§ The Bush legacy. We live, as the late Tony Judt wrote, in an "age of forgetting," and nowhere is this truer than in our political discourse. Rarely do we stop to remind ourselves that, as a New York Times editorial put it, Obama "took office under an extraordinary burden of problems created by President George W. Bush's ineptness and blind ideology." America's most irresponsible, incompetent and ideologically obsessed presidency not only left many political and economic crises on its successor's plate; these crises were so prominent as to mask equally significant problems that received virtually no attention. Think about the Minerals Management Service, where chaos, corruption and incompetence competed with genuine malevolence to empower BP to ignore so many safety rules before the big oil spill. Now multiply that by virtually the entire government regulatory structure, and you have some idea of the kind of mess left by Bush and Cheney to the Obama administration.
§ The structure of the Senate and the power of the minority. Faced with countless challenges merely to restore some sensible equilibrium to policy regarding, say, long-term deficits or financial regulation, Obama faces the conundrum of a system that, as currently constructed, gives the minority party no strategic stake in sensible governance. While the Democrats, even in the minority, do participate in solutions designed to improve governance, this is rarely true of Republicans, who are suspicious of government on principle and opposed to successful programs in practice, and have recently grown radicalized to the point where a great many of their complaints about Obama—whether that he is a "socialist" or a "Nazi" or a "liar" or was born in Kenya—are contrary to even the most basic forms of common sense. They now have myriad means to bottle up legislation, and no special interest is deemed too small or insignificant to monkey up the works.
§ The power of money. Of course, when attempting to determine why the people's will is so frequently frustrated in our system, one must turn first and foremost to the power of money. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics calculated that approximately $3.47 billion was spent lobbying the government in 2009, up from $3.3 billion the previous year. Despite Obama's attempts to transform the way business is transacted in Washington, special-interest money remains so influential that it is simply foolish to discuss the outcome of almost any policy debate in Congress without focusing first on who was buying what from whom. What's more, the problems caused by money in the system are certain to worsen in the near future as a result of the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down a century of laws limiting corporate spending for political candidates in the name of "free speech." This has opened up new opportunities for all corporations, particularly those working through the Chamber of Commerce, which now acts as a middleman for many corporations looking to act without footprints.
§ The culture of finance. In a phenomenon that mimics the observations of the long-jailed Italian communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, the economists Simon Johnson and James Kwak note that during the 1990s, when both parties benefited from massive investments in Congressional war chests by investment bankers and their allies, "the ideology of Wall Street—that unfettered innovation and unregulated financial markets were good for America and the world—became the consensus position in Washington on both sides of the political aisle." As a result, lobbyists' talking points became "self-evident." And their offers of jobs to underpaid, overworked Congressional staffers, irresistible.
§ The power of American ideology. It was the liberal hero Thomas Paine who first called government "but a necessary evil" and Henry David Thoreau who, writing on behalf of "Civil Disobedience," observed that "the government is best which governs least," and this retains a powerful appeal to many Americans regardless of the merits of any given government program, making these programs far easier to oppose than to support, to say nothing of the question of taxation.
§ Aggressive dishonesty and partisanship in the conservative media. As a result of a more than forty-year assault on journalism by right-wing funders—coupled with the decimation of so many once-proud journalistic institutions—an awful lot of the most influential perches in what remains of our media are occupied by people whose loyalty to journalism is vastly outweighed by their commitment to conservative talking points. Despite recent investments and advances, nothing on the left can compare to the power of talk-radio, Fox News and their network of like-minded multimillion-dollar think tanks.
§ Weaknesses of the MSM. The seepage of Fox-style conservatism into the rest of the MSM is only one of the roadblocks progressives must overcome. There is also the decline in reporting, the relentless focus on personality, the low level of intellectual discourse, the intensive focus on a single narrative, the obsession with celebrity and the relative lack of attention devoted to almost any remotely complex public policy issue.
All of these developments represent significant structural impediments to any progressive-minded president seeking to carry out his democratic mandate, even one who comes to Washington with ostensibly impregnable majorities in both houses of Congress. Obviously, if America is to be rescued from the grip of its democratic dysfunction, then merely electing better candidates to Congress is not going to be enough. We need a system that has better, fairer rules; reduces the role of money; and keeps politicians and journalists honest in their portrayal of what's actually going on.