Deficits Fiscal and Democratic: Teapublican Times and the Long Right Tilt in the Age of Obama
Government Money for “the Right People”
Don’t look now but American politics and policy have gone so far to the right – consistent with more than three decades of starboard drift – that we might as well formally rename the United States “Empire and Inequality, Incorporated.” Masses of ordinary Americans are running out of ammunition in the war on economic destitution. The great global slump that started in 2007 – brought to us by the crisis prone and egregiously wealth-top-heavy profits system– continues to ruin millions of lives at home and abroad. The top 1 percent that owns more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth (and 57 percent of its financial wealth) is getting richer and richer as the official jobless rates goes back above 9 percent (real or functional employment is considerably higher) and millions of Americans face the expiration of extended unemployment benefits (Moody’s Analytics projects a loss of $37 billion from the nation’s purchasing power as a result). Evictions and foreclosures continue to plague America at historically high levels and food pantries are serving record numbers of poor Americans.
But so what? Increased taxes on the rich and corporate Few and expanded protections and opportunities for the business order’s faceless victims are off the table. This is despite the fact that massive tax cuts for the wealthy and rampant tax avoidance and tax fraud by elite investors and multinational corporations are (along with increased war and empire spending and the massive federal bailout of giants banks and corporations associated with the recent financial crisis) the leading causes of the government deficit that Washington politicians claim to abhor. There’s no chance for a meaningful economic stimulus as the federal government stretches to bay pack the opulent bondholders it took loans from to bail out the giant and parasitic firms that did so much to crash the U.S. and global economy in 2007 and 2008. The left hand of the state –the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority – is starved in the name of “fiscal responsibility.” The right hand of the state – the portions of the state that serve the opulent minority and dole out punishment for the poor at home and abroad – is alive and well. Ordinary Americans continue in the Age of Obama to receive “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” 4
The “right people” under the rule of America’s “unelected dictatorship of money” are those who already have the most money. They include the owners and top managers of leading U.S. “defense” corporations, who profit enormously from an annual global empire budget of more than $1 trillion,which pays for half the world’s military spending and maintains more than 1000 military installations across more than 100 countries the world over. “Defense” spending has increased significantly under Obama, who was advised and agreed before his election that (in the words of researchers at the leading financial bailout recipient form Morgan Stanley) “there is no peace dividend.”  Obama’s requested 2012 military budget may go as high as $1.4 trillion.8
A Grand Golf Course Bargain to the Right of the Average Republican Voter
Consider the current budget and debt-ceiling drama in Washington. Unbowed by a terrible jobs report that indicates a likely return to technical recession and shows the urgent necessity of major counter-cyclical government jobs and social assistance programs, many important Democrats were recently open to a massively regressive “budget deal” – one that slashes social expenditures and governmental protections (already on the defensive) on a massive scale. Top Democrats played along with the more openly plutocratic Republicans’ ploy of requiring massive social spending cuts if Congress would allow the government to keep borrowing money by raising the federal debt ceiling beyond the current $14.29 trillion borrowing limit. The Democrats have agreed not to raise tax rates and even – quite remarkably – to a 3-to-1 rate of spending cuts to revenue increases. Barack Obama went golfing with the Republican Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) two weeks ago and offered a “grand bargain” to reduce federal spending by $4 trillion over ten years, predominantly on the basis of Social Security and Medicare cuts, including (remarkably enough) a rise in the age of Medicare eligibility.  The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D-AZ) discussed backing a “debt reduction measure” of $3 trillion or even $4 trillion if the Republicans “meet him part way.” Obama was willing to support an end to Medicare’s longstanding availability to all Americans, regardless of income. As the leading liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman notes, Republicans weren’t even suggesting cuts to Social Security; “this is something Mr. Obama and those he listens to apparently want for its own sake.”10
It’s not what the Democratic Party’s “progressive” base and even many Democratic moderates want. In an all-too rare show of independence from Obama, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) came out on behalf of the House’s Democratic mainstream to publicly oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Pelosi drew the line: House Democrats would not vote to raise the debt limit if the final deal were to include Medicare and Social Security benefit reductions, meaning it probably wouldn’t pass. She did not hesitate to angrily note add that she and her fellow Democratic congresspersons were excluded from the Obama-Boehner “negotiations.” House Democrats were “caught off guard by the fact that Obama has essentially locked Congress on a course to make deep spending cuts in popular programs, on GOP-friendly terms, without consulting his own party.”11
Trying to “balance the budget” by slashing social programs is certain to deepen the slump since spending cuts will reduce mass purchasing power and feed unemployment. As Krugman observes, pissing in the wind of the big right tilt in Washington, “businesses aren’t holding back because they lack confidence in government policies; they’re holding back because they don’t have enough customers — a problem that would be made worse, not better, by short-term spending cuts.” Even the New York Times’ editorial board rightly “fear[s that] the sort of deal [Obama] is willing to consider, based overwhelmingly on spending cuts, could still consign the country to more years of economic stagnation.”  As Krugman notes, Obama’s deficit reduction proposals have been well to the right of what the average American voter supports and even “a bit to the right of what the average Republican voter prefers.”14
The Language of the Right Wing as the Language of the President
Preparing to run for re-election as a “moderate” in 2012, the supposedly liberal Obama pre-emptively conceded that any raise in the debt ceiling must be accompanied by spending cuts. He appears to very much share Republicans’ preposterous claims that the deficit, not unemployment, is the top economic issue facing the U.S. at present and that what ails the U.S. economy is excessive big government taxation and regulation. In a presidential address two weekends ago, Obama voiced core Republican themes by saying that “Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs.” 15
As the activist and writer Shamus Cooke recently noted on ZNet, “This is the language of the right wing, which is now the language of both the Democrat and Republican parties. In reality, the U.S. government could easily access trillions of dollars in revenue; it simply chooses not to. Both political parties refuse to discuss how raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations could easily fix the current deficit issue on both the federal and state levels.” This is quite true, just as the ongoing elite-manufactured “crisis of Social Security” could easily be fixed by lifting the regressive cap on payroll taxes and taxing investment income to adequate fund old age pensions.
The government could take a big step further by making significant cuts to the bloated war and empire budget. Since 2001, total U.S. “defense” spending has nearly doubled; it now represents roughly 20 percent of the entire federal budget. Pentagon spending has risen in real terms every single year since 1998. (Even during the height of the Cold War, the Pentagon's budget never increased for more than seven consecutive years.) As Ronald Reagan’s former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb noted earlier this year, “U.S. defense spending, in inflation adjusted terms, is higher than at any time since the end of World War II. Over the past decade, the U.S. share of global military spending has risen from one third to one half. The United States now spends six times as much as China, the country with the next biggest budget.”
The government would easily attain Obama’s $4 trillion in spending cuts by returning to the enormous empire budgets of the Clinton era. The “defense” industry, already nervous about “the business impact of the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” (the Wall Street Journal) and lame duck Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ call for a reduction of $400 billion in “security spending” over 12 years, worries about “drastic cuts in military spending” in connection with the current deficit drama. The Aerospace Industries Association, anchored by such noble global war masters as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, has recently launched a major lobbying push to defend their interests on Capitol Hill. But it has little to worry about in the political culture of Washington, where the Pentagon never has to worry about fiscal solvency even as Social Security is regularly said to be nearing bankruptcy. The military system enjoys an essentially open-ended entitlement to tap the treasury of a government that has spent decades raiding the Social Security trust fund to offset deficits caused by the War and Empire budget and by giant tax cuts and loopholes for the rich and corporate Few.21
Delaying the Full Rightward Resolution
But even all this hasn’t been reactionary and regressive enough for the Republican Party. Briefly tempted by the historic opportunity to lock in deep, long-term spending cuts with a president who “wants a right-leaning deficit deal,” Boehner pulled back last Saturday, citing the White House’s supposed “insistence on tax increases” (a curious take on the administration effort to close some longstanding business tax loopholes). He determined that agreeing to Obama’s right-leaning plan would have undermined his leadership position in the Republican Party, where recently elected hard right legislators are determined to fight to the death. The nation appeared headed to a potentially disastrous suspension of its ability to borrow and spend. Moody’s Investors and Standard & Poor’s have warned of a historically unprecedented downgrading of U.S. debt if the crisis is not resolved.23
It seems likely that the debt-ceiling crisis will be averted, thanks in no small part to the intervention of the financial and corporate elite, which has the most at stake in the drama. Big business movers and shakers have commanded Republican leaders to call off the current game of chicken by advancing a way for Obama to lift the ceiling. As left economist Jack Rasmus notes:
“Enter now the past weekend and the real power behind the Republican Party—the moneybag campaign contributors—i.e. the powerful big bankers, Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, big corporations and institutional investors. They had the most to lose should the debt ceiling not be raised. We’re talking real money here if bond prices collapsed and the stock market, already in decline, accelerated. …Pressure on Republican Senate, and to some extent House Republican leadership, intensified this past weekend. House leader Boehner and Senate leader McConnell blinked. In so many words, they agreed to allow the debt ceiling to be raised and will no longer hold the raising as a tactic to extract ‘no tax hike’ concessions from Obama.”25
As Rasmus ads, this hardly means that the assault on Social Security and Medicare is over. “The negotiations have just begun anew. All that’s changed is that big money bag corporate campaign contributors arm-twisted their Republican politicians to drop the debt ceiling as hostage factor in the debt debate and negotiations.” Once the ceiling is raised, quite soon, “the real negotiations will begin… On the table once again will be the President’s proposals to cut $3 trillion in entitlements. That will be the start point for negotiations, not the end point” – negotiations that Rasmus expects (and I concur) to culminate precisely in very serious increases in the retirement age, a significant reduction in Social Security disability benefits, and a significant passing of Medicare cost increases on to retirees.26
The likely specifics of the short debt-ceiling deal – proposed by McConnell – are that the president will be free to raise the debt limit. Congressional Republicans will then vote against the action with chest-thumping resolutions of harsh disapproval. Republican opposition will be vetoed by Obama. Republicans will be unable to override the veto (thanks to the Democrats’ numbers in Congress). This will strike many pundits as a victory for Obama, but Republicans will get to “vote against raising the debt limit without bearing the horrendous consequences of a government default.” It’s called kicking the can down the road in the interest of capitalist stability: “No budget cuts. No tax increases. No clear plan for deficit reduction. Nada. The entire, huge, mind-boggling, wildly partisan, intensely ideological, grandly theatrical, game of chicken miraculously vanishes,” Robert Reich notes.27
Brooks: Blame the Tea Party
How did this disgraceful episode happen? The conservative Times columnist and Milton Friedman fan David Brooks calls the potentially epic “deal” Boehner rejected “the mother of all no-brainers… If the Republican Party were a normal party,” Brooks argues, “it would take advantage of this amazing moment.” It would “seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing.” Like many in the media and political classes, Brooks blames the Tea Party. “Over the past few years,” Brooks writes, the Republican Party “has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative. The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. …If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will…say no…The members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.” Brooks thinks the G.O.P., once “a normal conservative party” has been excessively influenced by “an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation.” Though he doesn’t actually say so, this “protest movement” Brooks references is of course “the Tea Party,” formally unveiled in February of 2009.
But along with his failure to understand the need for government stimulus amid the current slump, Brooks is missing the real and bigger picture. The Republican Party couldn’t care less about “putting the country on a sound fiscal footing.” Part of its ultra-rejectionism, no doubt, is all-too sadly normal hyper-partisanship of a modern G.O.P. that simply “does not accept the legitimacy of a Democratic presidency – any Democratic presidency. As a result,” Krugman explains, “Republicans are automatically against anything the president wants, “even if that president advances something their party supported in the past (Obama’s health reform measure is a perfect case in point).The Republicans quite normally want Obama to fail in 2012 and to place one of their own in the White House. (U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has explicitly stated more than once that the Republicans’ top priority is to make Obama a one-term president - a rather brazen thing for him to announce as the country struggled with its worst economic crisis in 70 years). They therefore wish to deny him the appearance of bold leadership and of having reached out across ideological barriers to shed his (false) identity as a “big government liberal” to win the strategically significant Independents and moderate votes that were so critical to his 2008 victory.
“Starve the Beast”
Partisan goals aside, the Republican Party’s official goal of “deficit reduction” is cover for its deeper, ideologically driven, and arch-plutocratic agenda. It doesn’t matter how far right the Democrats tilt in a rightward direction. The Republicans want nothing less than complete destruction of the last remnants of the liberal state. Their proclaimed concern for sound public finance and economic expansion are smoke and mirrors disguising their deeper political agenda. They are driven not by serious concerns for fiscal health but rather by the desire to wage hard-right ideological warfare, demolish social welfare programs, smash workers’ organizations, concentrate political power, and advance the interests of their big money backers. As the Times’ former liberal Sunday columnist Frank Rich explained while G.O.P. legislators threatened to cause a government shutdown last February, the Republicans’ proclaimed concern for sound public finance and economic expansion is smoke and mirrors. They are driven not by serious concerns for fiscal health but rather by the desire to wage hard-right ideological warfare, demolish social welfare programs, smash workers’ organizations, concentrate political power, and advance interests of their big money backers. The Republicans’ “real goal,” Rich noted. “is to reward the G.O.P.’s wealthiest patrons by crippling what remains of organized labor, by wrecking the government agencies charged with regulating and policing corporations, and, as always, by rewarding the wealthiest with more tax breaks” The leading corporate Tea Party Republican backer Koch Industries (owned by Charles and David Koch), Rich noted, stood to profit handsomely from the Republicans’ budget bill last February, which promised to reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and to prohibit the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses. “The dollars that will be saved,” Rich observed, “are minute in terms of the federal deficit, but the payoff to Koch interests from a weakened E.P.A. is priceless.” In a similar vein, the newly Republican-controlled House’s proposal to reduce spending for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (tasked with regulating the complex Wall Street derivatives that fueled the 2008 financial crisis) promised minimal deficit-reduction but a significant bottom-line boon for the financial elite.31
Brooks could also learn a thing or two from Times correspondent Jackie Calmes. Observing this morning (I am writing on Friday, July 15, 2011) that Obama has been pressing for greater deficit reduction than the Republicans, Calmes reflected on the Republicans’ shift since Reagan from the goal of deficit reduction to the imperative of (though Calmes cannot quite put it this way) assaulting the liberal state:
“Republicans have shown that their higher priority is not lower deficits, as it was for the party through most of the last century, but a smaller government. House Republicans in the spring passed a plan that would not balance the budget for three decades despite deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid — largely because it also deeply cut taxes, adding debt.”
“For Republicans, ‘reducing the deficit implies tax increases, or the possibility of tax increases, and that’s not something they want to do under any circumstances because it doesn’t suit their political needs,’ said Stan Collender, a longtime federal budget analyst and a partner at Qorvis Communications.”
“The party’s dynamic in the debt talks reflects the culmination of a 30-year evolution in Republican thinking, dating to the start of President Ronald Reagan’s administration. The change is from emphasizing balanced budgets — or at least lower deficits — to what tax-cutting conservatives have called ‘starve the beast,’ ’that is, cut taxes and force government to shrink.”32
Calmes forgot to mention that they only want to shrink the left hand of the state. The right hand remains well fed under the corporate, imperial and neoliberal wisdom that reigns in both parties. 33
“The Tea Party is the GOP”
Brooks is equally wrong to suggest that the Republican Party has been taken over by the Tea Party “protest movement.” As political scientist Anthony DiMaggio and I show in our book Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, May 2011), the conventional mainstream description of the Tea Party phenomenon as a popular protest movement is highly misleading. “The Tea Party” is a loose, elite-directed conglomeration of partisan interest groups set on returning the Republican Party to power. Despite protestations to the contrary,it is partisan Republican to the core, its leading activists and main supporters accurately described by one mainstream reporter as “super-Republicans.” It is not an uprising or protest against the existing political system. Rather, it is a reactionary, top-down manifestation of that system, dressed up and sold as an outsider rebellion set on changing the rules in Washington and across the country. Consistent with the long-term rightward trajectory of the Republican Party and U.S. politics since the 1970s (see below), its basic function, deeply enabled by a corporate media that eagerly spread Tea Party “movement” mythology, was to help the deeply unpopular (because so transparently plutocratic) Republican Party re-brand itself in deceptive grassroots and populist clothing to take political advantage of the widespread economic insecurity imposed by the epic recession of 2008-2009 during the mid-term congressional and state elections of November 2010. As DiMaggio and I show at some length in the aforementioned volume, Matt Taibbi got it right last year: “The Tea Party today is being pitched in the media as this great threat to the Republican Party; in reality, the Tea Party is the GOP.”36
The Long Right Tilt
Tea Party “super Republican” positions (which we might half-humorously call “Teapublican” positions) are consistent with the deeper and longer-term rightward drift of the Republican Party and American politics more broadly in the neoliberal era. According to a common narrative in media and academia, the contemporary bipartisan political system is terribly polarized along a left-right continuum, with Democrats moving dramatically to the left and Republicans moving somewhat less dramatically to the right. This is a great illusion. Republican politicians have become far more reactionary than the Democrats have been “liberal” over the last half century and the rightward shift of the Republican Party is the main cause of such polarization as exists. Democratic Party liberalism rose in the 1960s and 1970s – a reflection largely of the defeat and subsequent exodus of center-right southern Democrats from the party. From the Carter administration onward, however, Democrats have grown increasingly conservative in their embrace of neoliberalism and in their declining support for worker protections and entitlement programs. Since the 1970s, by contrast, Republicans became nearly twice as conservative, never moving back to the center.37
This dangerous and ongoing rightward tilt has resulted from a number of underlying and interrelated, overlapping factors in the neoliberal era, including the following:
· The ever-rising significance of big money in U.S. politics and policy at the same time that the U.S. has grown more savagely unequal
· The rise of powerful new organizations (e.g. Americans for Tax Reform, the Club for Growth, the Christian Coalition, and many others groups) representing the right wing and business agendas
· The atrophy of the U.S. labor movement (unions now represent less than 1 in 10 private sector workers, down from 1 in 3 in 1970) and mass membership liberal and progressive organizations, formerly critical counterweights to an unmitigated business agenda in federal and state government.
· The increasingly immigrant-based composition of the U.S. workforce, which fuels nativist reaction at the same time as it robs labor of workers with citizenship rights and a long-term commitment to working and living conditions in the U.S.
· The Republican takeover of the formerly Democratic U.S. South and the rise of a more deeply reactionary, largely southern-led Republican Party in the wake of the Civil Rights legislation and judicial decisions of the 1960s and 1970s.
· The rising significance of primary elections (which tend to empower the G.O.P’s hard right base relative to more Republican moderates) relative to general elections resulting from the escalated creation of solidly Republican and solidly Democratic legislative districts
· The rise of mass voter apathy and demobilization, which favors highly organized right wing and right-leaning business interests, who act upon their strong vested interests in politics and policy to take ugly advantage of ordinary citizens’ sense that their concerns hold no institutional water in the nation’s public deliberations.
· Corporate media consolidation, the decline of reliable and quality journalism willing and able to give the popular majority the accurate information it requires to be productively engaged in democracy, and the right wing’s construction of a powerful media empire and echo chamber or noise machine that includes newspapers like the New York Post and the Washington Times, Fox News, Fox radio, a range of “public affairs” broadcasts on cable television, and a vast talk radio network that leans far to the right and promotes a nearly constant assault on the supposedly socialist Democratic Party, on the allegedly “liberal” mainstream media, and on purportedly dangerous left activists, groups, and causes.
“Cra-a-a-zy Tea Partiers” and Dismal Demobilizing Democrats
It isn’t only or even mainly moderate conservatives like Brooks who like to cite the Tea Party dragon to divert attention from the ever more rightward drift of their favorite mainstream business party. Democrats have consistently pointed to the Tea Party specter to rally voters to agree to cower under the umbrella of a lesser evil Democratic Party that has itself moved well to the plutocratic right. “Sure,” the Democrats’ message to their liberal and progressive voting “base” runs: “we may not have lived up to our progressive campaign promises of democratic change, but look at who we have to deal with and who stands to win if we are voted out: the swamp-fed Tea Party monster!”
Douthat puts his finger on a key point in his reflections on why Obama has consistently caved in the face of Teapublican demands since the significantly Tea Party-fueled Republican triumph in the congressional mid-term elections last November. “The not-so secret secret is that the White House has given ground on purpose,” Douthat notes. “Just as Republicans want to use the debt ceiling to make the president live with bigger spending cuts than he would otherwise support, Obama’s political team wants to use those cra-a-a-zy Tea Partiers to make Democrats live with bigger cuts than they normally would support.” Douthat thinks the administration wants a “right-leaning deficit deal” in its effort to woo those all-powerful (in a winner-take-all two party elections system with a closely divided electorate) and supposedly ideology-averse Independent voters for the 2012 election, who have been told again and again (falsely) that Obama is a left leaning big government liberal. There may be some truth in that formulation, but the bigger story is that the center-right Obama wants to reward his big money backers and is more than willing to disrespect the nation’s popular majority. He is willing to alienate much of his liberal base – even going to the point of screwing with Medicare and Social Security (in by now standard defiance of his campaign pledges) – in order to serve his elite business class masters. He knows very well that massive and deepening inequality – which will only be furthered by the regressive budget/debt ‘deal’ that party elites end up carving out before the ceiling date (August 2nd) hits – has shifted U.S. politics and policy well to the capitalist right of public opinion in the U.S.
A hidden irony here is that “those cra-a-a-zy” Teapublicans owe no small part of their current powerful position in Washington to the Democratic Party’s savage demobilization of its own progressive base as it acted in accord with its own longstanding identity as “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.” Progressive author and blogger Les Leopold put it well on the liberal Web site Huffington Post last year:
“It’s open season on Obama, whom so many hoped would lead us out of the neoliberal wilderness. He was once a community organizer and ought to know how working people have suffered through a generation of tax breaks for the rich, Wall Street deregulation and unfair competition. When the economy crashed, he was in perfect position to limit the unjustified pay levels on Wall Street….Instead we got a multi-trillion dollar bailout for Wall Street, no [real progressive] health care reform, no serious financial reforms whatsoever, record unemployment, and political gridlock that will be with us for years to come.”38
Liberals and progressives had little basis for thinking that Obama would guide them out of the wilderness. As I demonstrated in great detail in late 2007 and early 2008, U.S. senator and presidential candidate Obama was what left political commentator Lance Selfa called “more of a pro-business, ‘centrist’ politician than the radical conjured up in the fantasies of the likes of Glenn Beck.” Nevertheless, by the fall of 2010, a large number of Democrats and independent swing voters surely agreed with Leopold that “Obama hasn’t produced the reforms he promised, while embracing policies like Bush’s ‘war on terror,’ and the Afghanistan war that they abhor.” For a large number of core Democratic supporters, mainstream Democratic liberalism had failed to live up its idealistic campaign rhetoric. One did not have to be a radical to be bothered by Obama’s centrist, business-friendly betrayal of the Democratic Party’s working-class and poor constituencies. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert—a long-standing Obama supporter—expressed his disgust with the Democrats after Scott Brown’s Tea Party–assisted victory in an op-ed titled “They [the Democrats] Still Don’t Get It.” “The door is being slammed on the American dream and the politicians, including the president and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill,” Herbert wrote, “seem not just helpless to deal with the crisis, but completely out of touch with the hardships that have fallen on so many.” Herbert wondered if “there is anything” that could ever again “wake [the Democrats] up to their obligation to extend a powerful hand to ordinary Americans and help them take the government…back from the big banks, the giant corporations and the myriad other predatory interests that put the value of a dollar high above the value of human beings.” The left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin easily foretold this pathetic Democratic performance in his chilling 2008 book, Democracy Incorporated:
“The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf. And this despite the fact that these elements are recognized as the loyal base of the party. By ignoring dissent and assuming the dissenters have no alternative, the party serves an important, if ironical, stabilizing function and in effect marginalizes any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans. Unlike the Democrats, however, the Republicans, with their combination of reactionary and innovative elements, are a cohesive, if not a coherent, opposition force.”43
The electoral consequences of the dismal Democrats’ centrist timidity were deadly. In the general midterm contest, the Democrats suffered from significant declines in voter participation on the part of segments of the electorate that played key roles in their triumphs in the 2006 (Congressional) and 2008 (Congressional and presidential) elections cycles. Union households (predominantly Democratic) comprised 23 percent of the active electorate in 2006; in 2010 they were 17 percent. Their support for Democratic House candidates dropped from 64 percent in 2006 to 60 percent in 2010. Young people (18-29 years olds)were 18 percent of voters in 2008, when two-thirds of them voted for Obama; in 2010 they made up just11 percent of the electorate and they voted 56 to 40 percent for Democratic candidates. Black voters (90 percent Democratic in the 2010 elections) fell from 13 to 10 percent of the voters between 2008 and 2010. By contrast, voters who identified themselves as “conservative” increased their share of the active electorate from 32 to 41 percent between 2006 and 2010. “Conservatives” were more enthusiastic about GOP House candidates last fall than in 2006, when 74 percent of self-identified conservatives supported Republicans. Last November, 84 percent did. And this was all it took for the highly energized and re-branded Republican Party – what I only half-jokingly call “the Tea.O.P.” – to clean up in a mid-term election, when turnout is considerably smaller than during the quadrennial race that include a presidential election. As the left analyst and activist Charlie Post notes, no big “shift to the right” was required or took place. “An 8 percent shift in an election where only 40% voted—a shift of approximately three percent of the total eligible voters—accounts for the Republicans’ victory.”45
It was the victory of a Republican Party that has become radically regressive, authoritarian, and arch-plutocratic over recent decades, well before the rise of the Tea Party “protest movement” Brooks accuses of spoiling the G.O.P.’s status as “a normal conservative party.” As Wolin noted well before the contemporary Tea Party brand was formally launched, the word “conservative” merits quotation marks when used in connection to the 21st century G.O.P. “The character of the Republican Party,” Wolin observed three years ago:
“reflects a profound change: radicalism has shifted its location and meaning. Formerly it was associated with the Left and the use of political power to life the standard of living and life prospects of the lower classes, of those who were disadvantaged under current distributive principles. Radicalism is now the property of those who, quaintly, call themselves ‘conservatives’ and are called such by media commentators. In fact, pseudoconservatism is in charge of and owns the radicalizing powers that are dramatically changing, in some cases revolutionizing, the conditions of human life, of economy, of politics, foreign policy, education, and the prospects for the planet. It is hard to imagine any power more radical in its determination to undo the social gains of the past century.” 46
“Yes, He Did Mean It”
This is the hard right party that the deeply conservative Obama can’t stop readily accommodating, much to the all-too credulous dismay of many liberals and progressives who cling (against mountains of evidence) to the childish notion that the president is really one of them. One of the more ridiculous aspects of the recent debt-ceiling drama has been the claim of Democratic pundits and spin doctors (e.g. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell) that Obama never really meant to institute draconian Social Security, Medicare and social spending cuts – that the “grand bargain” he offered as really just a clever ploy to expose the Republicans’ real partisan and arch-regressive agenda. This is a preposterous narrative. I concur with Rasmus’s prediction and commentary:” Once that $3 trillion in cuts and the evisceration of social security and Medicare is back on the table [next fall], that will conclusively disprove O’Donnell’s and Obama administration’s ‘spin’ message that Obama’s proposals to cut social security and Medicare was only tactical, a maneuver, and that he really never meant to propose to cut social security and Medicare. But, yes, he did mean it. Yes, he did propose it. And yes he will propose it again. And once it’s back on the table, that means it was never a mere maneuver, that it was fully intended.”49
The Irrelevant Majority
For what it’s worth (not much under America’s corporate-managed fake-democracy), this chillingly reactionary political and policy moment stands in by now standard bold defiance of majority public opinion. Most Americans believe that job creation should be a bigger government priority than deficit reduction, that social protections should be expanded (not contracted), that the rich are under-taxed, that wealth inequality and poverty are the nation’s leading moral issues, that big business and the wealthy exercise far too much influence over government, that government dollars should be significantly transferred from military to social programs (Obama’s non-existent peace dividend), that Social Security and Medicare benefits should be protected and expanded, and that public sector workers deserve and require full collective bargaining rights – the very rights that have come under attack in numerous Republican-controlled state legislatures this year. A recent Washington Post/ABC News (April 20, 2011) survey found that 78 percent of Americans are opposed to cuts in Medicare, while 72 percent favor taxing the rich.
Reform Will Not Suffice
But none of this seems to matter very much in the U.S., where, as the American philosopher John Dewey noted more than a century ago, “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Welcome to America’s gaping “democratic deficit,” a significantly greater problem than the nation’s much bemoaned and overplayed financial deficit. Politicians and pundits allied with both wings of the American one-and-a-half party system can blame the poorly understood Tea Party “movement” all they want but the real and deeper culprits are that narrow system and the aforementioned unelected dictatorship of money it serves and protects. The hope that anything progressive can be achieved within and through that system seems ever more dubious with each passing electoral extravaganza and political branding campaign. But elections and opinion polls are hardly the only or most effective method of expressing public sentiments over and against concentrated wealth and power. Mass street demonstrations and strikes and social movement formation beneath and beyond the dominant institutions are the more relevant popular avenues. While serious progressives must surely fight for reforms and corrections like the expansion and protection of labor rights and carbon emission limits and welfare benefits (and much more), they should also realize that reforms will not suffice. Dewey was surely correct when he warned that the nation’s democratic institutions would never escape the giant capitalist “shadow” as long as power rests with “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.” 52
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 For an excellent discussion of the roots and depth of the current global slump, see David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (PM Press, 2011).
2 Jack Rasmus, “Budgets, Taxes, and Classes in America,” Z Magazine (June 2011), 34. As Rasmus adds, “Public workers, retirees on Social Security and Medicare and the working poor on Medicaid are not the fundamental cause” of the nation’s debt.
3 The only real break with neoliberal “free market ideology” to follow in the wake of the neoliberal economic collapse of 2008 has involved the government decision (made under the command of capital) to spend an unprecedented sum of taxpayer money propping up leading financial and other capitalist firms deemed “too big” and powerful “to fail.”
4 William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak but Is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009
5 Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009, read at http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/hp240709.html; Paul Street. “America’s Unelected Dictatorship of Money: Dark Reflections on the Need for Real Change at Home, Not Just in the Middle East,” ZNet (April 14, 2011) at http://www.zcommunications.org/america-s-unelected-dictatorship-of-money-by-paul-street.
6 Christopher Hellman , “America Spending More on Security Than Most Know,” Center for Arms Control (November 16, 2007) at http://armscontrolcenter.org/policy/securityspending/articles/spending_more_than_most_know/; Robert Higgs, “The Trillion-Dollar Defense Budget Is Already Here,” The Independent Institute (March 15, 2007) at http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1941; John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman and Robert W. McChesney, “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending,” Monthly Review, Volume 60, Issue 5 (October 2008) at http://monthlyreview.org/2008/10/01/the-u-s-imperial-triangle-and-military-spending
7 Heidi Wood et al., “Early Thoughts on Obama and Defense,” Morgan Stanley Research, Aerospace and Defense (November 5, 2008) at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/business/governmentinc/documents/ObamaDefense.pdf
8 See the following thoroughly sourced analysis: “Military Budget of the United States” (last modified on June 21, 2011), Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_budget_of_the_United_States#cite_note-Budget_FY2011-17.
9 Paul Krugman, “Getting to Crazy,” New York Times, July 15, 2011, A21. The ongoing assault on Social Security is a telling follow-up on more than two decades of the federal government looting the Social Security trust fund to pay down federal debt created by massive tax cuts on the rich and big business. As Jack Rasmus recently noted in Z Magazine, “payroll taxes paid by working class households earning less than $108,600 a year have risen progressively since the mid-1980s as taxes on corporations and investor households have been cut. More than $2 trillion in revenue surplus has been generated the past 25 years by the payroll tax that finances social security. Unfortunately, that entire $2 trillion surplus has been diverted from the social security trust fund by Congress and presidents since Reagan and used every year to offset the growing federal budget deficits. That offsetting of U.S. budget deficits has enabled Congress in turn to pass massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, from Reagan to Obama. In other words, what amounts to $2 trillion of workers' deferred wages paid into social security has been transferred to the wealthy and corporations, in large part to enable the continuing $3.8 trillion dollar tax cuts for the rich and corporations.” Rasmus, “Budgets, Taxes, and Classes” – an excellent guide to the last thirty-plus years of multi-pronged top-down class warfare in the U.S. On Medicare
10 Paul Krugman, “What Obama Wants,” New York Times, July 7, 2011.
11 Brian Beutler, “Pelosi: Social Security Cuts are Line in the Sand on Debt Limits Bill,” Talking Points Memo (July 7, 2011) at http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/07/pelosi-medicare-and-social-security-cuts-will-compromise-vote-on-debt-limit-bill.php
12 Krugman, “What Obama Wants.”
13 New York Times editors, July 12, 2011.
14 Krugman, “Getting to Crazy.”
15 Barack Obama, “Weekly Address: Cutting the Deficit and Creating Jobs,” July 2, 2011 at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/07/02/weekly-address-cutting-deficit-and-creating-jobs
16 Shamus Cooke, “Deficit Reduction Versus Democracy,” ZNet (July 12, 2011).
17 Charles Riley, “Pentagon Budget ‘Loaded with Fat,” CNNMoney (July 1, 2011) at http://money.cnn.com/2011/07/01/news/economy/pentagon_budget/index.htm
18 Lawrence Korb, “How to Cut $1 Trillion From the Pentagon,” CNNMoney (January 5, 2011) at http://money.cnn.com/2011/01/05/news/economy/lawrence_korb_defense_spending/index.htm?iid=EAL
19 Nathan Hodge, “Defense Industry Fears More Budget Cuts,” Wall Street Journal, July 14. 2011, A4.
20 As Edward S. Herman noted in June of 2009: “The Pentagon has regular gigantic overruns in its payments for weapons systems and fraud and waste are endemic. But the Pentagon is never threatened with ‘insolvency.’ Its overruns and waste are simply passed on to taxpayers. The supine media, while occasionally chiding the Pentagon for, say, ‘running almost $300 billion over estimates and averaging 22 months behind delivery’ never talk about any crisis in the funding of overkill, military boondoggles, and waste (editorial, ‘Military-Industrial Redux,’ NYT, May 22, 2009). In a 2005 ZNet blog, writer David Peterson imagined a situation where the Pentagon was funded by worker taxes and implicitly by a taxpayer-based trust fund, which it threatened to exceed drastically, putting the Pentagon on the road to bankruptcy. Thus, ‘Unfortunately, the ratio of workers-paying-taxes to wars-being-waged is falling steadily. By the year 2018, it is projected that the Department's future expenditures will begin to exceed its revenues. What this means is that by 2018, the Department will go into the red—spending more on waging wars than it receives in taxes. After that, the shortfalls will grow larger until 2042, when the whole Department of Defense will go bankrupt. By the time today's workers in their mid-20s begin to retire, we expect to be fighting wars on as many as six different continents. If we do not fix the Department's funding mechanism, it will not be able to pay for the wars we promise to wage on behalf of our children and our grandchildren’…Laughable, isn't it? We know that in the real world the taxpayer funds the Pentagon on an open-ended basis without any trust funds or limits beyond what logrolling can produce. After all, it is protecting our ‘national security,’ using the phrase with its usual infinite elasticity to cover anything the Pentagon, its contractors, their lobbyists, and the congressional servants of the military-industrial complex want. We live in what Ralph Lapp called a ‘weapons culture,’ which is at quite a distance from a democratic or humane culture.” E.S. Herman: “John Yoo, Social Security, and Korean Threat,” Z Magazine (June 2009).
21 Rasmus, “Budgets, Taxes, and Classes,” 32-33.
22 Ross Douthat, “A Method to Their Madness,” New York Times, July 2011.
23 Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2011.
24 Public Broadcasting System, News Hour: “Debt Ceiling Deadlock Sounds Fresh Alarms on Wall Street,” July 14, 2011 http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec11/debt_07-14.html . According to Wall Street Journal reporter David Wessell, “the business community has come forward. A number of executives organized by the Washington business lobbies came up and told Congress and the president, do your job. I don't think they are any great profile in courage. They didn't volunteer to help reduce the deficit, take any tax breaks off the table and everything….But I think they too, as we get closer to the moment of deadline, are trying to put a little pressure on the leadership to do the right thing.”
25 Jack Rasmus, “Reading Debt Tea Leaves,” ZNet (July 14, 2011) at http://www.zcommunications.org/reading-the-debt-ceiling-tea-leaves-to-predict-the-future-by-jack-rasmus. See also Robert Reich, “Why Mitch McConnell Will Win the Day,” Huffington Post (Jul y 13, 2011) at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-reich/mitch-mcconnell-obama-debt-ceiling_b_897040.html. “As the August 2 [debt ceiling] deadline approaches,” Reich notes, “big business and Wall Street (who hold the purse strings for the GOP) are sending Republicans a clear signal: Raise the debt ceiling or capital markets will start getting nervous. And if they get nervous and interest rates start to rise, you guys will be blamed.”
26 Rasmus, “Reading Debt Tea Leaves.”
27 Reich, “Why Mitch McConnell Will Win.”
28 For the deeper history, emergence, and origins of the modern Tea Party phenomenon, see Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011), 27-39
29 Krugman, “Getting to Crazy.”
30 Michael Memoli, “Mitch McConnell’s Remarks on 2012 Draw White House Ire,’ Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2010 at http://articles.latimes.com/2010/oct/27/news/la-pn-obama-mcconnell-20101027; Reich, “Why Mitch McConnell Will Win.”
31 Frank Rich, “Why Wouldn’t the Tea Party Shut it Down?” New York Times, February 26, section 4, read online at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/opinion/27rich.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss. The real goal of smashing what’s left of the left hand of the state and serving reactionary business interests in the disingenuous name of deficit reduction has been pursued aggressively at the state level too. Corporate-backed Republican governors and Republican-controlled state legislatures moved quickly in early 2011 to slash business taxes and regulations, to assault government social programs, public sector salaries and benefits, and the collective bargaining power of public workers, and to roll back the electoral power of the Democratic Party. Numerous Democratic governors and state legislators are also involved in an austerity-based assault on the incomes, and benefits, and collective bargaining rights of public sector workers and on the ability of state governments to regulate economy and society in accord with the common good.
32 Jackie Calmes, “Behind Battle Over Debt, a War Over Government,” New York Times. July 15, 2011, A1, A16.
33 For my own reflections on this, see Paul Street, Empire and Inequality: America in the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004).
34 See, for example, John O’Hara, The New American Tea Party: The Counterrevolution Against Bailouts, Handouts, Reckless Spending, and More Taxes (Wiley, 2011), 14, 16–17, 62, 80–81, 194–195.
35 We take the headline of a February 2011 Washington Post profile of the freshly elected “Tea Party” U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) to be an apt commentary on real essence of the Tea Party phenomenon: “A political insider refashions himself as tea party revolutionary.” As Washington Post correspondent Phillip Rucker explained, “Mike Lee is connected - by blood and by chance - to more senators than any other member of the exclusive club of 100. Think about it: Three of his cousins have been elected senators. (Okay, they were second cousins.) A middle-school classmate was one of Strom Thurmond's daughters. Robert C. Byrd, who served longer in the Senate than anyone ever has, lived three doors down from Lee's childhood home…And then there's his Mormon "home teacher," a godfather-like figure who taught young Mike principles of their faith, chaperoned him at the swimming pool and, once, as a prank, locked the boy in his garage. That mentor was Harry Reid, now the Senate majority leader. And major nemesis to Lee's newly reinvigorated GOP caucus. …You might call Lee, the just-sworn-in Republican senator from Utah, an insider's insider - scion of a Western political dynasty, son of Ronald Reagan's solicitor general, and law clerk at the Supreme Court….Except that Lee is fashioning himself as the ultimate revolutionary. On the campaign trail back in Utah, Lee's brazen and staunch politics made him an early vanguard of the grass-roots tea party movement.” The last five words of this quotation are very deceptive.
36 Matt Taibbi, “Tea and Crackers: How Corporate Interests and Republican Insiders Created the Tea Party Monster,” Rolling Stone, October 15, 2010,
37 Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 1–40 and passim.
38 Leo Leopold, “Obama Is No FDR, We’re No Mass Movement,” Huffington Post, February 10, 2010, at www.huffingtonpost.com/les-leopold/obama-is-no-fdr-were-no-m_b_457452.html.).
39 For an egregious, over-the-top example of the liberal and progressive hope in Obama to which Leo Leopold refers, see Robert Kuttner, Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2008). For Kuttner disappointed, chastened, and a little depressed, see his recent book A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama’s Promise, Wall Street’s Power, and the Struggle to Control Our Economic Future (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2010).
40 Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008); Lance Selfa, “Preparing for a Republican Comeback?” International Socialist Review (September–October 2010), 1–2.
41 For a reasonably comprehensive and highly critical take on Obama’s first yeas in the White House, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World Power (Paradigm, 2011). .
42 Bob Herbert, “They Still Don’t Get It,” New York Times, January 23, 2010.
43 Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton university Press, 2008).
44 Karlyn Bowman, “What the Voters Actually Said on Election Day,” The American (November 16, 2010), citing CBS exit polls at http://www.american.com/archive/2010/november/what-the-voters-actually-said-on-election-day. For a detailed analysis of the November 2010 mid-term elections, see Paul Street and DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011), Chapter 7: “Elections 2010: The Democrats’ Mid-term Disaster, the Tea Party, and the Challenge to Progressives.”
45 Charlie Post, “Why the Tea Party?” unpublished essay (July 17, 2011), in author’s possession, pages 3-4.
46 Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, 206
47 I owe this description to Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). According to MacFarquhar after conducting in depth interviews with candidate Obama and a survey of his political career: “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative.”
48 For my own marginally relevant efforts, see especially Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010).
49 Rasmus, “Reading Debt Tea Leaves.”
50 Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), Chapter 6: “Democracy Promotion at Home.”
51 As Robin Hahnel noted last November, “if progressives were unable to significantly advance a serious, genuinely popular and progressive agenda in 2009 and 2010 – a period of Democratic Party control of both White House and Congress – they most certainly will not be pushing the progressive policy ball forward in Washington in the wake of the super-Republican mid-term triumph: ‘Don’t be fooled by plaintive hype about “progress if not perfect,” or the passive-aggressive line “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” No part of the progressive agenda moved forward over the past two years despite the fact that Obama won a significant electoral victory in 2008 both in terms of the popular vote and especially the Electoral College by asking people to “Vote for Change.” The Presidential election of 2008 was no “cliff hanger” like George Bush’s stolen elections in 2000 and 2004. And unlike Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, which was a gift from Ross Perot, and his re-election in 1996, which was due to an unprecedented (albeit unsustainable) economic boom, Obama’s margin of victory was truly a mandate for progressive change and whatever proved necessary to address the biggest economic crisis in over four generations. Moreover, from 2008-2010 the Democrats had larger majorities than the Republican Party enjoyed at any point over the past 80 years in the House of Representatives and the US Senate, all whining about Republican filibuster threats in the Senate notwithstanding. Lesson for progressives: If a progressive agenda could not move forward in the last two years, if effective responses to the highest unemployment rates in 80 years were “off the table,” if the White House refused to get behind any climate bill, and the Senate would not even bring a single piece of climate legislation up for a vote, then only a fool would expect any better results in a Washington awash with triumphant Republicans and cowed Democrats.’ “Robin Hahnel, “Election Redux: Learning From The 2010 Midterm Elections, Part 1: Lessons For Others,” ZNet (November 4, 2010), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/election-redux-learning-from-the-2010-midterm-elections-part-1-lessons-for-others-by-robin-hahnel
52 Dewey is quoted in Chomsky, Failed States, 206.