Kabuki Democracy

Kabuki Democracy

Why a progressive presidency is impossible, for now.


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 renaissance, and many were no doubt inspired by his pledge "to fight for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act." Yet that bill appears deader than Jimmy Hoffa. Environmentalists were no doubt steeled through the frigid days of New Hampshire canvassing by Obama’s promise that he would "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 in 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. According to that view—insistently repeated, for instance, by the Wall Street Journal‘s nonpartisan, nonideological news columnist Gerald Seib—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." (Obama’s biggest mistake, seconded The Atlantic Monthly‘s Clive Crook, was his failure to "repudiate the left" and "make it [his] enemy." And Newt Gingrich, speaking from what is actually considered by these same Beltway types to be the responsible center of the Republican Party, calls Obama "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 "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." During the presidential campaign Obama bravely praised Ronald Reagan for putting forth bold ideas that "changed the trajectory of American politics." But as president he has chosen to work for whatever deal might already be on the table, relying instead on the philosophy of one of his early Chicago mentors, Denny Jacobs, who told Obama biographer David Remnick, "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 are the strategic mistakes made by the Obama team really all that crucial, except perhaps at the margins of any given policy. The far more important fact, for progressive purposes, is simply this: 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 Obama promised in his 2008 presidential campaign.

The American political system is nothing if not complicated, and so too are the reasons for its 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 bad luck. 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 democracy becomes a kind of Kabuki exercise; it resembles a democratic process at great distance but mocks its genuine intentions in substance. I go into great detail about these phenomena in my article "Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now" at TheNation.com, but below is a précis.

§ The Bush legacy. We live, as the late Tony Judt wrote, in an "age of forgetting," and nowhere is this truer than in our political discourse. Rarely do we stop to remind ourselves that, as a New York Times editorial put it, Obama "took office under an extraordinary burden of problems created by President George W. Bush’s ineptness and blind ideology." America’s most irresponsible, incompetent and ideologically obsessed presidency not only left many political and economic crises on its successor’s plate; these crises were so prominent as to mask equally significant problems that received virtually no attention. Think about the Minerals Management Service, where chaos, corruption and incompetence competed with genuine malevolence to empower BP to ignore so many safety rules before the big oil spill. Now multiply that by virtually the entire government regulatory structure, and you have some idea of the kind of mess left by Bush and Cheney to the Obama administration.

§ The structure of the Senate and the power of the minority. Faced with countless challenges merely to restore some sensible equilibrium to policy regarding, say, long-term deficits or financial regulation, Obama faces the conundrum of a system that, as currently constructed, gives the minority party no strategic stake in sensible governance. While the Democrats, even in the minority, do participate in solutions designed to improve governance, this is rarely true of Republicans, who are suspicious of government on principle and opposed to successful programs in practice, and have recently grown radicalized to the point where a great many of their complaints about Obama—whether that he is a "socialist" or a "Nazi" or a "liar" or was born in Kenya—are contrary to even the most basic forms of common sense. They now have myriad means to bottle up legislation, and no special interest is deemed too small or insignificant to monkey up the works.

§ The power of money. Of course, when attempting to determine why the people’s will is so frequently frustrated in our system, one must turn first and foremost to the power of money. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics calculated that approximately $3.47 billion was spent lobbying the government in 2009, up from $3.3 billion the previous year. Despite Obama’s attempts to transform the way business is transacted in Washington, special-interest money remains so influential that it is simply foolish to discuss the outcome of almost any policy debate in Congress without focusing first on who was buying what from whom. What’s more, the problems caused by money in the system are certain to worsen in the near future as a result of the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down a century of laws limiting corporate spending for political candidates in the name of "free speech." This has opened up new opportunities for all corporations, particularly those working through the Chamber of Commerce, which now acts as a middleman for many corporations looking to act without footprints.

§ The culture of finance. In a phenomenon that mimics the observations of the long-jailed Italian communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, the economists Simon Johnson and James Kwak note that during the 1990s, when both parties benefited from massive investments in Congressional war chests by investment bankers and their allies, "the ideology of Wall Street—that unfettered innovation and unregulated financial markets were good for America and the world—became the consensus position in Washington on both sides of the political aisle." As a result, lobbyists’ talking points became "self-evident." And their offers of jobs to underpaid, overworked Congressional staffers, irresistible.

§ The power of American ideology. It was the liberal hero Thomas Paine who first called government "but a necessary evil" and Henry David Thoreau who, writing on behalf of "Civil Disobedience," observed that "the government is best which governs least," and this retains a powerful appeal to many Americans regardless of the merits of any given government program, making these programs far easier to oppose than to support, to say nothing of the question of taxation.

§ Aggressive dishonesty and partisanship in the conservative media. As a result of a more than forty-year assault on journalism by right-wing funders—coupled with the decimation of so many once-proud journalistic institutions—an awful lot of the most influential perches in what remains of our media are occupied by people whose loyalty to journalism is vastly outweighed by their commitment to conservative talking points. Despite recent investments and advances, nothing on the left can compare to the power of talk-radio, Fox News and their network of like-minded multimillion-dollar think tanks.

§ Weaknesses of the MSM. The seepage of Fox-style conservatism into the rest of the MSM is only one of the roadblocks progressives must overcome. There is also the decline in reporting, the relentless focus on personality, the low level of intellectual discourse, the intensive focus on a single narrative, the obsession with celebrity and the relative lack of attention devoted to almost any remotely complex public policy issue.

All of these developments represent significant structural impediments to any progressive-minded president seeking to carry out his democratic mandate, even one who comes to Washington with ostensibly impregnable majorities in both houses of Congress. Obviously, if America is to be rescued from the grip of its democratic dysfunction, then merely electing better candidates to Congress is not going to be enough. We need a system that has better, fairer rules; reduces the role of money; and keeps politicians and journalists honest in their portrayal of what’s actually going on.

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.

Progressives, including groups like Media Matters and FAIR, have already begun to put pressure 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. This needs to be kept up. (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 in newspaper comment sections and other such forums for MSM complaint.) Exerted properly, such pressure is an effective means of forcing journalists to rethink some of their reflexive prejudices, particularly in today’s punishing economic environment.

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 enact 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.

One hopeful hypothesis—one I’m tempted to share—on 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 one 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 about 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?"

Responses to This Article

Michael Kazin, "Building a Movement by Offering Solutions"

Barbara Ehrenreich, "The Corpo-Obama-Geithner-Petraeus State"

Norman Ornstein, "Ending the Permanent Campaign"

Salim Muwakkil, "Obama, The Right and Race"

Theda Skocpol, "Obama’s Healthcare Achievements"

Chris Bowers, "There Will Be No Silver Bullet"

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