Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mute Ideology

The ongoing ridiculous debt ceiling debate (touched on in my last post) has further pointed to what many of us guessed from the onset about would be liberal messiah Barrack Obama, namely that he is clearly a creature of the far right. Yet the partisan nature of American politics has created a culture within which, for a leftist to point a finger at the failings of the administration, one is to commit an act of betrayal worthy of Benedict Arnold. It is similar to Christopher Hitchens' often-voiced complaint (some might say he never tires of repeating) that progressive people made the worst sorts of excuses for Bill Clinton while he was president, regardless of his lapses, either ideological or personal. I think this is a pertinent observation and that the tendency to make excuses for ones own 'side' frequently prevents politicians from not doing a better job.

To wit, Glenn Greenwald, in the pages of The Guardian has convincingly argued that the Obama administration is as determined as anyone to gut what have been the core of the the Democratic policy since the New Deal. As was pointed out to me by my friend Nick, the most prescient statement from within the whole piece may very well be the following:
The nature of American politics is that once a policy is removed from the partisan wars – once it is adopted by the leadership of both parties – it is removed from mainstream debate and fortified as bipartisan consensus. That is why false claims in the run-up to the Iraq war, endorsed by both parties, received so little mainstream journalistic scrutiny. And it's why the former Bush lawyer and right-wing ideologue Jack Goldsmith – back in May 2009 – celebrated in The New Republic the fact that Obama was doing more to strengthen Bush/Cheney terrorism policies than his former bosses could have ever achieved: by embracing the very terrorism approach he once denounced, Obama was converting it from rightwing radicalism into into the official dogma of both parties, and forcing his supporters to defend what were, until 2009, the symbols of rightwing evil.
Greenwald hits the nail firmly on the head here. As we can see with the Clinton administrations' embrace of both free-trade and welfare reform within the 1990s, the moment an issue is co-opted by both political parties, it becomes official party dogma. I recall being repeatedly chided by fellow 'leftists' for asking questions of policies articulated by the inchoate and then latter Obama campaign. The sectarian nature of the response was shocking, especially during the (troublesomely ephemerally brief) debates about TARP. The venom that would be rapidly directed when one questioned exactly how the Democratic congress planned to help people keep their homes by giving hundreds of billions to the commercial banking industry painted questions asked about who's interest was being served, and why, with a mist of poison.

This may have had something to do with the issues at hand. Discussions of the economy and financial sector reform beget discomfort and quiet distress in many people. Many people simply do not like to talk about the finer points of fiscal policy because many of the loopholes that need to be closed are difficult to fully comprehend, (and thus easy to apply partisan sensibility to), and fear is being used as the primary vehicle by both Republicans and Democrats in any discussion of economic policy, acting as a catalyst for that discomfort. Secondly, a close examination of how the financial sector seems to influence political decisions seems to invalidate much of what people like to think about the democratic process. This challenges the very nature of what people think they understand about government.

After all, people have an understanding of politics that often the politician they support will pragmatically (or cynically, depending on ones outlook) cut deals with the opposition, where no one quite gets exactly what they want but a legislative docket is moved forward. They believe that, their elected officials, at base, share many of their deeply held political convictions. At the same time, the voting records and lifestyles of the majority of career politicians should lead us to believe that the priorities of these people are largely not our own - which is why the process of angrily and bitterly holding politicians accountable is so important. Instead of shouldering this responsibility, many have simply allowed their beliefs about how policy should be written to be ignored as their party- which has become the far greater cipher for self-identification than the actual issues - remains in office.

Obama remains a master of this process. By outlining throughout the 2008 presidential campaign center to far right political stances (with the odd scrap, usually on a culture war issue, thrown to progressives) while cloistering his language in that of the civil rights movement, he was able to create an image of genuine progressive leadership potential to many people, despite his very clear conservative stance on many issues. Obama, has been remarkably honest on the campaign trail in that he seems to genuinely attempting to carry out the policies he campaigned on. The distinction has been that people did not read his policy stances literally, and instead were captured by the rhetoric with which he articulated those policies.

This most clearly plays itself out in Obama's economic, and specifically, preferred taxation policy. Obama initially elected to last year portray, in this case inveigle, his decision to not end the Bush tax-cuts for the wealthy as a deal he had to cut with the Republicans in order to maintain welfare benefits for a few thousand Americans. This struck many as a terrible exchange, and further, by forgoing billions in potential tax-revenue, how would the federal government pay for those benefits? The current budgetary talks, where Obama has led by offering two trillion in austerity measures demonstrates just how deeply his commitment to assuring those welfare benefits really ran. This has been further compounded by an unwillingness to raise taxes in any meaningful way for the most wealthy. (I have written more about this here.) As Ezra Klein among others points out, Obama has absolutely no real interest in letting the Bush era tax cuts expire, thus any gamesmanship the administration may be locked into seems to be (if you will tolerate me abusing a metaphor) variances in which shades of grey hedge fund managers should get their next Brooks Brothers suit cut in. This is because Obama is hand-in-glove with the financial sector and thus asking for reasonable taxation rates for bankers and the other wealthy would prove pungent towards Obama's economic 'base'.

The most striking outcome is how similar both parties stances on the issues have become, largely because at the end of the day, they serve very similar financial interests. The federal government has become almost exclusively vehicle for advancing the interests of banks and the defense industry and that this has intensified, and become more nakedly apparent over the last couple of decades. I think that local government remains overwhelmingly a far more capable and willing to act in the public interest, but this is beginning to be eroded by a groundswell of economic conservative populism. Further, local government can only go so far. This aside, I think that people intrinsically are less willing to give up local government that national however because the sense of scope makes the fight feel more winnable.

The only natural solution to the these problems of governance then is to either try to force bottom-up change through progressive action by local municipalities while simultaneously doing what tired old Chris Hedges keeps advocating and voting for third-parties as a means of insisting on better federal policy outcomes. People remain complacent and an injection of anger, as Stephan Hessel argues, may be a necessary outcome, but this business of partisan co-option seems to indicate that this point of civic outrage may only come at a point when the social state is so badly eroded it may prove unrecoverable. One also wonders how well, or what type of policy demands can be articulated at any point when rationality has been abandoned in favor of the passions of a mob. Still, anger seems better than the present system in which beliefs are allowed to die through a grubby process of negligence then made to dance macabre, come election cycle, by way of sweeping oration and rigor mortis.

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