By Jim Miller
Last week progressives in California rightfully felt a bit relieved that their state served as a seawall against the ocean of red that washed across America.
Outside of our reactionary little backwater here in San Diego where Carl DeMaio can pretend to be moderate and almost win despite multiple scandals, there were bright spots in the rest of the state like the election of rising progressive star Betty Yee as State Controller and the re-election of Tom Torlakson who beat back the billionaire boys club’s effort to put a corporate education reform advocate in the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office.
Thus, just as New York’s Democratic Governor Cuomo launches a civil war against the unions in his state in the service of corporate interests, California will serve as an alternative model of cooperation rather than confrontation. In most places on the Left Coast, even when nobody shows up, the right just can’t seem to win, and Brown, while far from perfect, prefers to sit happily on the fence between the neoliberal Democrats and the progressives, ruling in his distinctly idiosyncratic fashion.
At the statewide level we passed a proposition that will bring money from prisons to schools. Up in Richmond, the voters heroically cleaned Chevron’s clock, defeating that corporation’s multimillion dollar efforts to turn their city into a 19th century company town. San Francisco and Oakland passed big minimum wage increases, and you can smell the pot smoke drifting across the border from Oregon. We even believe in climate change out here.
It’s not utopia, but it’s not Kansas either.
In fact, the Democrats won every major office at the state level in California, making San Diego one of the only places outside of Orange County and the Central Valley where Republicans don’t feel a bit like an engendered species. But, alas, in the nation at large the trend was the opposite and, consequently, many progressives are wringing their hands about what the Right’s control of Congress will mean.
Now it shouldn’t actually have to mean much as the Republicans don’t have a filibuster proof majority and the President has the power of the veto pen in the White House.
But just when that thought was starting to make you feel comfortable, Mr. Obama came right out of the gate on Wednesday morning vowing to “cooperate” with the new majority. So some big stuff that shouldn’t be at stake may very well be. As Robert Reich put it in his day-after blog:
I’m less worried Republicans will roll back the Affordable Care Act or reduce taxes on the wealthy over the next two years – the President’s veto pen will prevent that – than I am about Obama joining with Republicans to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and the “chained CPI” (that would reduce future Social Security payments). Obama has either sought these in the past or hinted he would, and he (and McConnell and Boehner) will be so eager to show they can work together that these will prove irresistible.
Obama himself added corporate tax reform and a vote to support his new war in the Middle East to that list, so there is not much reason to “hope” anymore. That’s right, if we end up with a carbon producing disaster of a pipeline, a neoliberal nightmare of a trade deal, chained CPI for Social Security, corporate tax giveaways, and more endless war, we may very well have Obama to thank for it, not the Republicans.
Please Obama, just say “no” to everything. Hopeless gridlock is the “change” you’ve been looking for.
In sum, our best chance to stop a lot of bad things may be Republican overreach. Progressives should pray for a battle royal over the Affordable Care Act or even impeachment rather than bi-partisan cooperation on anything. So let’s hope against hope.
Please Obama, just say “no” to everything. Hopeless gridlock is the “change” you’ve been looking for.
This American doesn’t want to “get things done” when that may mean doing desperate things as Obama looks for some kind of legacy–not when those “bipartisan” moves would help accelerate the murder of the planet, accentuate economic inequality, and keep the war that never ends rolling on into the undetermined future.
As Henry David Thoreau once said, “it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
Premature (Electoral) Ejaculations and the Dawn of the Pragmatic/Apocalyptic
Over the last few weeks while San Diego was drowning in the ever-increasing muck surrounding the contest between the least objectionable programming that is Scott Peters (golf clap for the victor) and the master of malice, misanthropy, misogyny, and member grabbing that is Carl DeMaio in the 52nd Congressional District (Bronx cheer for the loser), elsewhere, the mood was grim as a whole host of progressive critics just couldn’t wait for the big loss to happen to unleash their word-hoards on the soon-to-be defeated Democrats and the progressives who support them.
In the first of back-to-back Salon columns on the Democrats’ impending defeat, the always-sharp Thomas Frank, takes issue with Paul Krugman’s stirring defense of Obama in Rolling Stone, pointing out that Krugman’s rosy-eyed view of the President ignores many of Krugman’s own on-going critiques of Obama policies. From there he goes on to systematically outline the seminal failures of the Reign of Hope and ends with one last devastating salvo:
And that, folks, leads us to the greatest disappointment of them all: This administration’s utter failure of imagination. I admit that this beef might be peculiar to me, since one of the reasons I was once so psyched to see Barack Obama in the White House is because I thought he was a man who respected learning, intelligence, new ideas. Maybe he still does, in his private life. But as president, he couldn’t seem to see what is obvious to everyone who is not a regular golfer at Congressional: That ignoring the conventional and facing down the Republicans and doing the right thing—on the stimulus, on the banks, on inequality—would also have made him enormously popular, not to mention consequential and successful. It might even have spared him the electoral comeuppance he received in 2010, and whose second installment he seems likely to take delivery on just a few weeks from now.
Then, in his next column, Frank carries his devastating analysis forward, making a deft historical comparison of Obama with Jimmy Carter while noting that the initial success but ultimate failure of both men was the result of liberals’ easy abandonment of principle in the service of blank slate post-ideological pragmatists who never deliver:
Barack Obama survived his re-election, but he is suffering a form of Jimmy Carter’s fate nevertheless. The ambiguous idealism of Carter’s first run for the presidency was precisely what set the table for his downfall later on. Being a “blank screen” or the personal object of the enthusiasm of millions—these may play well when a candidate is unknown, but they are postures impossible to maintain as president. In both cases, they led inevitably to disappointment and disillusionment.
The moral of this story is not directed at Democratic politicians; it is meant for us, the liberal rank and file. We still “yearn to believe,” as Perlstein says. There is something about the Carter / Obama personality that appeals to us in a deep, unspoken way, and that has led Democrats to fall for a whole string of passionless centrists: John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton. Each time, Democratic voters are enchanted by a kind of intellectual idealism that (we are told) is unmoored from ideology. We persuade ourselves that the answer to the savagery of the right—the way to trump the naked class aggression of the One Percent—is to say farewell to our own tradition and get past politics and ideology altogether. And so we focus on the person of the well-meaning, hyper-intelligent leader. We are so high-minded, we think. We are so scientific.
We are such losers.
In a similar vein, over at Alternet, David Noise observes that:
As America heads toward midterm elections, one of the few certainties is that progressive change is not on the horizon. Republican gains in Congress are a virtual certainty, and the main question is just how bad the damage will be.
A pendulum swing to the right would be less troublesome if it were preceded by a swing to the left, but only the most delusional Americans believe that the country has actually experienced a liberal tide in recent years. Despite campaigning on slogans of hope and change six years ago, Barack Obama quickly surrounded himself with advisors from Goldman Sachs and, even if his rhetoric was sincere, has done nothing to challenge the fundamental nature of power in America. Everyone knows that Wall Street owns and controls the system, and not even Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters believe that his administration has changed that.
As we approach the last phase of the Obama presidency, perhaps the most disappointing reality is that even the parameters of debate have not changed: one party offers an extreme conservatism that is often accompanied by wing-nut anti-intellectualism, while the other party offers a center-right agenda that itself accepts corporatist assumptions and paradigms. The fact that the entire spectrum caters to corporate interests, even when it sometimes appears that vigorous debate is occurring, speaks to how the plutocracy has mastered the art of control.
At the Boston Globe, Jordan Michael Smith in “Vote All You Want—the Secret Government Won’t Change” ponders whether the whole exercise is doomed from the start as he notes:
Though it’s a bedrock American principle that citizens can steer their own government by electing new officials, [Tufts Professor] Glennon suggests that in practice, much of our government no longer works that way. In a new book, “National Security and Double Government,” he catalogs the ways that the defense and national security apparatus is effectively self-governing, with virtually no accountability, transparency, or checks and balances of any kind. He uses the term “double government”: There’s the one we elect, and then there’s the one behind it, steering huge swaths of policy almost unchecked. Elected officials end up serving as mere cover for the real decisions made by the bureaucracy.
Glennon cites the example of Obama and his team being shocked and angry to discover upon taking office that the military gave them only two options for the war in Afghanistan: The United States could add more troops, or the United States could add a lot more troops. Hemmed in, Obama added 30,000 more troops.
Glennon’s critique sounds like an outsider’s take, even a radical one. In fact, he is the quintessential insider: He was legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a consultant to various congressional committees, as well as to the State Department. “National Security and Double Government” comes favorably blurbed by former members of the Defense Department, State Department, White House, and even the CIA. And he’s not a conspiracy theorist: Rather, he sees the problem as one of “smart, hard-working, public-spirited people acting in good faith who are responding to systemic incentives”—without any meaningful oversight to rein them in.
Rounding it all out, back at Alternet, editor Don Hazen goes so far as to invent his own new political descriptor:
I have started describing myself as a pragmatic/apocalyptic, which means there are huge problems on the horizon, likely severe crises ahead, and there is at present no light at the end of the tunnel. So let’s stop fantasizing about all the ways our world should be when there isn’t the remotest chance of those ideas coming to fruition any time soon, if ever. Let’s focus on what can be done, on building local and regional strength, on developing thousands of new organizers and less think tankers, and bringing people together in ways they feel supported, as opposed to on their own, with no one at their backs.
Until more of us come to understand the real nature of power in our society and fundamentally address the daunting challenges we face with regard to inequality, climate change, and the “double government,” nothing will change.
I have to say that I have a soft spot for this last one—particularly the “pragmatic/apocalyptic” stance. It reminds me of Gramsci’s old formulation, “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.” Indeed for those of us who just can’t make it to that happy David Brooks space and “snap out of it” as economic inequality intensifies, democracy erodes, and the climate crisis gets worse all the time, there is something bracing about facing the cold hard light of day rather than sucking on the usual sugar-coated turds we have come to confuse with candy in our debased cultural and political arenas.
Until more of us come to understand the real nature of power in our society and fundamentally address the daunting challenges we face with regard to inequality, climate change, and the “double government,” nothing will change. That doesn’t mean moving to the center-right to attract decline-to-state voters or sucking up to rich donors and the Chamber of Commerce or playing the passionless moderate against the “extremists.”
It doesn’t mean being Ready for Hillary.
It means actually standing for something that will speak to the majority of people who don’t show up to vote because our politics don’t speak to them in any real way. As I wrote back in June after our last dismal election turnout, “when analysts dissect why fewer of us are turning out to vote, one answer might be that this is what plutocracy looks like—a system in which most ordinary folks no longer believe their government belongs to them. So if we really want a politics that can address the great issues of our day, the challenge isn’t about messaging or repositioning, it’s about getting people to believe they can change the game if only they would play.”
Along those lines, the “thousands of new organizers” that Hazen calls for need to be working for a movement that stands for social, economic, and environmental justice, not a party that only appeals to them when it’s time to ask for money or head to the phone bank. We need to re-invent our democracy from the bottom up and stop playing the game as currently constituted or we’ll just continue down a dark and descending way.
And as the latest U.N. IPCC report on climate change suggests, that is suicidal.
For those who think this suggestion is too negative or radical and that all we need is just a little recalibration of the current brand of conventional politics, I offer up the words of the great Neil Young, who is still raging against the machine as I pen this article: “there ain’t nothin’ like a friend who can tell you that you’re just pissin’ in the wind.”
Instead, dear reader, we need to grasp at the roots of things and realize that the whole of America is just like the town of Richmond, California where people power defeated dirty money once it was clear to them precisely how the game was rigged.