Chapter 1. Isn’t It Time for the Next American Revolution?
If the Obama presidency has proven anything, it’s that the change we need can’t come from Washington. Not the Washington we know. Not the Washington that Obama has embraced. Throughout Obama’s campaign we were reminded of a cartoon Pat Oliphant did on the occasion of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. It featured a triumphant Clinton, flanked by Hilary and all his retinue, marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, with Ron Brown, Clinton’s first Commerce Secretary, leading the way, scattering coins to the masses from a bag marked Change. So hungry we were for change after nearly eight years of George Bush that we forgot the slogan wasn’t a new one. We also forgot the “change” Clinton wrought. First, there was NAFTA, then “welfare reform,” then, a pre-cursor to the PATRIOT ACT, the “Effective Death Penalty and Anti-terrorism Act” passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. Not to mention the repeal of Glass-Steagall and “liberalization of financial markets,” which Clinton and his first Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin (lately of Citibank), spent a lot of time exporting to Asia. Their efforts yielded the Asian meltdown of the late nineties, followed by the collapse of Russia’s new stock market and, with a few years of Republican mis-rule to add to their own, the collapse of Wall Street.
Change. It’s not that it doesn’t come from Washington. It’s not that it’s all chump change. There have been some big changes coming out of Washington – the civil rights legislation of the sixties, the big environmental bills of the seventies. But what we get, even when it is ambitious, fails us in numerous ways. The Civil Rights era gave us a new black professional class, of which Obama is a sparkling example, with access to even the highest positions of power. In cities like Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, and counties like Prince George’s County just south of D.C., black professionals and politicians rub elbows with their white counterparts at the highest levels of government and business, though their social circles may still coincide but little. But large majorities of African Americans are still marginalized, with the highest rates of poverty, unemployment and incarceration in the country. The environmental legislation of the seventies gave us the Clean Water Act and the EPA. But indirect runoff from large chicken operations in Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore has driven the fabled Chesapeake oyster and blue crab populations to the brink. The scramble for natural gas is poisoning the water across large swaths of the West. And the EPA has yet to even test, much less regulate, ninety percent of the industrial chemicals that threaten our health and that of all living things.
Our system of government is profoundly undemocratic, from what James Madison called its “scheme of representation” (see below) to the privileged position of the wealthiest Americans at the center of government attention. From local city councils and county boards of supervisors to Congress and the Presidency, it isolates and insulates public officials from public concerns and public control, and it was designed to do so. Few candidacies are genuinely populist. Most are the products of ambitious individuals coming together with party elites and incumbents to build or maintain the local party machine. And most party machines serve particular interests, from local real estate developers to military contractors and major corporations of all sorts.
Washington is governed by insiders, with little in common with ordinary citizens and little interest in our views or concerns. Despite changes of personal and party fortunes, these insiders, and the interests they serve, make up a permanent government at the heart of America’s so-called democracy. Just a look at the Obama administration’s appointees is enough to drive home the point. The permanent government eternally circulates the same actors – now in office, now out – and the same nostrums and commonplaces, marketing them as “change” and “reform” to the larger public with each electoral cycle. In Turkey a newspaper editor can be assassinated for mentioning the Armenian genocide of 1915. In the State Department a junior staffer will be silenced for making the same gaff. The permanent government rarely manages its rules by resort to violence.1 But its rules are fierce. Never mention Noam Chomsky in foreign policy debates, nor call upon the European experience in social welfare delivery in domestic policy discussions, unless, of course, you are looking for objects of derision. Never question the size of the Pentagon’s budget or compare it unfavorably to spending on Social Security and Medicare. Never, never bad-mouth Israel’s sitting government. The list changes subtly over the years, but old themes repeat themselves with new content. “Chavismo,” not communism or Castroism, is now the leading “threat” to U.S. interests (whatever those might be) in Latin America. “Global terror” replaces nuclear war as the leading fear that must drive foreign policy.
Groupthink pervades policy discourse in Washington, despite the appearance of debate. Much of the so-called debate, in fact, is an exercise in keeping people in line. One doesn’t engage in reasoned argument. One sneers, one heckles, one calls names. We’re not talking about the pit bulls of talk radio and schlock TV. Step out of line during a policy discussion at the American Enterprise Institute or the Carnegie Endowment, and you’ll find yourself the object of sneers and laughter. Become a permanent questioner of the pieties and commonplaces of Washington, and you’ll no longer be called upon to speak or comment. In the eyes of the permanent government, everyone is an enforcer and anyone can be silenced. No one – not Jimmy Carter, not Billy Graham – is immune.
What passes for change in the permanent government is either cosmetic or trivial. Sometimes what emerges from reform is worse than what went before. Health care “reform” provides insurance companies with thirty million new customers through mandatory health insurance and enlarges their profits with subsidies to enable poorer victims to pay. Or small steps in one direction are traded off for large mis-steps in another. We get labor and environmental addenda to NAFTA in exchange for… NAFTA; an extension of Medicaid for children in exchange for workfare for their parents, with No Child Left Behind thrown in for good measure; CO2 emissions targets in exchange for new subsidies for coal and nuclear. And at each step, with each “reform”, corporate interests get their dip in the public trough. David Sirota spins off the examples:
…instead of regulating drug and health insurance prices like every other industrialized country, our government hands out corporate welfare checks to the pharmaceutical and HMO companies as a bribe to get them to improve their medical benefits (which, invariably, they don’t). Instead of forcing companies to pay their workers better through minimum wage mandates, we get proposals to give companies even more tax breaks if they agree to consider pay increases. Instead of laws that prohibit oil companies from gouging Americans with higher and higher gas prices we get billions of dollars’ worth of new tax breaks to the petroleum industry2
This is the permanent government at work, ensuring that no accommodating wheel will go ungreased, no big interest unserved, no Congress member without crowing rights over some bit of legislation, no advocacy group without hope that they might do just a little bit better next time. In the sixties, radical academics called it “corporate liberalism” and traced the current shape of the regulatory state to corporate elites at the core of the Progressive Era alliance. Today, “progressives” leap to defend the gains of that era and the subsequent New Deal as business backs out of the bargain, but the reality remains the same: reform goes just as far as corporate interests will allow it to go.
But the permanent government goes deeper even than our corrupted legislative process and the Washington establishment. Entrenched bureaucratic interests, particularly the agencies that make up the national security state, are prime actors in ensuring that change never affects fundamental interests – the continued expansion of the military establishment; the enrichment of senior personnel through lucrative positions with defense contractors upon retirement; growing budgets for these same contractors and new ones created in the relentless drive to privatize government functions. And arm in arm with these interests stands the foreign policy establishment – think tank professionals, academics with ambitions, pundits and editors, present and former high-level officials – competing for position and status but coincident in their embrace of the commonplaces that have governed foreign policy making since World War II.3
Domestically, from the federal government to the local health department, the contemporary American state is also oppressively bureaucratic, entangling ordinary Americans in a bewildering array of regulations and paperwork, leading one innovative farmer to write that Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal.4 More even than the famed “culture wars”, this is what fuels right wing populism in this country. From building codes to the fight over “raw” milk, regulations intended to serve the public interest are experienced by millions of ordinary citizens as irrational intrusions into personal decisions. Federal regulations specify minutely how federal monies must be spent and what proportion must come from other sources. State and federal governments attempt to regulate classroom behavior in our public schools, the height of curbs on our streets, what counts as “organic,” and the amount of stainless steel necessary to run a commercial kitchen. Much of this is well-intentioned, and some of it necessary. But rules meant to govern products produced on a mass scale for national distribution don’t necessarily fit local economies and concerns, and when rule makers listen to the largest interests, as they invariably do, they create rules that actually discourage small business. Rule books built on expensive “best practices” make little room for innovation, creativity or local competence. And, the bottom line, federal and state lawmakers and regulators have little more competence to prescribe what works in our schools or on our farms than they have to practice medicine.
The disfunctions of our regulatory state should not be a concern only of “small government conservatives.” We are all its victims, and we can make common ground with a great many Americans if we recognize the burden statist approaches to problem solving put on all of us. Conservative activist Grover Norquist may have made political hay from the claim that he wanted to shrink government down to the size where he could “drown it in the bathtub,” but he and allies like Dick Armey enthusiastically abetted the Bush administration’s grab for new powers. Like his buddy Jack Abramov, Norquist’s conservatism is mainly an exercise in bad faith. Yet few on the left in the United States recognize that the sorts of concerns Norquist and others on the right have exploited fueled the growth of a “new left” in Europe (including the German Green Party) in the 1970’s and early eighties. We are still “progressives,” heirs to the notion that science and the national state could solve the problems that beset our society. Progressives still haven’t understood that the problem of bureaucratic management of our society shouldn’t be a left/right issue. The Next American Revolution will have to rethink government from the bottom up, and to shrink, not augment, state power in favor of democratic forms of administering our affairs.
What will give us the change we want? Certainly not another hero, male or female, black or white, on a white horse. Certainly not a Democrat-controlled House or a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Not another handful of Supreme Court appointees approved in bi-partisan votes by the Senate. All the Saturday morning mobilizations on the National Mall that you care to attend, all the emails you care to send, all the earnest visits to your Congress-critter you could manage won’t get us there. The problem is not even that Congress and the White House and the courts are the handmaidens of corporate power and the lapdogs of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), though both are true.
The problem is that our political system was never designed to be responsive to popular majorities. It was not designed to be a democracy, and however wide the suffrage has become it is still not a democracy in any sense intelligible to its founders. It is, and was designed to be, a republic, where popular sentiment takes second place to back room deals among elite negotiators amply shielded from public wrath and armed with police powers to punish democratic outrage when it rears its ugly head. If we want change, then the first change we need is to our political system. We need to function, finally, as a democracy.
To function as a democracy, we shall need democratic institutions. That means a revolutionary change in our political system. When it comes to our political institutions, American ingenuity seems to have been outsourced to Bolivia or Ecuador. Maybe the constant refrain from civics teachers and political scientists and pundits about the “genius of the Founding Fathers” has drained our ability to imagine a better way of ruling ourselves. Or perhaps we have been so preoccupied with tinkering with the machinery in hopes of producing one or another improvement to the output that we have ceased asking why the machine is so clunky and the products without exception faulty. Pressed to wonder, we are likely to spin out Churchill’s famous “Democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the rest.” Do we ever bother to ask whether, indeed, we live in a democracy? If we believe, indeed, that “another world is possible,” we must begin to imagine that another, democratic political system is possible. We must be open to seeing how others have worked out democratic schemes of government that work.
To believe that democracy is possible is the first step toward the change we want. It is also a necessary step toward action. Despite the effervescence of activism evident across the country over the last decade, in many respects we remain a nation of sheep. Sheep may go to heaven, but they will have to wait ’til that sweet bye and bye for their pie. But we are less sheep-like than we are distracted, dispirited and disorganized. Affluence, with all its temptations and mind-consuming electronic gadgets, has left wide swaths of the population distracted; the false patriotism of the civics classes, not to mention the repeated disappointments of our politics, have left us with no vision for a better political world; and the single-issue focus of policy-oriented work has rendered even our best organizations largely disconnected from one another, when they are not outright rivals for influence and funding. Affluence may have left many of us for good, though its collapse brings other sorts of distractions. The disappointments of the Obama administration hold out at least this hope, that we will begin to look for systemic solutions to our systemic malaise. And disorganization is a condition that new vision and concerted action can overcome.
The biggest obstacle to real change is our collective attachment to the system as it is. After noting that the Luddite Movement of early 19th century England was a key part of what many scholars think was modern England’s only truly revolutionary moment, Kirkpatrick Sale asks why the Luddites never sparked the revolution elements of them spoke of. The reason he gives is that, for most Luddites and their sympathizers, the solution to the long-term unemployment and food shortages and persistent poverty that sparked their rebellion lay in a recognition of traditional rights, in government action, in other words, to turn back the clock and ameliorate their situation. For all our well-placed cynicism about Washington, we are like the Luddites. We still say we believe in the system, and we depend upon it to a degree unimaginable in 19th century Britain.
The rhetoric of protest, right and left, appeals to our attachment to the American system. Naomi Wolfe, from the Left, rallies to “defend the Republic” from the onslaught of unconstitutional attacks on our liberties by the Bush administration.
The rest of this book is an effort to sketch out the revolution we need and the means to get there. In the remainder of this chapter, we want to make the case (for those still in need of persuading) for fundamental political change.
The Broken Promise of American Democracy
America, we are told, is a democracy, the “greatest democratic experiment in the history of the world,” according to the standard account. If so, we are a peculiar people, for we hate most of what passes for government in America. Candidates for everything from the local county Board of Supervisors to the presidency regularly run against government. Congress is one of the most unpopular institutions in the country. Military officers regard with aversion their obligatory stint in the Pentagon on their rise up the ranks. The FDA is everyone’s enemy, from herbal medicine fans to the Center for Science in the Public Interest to the pharmaceutical giants. State and city governments are assumed to be rife with corruption or peopled with lazy bureaucrats. The president is invested with irrational hope come election time and dogged by opponents and disappointed supporters as soon as he takes office. And most people feel there’s just nothing to do about any of the irritations or outrages that the American system of government imposes. So what’s to be proud of?
We like to think that our institutions depend on the consent of the governed for their democratic legitimacy, but much of our consent is grudging, and many of us regularly thwart government wherever we can. The “black,” cash economy in the United States is enormous and rarely punished. Most of it is not illegal, though in rural areas like ours illicit marijuana cultivation accounts for a sizable proportion of local income. But carpenters and plumbers, electricians and general contractors, backyard auto mechanics and small-scale tractor operators take cash when they can and report little of it at tax time. Most of us fudge our taxes, when we don’t cheat outright. Small-scale bakers and jam makers and milk producers skirt or ignore health codes requiring huge investments in stainless steel and frequent inspections by bored bureaucrats. High-paid professionals exploit cheap undocumented workers as nannies and gardeners, and community organizations get small jobs done through regular part-time employees signed on as “contractors”. Hunters break hunting laws, fishermen ignore limits on take, farmers draw more water from local creeks than permitted, and small shops dump toxic waste out back with little compunction. For a nation committed to the rule of law premised on the assumption that a democratic people gives the law to itself, we are peculiarly addicted to law-breaking.
All this should be disturbing evidence that our belief in American democracy is largely fictive. Or perhaps imaginary. We like to imagine we believe in our political system, because that gives us the satisfaction of living in “the greatest democracy in the world.” But our actions betray the fiction.
Perhaps we act like our government is an alien, occupying force precisely because the “democracy” in “American democracy” is a fiction. For decades opinion polls have shown that a sizable majority of the public favor more, not less, government help for the disadvantaged. In poll after poll, large majorities favor universal, public health insurance over the current system, even when it would have to be funded by higher taxes. Majorities have wanted to bring the troops home from Iraq since at least 2004 and have opposed escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The majority wants to see Guantanamo closed and they would have liked to see homeowners, not bankers, bailed out in the ongoing financial crisis. And, time and again, Congress and the President have defied these majority opinions in favor of their own, often byzantine and counter-productive, big money-friendly approaches to the same issues.
If democracy is defined as a system employing nearly universal adult suffrage, it scarcely justifies all the passion put into achieving it. We vote periodically for everything from members of the local water control board to president of the United States, but we know few if any of the candidates, even for local office, and less about their intentions once in office. For most local offices around the country, even powerful ones, we have no access to basic campaign finance information, and where we do, in federal elections, we rarely use it to figure out just who our Congress-critter or president-hero will be serving once in office. Worse, even when they can honestly claim to represent our interests, Congress people have to maneuver in a system that privileges minority rule over majority sentiment. They have to bow to committee chairs and party leaders on whether a bill gets considered on the floor. They are forced, in the Senate, to give the minority veto power over any legislation so long as they cannot muster 60 votes to bring a motion to the floor or close debate. And they must bargain away key public interests in any effort to achieve small private victories for their constituents.
The system, in short, is stacked against majority rule. It’s stacked against democracy. And it was designed that way. This may be hard to take, even if you have read your Howard Zinn. But the history should be well-known by now. The Constitution was designed to prevent an unruly majority from threatening the power and privileges of the very wealthy. For the historical background, read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. For the designs of the founders, there is no better place to go than The Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton as a series of articles intended to persuade people to vote to ratify the new constitution. Madison’s contributions are the most instructive, because he was, as he proclaimed himself, a “friend of popular government.” Hamilton saw himself as an aristocrat and was convinced that only aristocrats should rule. His proposal for a life-time president and Senate was rejected in the deliberations leading up to the constitution we know, but he never changed his mind about the desirability of an English-style system of government. So Madison is a better source on what even the most populist of the wealthy individuals who made up the Continental Congress really thought they were doing.
Federalist #10 is Madison’s best known statement, commonly assigned to freshmen political science students to show some of the reasoning behind the founder’s prescription for “limited government.” Titled “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” Madison’s contribution to the debate tips its hand immediately. He (and his intended audience presumably) is worried about division, even insurrection. The colonies had seen many insurrections, most of them directed, not at British overlords, but at colonial ones, some of them the men who led the Revolution. Most recently, a series of farmers’ uprisings in Massachusetts, now known as Shays Rebellion, had threatened courts which were in the process of foreclosing on farms belonging to bankrupt veterans of the revolutionary army and other victims of post-war inflation. Madison’s readers were well aware of the events of Shays rebellion, and those who held land and office were alarmed at the prospect of future insurrections by the poor against the economic order. Madison’s first task, therefore, is to assure them that the Constitution does not contemplate a democracy, where rabble like the aggrieved farmers of Massachusetts might have significant voice, but something called a “republic”.
The relevant definitions are worth quoting, if only to underline Madison’s seriousness. A pure democracy, he says, is “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” Such a society, he argues, cannot escape the “danger of faction” and, in fact, “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” (In making this claim, Madison has either ignored the New England town meetings that governed most of that region at the time or knows nothing about them.) Republican forms of government, by contrast, can aptly avoid the dangers of faction. What is a republic? A republic is “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place,” and the larger the republic, the more restraints on “faction”, because a larger republic requires greater distance between representatives and their constituents. Thus, a large republic reduces the likelihood of pernicious schemes being adopted because, by enlarging the population governed, “you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”
The standard reading of Madison’s text takes it for granted that “invading the rights of other citizens” is a clear case of wrongdoing, to which ill-advised majorities are, as Madison supposed, often inclined. But what sort of “invasion” does he have in mind. A couple of paragraphs later he mentions “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property” as examples of “wicked projects” that the majority might come to favor. Apparently, monied property is a minority with special need of protection in Madison’s mind. His definition of the evil of faction is broader, leading more sympathetic readers than us a more philosophical interpretation Madison’s intention. “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Fair enough, you say. But, consider: isn’t any piece of legislation potentially “adverse to the rights of other citizens?” If you decide to tax, no matter how “fair” the scheme, there are always some who will find themselves adversely, even “unfairly,” affected. If you decide to build a highway or a railway or a sidewalk, erect a signpost or a street light, renovate a port or extend an airport, some citizens are going to be adversely affected, their property seized (with compensation they may or may not agree to) or degraded. If you prescribe school curricula, you violate the rights of teachers to devise their own and of parents to control their child’s education. If you regulate Wall Street you interfere with the rights of people to dispose of their money as they see fit. If you go to war you condemn a certain proportion of the population, randomly but effectively, to death. What Madison is worried about, in short, is not “faction” nor the effects of faction, per se, else government would never do anything. His concern is with the “rights of property” in the face of popular movements that might threaten the wealthy and very wealthy. And we know from Howard Zinn’s account (based on those of many others) that such movements were very much a threat in the unequal society of early independent America.
The “scheme of representation” adopted in the Constitution of 1789 deliberately put distance between voters and representatives. The hope was that only the “better sort,” propertied, educated men with no taste for arousing the masses, would come to be elected and honestly deliberate the issues of the day. But Madison tempers this hope with the promise that, even were unscrupulous sorts to win election, the diversity of interests represented, alongside the balance of powers built into the institutions of government, would insure that majorities would be hard to create around popular projects not approved by elites. That balance of powers was also meant to stifle action, particularly action on behalf of the “wicked projects” of the majority. The Senate, appointed by the states and representing the elite of the elite, has veto power over the people’s House, and the President, at the top of the heap, has veto power over both. The Constitution itself was designed to be relatively hard to alter, and the Supreme Court quickly assumed the role of Guardian of the Constitution against the depredations of Congress and the President or the complacency of the lower courts.
In fact, though, Madison was flat wrong. The “small democracies” of New England and Switzerland (see chapter 2) have not suffered notably from the “violence of faction.” No would-be Socrates have been strung up in the town squares of Burlington or Bern. The villages of New Hampshire have not been the scene of violent factional fights, nor does the “mischief of faction” regularly undermine governance in the public interest in the communes of Switzerland. On the contrary, the institutions devised by Madison, his contemporaries, and their imitators across the country and around the world have bred and continue to breed the mischief of faction. Congress and the state legislatures are the sandboxes of the fractious and factious children we consider our leaders, and no item of public business emerges from their play that is not besmirched with the dirty fingerprints of special interests and private mischief. That is Madison’s legacy, and that of the founders generally, in their disdain for popular democracy. And all the careful architecture of representation and dual chambers and presidential veto and judicial review has not been able to stem the mischief of the factions of the wealthy. Indeed, it has nurtured faction, obscured it from public view, and crippled the nation’s ability to respond to its problems in ways that serve the general interest.
To the institutional restraints on popular power, moreover, Congress has added a welter of rules and procedures, privileging party leaders over the will of even a Congressional majority and approving parliamentary maneuvers that give minorities of as little as one the power to delay and distort pending legislation. Committee chairs control who appears at congressional hearings and what bills get considered in committee or reported out for a vote on the floor. Majority party leadership decides whether to place a bill before Congress for discussion and what version of the bill to put forward. Just forty-one votes (out of a hundred) are needed to block consideration of a bill in the Senate. And the possibilities for mischief are legion. “Private bills” earmarking funds for local concerns or corporate special interests or answering to some special concern can be inserted into larger bills by the appropriate broker in exchange for one or another favor, including, of course, a favorable vote on the larger bill. Individual Congress people in positions of power insert favored clauses into larger bills at the last moment without any sort of review by their peers. (A notorious example was the successful effort to broaden the non-organic ingredients allowed under the National Organic Program. Outrage was loud enough when the change was discovered that Congress was forced to rescind the measure.)
Members may obstruct even more effectively. In preparation for the health care “debate” in late 2009, Senator Judd Gregg wrote his fellow Republicans laying out the various means Senators may use to delay consideration of a bill, from insisting that deliberations had to start on a “new legislative day” according to Senate rules to demanding that all amendments be read in full to interjecting “point of order” requests at random stages of the process to offering an unlimited number of amendments “germane or non-germane.” Note that the standards of parliamentary procedure that most of our community organizations use is designed to facilitate full discussion, ensure that everyone is heard, and guarantee that measures are passed that reflect the will of the majority. Amendments that are not germane to the topic at hand, for instance, are expressly forbidden, as are those that effectively reverse the intent of the original legislation. Not so in the United States Congress, where the object is not to answer to majority will but to provide avenues for minorities, especially moneyed ones, to get a piece of the legislative pie. In the parlance of insiders, this is called respect for “minority rights.” In practice it is minority rule, or, to resurrect an old term, oligarchy.
The minorities that count, as our old term suggests, are the ones who can pay to play. Again, this is no accident, nor is it new to the twenty-first century. The founders of the republic were themselves moneyed, and they represented their class in ensuring that popular majorities could threaten such interests only with difficulty. But the high cost of modern campaigns has opened avenues for influence that were unimaginable at the end of the eighteenth century. The logic that drives Democratic strategists like Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel assumes that only money can buy elections and that it would be folly to challenge the sources of big money on behalf of popular reforms. The insurance industry, big pharmaceuticals, and big health care providers must come first in any health care initiative, the public second. In fact, as of this writing the Democrats risk a re-run of 1994, when outraged union voters stayed home after the passage of NAFTA, delivering the country to the Republican minority for more than two decades. Even the “high cost of modern campaigns” bears re-examination given the importance of grassroots organizing and relatively cheap internet mobilization in recent campaigns. But money talks, and top Democrats, like their Republican counterparts, listen.
Alongside the moneyed interests, the sort of non-profit and public-interest lobbying groups that liberals and progressives have come to rely upon have little clout. They can mobilize voters – though few of them do. They can provide sympathetic members of Congress with information and even craft pieces of legislation, as their for-profit counterparts regularly do. They can hang around the think tanks and meet with officials in the bureaucracy to lay out their views. But their impact on policy is minor. Worse, in their efforts to win support from the parties and funding from the philanthropists, they often have to bow to pressure to moderate their stance, narrow their perspective, and refrain from criticizing those they hope to influence. Jane Hamsher, founder of the blog FireDogLake.com, told Amy Goodman’s listeners recently why Republican “tea baggers” were able to seize the issue of the bank bailout, while liberal and progressive groups remained on the sidelines. For these groups, the Obama White House made it clear, it was back off or face a loss of access and even hits at their funding. “President Obama and the White House have been very good at protecting themselves from criticism from the left by keeping these liberal interest groups content with cocktail parties and access and, you know, donors that they are able to turn on and turn off when these groups do what they like or what they don’t like.”5
It is all very well to celebrate the rise of a “third force” of popular discontent. But fifteen million people saying No to the Iraq war around the world had absolutely no impact on the decision to go to war nor the subsequent conduct of the war. In the long run, it seems to have given Barack Obama the idea that he needed to find a “good” war to satisfy the war machine in Washington and calm public opinion.
It is all very well to insist that popular movements “have to make” the President or Congress do the right thing in health care, the economy, or immigration. But there is no evidence that our rulers can or will respond with anything more than lip service or palliatives. More profoundly, we ought to recognize that American “democracy” was designed precisely to enable political elites to evade popular demands and postpone, if not pervert, popular policy choices.
What should be clear by now, after the tragic (but foreseeable and foreseen) disappointments of the Obama regime, is that we don’t want more of the same. We don’t want “reform” — of health care, farm policy, or foreign policy. That’s what progressive, Washington-based advocacy groups have been busy about for decades, and we have little to show for it. Indeed, whether the question is average family income, the state of the country’s food, or the environment, all the gains have been canceled out by the losses and, in the case of the environment, the gains are always transient, as Kirkpatrick Sales noted, the losses often permanent.
What we want is not “change,” Washington style, but revolution, the overturning of politics Washington style and their replacement by a new politics and, perforce, a new political system better able to manage our problems and respond to our aspirations. What that new politics might look like – what sorts of institutions we need for a genuinely democratic politics – is the subject of the next chapter.
1Though Jim Douglas’ new book on the assassination of Martin Luther King makes a damning case for state complicity in his murder.
2David Sirota, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered our Government – and How We Take It Back (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), p. 9.
3One of the most compelling recent critics of American foreign policy is diplomatic historian, career military officer, and social conservative Andrew Bacevich.
5Jane Hamsher interview, Democracy Now! December 3, 2009