Old Fault Lines, New Alliances, and the Lessons of Failure
Well before Senate Democrats passed their health care bill on Christmas Eve, the debate over health care reform was dividing progressives. Now there is an even larger division among progressives, as some will support any candidate running as a Democrat in 2010, while others will not.
The Progressives’ Political Predicament
Two months before President Obama delivered his speech outlining his new strategy for Afghanistan, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX14) was asked what he thought of Obama’s approach to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He answered that what Obama was doing was just as bad as what Bush had done and was even
“a little more dangerous because he has neutralized the anti-war left. The antiwar left has just left. At least Bush was honest, I mean he was upfront. He believed in pre-emptive preventive war; but everybody was hopeful that Obama would do differently, but he hasn’t. So he has quieted down the left and there is a very weak anti-war movement in this country now. And that obviously is something I hope to participate in reviving and it has to be coming from the old right as well as true progressives who believe that all this warmongering and killing makes no sense whatsoever.”
Rep. Paul’s point – that the election of Barack Obama has been a serious blow to the anti-war movement – extends well beyond the silencing of opposition to America’s wars; it encompasses the progressive movement as a whole.
In the waning years of the presidency of George W. Bush and after more than a decade of Republican control of Congress, the American people were more than ready to abandon tough talk and bad policies. The 2006 and 2008 elections were victories for progressives, but progressives have not been able to reap the rewards. The tough talk is gone, but the bad policies remain. And the result is that progressives find themselves at odds with each other, trapped in a difficult predicament that they must work their way out of without delay.
Nearly two weeks ago, about a week before Senate Democrats passed a health care bill that included nothing upon which Americans could build toward a single-payer system, Jake McIntyre highlighted in An Observation on the Split in the Progressive Blogosphere (Dec 16, 2009) that there has emerged a policy wonk/activist division among progressives over health care that is strikingly similar to the 2003 division over the invasion of Iraq: on the wonky side,
“a resigned sense that this isn’t an ideal action, but that we don’t live in an ideal world, and that consequently we should suck it up and support an imperfect initiative;”
while on the other side,
“a resistance born of an awareness that Congressional Democrats will more often than not – and often unintentionally – screw themselves and the country, out of a misguided belief that powerful forces with agendas very different from that of the Democratic Party can be managed and trusted.”
As McIntyre put it:
“When all is said and done, the wonks trust Democratic politicians to protect our interests. The activists don’t. That doesn’t mean that we don’t like certain Democratic politicians, or that we don’t cherish our wonky brethren. It just means that we’re not willing to get fooled again.”
I would add that the problem for progressives now is even more difficult because Democrats are in power, whereas in 2003 they were not. Tensions are higher because there are those who will accept anything so long as Democrats keep their hold on power, while others want to fight those Democrats who fail to do what’s right for the American people.
And, sure enough, two days after McIntyre made his observation, Jane Hamsher published The Left-Right Populist Wrap-Around Vs. the Beltway Insiders (Dec 18), which gave rise to reprehensible attacks like this one and weak attacks this one, attacks that must be cited, though they aren’t worth remembering.
Here’s what Hamsher said that landed her in the center of the storm:
“There is an enormous, rising tide of populism that crosses party lines in objection to the Senate bill. We opposed the bank bailouts, the AIG bonuses, the lack of transparency about the Federal Reserve, “bailout” Ben Bernanke, and the way the Democrats have used their power to sell the country’s resources to secure their own personal advantage, just as the libertarians have. . . What we agree on: both parties are working against the interests of the public, the only difference is in the messaging.”
Because Hamsher recognized the need to work with anyone if it will help progressives advance their goals, she was perceived as a threat. And the attacks were meant as a warning to all progressives who want to fight the sellouts and shills among the Democrats to stfu. Fortunately, Hamsher can’t be penned up or intimidated, and the fight goes on.
After that weekend, Hamsher explained why she went on MSNBC and Fox News on the Monday and Tuesday following the uproar against her:
“I went on Ed Shultz last night, and Fox deliberately today after yesterday’s hubub. It scares the bejesus out of the DC establishment of both parties to think that the left and right might align against the corporate interests that dominate the massive giveaways that keep happening no matter who’s in power.
Good. They should be scared.”
Health Care Reform Fails; Corporatist Republicans Score Big Time
With Democrats in power, health care reform has met with an inglorious end as corporatist politicians – who infest both the Republican and Democratic Parties – successfully used Congress’s lengthy deliberative process under Democratic control to do an end-run around the will of the American people (when Republicans run the show, they do it the other way around, cutting Congress’s deliberative process short in order to do an end-run around the will of the American people).
On the surface, the Republican Party in the minority appears to be led by blabbering morons in the House and Senate and especially at the RNC, but time and again they have totally outmaneuvered Democrats of all stripes; every politician with a “D” after his or her name will have a tough time in upcoming election cycles.
Throughout the health care debate, for the most obvious example, Republicans made a great show of opposing anything proposed by Democrats, calling it “ObamaCare” and, my favorite, “socialism.” Obama most certainly does have to own it, but whatever it is, it most certainly is not socialist. Quite the opposite.
Now that the Republicans got a bill with which they can be more than comfortable (while opposing it publicly every step of the way and voting against it unanimously in the Senate), they are pivoting to hanging this legislation, which they know is not good for the American people, on Obama and Democrats.
Speaking Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week (transcript here), Sen Mitch McConnell said:
“Well, certainly, politically, it’s a big problem for them. They all kind of joined hands and went off the cliff together. Every single Democrat provided the vote that passed it in the Senate.”
Republicans get to use this legislation politically to energize their base. All they have to do is say how much they hate it. Their corporatist Democratic allies, who were fooled into creating this mess, on the other hand, will have to face a base – indeed a majority of American people (CNN/Opinion Research Poll pdf) – that is demoralized by the impotence of the Democrats, who failed to deliver on the real reform that so many wanted.
Appearing a little later on the same program Sunday morning (transcript here), even Paul Krugman – who tries to dismiss critics of the Senate’s health care bill, presumably because he thinks it’s so great – said about the upcoming 2010 midterm races that Democrats will have to run on jobs, on the economy, and on just not being Republicans.
Obama says on Christmas Eve that this legislation is “the most important piece of social legislation since the Social Security Act passed in the 1930s, and the most important reform of our health care system since Medicare passed in the 1960s,” and all Krugman can say is that Democrats will have to run on “not being Republicans”?
What a joke.
It was supposed to have been their great achievement, and all Krugman can say is “I don’t think health care is going to be a big sell for the Democrats” in 2010. Rather than run on a great achievement, Krugman thinks that they’re going to have to change the subject to “not being Republicans.”
And yet, in spite of it all, many calling themselves progressives want to praise Obama anyway and support Democrats next year, whether they deserve progressives’ support or not.
Two Political Parties, Two Movements
Bush’s failures ultimately disappointed many among the Republican base and left many unhappy with the Republican Party; for many who consider themselves members of the Democratic base, the failures of Obama and congressional Democrats are just as disappointing and have left just as many unhappy with the Democratic Party.
This situation has brought into high relief for a growing number of Americans what has been obvious to far too few until now: the leadership of neither party really cares about the will of the American people, about doing what’s in the best interests of the people, or about advancing the common good.
The rift between the politics of our leaders and the political interests of the rest of society is so great, in fact, that populist conservatives are fighting to move the Republican Party to where they believe it should be, while many progressives believe they too must fight to move the Democratic Party.
Among progressives, ideas to accomplish this goal have not been lacking. On December 16, Ed Kilgore posted Left-Right Convergence? at The Democratic Strategist (cross-posted at The New Republic with the title Taking Ideological Differences Seriously), and two days later, on the same day that Jane Hamsher posted The Left-Right Populist Wrap-Around Vs. the Beltway Insiders, Glenn Greenwald posted The underlying divisions in the healthcare debate at Salon, all of which have been followed much more recently by Jeffrey Feldman’s Corporatism (Dec 26, 2009).
Kilgore set sail by pointing out that there is an ideological distinction without a difference between A) the “the so-called Clintonian, ‘New Democrat’ movement, and the broader international movement sometimes referred to as ‘the Third Way,’ which often defended the use of private means for public ends,” and B) the “conservative ‘privatization’ strategy, which simply devolves public responsibilities to private entities without much in the way of regulation.”
Kilgore observes that “on a widening range of issues, Obama’s critics to the right say he’s engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector.” Whichever one is correct, Kilgore argues, is irrelevant. What is relevant, he says, is that the opportunity for a “tactical convergence is there if [activists on the left and right] choose to pursue it.”
Then Greenwald called for a course correction, arguing that what Kilgore was talking about is “corporatism” (defined by Greenwald as “the virtually complete dominance of government by large corporations, even a merger between the two”), which is all “about affirmatively harnessing government power in order to benefit and strengthen those corporate interests and even merging government and the private sector.” Greenwald concludes that:
“whether you call it ‘a government takeover of the private sector’ or a ‘private sector takeover of government,’ it’s the same thing: a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else’s expense.”
And so he calls for an end to old fault lines. Left-right is too ’90s, he says, and the old conservative/liberal ideological fault line has been erased, as Americans’ anger is now
“rooted far more in an insider/outsider dichotomy over who controls Washington than it is in the standard conservative/liberal ideological splits from the 1990s.”
And Jeffrey Feldman recently took the helm with Corporatism (Dec 26, 2009), and steered the ship to uncharted waters, drawing a new consciousness/false consciousness fault line, people with consciousness being those who can see that the battle against "corporatism" is the true political landscape, while those who support the Democratic Party are living in a state of false consciousness. What is needed, Feldman argues, is the formulation of an “alternative vision” that breaks the old fault lines to pieces.
With all due respect to this heavy intellectual lifting, progressives need to be careful not to reason so far away from perceived reality that they are no longer speaking the same language as the vast majority of Americans. In other words, the left-right divergence not only exists ideologically (it does, btw), it is also fully embedded in the consciousness of nearly all Americans. If progressives were to abandon it or to look for clever ways to convince Americans that it no longer exists, they will only run off course and may very well sink their ship.
To the extent that an “alternative vision” can be useful, I present the following:
The Populist-Conservative Libertarian Movement
The Corporatist Republican Party
The Corporatist Democratic Party
The Progressive Movement
Now please recall McIntyre’s An Observation on the Split in the Progressive Blogosphere (Dec 16, 2009), which I discussed earlier. In that article, McIntyre was being far too polite. I shall now say far more bluntly what he was only willing to imply: progressives have to shake off their cherished wonky brethren and get to work, forcing corporatist Democrats out and helping progressive Democrats win.
Anyone who is willing to validate what corporatist Democrats are doing or enable it by demanding that progressives support the sellouts and shills among the Democratic Party simply doesn’t get the harm they are doing to the progressive movement, to the Democratic Party, and to the American people.
If progressives’ cherished wonky brethren don’t care about whether Democrats do what’s right, then they are best left ignored by those progressives who are ready to fight the sellouts and corporate shills among the Democratic Party.
Thus, Kilgore’s original call for a left-right “tactical convergence” remains the best approach. Behind the scenes, progressive and libertarian leaders should find ways to work together in order to bring Obama down from his lofty heights, where he sits far too comfortable in the incorrect belief that, because he has such a nice smile, he is a political immortal, and therefore can screw over the American people while patting them on their heads and getting their campaign contributions and their votes.
Anything more than a “tactical convergence” would be ill-advised. As Howard Fineman pointed out in Is There a Doctor in the House? Ron Paul, the GOP’s unlikely savior (Dec 4, 2009), if the Republican Party is to be saved, it will be saved by “a candidate who embodies the spirit of Ron Paul. Just so long as it isn’t Ron Paul.”
A broader alliance between progressives and libertarians as an outsider movement fighting the DC/K Street insiders would end with the libertarians and other populist-conservatives walking away with a handful of politicians that progressives would have helped them get elected. Unless someone can present an argument for how libertarians can help progressive candidates get elected by campaigning with them and an argument for how libertarians and progressives would be forced to work together in office, such a broader alliance just isn’t a good idea. Ideological differences remain, would resurface, and would divide any such alliance.
I would like to conclude by pointing out Cenk Uygur’s powerful How Progressives Can Move Obama to the Left (Dec 24, 2009), in which he calls for progressives to force the center to the left in order to get Obama to take heed and do what right:
“If you don’t move the island, the rest is futile. You have to shift the ground underneath them. And the only way to do that is to create such a strong and aggressive progressive movement that they cannot help but notice it – and respond to it. Move the center and you’ll move Obama. And he’ll move the country. There is no other choice.”
My only disagreement with Uygur is that he thinks progressives need to move from health care reform to the next battle: financial reform.
I believe instead that progressives must shift away from trying to influence corrupt policymakers and begin to speak out publicly and loudly against the policies of Obama and this Democratic Congress in order to have an impact on the upcoming 2010 and 2012 primary, midterm and general elections. Obama has angered the right, and has been a huge disappointment to the left. The best way for progressives’ ideological opponents on the right to be helpful to progressives is to do the same, to speak out publicly and loudly (which they’re already doing).
Everyone else is supporting a broken system that favors increasing the powers of government and of corporations – a system that goes back and forth between corporatist Republicans and corporatist Democrats, while corporate executives always win –, a broken system that leaves the American people powerless to oppose them.
[Originally posted at Circleparkforum.]