from an impoverished people by a bloated police force and if need be, the military. And the way to enact this vision is through the politics of fear.


“We need to put 25 million people back to work,” Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein said, “through a Green new Deal.” She cites the $700 billion bailout given to banks and says an amount that size could be channeled to direct job creation. So the question is why hasn’t it?

Political will is created through transference, which itself needs a figure who can guarantee our knowledge of ourselves, as in Obama, or of the outside world, as in conservatives’ mythic black criminal. In order to mobilize the public to push for a Green Deal, a narrative frame will be needed for the victims of climate change.

One option is the Subject Supposed to be Feared, one predicted and prepared for by the Pentagon in a report on the security risks of a world destabilized by climate change. In the next 20 or 30 years, floods, shortages of food and clean water and storms could send millions of people into exile from their homes. And inside the United States, storms and droughts and soaring food prices will force the public to see once again the poor and vulnerable that have been made invisible. The question is how will they be seen? Will they be framed as dangerous, ragged hordes climbing over the walls?

The other option is the Subject Supposed to Save, figures of innocent suffering whose dilemma is not their fault. And that’s key, because the conservative frame of the poor posits that their poverty is due to
their culture.

With New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, both narratives competed, but ultimately the thousands of black homeless people were viewed as innocent and thereby eligible for our sympathy. As the planet boils, floods hit, storms ravage and land dries up, those represented by the figure of the Subject Supposed to Save will become vital in political debates. The purity of their pain will guarantee their knowledge of what is real compassion. And we who are safe but guilty for being so will see in them our secret desire for absolution answered.


We’ve all heard the saying, “Without a vision, the people perish.” As the election nears, Obama dashes around the country, offering tepid liberalism. He strains to give voters his vision of tomorrow, but real political power runs in reverse. People have to transfer their desires outside of themselves and see them materialized. And polls show that voters want universal healthcare, the end of war, legalized marijuana, clean energy and funding for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Many Americans are more radical than their leaders, they just don’t see any way out, and without a vision they stumble in the dark.

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