At the recent BARBARian gathering the subject of politics arose, as it tends to do. This group originally got together to bitch about Bush in person rather than virtually.
There was, therefore, a good deal of excitement during the 2008 election, and not a little dissension about which Democrat to support. I was one of the few, possibly the only one, who wasn’t used to voting for Democrats at the national level.
Once Obama was elected, the mood ranged from imminent utopia to relief and reasonably high expectations. Plus my cynicism, which never felt unwelcome but was certainly out of place for several meetings.
So it’s both depressing and validating to find that the first meeting in several months exhibited little enthusiasm for the Obama administration or the current Democratic leadership in general. I wish I’d been wrong in predicting that Obama would be no better than Clinton, but you surround yourself with Rubinites and you don’t have a prayer of doing anything that doesn’t destroy the country in economic terms. You believe the hawks in the military and the punditocracy and you lose any chance of ramping down the empire consciously and intelligently, rather than perforce. I.F. Stone quotes Lord Salisbury:
If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome;
if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent;
if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.
And if you believe the historians, nothing is new.
What surprises and depresses me is not the bad policies that Obama has adopted, nor his unwillingness to fight for anything but the interests of the worst corporations and the super-rich; that’s what he’s always done. I mean, this guy converted to Christianity as an adult, the same year he entered Harvard Business School. I gave up on Pelosi years ago, before she was Speaker, and haven’t voted for her for decades. And Harry Reid has an impressive life story but I can’t imagine how he ended up as the leader of anything. My guess is that he was the milquetoast to whom the fewest Democrats objected; and if that’s how you’re choosing leaders you’re not headed anywhere, you’re just trying to stay in power.
No, what surprises me is the abject ineptitude of the political calculations. Obama took off the table the single-payer idea that would have carried him through if he’d been what people thought he was. Congressional Democrats went along because they remembered the lesson they mis-took from 1994. Entering a negotiation with the express purpose of passing something, any bill at all, leaves you with no leverage. You’ve already agreed to fail, all you need is some face-saving band-aid. Who wins a negotiation? The party who can walk away.
Imagine for a moment that President Obama had made one of his best speeches on national television, like he’s done for major issues in the past. In this speech he’d called for universal health care like other developed countries have. Not universal insurance mandates, but universal health care, government-managed like other countries’. Single payer, which a majority of Americans have favored for decades. What would his poll numbers look like? He wouldn’t actually have to achieve such a lofty goal; but if he took the lead in negotiations, and he entered with that position, he’d get something close to it if he wanted such an outcome. Clearly he didn’t.
It’s particularly sad because Obama had a rare chance to do something historic and game-changing. It’s the classic Greek tragedy, in which the hero’s character flaws lead directly to the denouement. If only he really was the progressive community organizer people thought of him as being. Of course such a person wouldn’t be nominated by the Democrats, or allowed entry to a Republican gathering.
What would have gotten at least something done was a fighter in the mold of LBJ, someone willing to go into a caucus and threaten to cut peoples’s genitals off politically if they didn’t go along. We needed Obama to say, Here’s what I’m going for philosophically: a public option. I might fail and it would end my career to do so, but I have enormous public support. Those who get in my way will feel my wrath, and I will make sure the public knows which side everyone is on. We needed the modern equivalent of FDR welcoming their hatred. Instead we got what Obama’d always been, a intermediary between the corporate Democrats and the progressives they want to co-opt, to offset the wingnuts and fundamentalists the Republicans depend on.
Imagine what a President might accomplish in this magical time we inhabit were he willing to say, as FDR said about the Citigroups and AIGs of his time,
They have begun to see the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. And we know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.
What the country needs, as Nader’s said for decades, and reports that his father said to him, is a not a third political party but a second one. I would denominate it the Anti-Corporate party. Wealth would not be the target per se, but the concentration of unaccountable power that corporate wealth brings definitely would be. No corporation should ever be able to dictate to the community, yet today many Americans can’t imagine it otherwise. As Bill Greider says in his newest, Come Home, America:
More important than all the other losses is that people are also denied another great intangible — the dignity of self-directed lives. At work, at home, and in the public sphere, most people lack the right to exercise much of a voice in the decisions governing their daily lives. Most people (not all) are subject to a system of command and control over their personal destinies. They know the risk of ignoring the orders from above. Not surprisingly, many citizens are resigned to this condition and accept subservience as “the way things are,” and their lives are smaller as a result. Many find it hard to imagine that these confinements could be lessened, even substantially removed, if economic organizations were informed by democratic principles.
We find it hard to imagine that democratic principles could inform our lives because television and cinema fail to show that happening. It happens in real life, as Greider has talked about at length, especially in Who Will Tell the People? and The Soul of Capitalism. But anything that needs corporate media to create, distribute, or promote it will be filtered through the idea that corporations naturally control the sources of everything, water, air, algorithms, genetic codes, and all. We need to free our minds.