Eric Alterman is far more right than wrong about what ails our political process, and what makes the possibility of sweeping social change by Barack Obama a steeply uphill climb. The biggest caveat I would offer is that it has never been easy to achieve sweeping social change; we can count on one hand the times, even throughout US history, when Washington acted across the board to transform society. It almost always takes a major election that puts the reins of power comfortably in the hands of a president’s party, with swollen majorities, combined with enough of a sense of national crisis, to overcome our cultural reticence to take a leap of faith.
That happened in 1933 with the New Deal and again in 1965 with the Great Society (although this was fueled less by crisis and more by the combination of LBJ momentum, Democratic supermajorities and the Kennedy assassination). While America was transformed to some degree by Reagan, his sweeping election did not give Republicans all the reins of power or numbers large enough to dismantle the Great Society or a sizable share of the New Deal.
In 1933 and 1965, Republicans vigorously resisted the initiatives of FDR and LBJ, using, in FDR’s case, rhetoric that would make Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann kvell. But in the end, initiatives like Social Security and Medicare got significant GOP support—while the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts could not have happened without major Republican backing.
That brings us to now. Obama should have had the ingredients to succeed in the same way as FDR and LBJ. He had a landslide win, high popularity and a major economic crisis. But a combination of factors, many of them described by Alterman, showed from the get-go that there would be no way to get any significant bipartisan support for his initiatives. A week into his presidency House Republicans voted unanimously against Obama’s move to save the country as it teetered at the edge of deflation and depression—and their leaders danced a victory jig. This set the tone for DC politics going forward, signaling that any success for Obama would have to come by finding majorities among a widely disparate group of Democrats and occasionally picking off a Senate Republican or three.
Operating in a dysfunctional environment dominated by a minority party that thinks its road back to power is to block everything and bring the president to his knees, Obama and his Congressional allies have had remarkable success—far short of revolution, far more than the bitter caldron of partisan rancor and ideological fervor would ordinarily allow.
Money in politics is a major factor as well, and the Roberts Court will go down in history as the Dark Side for unleashing even more big money in an already vulnerable and corrupt system. But there are larger problems relating to modern media and political organizing, our coarse culture of discourse and especially the many factors that have created the monster we know as the permanent campaign. Reforms won’t erase these problems, but there is one thing to add to Alterman’s list: adoption of the Australian practice of mandatory voting. When politics is driven by the need to turn out your base, and policy is then dominated by the desire to cater to that base, it brings out all the base instincts. In Australia, where failure to show up at the polls (you can vote for "none of the above") leads to a $15 fine, attendance is over 95 percent—and politicians cater less to consultants and the extremes (since both bases turn out in equal proportions) and more to the small number of persuadable voters who are not swayed by outrageous rhetoric. Those voters might not fit the typical pattern of readers of The Nation, but they are a far better audience to cater to than that of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.