This article is adapted from Eric Alterman’s Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama (Nation Books). Copyright © 2011. Ari Melber, The Nation’s net movement correspondent, researched and drafted sections of this chapter.
It’s no secret our democracy does not work well anymore. In many respects, including that particularly large swath of issues that involve someone’s monetary profit and someone else’s loss, it can barely be said to be a democracy at all—unless one takes the view held by some in Washington and Wall Street that money fulfills the function not only of free speech but of citizenship itself. If America is to ameliorate its current democratic dysfunction anytime soon, merely electing better candidates to Congress is not going to be enough. We need a system that has fairer rules, that diminishes the role of money and that encourages politicians and journalists to investigate and portray the realities they observe honestly, thereby reducing the distorting lenses of finance, ideology and ignorance. And yet these items rarely feature on any progressive agenda.
This is, in many ways, understandable. Ending the Bush/Cheney administration, and defeating the Christian conservative and corporate base on 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 pragmatic reasons in 2008 appeared so enticing (and exciting) that we can all be forgiven for losing ourselves in the romance of focusing our time, money and energies on making this man America’s forty-fourth president.
But the 2008 election was not a game changer after all. For 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of the kind Obama promised and so many progressives imagined, we need to elect politicians willing to challenge the outdated rules of the Senate, fight for publicly financed elections and, in the absence of that, struggle against the Supreme Court’s insistence on giving corporations the same free speech rights as individuals. 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. We must work to transform our culture to re-ennoble the notion of the “public good.”
Some of the challenges standing in our way look to be all but impossible to overcome, like the blatant limitations on democracy inherent within the Electoral College or a Constitution that grants Wyoming and California the same power in the Senate. Others, meanwhile, are maddeningly complex, such as Senate rules regarding cloture and the like. But particularly in light of the 2010 election, apathy is no option. A little imagination and a great deal of hard work and patience can help put us on a path to a more democratic and equitable America. But don’t expect it to be easy, and don’t be surprised at the resistance of those who profit from politics as usual.
The Broken Senate
Congress has become a place where, most of the time, nothing much happens. Once in a great while, however, because of the political investments of one side or another, a massive piece of transformative legislation grows too big to fail and is somehow rammed through Congress without much concern for the parliamentary niceties that had up until that moment dominated the process. The Obama administration passed weakened versions of healthcare reform and financial regulation in this fashion but failed with cap and trade.