Friday, July 9, 2010

Why Progressives Disappoint Themselves

Eric Alterman shares many insights in his analysis of why progressives have little to celebrate even though Democrats control the federal government (Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now | The Nation).

He describes and explains the new countermajoritarianism, pinpointing systemic and individual reasons why conservatives have so often derailed what might have been progressive Democratic initiatives. The problem, though, is that there hasn't been a lot that's progressive in many Democratic initiatives of late, starting with health care reform. So ultimately, Alterman's analysis passes the buck for progressive disappointments -- exonerating Obama and Democrats in Congress by pointing to the influence of factors beyond the Democrats' control -- monied minorities, "the American political system," GOP obstructionist parliamentary games, and more.

We do live in a political universe in which money and media power can drown out, manipulate, or pervert majority will. Polls tell us that even if popular majorities did control how government acts, they would not necessarily or automatically push for inclusive or redistributive or even fair public policies. Political culture and ideology can crimp our solidarity with others, just as the rules and structures of politics can make it difficult to legislate generous policy. But none of these impediments make political solidarity and policy generosity impossible. History teaches us that "change" can happen and can move the polity in a progressive direction.

In Who Cares?: Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs remind us that individual and collective traits like courage, leadership, and moral compass matter a lot in politics -- and are essential to achieving significant policy change. They look at presidencies that accomplished major social policy innovation to help low income and economically insecure individuals and families, showing that both Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society were not achieved because the proposed policies were popular but because political leaders actually led. As Newman and Jacobs put it, "The essence of leadership is not registering the popular will and transforming it into policy but setting a course and sticking to one's guns in the face of growing resistance." The authors are not calling for elite indifference to public opinion, but correcting the debasing and corrupting impulse to equate democratic decision making with following the preferences of fat cats, polls and focus groups.

Newman and Jacobs compel us to think about the precarious relationship between leaders and public opinion, raising familiar questions about the meaning of representation (weather vane?) and the obligations of representatives (re-election?). The health of the democracy requires us to always think about these questions, and always to demand answers to them from our actual and would-be leaders. But a healthy democracy also requires leadership -- not positioning, difference-splitting, pandering, and pleasing, but advancing bold visions in concrete policy proposals that serve our best principles rather than our narrowest self-interests. Of course compromises will be struck and clear proposals will blur at the margins and become messy within. But if you start in the messy middle and erase the margins of political debate -- as Obama did in the health care debate -- you might end up with a few system tweaks but you certainly won't accomplish progressive change.

The two hallmarks of progressive policy innovation -- Social Security and Medicare -- face uncertain futures as Obama's deficit commission considers strategies to ensure federal "fiscal responsibility." As William Greider explained, "The president intends to offer Social Security as a sacrificial lamb to entice conservative deficit hawks into a grand bipartisan compromise in which Democrats agree to cut Social Security benefits for future retirees while Republicans accede to significant tax increases to reduce government red ink." (William Greider, "Whacking the Old Folks," The commission's work is behind closed doors and its recommendations will not be issued until the end of the year. Whatever the commission does recommend may well be received as fait accompli, the triumphal product of bipartisanship. In creating and charging the commission, our supposedly progressive president has created the occasion for a potentially devastating assault on Social Security and Medicare. What George Bush couldn't win in the name of the "ownership society" Barack Obama may well win in the name of the "deficit-free society." Billionaire Pete Peterson, who has campaigned against Social Security for decades, supports the Obama initiative, including with some of his billions.

The present course does not bode well for progressive policy. But perhaps if progressives hold ourselves and our putative leaders accountable for our own disappointments we could force a change of course. Now that would be change I can believe in.