Frustration with the Obama administration has reached a new level with only 45% of US citizens polled approving of the job that the administration is doing and 39% voicing approval of the administration’s policies on the economy (see Wall Street Journal/NBC telephone polls, 9-7-10). The overall mood is pessimistic: 65% of those polled believe that the US is in a period of decline; 59% of the polled population thinks that the country will be the same or worse in five years.
Only 30% of poll participants believe that the country is headed in the right direction. This is a negative assessment not seen since the tail end of the Bush administration.
In a normal election cycle – the give-and-take of the two Parties – this would signal enthusiasm for the party out of power: the Republican Party. However, among Republicans, only 30% have a positive view of their own party, the lowest number recorded since before 1990.
These numbers express a smoldering anger about where we have arrived since the 2008 election and where we are heading.
The only major new force on the political scene reflecting this angry mood is the Tea-Party phenomenon–-- a faux populist movement backed by extreme-right money and fueled by the ultra-right media.
Facing an interim election in November, all of the healthy forces in US political life are scrambling to establish a posture towards these elections. Bitterness, backbiting, and confusion abound. The Internet is abuzz with the anger of scorned liberals who feel betrayed by two years of, at best ineffectual, at worst, malign administration leadership. As the Administration positions itself for the coming months, it reflects this mood by jettisoning three of its leading economic lights: Peter Orszag, Christina Romer and Lawrence Summers. The exit of Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, has passed the rumor level and is now a fact, as is likely the departure of many other prominent members of the administration. Despite their fealty to the corporate financial sector, Obama has suggested that he is seeking economic advisors that are more comfortable communicating with the corporate world.
Some in liberal circles cling to lingering hopes that the “real” Obama will soon be revealed. With all the enthusiasm of a revival meeting, they are awaiting a political rapture – a fulfillment of the “change” and “hope” themes of the election campaign. But my angry local letter carrier sees it differently. She says that people mistook “hope” for “dope,” a succinct declaration of her own frustrations.
Indeed, all signs point to a reshuffling of the administration in an even more conciliatory-to-the-right, pro-business direction. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “Part of the president’s task will be to ‘reset’ relations with the business community, not only to ease working in a divided Washington but also to smooth his path to re-election” (9-23-10). There is little room in this scenario for the revelation of a progressive, pro-working-class agenda. The WSJ cites senior White House officials as saying, “the president could concentrate on finding common ground on deficit reduction, education and immigration while guarding his achievements, from health care to student lending to financial regulation.”
The Political Crisis
All polls agree that approval ratings for the President have sunk substantially since his inauguration. And approval ratings for Congress hover at an embarrassing low level, a level that has been maintained since a time deep into the Bush Administration. Polls also show that both Parties are generally unpopular. Whether one bought the Obama message or not, it should have been apparent that his administration was meant to change the national mood of dissatisfaction and the international scorn brought on by the previous administration. They have failed in that task. And the political crisis continues.
The distance between the legislative actions of elected officials and the needs and desires of the electorate has never been greater. And the Obama Administration suffers inordinately from this distance because they promised so much in the presidential campaign. This distance was shown most recently with the issue of allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire. Initially, Obama and the Democratic leadership proposed maintaining the cuts for all but the very wealthy, a move that would have brought a measure of fairness to tax policy and generated $700 billion over 10 years in extra Federal revenue. The Republicans mounted a hysterical and demagogic campaign based on the inflammatory charge of tax increases. When opinion polls showed that the tax increases for the rich were popular (mid-September, CBS/New York Times - 53-38%), especially in key “battleground” states, the Republicans backed down. But, immediately, 31 Democratic Representatives voiced their public opposition to taxing the rich. Consequently any decision on the Bush tax cuts will be deferred until after the November elections. Every signal points to Congress maintaining the Bush tax policies for another two years.
Why is there such distance between popular issues and legislative action?
Many pundits employ vague, cloudy concepts like “gridlock” or blame a new-found intransigence or incivility. But the truth is simpler, but deeper: Elected officials are, for the most part, owned by monopoly capital. To a very great extent, the course of political success is greased with money and the opportunity to forge a successful and long political career is dependent upon corporate friendliness. Of course this is not new, but it has reached a new level of prevalence, demonstrating strikingly that the state – its structures and personnel – is dominated by and serves the interests of monopoly capital; that is, our reigning socio-economic system is state-monopoly capital.
Thus, there is no exit, without some radical surgery, from the political crisis that grips the US.
Moreover, the results of the November elections – regardless of the outcome - will have no dramatic impact on our profound political crisis. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing to be gained in the election. There are independent candidates – Greens, for example – who could open cracks in the corrupted two-party system. There are also some independent-minded Democrats who could, though only with a strong prod from progressive constituents, mount a meaningful challenge to the ossified, corporate-coddling Party leadership. And there would be advantages, advantages with a shrinking relevance, to maintaining a balance of forces favoring the Democrats. However, the ever-growing distance between the Democrats and the needs of the populace dampens any enthusiasm for fighting for this advantage.
Therefore, there is a deep and deadly contradiction embedded in the two-party system, a contradiction that will only be overcome with the emergence of independent movements unwaveringly committed to principled, progressive politics.
Going forward, we can expect the Obama Administration to focus on the 2012 Presidential election. The Obama team will maneuver rightward, leaving many of the now-distant campaign promises like EFCA or immigration reform in its wake. The hints referenced above signal an aloof presidency, above the fray, though ever sensitive to the needs of the corporations and their generous campaign contributions. Like Bill Clinton, Obama will seek a presidential posture dissociated from any ideological position, but portraying civility, bi-partisanship, likeability and managerial competence – a posture appealing to the non-ideological center thought to be crucial for re-election.
Needed: A Break from the Past
Undoubtedly, these observations may not come as news for many, especially many of the 65% of those polled who think the US is in decline. The widespread mood is anger and disappointment. But little will come from moods if no useful conclusions are drawn, if patterns remain unseen, if events are misunderstood. Far too many see the political crisis in terms of flawed personalities, individual values or ideological caricatures. The long-term trend of wealth and income inequality; the ever-growing concentration of power and influence in the hands or corporations, especially the financial sector; the growth of political corruption and the role of money and media in electoral politics; the ascension of the callous, anti-social culture of individualism assailing “entitlements” or common benefits; the repeated aggressive military missions to deny any barriers to international capital--- all these phenomena interact and decisively cause the deepening political crisis. These are not moments of bad judgment, occasionally flawed policies, or aberrations. They are features of the logic of capitalism, a capitalism that brought on an equally profound and closely related economic crisis.
Not everyone yet makes these connections, but they ignore them at great peril. While there is a widespread sense that we are at a decisive moment, there is an unfounded faith that the old solutions will suffice. Some pine for an imaginary time of social harmony and cultural unity while conveniently ignoring those left out of their idyllic fantasy – a world without immigrants, embracing segregation and racism, and willfully ignorant of the crude exploitation of labor. Others embrace liberal values associated with an imaginary kinder, gentler capitalism, but turn away from the reality that the profit-hungry modern corporation stands firmly and powerfully against this dream.
Politics will become real only when we face the truth that the modern monopoly capitalist corporation stands as the adversary to all but the very rich. That understanding will lead to the further understanding that only a broad anti-monopoly strategy will solve the crises of our economy and our politics.
It’s a curious, but telling, fact that political discourse has shifted from the extreme-right-imposed cultural battlefield of abortion, gays, and guns dominating the last decade to the issues of the economy and the role of the state. The Right has entered this new battlefield under the banner of fiscal austerity and hostility to government. Led by tea-bagger foot soldiers, they rail against government spending, regulation, and social programs. If they succeed in selling this line to voters, they will bring pain and devastation not only to working people, but also to the whole economy and social fabric.
Sadly, the Democratic Party leadership has shown little or no interest in engaging the right on this battlefield. They concede that government spending should be restrained, regulation should be minimal and non-antagonistic to business interests, and social programs must be trimmed. It is left for Democratic-friendly labor leaders and party loyalists to defend this blatant coincidence of political outlook. They must excuse this conjunction of Democratic views with Republican ideology as a tactical retreat or they must argue that Democrats will inflict the pain of austerity more compassionately. Neither excuse is credible with angry, frustrated voters who continue to thirst for effective change.
This is the great tragedy of the November elections. Indeed, there is much at stake, but the Democrats refuse to fight a credible battle, a battle that would require at least a modest rebuff to their corporate masters. As things stand, the election will turn on how much fear of a return to Republican leadership can be generated rather than what the Democrats would accomplish with a victory.
Last week’s giant rally in Washington, DC only underlines these contradictions. Committed people came in droves to express both an outrage at where we are heading and a determination to join others in changing course. Hopes were high that leaders would energize the causes that inspire people to action, such as fair labor legislation, employment opportunities, peace, immigration reform, racial equality, help for the poor and disadvantaged, and mortgage and other debt relief. While speakers readily chronicled the evils produced by a system of inequality and injustice, they were hesitant to speak its name: capitalism. Instead, most urged those who came on buses, trains, planes, and cars to work for the election of Democrats in November.
This constant cycle of placing all the hopes for a better future in the hands of corporate-owned Democrats must be broken. This is not a call for those fearful of a Republican victory in November to sit on the sidelines or boycott the elections, but, rather, for them to further commit to establishing independent voices, voices that will demand that all elected officials choose between corporate fealty and the causes of the people.
For too long, many progressive and left leaders have posed supporting the Democratic Party against any initiative that might upset or provoke Democratic leaders. They narrowly and rigidly limit political action to the electoral campaign and reject any challenge to Democratic Party leadership as heretical and divisive. Such an approach has led us into the current political crisis and offers no way out. This false tactical finesse smothered the anti-war movement and tolerated the evisceration of health care reform, the expansion of imperialist aggression, the coddling of the financial sector, and the criminal neglect of the unemployed, the underemployed and the poor. It is time to reject it and move on.
There is no easy escape from our political crisis. But it begins by building movements outside of and often apart from the ineffective Democratic Party.