Few progressives would take issue with the argument that, significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment. As Mario Cuomo famously observed, candidates campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Still, Obama supporters have been asked to swallow some painfully "prosaic" compromises. In order to pass his healthcare legislation, for instance, Obama was required to specifically repudiate his pledge to prochoice voters to "make preserving women’s rights under Roe v. Wade a priority as president." That promise apparently was lost in the same drawer as his insistence that "Any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange…including a public option." Labor unions were among his most fervent and dedicated foot soldiers, as well as the key to any likely progressive political renaissance, and many were no doubt inspired by his pledge "to fight for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act." Yet that act appears deader than Jimmy Hoffa. Environmentalists were no doubt steeled through the frigid days of New Hampshire canvassing by Obama’s promise that "As president, I will set a hard cap on all carbon emissions at a level that scientists say is necessary to curb global warming—an 80 percent reduction by 2050." That goal appears to have gone up the chimney in thick black smoke. And remember when Obama promised, right before the election, to "put in place the common-sense regulations and rules of the road I’ve been calling for since March—rules that will keep our market free, fair and honest; rules that will restore accountability and responsibility in our corporate boardrooms"? Neither, apparently, does he… Indeed, if one examines the gamut of legislation passed and executive orders issued that relate to the promises made by candidate Obama, one can only wince at the slightly hyperbolic joke made by late night comedian Jimmy Fallon, who quipped that the president’s goal appeared to be to "finally deliver on the campaign promises made by John McCain."
None of us know what lies inside the president’s heart. It’s possible that he fooled gullible progressives during the election into believing he was a left-liberal partisan when in fact he is much closer to a conservative corporate shill. An awful lot of progressives, including two I happen to know who sport Nobel Prizes on their shelves, feel this way, and their perspective cannot be completely discounted. The Beltway view of Obama, meanwhile, posits just the opposite. That view—insistently repeated, for instance, by the Wall Street Journal‘s nonpartisan, non-ideological news columnist, Gerald Seib—is that the president’s problem is that he and his allies in the Democratic Party "just overplayed their hand in the last year and a half, moving policy too far left, sparking an equal and opposite reaction in the rightward direction." And Newt Gingrich, speaking from what is actually considered by these same Beltway types as the responsible center of the Republican Party, calls him "the most radical president in American history" and "potentially, the most dangerous" as he urges his minions to resist the president’s "secular, socialist machine."
Personally, I tend more toward the view expressed by the young, conservative New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, that Obama is "a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer." Or as one of Obama’s early Chicago mentors, Denny Jacobs, explained to his biographer David Remnick, Obama is a pol who learned early that "sometimes you can’t get the whole hog, so you take the ham sandwich."
But the truth, dear reader, is that it does not much matter who is right about what Barack Obama dreams of in his political imagination. Nor is it all that important whether Obama’s team either did or didn’t make major strategic errors in its first year of governance: in choosing to do healthcare before financial reform; in not holding out for a larger, more people-focused stimulus bill, in eschewing a carbon tax; or in failing to nationalize banks and break up those that are "too big to fail." Face it, the system is rigged, and it’s rigged against us. Sure, presidents can pretty easily pass tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful corporations. They can start whatever wars they wish and wiretap whomever they want without warrants. They can order the torture of terrorist suspects, lie about it and see that their intelligence services destroy the evidence. But what they cannot do, even with supermajorities in both houses of Congress behind them, is pass the kind of transformative progressive legislation that Barack Obama promised in his 2008 presidential campaign. Here’s why.
The American political system is nothing if not complicated and so too are the reasons for its myriad points of democratic dysfunction. Some are endemic to our constitutional regime and all but impossible to address save by the extremely cumbersome (and profoundly unlikely) prospect of amending the Constitution. Others are the result of a corrupt capital culture that likes it that way and has little incentive to change. Many are the result of the peculiar commercial and ideological structure of our media, which not only frame our political debate but also determine which issues will be addressed. A few are purely functions of the politics of the moment or just serendipitous bad luck. And if we really mean to change things, instead of just complaining about them, it would behoove us to figure out which of these choke points can be opened up and which cannot. For if our politicians cannot keep the promises they make as candidates, then our commitment to political democracy becomes a kind of Kabuki exercise; it resembles a democratic process at great distance but mocks its genuine intentions in substance.
We live, as Tony Judt has written, 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." The economy was tanking: for the decade between 2000 and 2009, real growth was at its lowest point since the 1930s, and the fact that two-thirds of all economic gains went to the top 1 percent of the population meant stagnation at best for most workers, actual decline for many. Clear environmental threats had been allowed to fester. The Bush Justice Department was engaged in what appears to be widespread criminal action in a host of areas. We were fighting two wars, hamstrung by the hatred of most of the world’s citizens, and operating torture chambers (and lying about it) across the globe. What’s more, based on the theory of the "unitary executive" Bush and Cheney were claiming near dictatorial powers to ignore both houses of Congress and even the courts when it suited their purposes. What was his successor to do? Should he bail out the banks? Nationalize them? Break them up? Allow Detroit to die? Invite the firing of tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of teachers, police, firefighters and emergency workers by state and local governments strapped by falling tax revenues? Allow the deficit to explode or the economy to implode? Should he close Guantánamo and Bagram prisons? End rendition? Get out of Iraq? Reverse signing-statements? Outlaw domestic spying? Cut carbon emissions? And by the way, exactly how would he accomplish these things—and simultaneously? By legislation? By executive fiat? By magic? Believe me, I could go on.
America’s most irresponsible, incompetent and ideologically obsessed presidency not only left most of these political and economic crises on its successor’s plate, it often masked significant problems that received virtually no attention, so prominent were the crises it caused. Many of these are more worrisome than the ones that made the front page. Entitlements were rising unsustainably. So was US foreign debt to China. Our education system was falling farther and farther behind other Western nations’ as "No Child Left Behind" failed by virtually every appreciable measure, save number of tests given. Fifty-five percent of Americans were on their way to being laid off, having their work hours reduced or being forced into part-time employment. And, almost entirely uncovered by the media, much of our physical infrastructure had corroded to the point of near collapse. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, "More than 26%, or one in four, of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete," a problem that would likely cost roughly $17 billion per year to repair, or almost twice what had been budgeted. One-third of America’s major roads are "in poor or mediocre condition and 45 percent of major urban highways are congested." Its drinking water systems "face an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion to replace aging facilities." Inland waterways, wastewater systems, levees: all of these crucial systems rate a "D" or lower according the Civil Engineers’ report card. What’s more, this neglect at the federal level is matched by an equal lack of interest in these topics by the mainstream media. A valuable study by Jodi Enda in the American Journalism Review revealed an almost total lack of interest in these issues on the part of virtually every major news organization.
The result of this malign neglect is that post-Bush America is one disaster waiting to happen after another, all of which—when they do—are laid at the feet of the current president, regardless of whether addressing them is consistent with his policy agenda. For if he does not find a way to do so, they will likely overwhelm it. The financial crisis that dominated Obama’s early months—and almost brought down the entire world economy—is one obvious example. But consider for a moment the crisis of the moment: the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that so many in the mainstream media have sought to portray as "Obama’s Katrina." Of course Obama himself is responsible for his administration’s reaction to the spill as well as his ill-considered decision, taken just weeks before it took place, to allow expanded drilling in coastal areas. But almost all MSM debate on the question has treated the oil spill as an act of God, or of BP’s negligence. In fact the conditions that led to the spill—including the egregious malfeasance that empowered BP and the rest of the industry to ignore the most basic precautions—were a direct outgrowth of the Bush/Cheney industry-friendly defenestration of the basic functions of the government’s regulatory functions.
As Enda’s report noted, before the spill no editor or producer thought to call a reporter and say, Hey, why not take a look at what’s up over at the Minerals Management Service? Almost nothing had been written about the MMS at all of late, save for its now infamous four-year sex scandal. According to MMS spokesman Nicholas Pardi, there’s not a single reporter in the country who covers its activities full time. And yet in the wake of this endless disaster, thanks to the energetic reporting of those institutions that are now on the job, we’ve learned, for instance, that the Minerals Management Service did not require oil companies to have backup systems to trigger blowout preventers in case of an emergency. No enforcement mechanisms existed at all. In recent years, regulators allowed the oil executives to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil, which were then traced over and submitted. Free hunting and fishing trips, tickets to games, expensive meals were the norm at the Lake Charles office, all provided by the oil companies. Taking such gifts "appears to have been a generally accepted practice," according to the department’s acting inspector general, Mary L. Kendall. Two years ago, one MMS employee undertook four inspections of platforms while in the process of negotiating the terms of his employment with that same company. Another was suspected of using crystal meth during his inspections. It’s no wonder that that the MMS collected only sixteen fines from the more than four hundred investigations of Gulf of Mexico drilling incidents over the past five years. The agency found roughly 200 violations of its regulations, but showed virtually no interest in pursuing any of them.
Meanwhile, as a result of this almost comically lax enforcement, BP executives felt no compunction in ignoring safety and environmental rules to which it was allegedly subject. One 2001 report found that the company paid little attention to the equipment it would need in the event of an emergency shutdown, equipment that might have prevented the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. It often fell back on the least expensive and less reliable deepwater well design—called "long string"—and did so far more frequently than its industry competitors. Another report, from 2004, discovered a pattern of company intimidation toward its employees who expressed uneasiness about its safety or environmental practices. California officials accused the company of falsifying its 2002 fuel tank inspections, adding that four of five of its storage facilities failed to meet proper standards. BP was forced to settle a lawsuit brought by the South Coast Air Quality Management District for over $100 million. In 2005, a Texas City refinery explosion cost fifteen lives, owing in part to a failed warning system that one report found consistent with practices at "all five U.S. refineries, not just Texas City."
Given all of the above, Paul Krugman is quite right to point out that the failures of both the MMS and BP that led to the spill—MMS’s failure "to require a backup shutdown system that is standard in much of the rest of the world, even though its own staff declared such a system necessary," as well as the exemption it gave BP "from the requirement that they file plans to deal with major oil spills" and its allowing "BP to drill Deepwater Horizon without a detailed environmental analysis"—are part of a pattern relevant not just to the MMS or even to the Bush/Cheney administration’s lackadaisical approach to environmental regulation. Rather, they reflect the entire administration’s attitude toward governance in general, and regulation in particular. "For the Bush administration was, to a large degree, run by and for the extractive industries," Krugman notes. Its appointees were not merely corporate lobbyists and shills who frequently enjoyed little interest and less competence in the areas they were being asked to regulate. They were often also corrupt. Again to take just one of many potential examples, the Bush/Cheney deputy secretary of the interior (the man credited with actually running the place) was the coal-industry lobbyist J. Steven Griles, who, in 2007, pled guilty to lying to Congress about his ties to Jack Abramoff’s operation.
As it happens, Dick Cheney’s role was crucial in creating these conditions. As Joshua Dorner of the Center for American Progress wrote, "Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy Task Force concluded in May 2001 that ‘advanced, more energy efficient drilling and production methods: reduce emissions; practically eliminate spills from offshore platforms; and enhance worker safety, lower risk of blowouts, and provide better protection of groundwater resources.’" Dorner continues:
One of the worst elements of what has come to be known as the "Dick Cheney energy bill" had a direct role in eliminating the kind of regulatory oversight that may have prevented the blowout of BP’s Mississippi Canyon 252 well on April 20 of this year. Section 390 of the legislation dramatically expanded the circumstance under which drilling operations could forego environmental reviews and be approved almost immediately under so-called "categorical exclusions" from the National Environmental Policy Act. The use of such exclusions went on to widespread abuse under the Bush administration. BP’s blown-out well did not undergo an environmental review thanks to a categorical exclusion. (BP was lobbying as recently as April to expand the use of such exclusions.)
Paul Krugman correctly notes that Barack Obama "isn’t completely innocent of blame in the current spill," owing to the fact that BP "received an environmental waiver for Deepwater Horizon after Mr. Obama took office." Indeed, as the current deputy interior secretary later mused, "What happened to all the stakeholders—Congress, environmental groups, industry, the government—all stakeholders involved were lulled into a sense of what has turned out to be false security." But the "broader pattern" here, Krugman notes, is one of "the degradation of effective government by antigovernment ideology." As a result of this ideology’s ruinous effects, we are likely being lulled into a similar sense of "false security" about any number of aspects of our public life and the government’s regulatory responsibilities. These failures have the potential to despoil almost every aspect of President Obama’s positive agenda, not unlike an oil gusher spewing its poison into a pristine Louisiana wetland.
Faced with countless challenges merely to restore some sensible equilibrium to US 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. The two parties are demonstrably different in this respect. Democrats, even in the minority, participate in solutions designed to improve governance. They cannot help themselves. A commitment to the principle of good governance is the primary reason most Democrats tend toward politics in the first place. One might argue that this faith in government’s ability to improve people’s lives is misplaced or that it becomes easily corrupted over time by the temptations of power and privilege, but few serious political observers would deny its initial presence. This is rarely true of Republicans, who are suspicious of government on principle and opposed to successful programs in practice. (If government succeeds, Republican ideology fails…)
Ironically, given the deeply contested manner in which George W. Bush ascended to the presidency in 2000 despite his second place finish in the popular vote and a transparent power grab on his behalf by the US Supreme Court, it is Obama’s, not Bush’s, legitimacy that has come under attack by mainstream Republicans. As the environmental reporter Dave Roberts describes it, "at the federal Congressional level, the Republican Party has become tight in its discipline, extreme in its ideology, and utterly unprincipled in its tactics." To be fair to the Democrats, they are a far more ideologically diverse party than the Republicans, and contain many moderates, many of whom, in past Congresses, would easily have been conservatives. To further complicate matters, the more conservative or "centrist" representatives are almost always the most vulnerable, since they do not represent reliably liberal districts (many were recently recruited by Rahm Emanuel for the purposes of winning in "purple" districts). As NPR’s Ron Elving recently observed following the publication of yet another poll predicting catastrophe for the Democrats this November, "The House Democratic majority is, as always, a struggle between the ‘sitting pretty’ faction that’s safe (this year as always) and the more fragile ‘scaredy cat’ faction that could be carried off by even the gentlest of anti-incumbent breezes." "The ‘scaredy cats’ are the Blue Dogs," adds New York Times pundit Charles M. Blow. As a result, the Democratic leadership in both houses is forever forced to compromise with its own side rather than its opposition. Now add to this the fact that, as Roberts rightly notes, "Congressional Republicans exercise far more party discipline, are far more extreme ideologically, and are far more willing to twist and abuse procedure than are Congressional Democrats." It’s true, as pundits like to claim, that both sides "do it," but Republican conservatives do it better, more often and to far greater effect.
Again, to offer just one tiny for instance, when Democratic Congressman Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii announced his plans to leave Congress to run for governor, he picked as his date of departure February 28, just before the big make-’em-or-break-’em series of votes on healthcare reform. Barely a week later, Republican Congressman Nathan Deal of Georgia made the same announcement regarding his ambition to occupy his state’s governor’s chair, but his Republican colleagues prevailed upon him to stick around long enough to vote against healthcare. Meanwhile, and I wish I were making this up, Abercrombie’s Democratic colleagues not only let him run away from the fight but even gave him going-away party. Too bad Abercrombie was already gone. (And in an almost too-fitting ending, the Democrats lost this bluest of blue seats—temporarily at least—in the May special election, owing to their inability to settle on a single candidate in time for the vote.)
Republicans never bothered to come up with an alternative healthcare proposal to Obama’s; this was unnecessary. All they needed was the word "no." ("We’re the party of ‘Hell, no!’" cried Sarah Palin to a crowd of cheering Southern Republicans in mid-April.) Afterward, they make a speech about the need for the government to cut taxes and reduce spending. I swear I’m not kidding. When Senator DeMint introduced a GOP stimulus plan, authored by the Heritage Foundation, it consisted in its entirety of making the Bush tax cuts permanent and adding to them additional tax breaks for corporations and wealthy Americans. If enacted—never a serious possibility—it would have cost roughly three times what Obama’s cost over the next ten years. Even DeMint found it necessary to admit that it was "not innovative or particularly clever. In fact, it’s only eleven pages." Anyone who observes the current state of the Republican Party, whether at the elite or grassroots levels, will not find much clamoring for powerful public policy proposals. What the Congressional Republicans lack in seriousness, however, they make up in self-discipline, particularly when compared to the constantly divided (and frequently dispirited) Democrats.
Given this radicalization of their base, coupled with their ideological antipathy toward government solutions to societal problems, the current Republican leadership came to power with no interest whatever in bipartisan legislation. As DeMint famously promised, healthcare reform could be used to "break" the President. According to Republican-until-recently Arlen Specter—long before the White House had offered any details about the bill’s content—before even "the ink was dry on the oath of office," the Republican caucus was plotting how to defeat Obama in 2012. Or as Representative Mike Conaway (R, Texas), a member of the Republican Steering Committee, put it, "I think, in the minority, you’re not responsible for governing," and hence, "You can be a little purer in your ideology than when you’re trying to get things done." This problem has only progressed during Obama’s first year, as we shall see below.
Whatever the motivation, it is has become easier and easier for a determined minority to throw sand in the gears of the legislative process. America’s system of political representation, now more than two centuries old, has grown ever more anachronistic. For instance, when the United States Senate was created, the most populous state had just twelve times more people than the one with the smallest population. Now it’s seventy times; giving those in small and underpopulated states a massive political advantage over the rest of us. And it just so happens that the best-represented areas of America are also the most conservative. It is therefore no coincidence that the forty Republican senators with the ability to bottle up almost anything in the Senate represent barely a third of the US population.
This is just the beginning of the problems Americans face in terms of disproportionate representation. The average age of a US senator is 69, while the median age of Americans, according to the most recent census figures, is just over 35. Women are a majority of the US population but only 17 percent of the Senate. Only four senators are African-American, Hispanic or Native American, while these minorities represent a third of the population. Most senators are also millionaires; most Americans, needless to say, are not. Elderly white male millionaires therefore come to do quite well when it comes to legislation. Underrepresented groups, not so much…
The minority party has myriad means to bottle up legislation, and owing to a breakdown in comity among senators, no special interest is deemed too small or insignificant to monkey up the works. The most common tool of late has been the Republican threat to filibuster. Genuine filibusters of the kind Southern Democrats used to use to block civil rights legislation in the ’40s and ’50s are unnecessary today, as senators found them inconvenient, what with all the back-and-forth travel, fundraising opportunities and media appearances it would cost them. (The average senator spends about one percent of his time on the floor of the Senate, an infinitesimal fraction of what they devote to fundraising.) The ease of this particular tactic has increased exponentially as the Republicans grew ever more shameless in shutting down votes in which they are in the minority.
And yet this is only one of many tactics available to a determined opponent. In yet another fossilized rule left over from the days of stagecoach travel, any senator can freeze any bill merely by placing a personal "hold" on it. Breaking holds can be done, but it is extremely tedious, time-consuming business, and the Senate does it only when it feels forced. Again, Republicans in the current Congress have been far more promiscuous in the employment of this anti-majoritarian tactic than any before them. Of the eighty-one judicial nominations Obama has sent to the Senate at this writing, only thirty have been approved, largely due to single-senator holds. (One nominee to the federal bench took nine months to come to the floor, only to be confirmed ninety-nine to nothing.) Obama himself pointed out on June 18, 2010, that his administration was still awaiting confirmation of 136 federal appointees. Often, the reasons for a hold have nothing whatever to do with the person or issue in question. Richard Shelby (R, Alabama), for instance, placed a "blanket hold" on dozens of nominees over complaints he had involving a Northrop Grumman tanker contract and the construction of a counterterrorism center in his home state. And when Kentucky’s Jim Bunning decided to put a hold on legislation allowing the extension of unemployment benefits, he not only single-handedly caused nearly 1.2 million unemployed workers to lose their benefits, he also caused a furlough of nearly 2,000 Department of Transportation employees without pay, the cutoff of $38 million in project funding for Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest and Fernan Lakes Idaho Panhandle National Forest, and the loss of $86 million for bridge replacements in the Washington, DC, area. Alan Bersin, whose appointment to head the Customs and Border Patrol operation (now part of DHS) was stalled until President Obama broke the hold with a series of fifteen recess appointments in late March, 2010, had been US Attorney in California, head of a Justice Department unit overseeing US-Mexico border affairs, head of the San Diego school system, secretary of education for California under Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and an assistant secretary at DHS. Three CBP commissioners, including two from the Bush administration, asked Republican senators to approve Bersin’s appointment, given the sensitivity of the office he was up for. Why was his appointment never approved by Congress? According to the Wall Street Journal, "Senator Charles Grassley (R, Iowa) has raised questions about his personal taxes."
Of course when attempting to determine why the people’s will is so frequently frustrated in our system, any author would be remiss if he did not 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 federal government in 2009, up from $3.3 billion the previous year. By the final quarter of the year, lobbies were handing out $20 million a day. The most generous spreaders of wealth were in the pharmaceutical and health products industries, whose $266.8 million set a record for "the greatest amount ever spent on lobbying efforts by a single industry for one year" according to CRP. At one point, PhRMA employed forty-eight lobbying firms, in addition to in-house lobbyists, with a total of 165 people overall, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s Paul Blumenthal.
Max Baucus (D, Montana), who wrote the original Senate healthcare bill, raised roughly $2 million from the health sector in the past five years, according to opensecrets.org, despite running in a low-cost media market with marginal opposition. Political scientists often argue that it is nearly impossible to determine a direct cause and effect between a given political contribution and a vote in Congress. Apologists for the current system of legalized graft—including Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in a 5–4 majority with his fellow justices—will therefore argue that the billions of shareholder dollars are being doled out by corporations for no apparent purpose. This is, unfortunately, one of those areas where political science is worse than useless when applied to real life. To give just one of perhaps a quadrillion potential examples: in March the New York Times reported that Senator Bob Corker (R, Tennessee) had convinced the Senate Banking Committee’s chairman, Chris Dodd (D, Connecticut), to remove a provision from draft bank legislation that would have empowered federal authorities to crack down on the onerous practices of "payday lenders." Dodd had planned to give a new consumer protection agency the power to write and enforce rules governing these maggots who prey on the poor and those without decent credit ratings with loans sometimes averaging 400 percent annual interest. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, that industry tripled its lobbying budget between 2005 and 2008 to $2.1 million. The money itself can be difficult to track. For instance, W. Allan Jones, who started Check Into Cash, in Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1993, and now enjoys 1,100 stores in thirty states, has been what the Times calls "a longtime friend and supporter of Mr. Corker’s." Jones, his relatives and his employees have given Corker’s campaign funds at least $31,000 since 2001, when he ran for mayor of Chattanooga. "Asked whether the industry’s campaign contributions to him had shaped his thinking about the issue, Corker replied, "categorically, absolutely not." Well, that settles that. Clearly the overriding public interest in having something as inherently sleazy as a barely regulated payday loan industry must have been Corker’s philosophical motivation. (In a denouement that will be familiar to those who closely followed Democrats’ attempt to secure bipartisan support for healthcare reform, Corker decided he would not join Dodd in introducing the legislation, and it became a moot point anyway when the Senate Banking Committee finally adopted Dodd’s own bill on a party-line vote. That bill allows for a new consumer bureau to enforce the rules it writes for "nonbank financial companies"—payday lenders included—over a certain size.)
Of course, Corker and the payday loan business is just a microcosm of what happens every day on vastly larger scale. As of late May, members of the financial committees in both houses had already enjoyed 845 separate fund-raising events, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit Washington tracking group. According to an analysis by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington for the New York Times, fourteen freshmen who serve on the House Financial Services Committee raised 56 percent more in campaign contributions than other freshmen. Party leaders know this, and they place potentially vulnerable members on this committee to aid them with their fundraising. Naturally they are expected to do the industry’s bidding there. And it should surprise no one to learn that Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members enjoyed an average of $52,000 from the oil and gas industry in the current election cycle, compared with $24,000 for others in the Senate, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Financial power need not be justified merely on the basis of the votes it sways. Rather, it can define potential alternatives, invent arguments, inundate with propaganda and threaten with merely hypothetical opposition. Politicians do not need to "switch" their votes to meet the demands of this money. They can bury bills; they can rewrite the language of bills that are presented; they can convince certain Congressmen to be absent on the days certain legislation is discussed; they can confuse debate; they can bankroll primary opposition. The manner and means through which money can operate is almost as infinite as its uses in any bordello, casino or Wall Street brokerage. Just about the only thing money can’t buy in politics is love, which is OK because, as Senator David Vitter or ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer can tell you, politics provides plenty of substitutes.
Despite his attempts to transform the way business is transacted in Washington, special interest money worked its will through Barack Obama’s agenda in Congress to the point where it is simply foolish to discuss almost any issue without focusing first on who was buying what from whom. Consider healthcare. Why was a single-payer program defined as off the table from the proverbial get-go? Why was it impossible to include a public option in the final legislation? Why was the re-importation of prescription drugs declared out of bounds? Why does the insurance industry get to elude anti-trust regulations, particularly given the inefficiency with which it delivers its fundamental product? Why did it prove impossible simply to lower the lower the age at which Americans became eligible to buy into Medicare? Why wasn’t Medicare allowed to negotiate drug prices for seniors in order to secure lower costs? Any of these options would quite likely have lowered the cost of deliverable healthcare to Americans, and significantly increased both the system’s reach and its efficiency. The members of the Obama administration working on the issue were undoubtedly aware of all this. And yet they finally presented Congress with legislation that included none of them. Why?
Well, it wasn’t the president’s cowardice, his shortsightedness, a lack of character or an absence of cojones, though many on the left chose to attack Obama on exactly these terms. Without powerful special interests lined up on Obama’s side, the battle for reform would have been lost before it had begun. As it was, Obama won it by the skin of his teeth.
The results are far more devastating for the fate of Obama’s most significant environmental promise: to curb carbon emissions in the fight against global warming; a challenge so significant that even John McCain once called climate change "a test of foresight, of political courage and of the unselfish concern that one generation owes to the next." The president proposed a complicated cap-and-trade scheme to encourage industry to undertake the necessary reforms. The version that passed in the House could have been read as a gift to certain sectors of the energy and financial industries, rather than a serious attempt to control climate-producing emissions. Nevertheless it died in the Senate, the victim of a thousand well-funded cuts.
Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal put a ceiling on the amount of carbon to be emitted each year, and would force electricity providers and other polluters to purchase permits directly from the government or from each other for their emissions of greenhouse gases. The system, if successful, would have had the effect of reducing carbon emissions to 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. This would not, even by administration calculations, have been sufficient to prevent the 2º C temperature rise that a consensus among climatologists insists is the maximum level the planet can sustain without dire effects taking place. But the cap-and-trade plan was chosen over a straightforward tax on carbon production in part because it enjoyed the support of not only of the likes of McCain but also major corporations such as Shell Oil and Dow Chemical, who stood to profit from it.
This cap-and-trade plan resulted from a lengthy debate over the various advantages of different market-based trading regimes as opposed to a simple tax on carbon or a system that produced refunds to US residents on a per capita basis to allow "those with below-average carbon footprints come out ahead," according to former NASA climatologist James Hansen. (While the current cap-and-trade scheme does contain subsidies for the poor, it offers few benefits or incentives for those just above the poverty level.) The plan, which was based on a regime created by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s to deal with acid rain, enjoyed McCain’s support, but (more significantly, no doubt) even Shell Oil, Dow Chemical and the coal-burning American Electric Power, often termed "the nation’s dirtiest utility," signed on.
Not so surprisingly, the House bill contains all manner of gifts bestowed by Congress to those with well-funded offices of "government relations." The Peterson Amendment, for instance, named after the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson (D, Minnesota), exempts big agriculture from many of the emissions standards set by the bill. You should not be shocked to learn that the top three donors to Peterson’s 2008 campaign were the American Farm Bureau, American Crystal Sugar and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Overall, crop production, agricultural services/products, dairy and food processing donated $628,687 to Peterson’s campaign and PAC, more than 41 percent of all the money he raised for the 2008 election. (Agriculture Committee members took in nearly $23 million in that election cycle alone from people and organizations with financial, insurance and real estate affiliations, more than double what they’ve gotten from anybody affiliated with actual agriculture.)
Like a manure pile at an Iowa factory pig farm, this stuff adds up. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the number of lobbyists devoted to climate change had risen by more than 400 percent since 2003, to a total of 2,810—giving lobbyists a five-to-one advantage over the combined membership of the House and Senate. (This is in contrast to an estimated 138 working on behalf of alternative forms of energy.) Targets for improving renewable energy resources were roughly halved as the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions had been gutted. And rather than auction off pollution permits, as candidate Obama had proposed, the legislation offered 85 percent of them to polluters for free. All told, according to one analysis by Stanford University economists, polluters earned themselves $134 billion in taxpayer-funded gifts as they reduced the overall goal of a reduction in carbon emissions from 20 percent to 17 percent. Strongly supported by the financial industry, which stood to make billions on its proposed carbon credit markets, this awful bill barely squeaked through the House by a 219 to 212 vote. Alas, it died there.
As a result, now, even under what now looks to be an unrealistically rosy scenario, according to a report prepared by the Guardian’s Alok Jha for the Copenhagen summit, we can expect the Amazon to turn into desert and grasslands, "while increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere make the world’s oceans too acidic for remaining coral reefs and thousands of other marine life forms. More than 60 million people, mainly in Africa, would be exposed to higher rates of malaria. Agricultural yields around the world will drop and half a billion people will be at greater risk of starvation." That’s in the near term. As the world’s sea level begins to rise by seven meters over the next few hundred years, one can expect glaciers to recede and thereby reduce the world’s fresh water supply. As many as a third of the world’s species will likely become extinct as the 2° C rise changes their habitats too quickly for them to adapt.
With another degree of warming, Jha notes, we can expect: "After a 3C global temperature rise, global warming may run out of control and efforts to mitigate it may be in vain. Millions of square kilometers of Amazon rainforest could burn down, releasing carbon from the wood, leaves and soil and thus making the warming even worse, perhaps by another 1.5C. In southern Africa, Australia and the western US, deserts take over. Billions of people are forced to move from their traditional agricultural lands, in search of scarcer food and water. Around 30-50% less water is available in Africa and around the Mediterranean. In the UK, summers of droughts are followed by winter floods. Sea levels rise to engulf small islands and low-lying areas such as Florida, New York and London. The Gulf Stream, which warms the UK all year round, will decline and changes in weather patterns will lead to higher sea levels at the Atlantic coasts."
And finally, should we stay on the path we’re on, we can expect a 4° rise in the earth’s average temperature and, Jha explains, this likely scenario: "At this stage, the Arctic permafrost enters the danger zone. The methane and carbon dioxide currently locked in the soils will be released into the atmosphere. At the Arctic itself, the ice cover would disappear permanently, meaning extinction for polar bears and other native species that rely on the presence of ice. Further melting of Antarctic ice sheets would mean a further 5m rise in the sea level, submerging many island nations. Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey become deserts and mid-Europe reaches desert temperatures of almost 50C in summer. Southern England’s summer climate could resemble that of modern southern Morocco."
As Bill McKibben has argued, the 1,400-page collection of "offsets and sweeteners and bailouts…was an ugly deal—but nowhere near ugly enough for the Senate," where it was left to shrivel up and die. It may or may not be resuscitated into something else, as senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham have proposed, but whatever it turns out to be, it sure won’t do much to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere. (For instance, the bill, as passed, forbade the EPA from regulating carbon, and prevented states from trying to implement tougher standards on their own.) McKibben notes that an alternative bill, proposed by Maine Republican Susan Collins and Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, sought to curb emissions by inviting energy companies bid each year for their permits to put carbon in the atmosphere instead of merely giving them away. The money earned would be used "to write a check to every American every year." Gas prices would go up as the price of these permits was passed onto customers at the pump, but seven out of ten Americans would come out ahead in the end. (And if you didn’t you’re probably using up too much energy, anyway.) "Cap and dividend" is a much simpler, easier and more efficient way to regulate carbon emissions than cap and trade, and much easier to sell to the average voter. So why isn’t it being seriously considered? As the climate blogger Joe Romm told McKibben, "It’s energy-intensive businesses that hate [cap and dividend], and I’m afraid they drive the process more than the public. If public support mattered, we’d have passed a bill a long time ago!"
To be fair to all concerned, climate change is a terribly complicated matter whose dangers remain, for the moment, entirely invisible if not hypothetical. Representatives, like the rest of us, have meanwhile been barraged by misinformation about the issue, from oil companies and Glenn Beck and your local news meteorologist insisting that the science behind global warming is a big hoax designed in the service of Satan. The climate deniers, aided by a gullible media, have increased the percentage of Americans who tell pollsters they believe the threat of global warming to be "generally exaggerated" to nearly half of all Americans, significantly higher than it was when Obama took office. So it’s not difficult to see why sacrifices in its name would be difficult for any politician to demand. Democracy simply does not work very well where costs are borne by the present but the payoff belongs to posterity. ("What has posterity ever done for me?" goes the old political cliché.) This is in almost perfect contrast, however, to the position the Obama administration faced regarding its third significant priority: financial reform. Here Obama’s proposed reforms came with the added advantage of an enraged electorate and an unmistakable public mandate for strong action to prevent a repeat of 2008’s emergency bailout for some of America’s best-compensated companies to prevent a potential meltdown of the entire global economic system.
But while considerable oratorical firepower was focused on AIG and Goldman Sachs in front of the TV cameras, in the back rooms it was back to brandy and cigars. The banking industry has been making friends and influencing Congress, literally, for centuries. ("They frankly own the place," explained Senator Richard Durbin [D, Illinois] in 2009.)
In January 2010, as the Obama administration’s first anniversary was approaching, and as the details of the financial regulation legislation were still being negotiated in various Congressional committees and subcommittees, an examination by the Wall Street Journal found that for all the ferocious rhetoric emanating from Washington about the indefensible behavior of so many spoiled and irresponsible members of the banking community, pretty much nothing of importance had changed in the way these same bankers went about their business. Back then the Journal explained:
Credit-rating companies, excoriated for placing top grades on what turned out to be toxic debt, still face the same potential conflicts of interest they always faced: These companies are paid by the very parties churning out the debt that is being rated.
Trading accounts for more than half the recent revenue of Wall Street firms, according to analysts. This suggests a continued dependence on volatile investment profits.
Just as important, there have been few big changes in markets for derivative securities, such as credit-default swaps.
Nor have rules been changed to increase the amount of capital that U.S. banks must hold as a percentage of assets.
The net result of the final bill was a compromise on each of these issues, compromises that restricted some of the most egregious excesses of the big banks’ behavior but left them in most respects to continue business as usual. For instance, even in the event the current bill passes, they will still be able to trade on their own accounts in risky hedge funds and private equity funds, but these investments will be limited to 3 percent of a bank’s tangible equity, a figure considered by many to be plenty high for the banks who do it. Derivative trading will henceforth be separated out into bank subsidiaries, rather than done with the money that backs up deposits, but will otherwise continue apace, generating enormous risk with little transparency. In one of the most outrageous exploitations of the power of the lobbying process, auto companies were able to get Congress to exempt their finance arms from regulation by the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This is not only illogical—these finance companies operate exactly as banks do—it is also awful public policy, as such companies are notorious for the abuses they generate under cover of car loans. (For most Americans, an automobile is the second largest capital investment they make.) The fact that the bureau will be housed inside the bank-friendly Federal Reserve, rather than being a stand-alone agency, was yet another victory for the banking lobbyists. In yet another step toward even less regulation than pre-crisis conditions, the legislation will prevent the SEC from regulating equity-indexed annuities, which have been a particular problem for elderly Americans who are confused by the fine print when sold these complicated financial instruments—often not by accident. And of course, the very notion of doing away with banks that were "too big to fail"—and therefore protecting American taxpayers from being forced into future bailouts when they prove irresponsible once more—was never even on the table. Their loans are still guaranteed by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department and the FDIC should they go sour. What’s more, Wall Street still gets zero percent (or near zero percent) loans from the Fed, which provide the basis of its lending profits. No surprise, therefore, that the share prices of Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America all rose on the morning of June 25 when the details were announced, despite drops across the board in most of the rest of the US stock market. What’s more, even after all of the breaks for the banking industry, Massachusetts’s Scott Brown still managed to convince negotiators to drop the $19 billion administration fee to cover the cost of reform, ensuring instead that the rest of us would be invited to take care of it. And in yet another familiar scenario, Brown could not bring himself to declare in favor of the legislation upon receiving this enormous taxpayer-supplied bribe. "I do think that generally the banks should be pleased that it was not worse than it was," said Jim Eckenrode, a banking analyst at TowerGroup, a financial services consulting firm, told the New York Times, in what can only be considered one of the great understatements of 2010. William K. Black, a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, puts it more bluntly:
The fundamental problem with the financial reform bill is that it would not have prevented the current crisis and it will not prevent future crises because it does not address the reason the world is suffering recurrent, intensifying crises. A witches’ brew of deregulation, desupervision, regulatory black holes and perverse executive and professional compensation has created an intensely criminogenic environment that produces epidemics of accounting control fraud that hyper-inflate financial bubbles and cause economic crises. The bill continues the unlawful, unprincipled and dangerous policy of allowing systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs) to play by special rules even when they are insolvent. Indeed, the bill makes a variety of accounting control fraud lawful.
The bankers’ success had many sources, of course. There is much more to the money culture in Congress than ever appears on a contribution list; indeed, Washington operates on a culture of implied bribery no less than it does the real thing. According to Public Citizen, over seventy ex-members of Congress could be found lobbying for Wall Street and the financial services sector in 2009, including two former Senate majority leaders (Trent Lott and Bob Dole), two former House majority leaders (Richard Gephardt and Dick Armey) and a former House speaker (Dennis Hastert). At the staff level, the numbers are even more impressive. When Representative Barney Frank publicly rebuked his former aide, Peter S. Roberson, in April 2010 for switching sides to Goldman Sachs immediately after helping to draft the derivative regulations likely to affect his new employer, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee treated the occurrence as a relatively rare one. In fact, as a lengthy Huffington Post investigation revealed last December, it happens almost every day. Two hundred forty-three people have worked on the House banking committee staff since 2000, and 126 of them have left the committee. Of these, 62 have registered as lobbyists, largely in the financial industry, while others lobby at law firms and such without being required to fill out forms. Given that the 243 figure includes clerical and technological staff, this means that almost everyone with any expertise on the committee has gone off to sell it to the people whose work they are professing to regulate. And this particular gravy train travels in both directions. Former clients of current committee staff members include H&R Block, the New York Stock Exchange, the Bond Market Association, Wachovia, MetLife and Experian. Not a one has any experience lobbying for consumer organizations such as the Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen, US PIRG or, God forbid, Acorn.
This is just the way it is. No stigma is attached. No eyebrows are raised when a staffer "moves downtown." Rather, it is "a very logical progression," according to retired committee lawyer Howard Menell. The implied transaction can be seen in the carefully coded discussions that take place at the endless stream of receptions, seminars (really, sponsored vacations) and happy hours offered by these same trade organizations, whose representatives are always happy to lend their expertise to the often harried staffer. In fact, lobbyists need not apologize for the role they play in shaping public policy for private gain in Washington according to its current cultural mores. They are celebrated for it. If you doubt this, check out the daily "Playbook," published every morning by Mike Allen of Politico, the new Bible of political self-promotion in the form of a tipsheet of what’s on for the day. Reports of social gatherings, hirings, birthdays and weddings of lobbyists occupy the same space with the same importance as those of senators and editors in chief. Rather than being perceived as pimps or prostitutes, corporate lobbyists are beloved members of the new political establishment where everybody does everybody else’s jobs and no hard and fast lines can be found anywhere—save those between winning and losing. After all, government pay does not even begin to approach the levels earned on Wall Street or inside the nation’s top law firms. Salaries being what they are, aside from proximity to power, the key perk in Washington is the ability to live beyond one’s means. Journalists, with few exceptions, have lost what were once their generous expense accounts and can no longer pick up three- and four-figure dinner checks as a matter of course. Staffers never could. The only people left with cash to make life worth living, luxury-wise, are the lobbyists, and none are richer than bank lobbyists, whose earnings and bonuses are literally twice the average elsewhere in the private economy, much less in the public sector. The Center for Public Integrity’s reports reveal that in Obama’s Washington, there are actually fewer lobbyists than before, but they spend more money; if nothing else, Obama has succeeded in raising the price of buying what you want in Congress.
Lobbyists for the banking industry benefit immensely from the favors they can offer and jobs they may dangle, but also from their success in creating and propagating an entire ideological framework that does their work for them among members of Congress and the media without anyone being offered anything. 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." The ideology had three components: there was the "idea that financial innovation, like technological innovation, was necessarily good." Second was the idea that complex financial transactions served the noble purpose of helping ordinary Americans buy houses. Third was that Wall Street was the most exciting place to be at the turn of the new millennium. Johnson and Kwak note that Alan Greenspan—now repentant, but for a long time perhaps the most admired man in all Washington—as well as being a longtime acolyte of Ayn Rand, was the pied piper of the ideology of finance. Speaking to the annual conference of something called the Association of Private Enterprise Education, the oracle decreed:
With technological change clearly accelerating, existing regulatory structures are being bypassed, freeing market forces to enhance wealth creation and economic growth…. As we move into a new century, the market-stabilizing private regulatory forces should gradually displace many cumbersome, increasingly ineffective government structures. This is a likely outcome since governments, by their nature, cannot adjust sufficiently quickly to a changing environment, which too often veers in unforeseen directions. The current adult generations are having difficulty adjusting to the acceleration of the uncertainties of today’s silicon driven environment. Fortunately, our children appear to thrive on it. The future accordingly looks bright.
Together with the money and the revolving jobs door, and the cultural capital it enjoyed as the home of what Tom Wolfe called "Masters of the Universe," Johnson and Kwak note, "these powerful forces [give] Wall Street a degree of political influence that no amount of payoffs to corrupt politicians could have bought." Don Lucchese, Michael Corleone’s rival for control of the vast riches of the mafia’s worldwide finances, summed this philosophy up pretty well in "The Godfather, Part III:" "Finance is a gun," he explained, to Vincent, Michael’s nephew. "Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger." Challenged (before being murdered) about the problem of popular opposition facing the politicians he controls, Luchese is impressively unmoved by the prospect of democratic opposition. "He who builds on the people, builds on mud." Could anyone at Goldman or AIG have put it better?
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 such corporate spending for political candidates as part of their rights to "free speech." This has opened up new opportunities for all corporations, but none so much as those working through the US Chamber of Commerce, which now acts as a middleman for many corporations looking to act without footprints. The Chamber procures advertisements that target candidates without revealing who is paying for the ads. (An administration-backed bill designed to force corporations and other donors who participate in political activity to disclose their top five donors and to agree to other disclosures in connection with expenditures prior to elections—from which strictures the Democratic leadership had already agreed to exempt the 800-pound gorilla of political intimidation, the National Rifle Association—foundered as all the other interests who enjoyed the notion of secrecy found legislators to do their bidding.) Meanwhile, immediately following the ruling, for instance, the Chamber spent at least $1 million on attack ads in the Massachusetts Senate race on behalf of Scott Brown. In an April Wall Street Journal editorial titled "New Fangs for the Conservative ‘Beast,’" the far-right Heritage Foundation announced the formation of "Heritage Action" to enable its corporate contributors to apply what it calls "political heat" to those representatives who fail to toe its line.
This is known as positive reinforcement. There’s the other kind, too. When Lindsey Graham joined John Kerry to author an op-ed for the New York Times calling for genuine bipartisan in support of climate control legislation, he was met with a barrage of advertisements back home, including one that asked, "Why would Sen. Lindsey Graham support new energy taxes—called cap-and-trade—that will further harm our economy and kill millions of American jobs" at a moment when economic conditions have "pushed local businesses to the brink?" Graham eventually thought better of his initial, apparently rash decision to cooperate on the legislation, and withdrew his support. And yet, in a pattern that will be familiar to students of both the healthcare and financial regulation battles, the Democrats remained committed to those aspects of the bill that had been inserted in hopes of earning the appearance of bipartisan support. (Cue the Charlie Brown football metaphor here.)
And while it may be true, as the philosopher Cyndi Lauper has observed, that "money changes everything," money is merely reinforcing other factors in the larger culture. Americans are often said to be philosophically liberal but programmatically conservative. Such tendencies are reinforced by what appears to be a historically immutable libertarian streak, coupled with a distrust of centralized power in both liberal and conservative political traditions, which considerably complicate any efforts at liberal reform.
It was the liberal hero Thomas Paine who first opined 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. When more than two centuries later, Texas Governor Rick Perry tells his fellow Republicans that the party should search out candidates who promise to "go to Washington, DC, and try to make it as inconsequential in your life as you can make it," he is giving voice to a longtime American predisposition that can be found across parties and ideologies. An April 2010 poll published by the Pew Research Center found that just 22 percent of Americans questioned trust the "government in Washington almost always or most of the time," one of the lowest readings in half a century. This natural skepticism of government action has been reinforced during this same period by a massive ideological investment by conservative individuals and foundations—aided by global corporations—in discrediting activist government and presenting laissez-faire policies as the natural order of things. Neocon pundit Irving Kristol, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley and former Treasury Secretary William Simon made this cause a crusade through much of the 1970s and 1980s with impressive, often astonishing results. They helped channel hundreds of millions of dollars, later mushrooming into billions, into the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Manhattan Institute and countless offshoots in Washington and elsewhere to train pundits and politicians to embrace the right-wing view of economic activity. These groups and others championed the likes of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek and American economist Milton Friedman to replace what had previously been a Keynesian consensus. These ideas were further disseminated by a rash of new publishing outfits, later augmented by an entire alternative media structure we now understand to be a natural part of our political and cultural landscape. This investment, present since the Carter administration, has led to a rush toward deregulation in virtually all areas of the economy under presidents of both parties. There was nothing accidental about any of this. Lower taxes, less regulation, less government: these are seen as goals in and of themselves, regardless of their impact on public policy, because they weaken government’s ability to intervene in the lives of its citizens. Milton Friedman argued that "freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself." This belief leads a conservative columnist like George F. Will to support policies like the privatization of Social Security irrespective of whether such a transformation would make the program more or less effective, for "reasons [that] rise from the philosophy of freedom."
Indeed, the entire edifice of "supply-side economics" was constructed and promoted with this goal in mind. As Irving Kristol admitted in 1995, he "was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities." What were these possibilities? To attack the "fundamental assumptions of contemporary liberalism that were my enemy…. Political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government." Conservative ideologues have simultaneously launched a rearguard action against previous Democratic administrations’ achievements for the well-being of millions of Americans through positive interventions in the economy. FDR’s New Deal, Truman’s New Deal, JFK’s New Frontier and LBJ’s Great Society are reinterpreted to fit them into the new paradigm. An extreme example of this is the victory of the conservative Christian majority on the Texas school board to rewrite American history to downgrade the importance of virtually every non–right-winger who has ever had any impact on American life, including most particularly union organizers and opponents of economic centralization. The results of this deliberate dumbing-down of children in Texas and elsewhere will not be visible for years, but it is not difficult to see the results of the right-wing campaign throughout our political discourse. Over and over during the raucous healthcare town hall meetings in the summer of 2009, citizens would stand up and scream some variant of "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." At one such meeting Representative Robert Inglis (R, South Carolina) noted, "I had to politely explain that, ‘Actually, sir, your healthcare is being provided by the government’…. But he wasn’t having any of it."
The combination of these factors presents a problem for much of Obama’s agenda as corporate America and its apologists in the media are always eager to portray almost any government program—or even necessary regulation—as the first step on the road to serfdom. Marc Morano, an ex-Senate staffer who now runs the conservative "Climate Depot," warns his fellow citizens, "The government is going to monitor where you set your thermostat, how much plane travel you do…. It’s a level of control we’ve never even contemplated in America." So long as one is not too concerned by the veracity of one’s statements, this logic can be applied to almost anything. And it is, both in Congress and on the campaign trail by politicians and pundits eager to remain in the good graces of the powerful and well-funded forces who continue to fund its propagation.
One reason this problem goes largely undiscussed in the media is that it is, to a significant degree, mirrored there. Fox News is by far America’s most popular cable news network and its lead over MSNBC and CNN just keeps growing. In prime time, Fox hosts regularly attract more viewers than both competitors combined. This is a matter of considerable political significance for the potential success of any progressive president because the number one cable news network in America just happens to be dedicated to a program of purposeful misinformation rather than any honest accounting of the news—"Apostles of Anger in their echo chamber of fallacies," as Charles M. Blow put it. Fox’s broadcasting is deeply biased against liberals in almost every way imaginable. Fox News broadcasters regularly distort what the president says or cut away before letting him finish. They invite Republican politicians and conservative propagandists to come on and lie, outright, about both people and policy and then build on those lies to tell even larger lies. In doing so, they engage in conspiracy theories so lurid and outlandish that one is tempted to turn on The Twilight Zone for a reality check. They all but ignore Republican scandals and obsess about Democratic ones. Their hosts openly raise money for Republican causes, promote and appear at their rallies, and pass along their propaganda appeals. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee (to say nothing of Karl Rove) are paid to play presidential politics on Fox programs. The combination of commitment to right-wing politics, reach and irresponsibility is literally unprecedented in the modern age of American politics; it’s as if Joe McCarthy were not just a senator but a television network as well.
By inserting the often crazy and irresponsible views of right-wing talk radio, Fox News and Tea Party agitators into respectable discourse, the Wall Street Journal is one of the most valuable weapons conservatives have in their quiver. When someone who was once as respected and admired across all political lines as Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami sounds off like Beck or Limbaugh on its pages about what he deems to be the "un-American moment in our history" that gave rise to Obama’s election, this is a kind of victory in and of itself. Gone was "the empiricism in political life that had marked the American temper in politics," Ajami argued, apparently seriously, in the wake of George W. Bush’s fantasy presidency. "A charismatic leader had risen in a manner akin to the way politics plays out in distressed and Third World societies," Ajami went on; Obama interpreted the election "as a plebiscite granting him a writ to remake the basic political compact of this republic," and "overwhelmed all restraint." The influence of this naked attempt to challenge Obama’s legitimacy in so high profile a forum, together with countless other examples like it, presents a barrier to Obama and his agenda that no president has faced before. Not even the same paper’s hysterical campaign against Bill Clinton can compare, because it was undertaken when the far-right media was much weaker and the MSM much stronger. (The editors followed not long afterward with another anti-Obama op-ed by page staffer Dorothy Rabinowitz titled, I kid you not, "The Alien in the White House.") While the left media structure is not as weak as it was entering the Bush years, neither can it be said to even compare with the Murdoch empire, much less the entire structure of right-wing propaganda masquerading as news. The Center for American Progress (where I’ve been a senior fellow since 2003) and Media Matters for America (which published my "Altercation" blog between 2006 and 2008) are just two of the many worthy efforts to inject sensible center-left policy proposals in the debate in the case of the former and to correct conservative misinformation in the latter, but added together they do not begin to approach to scale of not only Fox and talk radio but also Heritage, AEI, Hoover and the rest of the right-wing counterestablishment. Neither does the recent rise of the "netroots" online, however welcome this development may be.
Fox’s role in the present political constellation was nicely captured when apostate conservative David Frum told ABC News, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox." Fox’s all-but-official sponsorship of the Tea Party movement, its ginning up of anti-Obama protesters both on and off camera and the willingness of its hosts to put forth the most irresponsible kinds of allegations and accusations in an atmosphere that is already thick with the threat of violence directed toward America’s first black president is a truly shocking and scary development in the history of media. That is until one spends an hour or so listening to talk radio, where the accusation that Obama is a racist, a socialist, a Marxist, a fascist and worse are not even considered controversial. The cumulative effect of these two phenomena is not easy to measure. But the consistency of the message is. Indeed, it’s hard to miss. To pick just one day at random, on April 10, 2010, at 3:15, I happen to click on the Drudge Report. Here’s what I saw near the top of the page:
GINGRICH: Obama ‘most radical president ever’…
LIMBAUGH: Obama ‘inflicting untold damage on this great country’…
MARK LEVIN: Obama ‘Closest Thing to Dictator We’ve Ever Had’…
PALIN: Obama’s ‘vast nuclear experience he acquired ‘community organizer’…
LIZ CHENEY: Obama Putting America on ‘Path to Decline’…
HANNITY: Obama ‘Is a Socialist’…
SAVAGE: ‘Obama The Destroyer’…
Fox has won the cable ratings sweepstakes for more than 100 months in a row. But even without this ratings domination, the number of Americans who get their politics delivered to them by lunatics like Limbaugh and the aptly self-named Michael Savage would be decidedly worrisome. Talk radio, which is dominated by the right wing, has 48 million regular listeners, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism—which is more than twice the collective audience for the three TV network evening news shows combined, more than five times the audience of the three network Sunday news shows, nearly seven times the combined audience for cable news shows, and sadly nearly ten times the audience for NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and sixteen times the audience for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
But even to focus on the undeniably right-wing side of the media is to miss a major part of what makes today’s political environment so hostile to the possibility of progressive reform. One of the great unremarked successes of the conservative movement in recent decades is the manner in which their propaganda efforts, cloaked as journalistic enterprises, have successfully inserted themselves into mainstream discourse and debate, to the point where conventional journalists are willing to embrace them without even realizing it. Leave aside its overall craziness, as when Glenn Beck posits that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or white culture," including, say, his mother and the grandparents who raised him—a view, by the way, that was endorsed by Rupert Murdoch—and is either a closet Nazi or commie depending on the day. Just look at the behavior of the network’s personalities in the political realm and ask yourself how anyone can consider this to be an actual news organization. As a lengthy Media Matters study demonstrated, "Fox News aggressively promoted the ‘tea party’ protests, which Fox itself described as primarily a response to President Obama’s fiscal policies, and uses its airwaves to engage in open advocacy against the White House and Congressional Democrats. In recent years, at least 20 Fox News personalities have endorsed, raised money, or campaigned for Republican candidates or causes…. Republican parties and officials have routinely touted these personalities’ affiliations with Fox News to sell and promote their events." But when the Obama administration pointed out that Fox News did not adhere to the same standards as other news organizations, most MSM journalists rushed to defend Fox. Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik idiotically professed to hear "echoes of Nixon-Agnew" in the Obama White House and accused the administration of failing to respect "press freedom." ABC’s Jake Tapper got all huffy with White House briefer Robert Gibbs, noting, "It’s escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations ‘not a news organization’ and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization. Can you explain why it’s appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one?" he demanded. The idea that Tapper cannot see how the Fox News network differs from than his own is sad but telling. David Axelrod had to appear on This Week to explain to Tapper’s colleague George Stephanopoulos, "It’s really not news—it’s pushing a point of view. And other news organizations like yours ought not to treat them that way."
And yet instead of objecting to the manner that Fox perverts the news for political purposes, the other networks appear intent on aping it. Ask yourself: why in the world would Stephanopoulos have taken up valuable time interviewing Barack Obama about Acorn? ("George, this is not the biggest issue facing the country. It’s not something I’m paying a lot of attention to," was the president’s response.) And why did Stephanopoulos badger Obama, in the same interview, about whether the healthcare plan then under discussion a constituted nothing more than a "tax increase" on the American people—a line that was immediately transposed into an RNC attack ad the very next week?
This was hardly an isolated incident. Why is CNN, which found it could no longer live with the racist birther, Lou Dobbs, rushing to hire the incendiary right-wing blogger Erick Erickson on the basis of such clever commentary as to call Michelle Obama a "Marxist harpy" and Supreme Court Justice David Souter a "goat fucking child molester"? Why does MSNBC co-host Mika Brzezinski insist, rather crazily, on the day after Sarah Palin resigned her job as a governor to begin an estimated $20 million-plus-a-year career as a pundit and public speaker—that Palin represented "real Americans"? Why does CNBC’s Jim Cramer casually refer to "Pelosi Politburo emasculation"? Why was racist Rush Limbaugh considered an appropriate roundtable commentator on Meet the Press? Why, indeed, was nutty Newt Gingrich—a man who claims to discern "a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us"—the program’s most popular guest in 2009? I could go on.
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 populated by people whose loyalty to journalism is vastly outweighed by their commitment to conservative talking points. One of the primary transmission belts for such arguments is the Wall Street Journal editorial page, whose audacious refusal to countenance reality can be breathtaking. Through Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of its parent company, Dow Jones, it has begun to corrupt its news pages of late as well. For decades, the Journal‘s conservative editorials benefited from being placed in a newspaper that was a must-read for the nation’s business community. The authority of its often-excellent news pages gave a certain gravitas to opinions that would otherwise have been considered quirky at best, nutty and irresponsible at worst. Today, however, the political spectrum has shifted to far to the right that the oddball ravings in the paper’s opinion pages are considered comfortably within the spectrum of responsible opinion.
I noticed one telling example of the implications of this shift by comparing two editorials, one written in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and one published in the spring of this year. In the first, the editors demanded that President Bush get to work immediately exploiting the attacks for political gain. They demanded that Bush "spend his windfall of political capital" that resulted from the attacks by doing such things as replacing what was then a significant government annual surplus of around $150 billion a year with what it called "pro-growth tax cuts," or those aimed at corporations and the wealthy. The Journal editors warned against the "temptation…to settle for a lowest common denominator stimulus, for the sake of bipartisanship." But this was only the beginning. "The transformed political landscape should also boost other Bush initiatives," the editors argued. They went on to argue that Bush should use the attacks to demand more offshore oil drilling, greater authority to negotiate free trade agreements, the approval of all of Bush’s nominees to various offices and a whole host of things that had nothing whatever to do with protecting America from terrorism. Meanwhile, eight years later, with a new president, one could find the editors making an almost perfectly contrary argument. Beneath the words, "A crisis is a terrible thing to exploit," Journal editors take President Barack Obama to task for having the temerity to exploit the financial crisis of 2008 for political gain. Obama’s problem, they insisted, was that "Democrats have committed the classic political mistake of ideological overreach," as if ideological overreach were not exactly what the editors were demanding of George Bush’s right-wing government in the wake of the mass murder of 3,000 Americans. Given the disappearance of so many once-serious outlets and the diminution of others, these ravings have assumed a central place in the discourse.
Even without the heavy overlay of right-wing propaganda, the American media as it is now constituted would be hard pressed to provide the kind of information and opportunity for debate required if the president were to undertake fundamental liberal reforms of our various dysfunctional institutions and outdated public policies. It is no secret that with just a few laudable exceptions, complicated stories about government proposals and their likely implications do not excite what remains of a decimated journalistic establishment. Sensationalism, not substance, is what drives ratings.
American journalism has almost always focused on the personalities of the individuals involved rather than the forces to which they must respond. Readers may recall the spectacle of CNN’s Ed Henry at one of President Obama’s earliest press conferences, repeatedly badgering the president to know why he allowed other politicians—in this case New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo—to exhibit their anger about AIG’s executive bonuses before he had a chance to do so. "So on AIG, why did you wait—why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage? …It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, ‘Look, we’re outraged.’ Why did it take so long?" Obama’s answer—"Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak"—did not appear to impress Henry, who actually bragged about this exchange afterward. "From just a few feet away, I could see in his body language that the normally calm and cool president was perturbed," he noted, as if this were somehow the appropriate job description for a White House reporter. Then again, Henry may have had a point, however pathetic, as many of his colleagues appear to share his odd view of what constitutes journalistic responsibility in today’s media. Here, for instance, is an exchange between press secretary Robert Gibbs and CBS’s Chip Reid in the briefing room on the president’s reaction to the oil spill:
Reid: I haven’t—have we really seen rage from the president on this? I think most people would say no.
Gibbs: I’ve seen rage from him, Chip. I have.
Reid: Can you describe it? Does he yell and scream? What does he do?
And remember, this is CNN and CBS; not Fox.
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.
Far more challenging is the problem of the role of money in our elections. Sure, most progressives would prefer public financing of our electoral system, but not only is there no public outcry to pay for elections, neither is there much willingness on the part of the Supreme Court to curb the power of corporate spending. Indeed, the eagerness of the court’s majority to use the Citizens United case to offer up the broadest possible ruling striking down many of the limits on corporate "speech" (meaning "cash") has significantly complicated what was already an extremely daunting challenge. Given the current court’s investment in the anachronistic concept of corporate "personhood"—and with it, the inability to curb corporate election spending that does not simultaneously impinge on individuals’ freedom of speech—this is clearly a long, long term battle that may require the notoriously difficult solution of a constitutional amendment to remedy. (The ACLU is not even on our side in this fight.) In the meantime, progressives should be pressing for simpler reforms as they build toward this one. These would include same-day voter registration and the end of felony disenfranchisement. They would also include mechanisms that ensure the rights of people to vote without intimidation, particularly recent legal immigrants and other first-time voters. Speaking of which, as the liberal blogger Chris Bowers argues, immigration reform is also key to the long-term success of much of the progressive agenda, as well as the rationalization of a democratic process that leaves millions without a voice in determining their own futures. "Securing the ideological and partisan loyalties of expanding demographic groups in America is a pretty obvious key to long-term political success," he writes. "One of the keys to pulling this off always starts with immigration policy and rhetoric that improve the lives of newcomers to America, and make them feel welcomed."
Of course any sustained pressure on our politicians is going to require more pressure—and better organization—than progressives have been able to muster since the Obama administration came to power. Part of the problem is attributable to genuine political weakness. The right is wealthier than the left, which is as it should be. The Republicans are, after all, the party of capital. They are also far more populous and better organized to act as a movement. As the journalist Harold Meyerson rightly observes, thinking of both the New Deal and the civil rights reforms of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, "In America, major liberal reforms require not just liberal governments, but autonomous, vibrant mass movements, usually led by activists who stand at or beyond liberalism’s left fringe." Many activists had great hopes for a partnership with the Obama administration after the election. Instead, as Michael Tomasky writes in the current issue of Democracy, "We’ve experienced the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, and the only mass movement to emerge from that reality is a right-wing populist one."
David Plouffe, the campaign’s top organizer, managed to put together an e-mail list of more than 13 million names for future use. Many organizers salivated as the prospect of using that list to build up organizations in support of environmental, economic and various social causes to mirror the progressive agenda. Even if only 10 percent were diehard progressives willing to give of their time, well, a movement of 1.3 million members actively seeking the kind of "change" throughout the political system—clearing political brush as it were in advance of the next Obama initiative—appeared to have the potential to transform the political landscape. Plouffe, who took the year after the election off to write his book and spend time with his young children after a grueling campaign, appeared in his memoir to embrace the underlying logic of allowing grassroots to grow organically. In The Audacity to Win, he wrote of his realization that he had "initially pursued rallies to maintain the perception of the campaign as grass-roots driven," so that the campaign would not appear to be the captive of its big money donors. Eventually, however, the campaign came to treat "citizen fundraisers as no less important than our larger raisers.… They believed their effort was valued—and it was—so they dug deeper and kept raising. This was not a tactical relationship. It was authentic. And that authenticity became a very powerful driver in the connection between Barack Obama and his supporters." All this, alas, ended on election day. Despite the desire of hundreds of thousands of Obama volunteers to want to continue their efforts on behalf of the administration, according to an online survey conducted by Organizing for America, the successor organization to Obama For America, the administration was not really interested in promoting any alternative structure to the Democratic Party that might develop its own priorities and interfere with those of the administration. (And it certainly did not want to encourage primary challenges to sitting Democratic senators. In fact, it went to great lengths in Arkansas, New York and Pennsylvania to discourage such challenges almost irrespective of the politics of the incumbent in question.) A shadow of its former self—or what it might have been—continues to raise money and send out e-mails but it does not ask for any sustained involvement or even discussion of the issues the administration chooses to address or the manner in which it approaches them. As Charles Homans wrote in The Washington Monthly, OFA "looks less like a movement than a cheering section."
Since the Obama administration is clearly happier with a top-down approach, progressives who take movement organizing seriously need to develop their institutions independently. To do so, however, they will have to put aside traditional differences that have separated them in the past, particularly those between liberals and progressives who think of themselves as left of liberal. MoveOn’s role has proven exemplary in the past in joining these two groups together and provides a model for future political organization. As Jim Vopat reported in In These Times, in Michigan a group of progressives who met through MoveOn house parties established Harbor Country Progress, an official Democratic Party club that is changing the political landscape in the state’s rural Sixth Congressional District. As G. William Domoff noted in the same publication, replicating this model across the country "allows activists to maintain their primary social and political identities while at the same time enabling them to compete within the Democratic Party." They could be as progressive as they like so long as the campaign stayed a positive one; and win or lose, everyone would agree to support the Democrat in the election. This is the un-Nader way of transforming a party and as such, is a nearly perfectly constructive model. Also unlike Nader, it has the potential to build for the future, particularly one where Internet fundraising allows progressives to compete with corporations as never before.
Of course progressives need to keep up the pressure they have begun to place on the mainstream media not to adopt the deliberately misleading and frequently false frames foisted on readers and viewers by an increasingly self-confident and well-funded right-wing noise machine. Media Matters, FAIR and other organizations have done this in the past but it needs to be kept up. And in an age of instant, personal communication, there’s no reason it can’t be. (It also, and this is key, needs to be polite. No journalist is going to respond to the kind of personal abuse that is all too common on newspaper comment sections and other such forums for MSM complaint.) Done properly, such pressure is an effective means of forcing journalists to rethink some of their reflective prejudices, particularly in a today’s punishing economic environment. But if progressives continue to pressure them to live up to the promises of their profession—to refuse to cater to the lowest common denominator of tabloids or the right-wing cesspool of talk radio/cable television discourse—such pressure on these organizations should strengthen reporters’ and editors’ backbones to do the kind of the work that made them proud to be journalists in the first place. (This is, happily, a fundamental difference between right and left wing media criticism. The right seeks to undermine the messengers of news that does not comport with its worldview; the left wants journalism to stick to its guns and resist such pressures to color the news, believing, as Stephen Colbert once said, that the facts "have a well-known liberal bias.") And on the positive side, we need to support those journalistic enterprises and experiments that attempt to live up to their values as it becomes harder and harder to do so, whether with subscriptions, clicks or direct donations. A campaign for taxpayer-funded high-quality journalism on the model of the BBC—and recently suggested by a study published by the Columbia School of Journalism—should not be off the table.
Indeed, with regard to almost every single one of our problems, we need better, smarter organizing at every level and a willingness on the part of liberals and leftists to work with what remains of the center to begin the process of reforms that are a beginning, rather than an endpoint in the process of societal transformation. As American history consistently instructs us, this is pretty much the only way things change in our system. Over time, reforms like Social Security, Medicare and the Voting Rights Act can add up to a kind of revolution, one that succeeds without bloodshed or widespread destruction of order, property or necessary institutions.
What’s more, one hypothesis—one I’m tempted to share—for the Obama administration’s willingness to compromise so extensively on the promises that candidate Obama made during the 2008 campaign would be that as president, he is playing for time. Obama is taking the best deal on the table today, but hopes and expects that once he is re-elected in 2012—a pretty strong bet, I’d say—he will build on the foundations laid during his first term to bring on the fundamental "change" that is not possible in today’s environment. This would be consistent with FDR’s strategy during his second term and makes a kind of sense when one considers the nature of the opposition he faces today and the likelihood that it will discredit itself following a takeover of one or both houses in 2010. For that strategy to make sense, however, 2013 will have to provide a more pregnant sense of progressive possibility than 2009 did, and that will take a great deal of work by the rest of us.
To borrow from Hillel the Elder: "If not now, when? If not us, who?"