Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now
Now recall the healthcare debate, which may have been the most heavily covered political issue of most of our lifetimes. How much of it focused on the personality conflicts, the political struggles of Pelosi and Reid to cobble together their respective majorities in the face of competing claims such as say, the pro- and antiabortion senators and Congressmen? And how much of the coverage focused on the money lobbyists were pouring into the campaigns, on the fine points of the legislation they were writing or on the threats they were making lest the laws be written in an unfavorable fashion? To say "none at all" would be an exaggeration, and some coverage was really quite good, but these obviously constituted a tiny percentage of the political news stories of the period, much of which focused on town hall meetings featuring an awful lot of people who forgot to take their meds that day. Even at the highest levels of the profession, personality trumps substance at every turn. (Coverage of the Tea Party crazies actually exceeded that of healthcare during the third week of April 2010, according to the Pew Center.) It speaks volumes about the contemporary state of political journalism to note that Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's bestseller about the 2008 election, offered up the story of John and Elizabeth Edwards's marriage troubles in excruciating detail, but next to nothing about the policy differences that separated the candidates, nor what such differences might imply for their respective presidencies. Meanwhile Politico, the well-funded and financially successful new publication that increasingly sets the tone for so much insider coverage, displays virtually no interest in policy, merely a constant scorecard of who's up, who's down and who's "driving the convo" that day. As Mark Liebovich noted in his lengthy New York Times Magazine profile of Politico's star reporter, Mike Allen, "'No Clear Winner in Seven-Hour Gabfest,' read the headline over the main article about President Obama's healthcare meeting." Former McCain adviser Mark Salter noted of its widespread influence, "They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel…. It's the shortening of the news cycle. It's the trivialization of news. It's the gossipy nature of news. It's the self-promotion."
Then there's the stupidity, which together with an insouciant lack of concern for evidence, context or even logic, characterizes so much of our right-leaning media. It's a wonder that any sensible liberal argument ever reaches the larger public. For sheer idiocy, it would be hard to top a Fox clip I happened to catch on The Daily Show recently, in which Laura Ingraham was seen to argue that the American people supported torture because the ratings for the Fox network's recently cancelled program 24 constituted a national referendum on the issue. No, really. This is a woman who, back in the 1990s, was chosen by the CBS Evening News to appear alongside Bill Bradley as a regular commentator. And speaking of CBS, Ben Domenech, a former Bush administration aide and Republican Senate staffer, was able to publish on the network's website in mid-April his observation that President Obama would "please" much of his base by picking Elena Kagan as the country's "first openly gay justice." Here, Domenech demonstrated perhaps all of the qualities that simultaneously make sensible discussion of complicated political questions in the American media so difficult in the first place, since he was lying. Kagan is not "openly gay" and never has been. (As it happens, I had personally reported that Kagan "was not openly gay" just days earlier on the Daily Beast in the context of identifying candidates who were. Many others did as well, after Stevens announced his impending retirement.) Second, the statement was entirely personal and prurient, having nothing whatever to do with her legal views. Third, CBS, which originally refused to take down the post, despite a complete lack of any attempt at verification, offered credibility to this falsehood, further eroding the distinction between this once-respected MSM news organization and the most petty, partisan corners of the blogosphere. (Domenech later defended himself by insisting he had heard the claim "mentioned casually on multiple occasions by friends and colleagues.") And to add insult to injury, this very same blogger had earlier been hired and resigned over a three-day period by a no-less-desperate Washington Post after he was discovered to be a serial plagiarist. It was a sad development for the standards of mainstream journalism when the Post felt it necessary to hire someone like Domenech in the first place. And here he was again, the second time as farce.
All of the developments discussed above represent significant structural impediments to a 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. What's more, the opponents of progressive change do not have to win any actual arguments among Congress, the media or the larger public; they merely have to make the price of winning so high that it no longer looks worth it. Obama "won" the healthcare fight. But in doing so, he gave away much of the store to conservative and corporate interests and sacrificed much of his party's popular mandate. By placing virtually the entire rest of his agenda on hold for most of the first crucial year of his presidency, he lost the opportunity to attempt to secure a strong bill to deal with global warming and weakened his hand at the table vis-à-vis financial reforms, whose final structure mirrored the weaknesses of the healthcare effort. (He also failed to address immigration reform, and gave up entirely on the Employee Free Choice Act, the American labor movement's top priority, among many, many progressive priorities to which he gave such eloquent voice during the campaign.)
Obviously, if America is to be rescued from the grip of its current 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. And yet most of these items often do not even make it to the primary points of the progressive agenda. This is, in many ways, understandable. Ending the Bush/Cheney administration, and defeating the neocon, Christian conservative and corporate base one whose behalf it acted, required emergency measures of a largely defensive nature. And the chance to replace George W. Bush with Barack Hussein Obama—both for symbolic and in many respects, pragmatic reasons in 2008—appeared so enticing (and exciting) that I think we can all be forgiven for losing ourselves in the romance of focusing 100 percent of our political time, money and energies on making this man America's forty-fourth president.
But the fact remains; the 2008 election was not a "game change" after all. For genuine change of the kind Obama promised and so many progressives imagined, we need to elect politicians willing to challenge the outdated rules of the Senate; willing to fight for publicly financed elections and, in the absence of that, against the Supreme Court's insistence on giving corporations the same free speech rights as individuals. We must work to transform our culture so that once again the idea of the public good becomes ennobled and the belief that it makes no difference which side you're on—that of citizens or that of corporate profits—concerns the people who craft legislation. We need smarter organizations that pressure politicians as well as pundits and reporters, not necessarily to see things our way, but to hold true to the ideals they profess to represent in the first place.
None of these changes are likely to be as simple and easy as electing Barack Obama; though, to be fair, none look quite as difficult as electing a certain African-American state senator with a name that rhymed with "Osama" and had "Hussein" in the middle as president did just five years ago. Some necessary changes appear awfully simple—which leads progressives to confuse them with being easy. For instance, to get rid of the Senate's antiquated rules that frequently frustrate the will of the majority, a simple majority of Senators can change the rules at the beginning of a Congressional session in, say, January 2011. But they are not going to do this on their own. Senators do not want to make themselves vulnerable to the retaliation of their colleagues should they lose power, and they value collegiality above virtually all else when it comes to rule-making (though this has proven far truer on the Democratic side than the Republican side). Too much enmity has already eaten into their quality of life, in the view of most senators. Increased partisanship, C-Span and the constant demand for 24/7 fundraising has made the place No Fun, they will tell you, destroying both genuine friendships and the possibility of serious engaged debate with one's opponents. Now it's nothing but protecting one's prerogatives and looking good for the folks back home, regardless of outcome. So while Tom Harkin (D, Iowa) has championed any number of sensible reforms to curb what he calls "the tyranny of the minority" to thwart the business of the Senate until their demands are met—including one that would gradually reduce the required "yea" votes for Senate action from sixty votes to just fifty-one during an eight-day period—he has yet even to achieve the support of his party's leaders. This change will therefore require a sustained effort on the part of progressives to demand that Senate candidates are made to feel its importance when competing for the Democrats' nomination; again, far easier said than done.