We have reached a pivotal moment in government and politics, and it feels like the last, groaning spasms of New Deal liberalism. When the party of activist government, faced with an epic crisis, will not use government’s extensive powers to reverse the economic disorders and heal deepening social deterioration, then it must be the end of the line for the governing ideology inherited from Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson.
Political events of the past two years have delivered a more profound and devastating message: American democracy has been conclusively conquered by American capitalism. Government has been disabled or captured by the formidable powers of private enterprise and concentrated wealth. Self-governing rights that representative democracy conferred on citizens are now usurped by the overbearing demands of corporate and financial interests. Collectively, the corporate sector has its arms around both political parties, the financing of political careers, the production of the policy agendas and propaganda of influential think tanks, and control of most major media.
What the capitalist system wants is more—more wealth, more freedom to do whatever it wishes. This has always been its instinct, unless government intervened to stop it. The objective now is to destroy any remaining forms of government interference, except of course for business subsidies and protections. Many elected representatives are implicitly enlisted in the cause.
A lot of Americans seem to know this; at least they sense that the structural reality of government and politics is not on their side. When the choice comes down to society or capitalism, society regularly loses. First attention is devoted to the economic priorities of the largest, most powerful institutions of business and finance. The bias comes naturally to Republicans, the party of money and private enterprise, but on the big structural questions business-first also defines Democrats, formerly the party of working people. Despite partisan rhetoric, the two parties are more alike than they acknowledge.
In these terms, the administration of Barack Obama has been a crushing disappointment for those of us who hoped he would be different. It turns out Obama is a more conventional and limited politician than advertised, more right-of-center than his soaring rhetoric suggested. Most Congressional Democrats, likewise, proved weak and incoherent, unreliable defenders of their supposed values or most loyal constituencies. They call it pragmatism. I call it surrender.
Obama’s maladroit tax compromise with Republicans was more destructive than creative. He acceded to the trickle-down doctrine of regressive taxation and skipped lightly over the fact that he was contributing further to stark injustices. Ordinary Americans will again be made to pay, one way or another, for the damage others did to society. Obama agrees that this is offensive but argues, This is politics, get over it. His brand of realism teaches people to disregard what he says. Look instead at what he does.
With overwhelming majorities in Congress and economic crisis tearing up the country in 2009, incumbent Democrats opted for self-protection first, party principles later. Their Senate leaders allowed naysayers to determine the lowest common denominator for reform—halfway measures designed not to overly disturb powerful corporate-financial interests, and therefore not able to repair the social destruction those interests had wrought. Senate Democrats say they didn’t have the votes. Imagine what Mitch McConnell would have done if he were their leader: Take no prisoners. Force party dissenters to get in line and punish those who don’t. Block even the most pedestrian opposition proposals.