Whatâ€™s the Matter With the Democrats? Post-Massachusetts Reflections on Popular Resentment, the Liberal-Left Vacuum, and Right Comeback
The e-mails are coming in from frightened Europeans. They are shocked by the previously unknown right-wing Republican state senator Scott Brown’s stunning victory over the establishment Democrat Marcia Coakley in the open seat election for the critical U.S. Senate post formerly held by leading liberal Democrat Teddy Kennedy in “liberal” Massachusetts. The remarkable Brown “upset” costs the Democrats their filibuster proof “super majority: (60 to 40) in the U.S. Senate, endangering the legislative viability Obama’s “health reform” – if that’s what we really want to call it (see below) – as currently constructed.
The Europeans have questions. “Is the right already having a come back in the United States?”
“Could the Republicans really return to power?”
“What’s wrong with the American people – why are they so fickle?”
“What makes Americans so stupid and reactionary? The Republicans advanced the free market ideology that caused the economic meltdown. The Republicans championed the unpopular invasion of Iraq and cling to a religious zealotry that works against rational policy and the interests of ordinary Americans. Why would they be having a comeback? Is it racism?”
Similar things are being asked and said in elite liberal circles here in the U.S. The arrogant “tsk tsk”-ing about “stupid” and “reactionary” ordinary Americans is quite audible from privileged academic Democrats in my current home town, an upscale university-based liberal stronghold.
THIS IS FOR REAL, RACHEL
Yes, worried liberals and Europeans, the Republican comeback is real. Scott Brown’s triumph is only the latest sign of the right’s return. Last August, highly organized right wing Republicans successfully disrupted town hall meetings on health care across dozens of U.S. congressional districts. On September 12, 2009, “conservatives” put perhaps as many as 100,000 angry Republicans and rightists in the streets of Washington D.C. to protest and “take our country back” from Barack Obama and the Democrats’ supposed “radical leftist” agenda.
Last November 3rd, the Republicans took all of the top elected offices in Virginia’s off-year election. The GOP expelled Democratic governor Jon Corzine in New Jersey. It repealed a gay marriage law in Maine.
And through it all the ratings of hard-right “paranoid-style” radio and television personalities like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and other demagogues of the FOX News variety have been sky high. The vapid and vicious proto-fascistic former Alaska governor Sarah Palin retains a fierce and stubborn base of support among millions of Americans who believe that Obama is advancing a “secret” socialist agenda and that the corporate media is owned and run by (of all things) “the left.”
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League reports that the number of right-wing paramilitary militias operating in the U.S. rose from 50 to 200 between 2007 and 2010.
MSNBC talk show hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann might portray the American right as a marginal collection of goofy tea-party kooks whose main role is to provide laughs for all-knowing liberals, but there is something much more significant going on.
THE MATERIAL BASIS OF MASS RESENTMENT
How did this happen? How could the seemingly discredited and even laughable right get so rejuvenated so quickly in the first year of the “liberal” Obama presidency?
There is deep and widespread anger and resentment across the land, There’s nothing mysterious about the material basis of what the establishment media arrogantly dismisses as “populist rage.” The official U.S. unemployment measure is over 10 percent, terrible enough though the real joblessness rate (including involuntarily part-time workers and the many millions of workers who have given up on the quest for employment) is over 17 percent. One in four U.S. children now relies on Food Stamps. The foreclosure crisis continues, feeding mass homelessness.
There’s nowhere to make an honest, family-supporting living for millions of U.S. (ex-) workers, stuck in a former manufacturing superpower whose corporate overlords have moved the lion’s share of production offshore.(To give just one example among many: U.S. luggage producers account for less than 1 percent of the U.S. market, yet nearly every U.S. resident owns luggage).
The top 1 percent of the U.S. population owns more than 40 percent of the nation’s total net worth and closer to two thirds of its financial assets.
At least 92 million people – close to a third of the U.S. population – lives at less than 200 percent of the notoriously inadequate federal poverty level (currently $21,834 for a family of four).
Forty-five thousand Americans die each year in connection with their inability to obtain health insurance – a curious commentary on life and death in “the world’s greatest democracy,” the only “modern” industrial-service economy state not to guarantee health care to its broad populace.
And while economic destitution and its terrible consequences (rising crime, incarceration, suicide, family dissolution and more) stalk the “homeland” even as television pundits speak positively of a Wall Street “recovery,” the leading financial firms that caused the economic meltdown of 2008-2009 have benefited from massive federal bailouts to the degree that they have resumed giant, multi-billion dollar bonus packages. The federal government offers relatively little to ordinary working people but has recently passed the largest Pentagon budget (funded at more than $ 1 trillion per year) – a giant subsidy to the high tech corporate sector – in history and is presiding over an expensive five-front terror war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen. In December, the nation’s commander- in-chief announced (sounding amazingly Bush-like in West Point) that he will be deepening the country’s massive and apparently endless investment in the unpopular “Af-Pak” quagmire. His “homeland” economic team is quarterbacked by the arrogant and authoritarian arch-neoliberal Larry Summers, a Goldman Sachs veteran and former Harvard president who callously privileges global finance capital’s bottom line over and above job creation and manufacturing within the U.S. Noam Chomsky rightly sees this as a confirmation of the 18th century economist and philosopher Adam Smith’s warning that “the architects of policy protect their own interests, no matter how grievous the effect on others.” “And they are the architects of policy,” Chomsky ads. “Obama made sure to staff his economic team with advisors from [the financial] sector.”
THE NOT-SO REACTIONARY PEOPLE
All of this is grossly contrary to the policy and social preferences of the majority of U.S. citizens, identical with the U.S. government in quaint democratic theory. The American people are nowhere nearly as reactionary as many middle class liberals I know insist. For what its worth (not all that much in America’s corporate managed dollar democracy), popular U.S. attitudes on key policies and values have long stood well to the left of both of the two dominant U.S. political parties, the investor class, and the nation’s “mainstream” (corporate) media. Contrary to pundits’ routine description of the U.S. as a "center-right nation:”
* 71 percent of Americans think that taxes on corporations are too low (Gallup Poll, April 2007), 66 percent of Americans think taxes on upper-income people are too low (Gallup Poll, April 2007) and 62 percent believe corporations make too much profit (Pew Survey 2004).
* 77 percent of Americans think there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies (Pew Survey 2004), 84 percent think that big companies have too much power in Washington (Harris Poll 2007), and two-thirds think that “big business and big government work together against the people’s interests” (Rasmussen Reports, 2009).
*A majority of American voters think that the United States' "most urgent moral question" is either “greed and materialism" (33 percent) or "poverty and economic injustice" (31 percent). Just 16 percent identify abortion and 12 percent pick gay marriage as the nation's "most urgent moral question" (Zogby, 2004). Thus, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the population think that injustice and inequality are the nation's leading "moral issues” (Katherine Adams and Charles Derber, The New Feminized Majority [Paradigm, 2008], p.72).
* Just 29 percent of Americans support the expansion of government spending on "defense." By contrast, 79 percent support increased spending on health care, 69 percent support increased spending on education, and 69 percent support increased spending on Social Security (Chicago Council on Foreign Relations [hereafter "CCFR”], "Global Views,"2004).
* 69 percent of Americans think it is the responsibility of the federal government to provide health coverage to all U.S. citizens (Gallup Poll, 2006) and 67 percent “think it’s a good idea [for government] to guarantee health care for all U.S. citizens, as Canada and Britain do, with just 27 percent dissenting” (Business Week, 2005).
* 59 percent of Americans support a single-payer health insurance system (CBS/New York Times poll, January 2009) and 65 percent of Americans respond affirmatively to the following question: “Would you favor the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan – something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and over get – that would compete with private health insurance plans?” (CBS-New York Times, September 23, 2009)
From the polling data I’ve seen and from numerous heartland “voter contacts” and conversations I’ve had with “ordinary Americans” over the last few years. I suspect that a majority – or very close to it – of U.S. citizens would significantly agree with much of what Iraq occupation veteran Mike Prsyner recently said in a remarkable speech to Iraq Veterans Against the War:
“I threw families on to the street in Iraq only to come home and see families thrown on to the street in this county in this tragic, tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis. I mean to wake up and realize that our real enemies are not in some distant land. They’re not people whose names we don’t know and whose culture we don’t understand. The enemy is people we know very well and people we can identify. The enemy is a system that wages war when it’s profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off from our jobs when it’s profitable. It’s the insurance companies who deny us health care when it’s profitable. It’s the banks who take away our homes when it’s profitable. Our enemy is not 5000 miles away. They are right here at home. If we organize with our sisters and brothers we can stop this war. We can stop this government. And we can create a better world.” 
A significant number and percentage of American would support a third left-wing social-democratic and even socialist party of the working class majority. They would, that is, if such a party – currently prohibited by the nation’s big money, big media and “winner-take all” elections and party systems and political culture – were allowed to exist in the U.S.
Of course, the nation’s majority progressive views are (like electoral reform to permit viable left parties) “off the table” of serious policy consideration in the U.S. This reflects the nation’s much-bemoaned “democracy deficit,” a consequence of its “unelected dictatorship of money,” which exercises a permanent behind-the-scenes veto power over those who seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime”  – a dictatorship whose grip has recently been deepened by a Supreme Court decision that permits corporate managers to buy elections directly instead of only by indirect methods.
THE PATHETIC DEMOCRATS
Of course, it’s one thing to express isolated progressive opinions to a pollster over the phone in the privacy of one’s living room. It’s another thing to see those opinions as part of a broader progressive identity and to join with others to pursue them collectively in an organized and effective fashion.
But where are ordinary American supposed to turn to act on their progressive opinions and on their current "populist" resentment?
The Real Beneficiaries of Democratic Policies: Large Banks and Wall Street Investment Companies
Not the Democratic Party, an institution that has set new records in transferring federal funds to Wall Street and in funding the Pentagon while abandoning workers and the poor and escalating imperial violence in South Asia. As the campaign finance data and more shows, the Democratic Party is the leading conservative establishment party doing the bidding of the nation’s ruling class right now. Everyday citizens know this very well. As Lance Selfa notes in SocialistWorker:
“The idea that Obama was even pursuing a liberal agenda will come as news to millions of his supporters who have become increasingly demoralized with an administration that seems more interested in helping out Wall Street bankers than ‘Main Street’ Americans losing their jobs and houses.”
“A September 2009 Economic Policy Institute poll asked a national sample of registered voters to say who they thought had ‘been helped a lot or some’ from the policies the administration enacted. The result: 13 percent said the ‘average working person,’ 64 percent identified ‘large banks,’ and 54 percent said ‘Wall Street investment companies.’" 
Why Working Class and Urban Voters “Stayed Home” for Martha Coakley
Consistent with those findings, Boston Globe reporter Brian Mooney reports that Scott Brown won mainly in the suburbs, where voter turnout was quite high. In the more strongly Democratic urban areas, the turnout was much lower, reflecting Obama and the corporate Democrats’ success in disillusioning the party’s historical working class and minority constituents. “Many voters in traditionally Democratic cities, meanwhile, stayed home, dooming the candidacy of Democrat Martha Coakley," Mooney writes. 
Of course they did. As even the liberal Democratic New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently noted in a column titled “They [the Democrats – P.S.] 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, seem not just helpless to deal with the crisis, but completely out of touch with the hardships that have fallen on so many.”
“…While the nation was suffering through the worst economy since the Depression, the Democrats wasted a year squabbling like unruly toddlers over health insurance legislation. No one in his or her right mind could have believed that a workable, efficient, cost-effective system could come out of the monstrously ugly plan that finally emerged from the Senate after long months of shady alliances, disgraceful back-room deals, outlandish payoffs and abject capitulation to the insurance companies and giant pharmaceutical outfits.”
“The public interest? Forget about it.”
“…The question for Democrats is whether there is anything that will wake them up to their obligation to extend a powerful hand to ordinary Americans and help them take the government, including the Supreme Court, 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.” (NYT, January 23, 2010).
Damn, Bob Herbert.
“If 60 Senators Was So Wonderful…”
There should be no pity parties for the “leaders” of the Democratic Party in the wake of Scott Brown’s victory – that’s for sure. They have made their own centrist and corporatist death bed, now they get lie (and perhaps die) in it. As Margaret Kimberly of Black Agenda Report recently wrote: “Don't be fooled by this 60 vote super-majority crap. The Democrats did nothing with it. The loss of a seat by that party is no loss to the citizens of this country, whose interests are never represented, no matter who is in charge. If 60 was so wonderful, why is the health care bill so worthless?” 
Exactly right, The United States cannot have meaningful health reform in accord with the national majority’s longstanding support of major progressive change without removing the for-profit insurance companies from the equation and introducing the obvious social-democratic and cost-cutting solution: single-payer government health insurance on the Canadian and Australian model.
Obama certainly knows this himself. He said as much quite explicitly late in his career as a state legislator during a speech in downtown Chicago to the Illinois AFL-CIO:
“I happen to be a proponent of a single payer universal health care program. I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its Gross National Product on health care cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody. And that's what Jim is talking about when he says everybody in, nobody out. A single payer health care plan, a universal health care plan.” 
This remarkable statement was made just prior Obama's realization that he had a serious shot at national office - a realization that sharpened his willingness to subordinate himself to the “unelected dictatorship of money.”
Speaking of the struggle for single-payer in 2003, Obama said “we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, and we have to take back the House” .
Wow. More than six years later, the federal legislative and executive branches have been “taken back” by the Democratic Party. Sadly, however, the United States’ corporate-managed “dollar democracy” and its narrow “one-and-a-half party system” (Sheldon Wolin) have yet to be taken back from concentrated wealth and the giant military industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower had warned about upon leaving the White House. Beneath the fake-progressive imagery at the heart of the Great Re-Branding, the United States’ “representative democracy,” crippled by “too much [corporate and military] representation and too little [actual popular] democracy” (Arundhati Roy )abounds with Orwellian absurdity under Obama no less than in the Bush-Cheney years.
The endless “health reform” fiasco is an ugly epitome of this harsh reality. In accord with their record-setting contributions from the for-profit health and insurance corporations and their Wall Street backers, Obama and the Demcorats' health package – absurdly characterized as a radical “government takeover” by Scott Brown’s party and the right-wing talk-radio horde – has become ever weaker and more business-friendly with every step in the legislative process.
Single payer was thrown under the bus from the get go. The corporate order wouldn’t stand for it and Obama and the Democrats eagerly complied.
Next to be shredded and discarded was the notion of a robust public option – improved Medicare for All who desired regardless of whether or not they already possessed employment based private insurance. The “unelected dictatorship” would never permit it. Obama and the Democrats complied.
Then came the (very weak) “public option” for those without other insurance and then yet weaker versions, limited to certain states and perhaps to be enacted only through some future mysterious “trigger” – all too radical for the politicians’ big money bankrollers and so discarded. Then we had the short-lived notion of a Medicare buy-in buy-in for 55-64 year-olds – also unacceptable to the power elite.
The Democratic bill that is now endangered promises a windfall to the big insurance syndicates through mandated near-universal coverage (with fines for those who do not buy coverage). It will tax many unionized workers’ private plans, obstructs the importation of safe low cost drugs, and takes money out of existing Medicare and Medicaid. Campaign promises to fund "reform" with increased taxes on the opulent were discarded early on.
What’s left is a pathetic gift to big capital, a sick[o] corporatist joke well to the right of what most Americans want.
The dominant (corporate state) media's headlines tell us that the population is opposed to Obama and the Democrats’ “health reform.” The polling data shows that to be true, of course, but the “mainstream” reporters, pundits, and talking heads fail to add that we reject it as a complete sell-out to corporate interests.
An Anonymous Democratic Senate Staffer Speaks: “I Simply Can’t Answer the
Question: ‘What Do Democrats Stand For?”
Here’s a telling piece of recent evidence on just how pathetically conservative and corporate- captive the Democrats have remained in the period of their not so “super” Congressional majority. According to an anonymous Democratic US staffer who wrote to Talking Points Memo blogger Josh Marshall, many Democrats on Capitol Hill are pleased to no longer enjoy the filibuster-proof Senate majority because losing the Kennedy seat gives them an out for not getting anything progressive done. Here’s what the staffer told Marshall:
“The worst is that I can't help but feel like the main emotion people in the caucus are feeling is relief at this turn of events. Now they have a ready excuse for not getting anything done. While I always thought we had the better ideas but the weaker messaging, it feels like somewhere along the line Members internalized a belief that we actually have weaker ideas. They're afraid to actually implement them and face the judgment of the voters. That's the scariest dynamic and what makes me think thiswill all come crashing down around us in November.”
“I believe President Clinton provided some crucial insight when he said, "people would rather be with someone who is strong and wrong than weak and right." It's not that people are uninterested in who's right or wrong, it's that people will only follow leaders who seem to actually believe in what they are doing. Democrats have missed this essential fact.”
“...This is my life and I simply can't answer the fundamental question: ‘what do Democrats stand for?’ Voters don't know, and we can't make the case, so they're reacting exactly as you'd expect (just as they did in 1994, 2000, and 2004). We either find the voice to answer that question and exercise the strongest majority and voter mandate we've had since Watergate, or we suffer a bloodbath in November. History shows we're likely to choose the latter.”
Perhaps Obama is among those Beltway Democrats who are relieved to have the new excuse for cringing centrist inaction provided by Scott Brown’s triumph. He acted quickly to instruct Congressional Democrats not to try to “jam” anything through on health care before Brown is seated. (It is doubtful that the Republicans would hold back from ramming legislation through if the situation were reversed!) “Since Tuesday’s special election,” liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted this morning (I am writing on Friday, January 22, 2009), congressional Democrats “have been waiting in vain for leadership [on the health care bill] from the White House, where Mr. Obama has conspicuously failed to rise to the occasion” – meaning, for Krugman, that Obama has failed to press the House of Representatives to pass the current (frankly pathetic) Senate version of health reform.
Elitist Liberals Still Misusing Thomas Frank to Blame Abandoned Working Class Victims
Liberal Democrats I know still like to cite Thomas Frank’s widely read but commonly misunderstood book on why many working class Americans vote Republican instead of following their supposed natural “pocketbook” interest in supporting the Democrats - What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Released just before the Republican George W. Bush defeated the multimillionaire Democrat John Forbes Kerry IN 2004, Frank’s famous book has generally been taken to have argued that Democrats lost those “heartland” voters with excessive liberalism on “cultural issues” like abortion, gun rights, religion, gay marriage, and gender roles, letting the GOP to conjure working-class voters away from their real economic interests with such “diversionary” nonmaterial concerns. At the end of his book, however, Frank made it clear that that he blamed the Democratic Party’s shift to the business-friendly right and away from honest discussion of – and opposition to – economic and class inequality for much of whatever success the GOP achieved in winning over white working class voters:
“The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McCauliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. … Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as 'class warfare' and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness with business. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table.”
“...by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans [the Democrats] have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be overshadowed by material concerns. We are in an environment where Republicans talks constantly about class – in a coded way, to be sure – but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up.”
By Frank’s account, the Ivy League aristocrat Kerry’s problem wasn’t simply that workers were diverted from their real economic interests by liberal cultural elitism and smart Republicans who knew how to press cultural issues to get working-class folks to “vote against their own pocketbooks.” It was also that he followed in the footsteps of previous Democrats by collaborating with Republicans in placing class injustice and the workers’ material and (I would add moral-) economic issues beyond the parameters of acceptable debate, thereby .
The same can be said of the elitist, corporate-neoliberal Ivy League president Barack Obama. His fake-progressive adherence to the corporatist and related military playbook has opened the door for the right to “win over” untold masses of ordinary voters who are left to bounce back and forth between the sadly narrow choices offered by the American plutocracy, masquerading as popular governance.
Of course, as Selfa notes, the G.O.P. is currently winning over voters with “economic issues” not so much those social and cultural or moral issues that figured so prominently (and to an exaggerated degree) in Frank's (flawed) book. Ironically enough, it has gained votes by criticizing Obama’s Wall Street bailouts and has even rallied senior citizens to defend Medicare (a program the Republicans have historically opposed) against Obama and the Democrats’ proposed cuts. Economic issues are obviously a good way for the “out” Republicans to go with the Democrats “in power” amidst 17 percent (real) unemployment.
THE SORRY SURRENDER OFF THE “SO-CALLLED RADICAL LEFT”: LEAVING THE FIELD OPEN TO THE RIGHT
What about the nation’s liberal and progressive institutional infrastructure beneath and beyond the establishment Democratic Party? Where it has been to capture and channel what dominant U.S. media arrogantly dismisses as dysfunctional “populist rage?” It’s been completely missing in action, at once bedazzled and disciplined by His Holiness the Dalai Obama, whose enforcer Rahm Emmanuel has threatened egregious retaliation against those liberal Democrats and activists who dare to substantively challenge the corporate and militaristic direction of policy under the neo-Clintonian Bush-re-branding regime of Obama-Summers-Geithner-Gates-Patraeus-Jones, and McChrystral. As Selfa notes, “the liberal groups who could be kicking up a ruckus to push for genuine health reform or a real jobs program are instead playing the role of loyal soldiers to the White House’s agenda...The groups in question, led by the Democracy Alliance and the liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress...represent a liberal infrastructure that, in exchange for regular meetings with White House officials, has neutered itself. Meanwhile, existing right-wing networks have gone into full battle mode. That has left the field open to the conservatives, as liberal blogger Jane Hamsher said in reference to the Wall Street bailout passed on the eve of the 2008 election. Is it any wonder, then, that most of the opposition to Obama’s program is coming from the right?”
For the American “so-called radical left” (John Pilger’s excellent phrase ), unjust wars and occupation, mega-bankers’ bailouts and other regressive policies that were seen as intolerable under the perceived rule of a boorish moron from Texas (George W. Bush) have been all too acceptable when carried out by an eloquent and urbane black man from Chicago (Barack Obama). And of course, that’s part of what those who rule America hoped to see happen under Obama, who was vetted in advance and found to be anything but a radical reformer and left-progressive – by the rich and powerful. The rich and powerful wanted a significant brand change in the White House after the popular anger and alienation spread by Bush and Cheney at home and abroad and the fresh new nonwhite face and silver tongue of the dashing young neoliberal patriot Barack Obama was perfect for the job.
What about left political alternatives to both the Democrats and the liberal “activist” infrastructure in the U.S.? They are prohibited in advance by an interconnected legal, financial, and other barriers imposed to quite explicitly impose a “two party” – really a single party of big money and militarism – “duopoly” (monopoly) in the U.S. elections system. Deep electoral, campaign finance, and related media reforms (probably on the scale of a Constitutional Amendment – a “democracy amendment”) would be required to permit viable third and fourth parties of a Left to develop substantive challenges to corporate plutocracy. As it is now, a viable political left is not permitted in the U.S., this despite a vast reservoir or popular working-class majority opinion that supports objectively left-progressive positions on key issues.
It’s a dangerous situation. With much of what passes for a left in this country muted, the messianic-militarist, arch-authoritarian, and dodgy, hyper-plutocratic Republican right wing and its still-potent “noise machine” is left to soak up and express much of the legitimate rage that ordinary Americans feel over Washington’s continuing captivity to concentrated wealth, corporate-direction, and the military-industrial complex in the Age of Obama.
It’s starting to change a little bit – there’s been a progressive rebellion of sorts over health care and Afghanistan mainly since before Christmas – but not that much. Not enough.
Popular resentment abhors a legitimately populist left vacuum and the fake-populist right is ready, willing, and able to fill the gap.
The dynamic should be understood by progressive Western Europeans; they live in a continent where the centrist neoliberal corporatism and finance-capitalist captivity of “social democratic” and the destruction of older Marxist parties helps create a vacuum of popular anger that neo-fascist and other right-nationalist parties are adept at exploiting.
“HOPE FOR LASTING LIBERAL CHANGE WAS WASHED AWAY…”
Sensing electoral danger in the right’s so-called “populist rebellion” in the wake of Brown’s success in “liberal” Massachusetts, the Obama White House has rolled out an effort to sound and perhaps behave more progressively in relation to Wall Street. It is highly doubtful, however, that Team Obama will do anything to significantly rollback the wealth and power of the nation’s leading “too big [and powerful- to fail” financial firms. It seems likely that the administration vetted its new financial regulatory proposals in advance with those firms (among Obama's top backers in 2007-08, essential for re-election in 2012), reassuring them that political necessity (all that crazy “populist rage”) require Obama to make progressive-sounding noises beyond his weak populist bite. And the administration's new “populist pitch” was curiously coupled with “a closed-door deal that would lead to cuts in bedrock liberal programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. While Massachusetts voters were casting their ballots to install Republican Scott Brown in Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat,” James Ridgeway observes at Mother Jones, “President Obama was hammering out an agreement with Democratic leaders to support a commission on the deficit with the power to propose reductions to entitlement programs. This proposal represents a capitulation to conservatives in both parties, and leaves liberals surrendering not only on health care, but on the core achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society.” Reviewing Obama’s plans to create an 18-member panel that would be empowered to recommend historic reductions in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, Ridgeway notes that “Hope for lasting liberal change was washed away on Tuesday—not just with the loss of the Democrats' super-majority in the Senate...” 
THE NARROW SPECTRUM
Of course one can exaggerate how new this terrible story is. Sixty-two years ago, the historian Richard Hofstader, in his widely read book The American Political Tradition, scrutinized the United States’ most significant national leaders, from Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jackson to Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Herbert Hoover and the two Roosevelts – liberals and Democrats as well as conservatives and Republicans. Hofstader found that “the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise…They have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man…That culture has been intensely nationalistic.” We might add that American political culture has also long observed narrow parameters of permissible debate and action surrounding skin color and sex-type – barriers that have generally prevented leading politicians and officeholders from seriously attacking underlying structures and patterns of racial and gender disparity.
Through the century in which Hofstader wrote and into the present one, Howard Zinn has noted, “we have seen exactly the same limited vision Hofstader talked about – a capitalist encouragement of enormous fortunes alongside desperate poverty, a nationalistic acceptance of war and preparation for war. Government power swung from Republicans to Democrats and back again, but neither party showed itself capable of going beyond that vision.”
What’s new and worsening by the day are the depth and degree of the structural and ecological crises facing human beings and other species within and beyond the Superpower. Those crises cannot be meaningfully addressed in a desirable and democratic fashion within the framework of the currently dominant sociopolitical framework. It is thus nothing less than a life-or-death existential imperative for popular forces to transcend the normal limited parameters of U.S. politics. The people increasingly have no choice but to go beyond the pathetically narrow spectrum of “choices” offered by the dominant domestic institutions, hierarchies, and doctrines.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
What’s a left progressive to do? Where to start? With rank-and-file grassroots organization and action on key issues beneath and beyond the corporate-crafted candidate-centered narrow-spectrum biennial and quadrennial electoral extravaganzas the masters stages for us, telling us that these rigged contests are the sum total of “politics.” As Lance Selfa writes, “Waiting for Obama to do the right thing is a fool’s errand. Politics has to be conceived as something that goes far beyond electoral calculations. What’s needed more than anything is activism and mobilization that blows open the narrow political space where anything progressive is associated with Obama and opposition falls to right-wingers.” 
That is very nicely stated. In fact, here’s more from Selfa, who merits lengthy quotation as he notes some of the small but important ways in which people are fighting from bottom up beneath and beyond the big electoral fake-democracy:
“The National Equality March in October marked the emergence of a new generation of activists who are unwilling to hear lip service from Democratic politicians and unwilling to wait for their rights. The thousands of students up and down California who are protesting the state’s draconian cuts are laying the basis of a network to defend public education. Grad student employees at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana struck and won a victory from an administration determined to impose concessions on them. The Ford workers who voted down a concessionary contract the company and union wanted to foist on them showed that workers don’t just have to take anything despite the recession.”
“Many of these struggles are fragile, fledgling, and still by-and-large defensive. But they provide the foundations for further organization to pressure the government to respond to the progressive majority instead of to a loud, right- wing minority.”
“Along with the revival of real resistance comes the urgent need for new politics. Without a political alternative that is independent, and to the left of, the Democratic Party—that is, from both parties of big business—anger at Democrats in office will always mean turning them out for Republicans, and vice versa. Such an alternative to the two-party shuffle won’t be built soon, but it must be built.” 
I concur on the whole, though I would add that we’re running out of ecological and repressive-technological time to build serious grassroots movements and independent left political alternatives in what is still the world’s most powerful and dangerous country. The alternative has to be built soon. I presume that I don’t need to elaborate on the ecological issue. By “repressive-technological time,” I mean that the power elite enjoys ever-deepening technological and related institutional and informational capacities to liquidate the rights of free speech, privacy, public assembly, and the like. The specter of corporate-imperial totalitarianism within and beyond the U.S. “homeland” (a lovely phrase that Obama uses now) is not to be taken lightly in my opinion.
A final reflection and memory…Nearly a month after Obama was elected and more than a month before he was inaugurated, a militant, significantly immigrant-based United Electrical Workers (UE) union local in Chicago occupied the door and window factory of an absconding employer to demand the compensation that was due them. The union and its supporters mounted a highly effective public relations campaign highlighting the harsh disconnect between the massive federal bailouts that were being made to parasitic “too big to fail” banks and the economic misery being imposed on ordinary working Americans who did enjoy government protection. “They Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out” was the slogan. This quintessentially working class and unapologetically populist struggle quickly became a highly popular cause celebre not just in Chicago but across the country and internationally. It even held the corporate media’s news cycle for a couple days. I know because the strike knocked me off Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” television show in Manhattan and I had to fly back to the Midwest from New York City and was stuck for hours in front of airport televisions covering the event. Support for workers who had technically broken the law by staging an occupation of their workplace was widespread. (The President-Elect felt compelled to endorse their action – probably his shining progressive moment; it’s been all downhill ever since). The Republic Door and Window workers really struck a chord of populist dissent that resonated across the country. They didn’t wait to get the okay from Obama or the Democratic Party or any other politicians or elected officials or with electoral considerations in mind. They had developed and utilized the rank and file institutional capacity to undertake a morally righteous direct action at the immediate shop-floor and community level and thereby forced events from the bottom, compelling media and politicians to follow in their wake. We need hundreds and then thousands of little and big and then merging epic fights with the wealthy Few like the one fought in Chicago two Decembers ago. That’s where the real and relevant Hope for Change can be found, not in the masters’ elections and candidates and all the rest of that citizen-marginalizing rubbish.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.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 School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). Street’s next book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), will be released next summer.
1. Thomas Frank, “From John Birchers to Birthers: The Right’s Paranoid Style Has Gone Mainstream,” Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2009, read at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704500604574485453143755952.html
2. Lance Selfa, “Can the Right Stage a Comeback?” International Socialist Review, Issue 69 (January-February 2010).
3. Associated Press, “Economy Sheds 85,000 Jobs in December” (January 8, 2010), read at
4. Richard McCormack, “The Plight of U.S. Manufacturing,” The American Prospect (January/February 2010), p. A4. “In October of 2009,” McCormack reports, “more people were officially unemployed (15.7 million) than were working in manufacturing” in the U.S (p. A2).
5. David Cecere, "New Study Finds 45,000 Deaths Linked Annually to Lack of Health Insurance," HarvardScience, September 17, 2009, read at www.harvardscience.harvard.edu/medicine-health/articles/new-study-finds-45000-deaths-annually-linked-lack-health-coverage; Glen Greenwald, "‘America's Priorities,' By the Beltway Elite," Salon, October 24, 2008 www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/?page=2.
6. Jeff Faux, “Industrial Policy: The Road Not Taken,” The American Prospect (January/February 2010), A12.
7. Noam Chomsky, “Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours,” Boston Review (September/ /October 2009), read at http://bostonreview.net/BR34.5/chomsky.php
8. Mike Prysner, Speech to Iraq Veterans Against the War (December 20, 2009), view and hear at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akm3nYN8aG8
9. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009.
10. “Lance Selfa, How Did This Guy Win?” Socialist Worker, January 20, 2010, read at http://socialistworker.org/print/2010/01/20/how-did-this-guy-win
11 Brian Mooney, “Suburbs Carried Brown to Victory: Low Turnout Recorded in Most Cities,” The Boston Globe, January 21, 2009, read at http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/01/21/suburbs_carried_brown_to_victory/?rss_id=Boston.com+--+Local+news.Thank you to Noam Chomsky for alerting me to this story.
12. Private communication via Facebook, January 19, 2010.
13. "Obama on Single Payer Health Insurance," June 30, 2003, YouTube video clip at http://www.1payer.net/All-Videos/obama-on-single-payer.html.See also YouTube link at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpAyan1fXCE
14. Herman and Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave.’” ’ .
15. “Obama on Single Payer Health Insurance.”
16. “Eisenhower’s Farewell Address” (January 17, 1961), read at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Military-Industrial_Complex_Speech
17. Arundhati Roy, “Democracy’s Fading Light,” Outlook India Magazine (July 13, 2009) at http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?250418
18. Josh Marshall, “Relieved, Talking Points Memo, Editors Blog (January 20, 2009), read at http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2010/01/relieved.php
19. Karen Travers, “Exclusive: President Obama Says Voter Anger, Frustration Key to Republican Victory in Massachusetts,” ABC News (January 20, 2010), read at http://abcnews.go.com/WN/Politics/president-obama-scott-brown-massachusetts-victory/story?id=9611222&page=1
20. Paul Krugman, “Do the Right Thing,” The New York Times, January 22, 2009, A21.
21. Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan, 2004)
22. Larry Bartels, “Inequalities,” New York Times Magazine (April 27, 2008):22. As Bartels noted, Frank badly exaggerated white working-class voters’ susceptibility to cultural diversion: “In recent presidential elections,” he notes, “affluent voters, who tend to be liberal on cultural matters, are about twice as likely as middle-class and poor voters to make their decisions on the basis of their cultural concerns.” In other words, working class white voters don’t especially privilege “cultural issues” (God, guns, gays, gender, and abortion) over pocketbook concerns and actually do that less than wealthier voters.
23. Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, 242-43, 245.
24. For early reflections, see Paul Street, “Frank Discussion: Moral-Economic Abandonment, Race, Security, and Psychological Wages,” ZNet Magazine (November 6, 2004).
25. For more on how (contrary to Frank), working-class whites continued to vote primarily Democratic and actually were less prone than affluent voters to privilege “cultural” and “moral” issues over and above “pocketbook” (economic) issues, see Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
26. See the chilling account in Christopher Hayes, “Tuesdays With Rahm,” The Nation, October 26, 2009), 6-8. Hayes candidly reported that “the Obama White House” was “no different” from previous Democratic administrations in not wanting the those on and to the progressive left of the Democratic Party to pressure against the White House from outside and at the grassroots level. The oft-repeated claim of many U.S liberals and leftists that the new president really wanted the American people and the left to push him in a progressive direction – consistent with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s supposed onetime statement to union activists: “Now go out and make me do it”– was a convenient myth, Hayes felt. “From day one,” Hayes noted, “the [Obama] administration has pursued a strategy of keeping its progressive allies on the White House playbook.” It held a weekly Tuesday night meeting called The Common Purpose Project (CPJ) where representatives from “dozens of well-established progressive groups” – MoveOn, Human Rights Campaign, Change to Win, AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, etc. – met with White House representatives to get the top-down line on policy and political strategy. The CPJ was run by the Beltway public relations firm Blue Engine Message & Media, which worked to “enforce message discipline among liberal organizations and coordinate closely with Progressive Media, another part of the pro-Obama messaging and strategy operation.” According to participants who spoke anonymously to Hayes, the communication at the Tuesday meetings “tend[ed] to go in one direction” – from the top down. “They [the White House operatives, P.S.] wanted to make sure the advocates are informed,” one “progressive” informant told Hayes, “and there’s a lot of message control. But there’s not a ton of dialogue back and forth.” The chance of meaningful dialogue including commentary “from the bottom up” (if that’s how we want to characterize comments the salaries officials from such elite institutions as the ones who attended the Tuesday gatherings) was not enhanced by the fact “many of the groups…seem happy enough [merely] to be in the room and wary of openly confronting the administrations in such open forum. By numerous accounts, the dialogue between “progressives” and the administration was profoundly unequal, colored by the understanding that access to the meetings and to elite donations would be denied to participants who did not stay “on message” with the White House’s definition of acceptable debate and activism: “If access is the carrot the White House dangles in front of the progressive groups,” Hayes learned, “being frozen out of meetings or, worse, having funding squeezed, is the stick. ‘There’s no question that the big [Democratic Party] donors are funding the groups that are helping to pass the president’s programs,’ said one attendee. ‘And they’re not particularly interested in funding groups that are challenging the president’s program.”
The best way to get on the “big donors” and the White House’s bad side was to criticize elected Democrats. In August of 2009, for example, the macho White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel chastised some Tuesday meeting attendees for having dared to target conservative (“Blue Dog” Democrats who were vacillating on health care reform. Any “progressive” who “goes after Democrats,” Emmanuel was reported to have said, was “fucking stupid.” “When [progressive] groups are hitting [Democratic Congress] members,” one Tuesday meeting attendee told Hayes, “they [the members] go and cry to the White House. Then the White House comes to the meeting and says Don’t go after our allies.”
It was no wonder that the principled left-liberal activist Jean Hamsher scathingly described the Tuesday meetings as “the veal pen.” By Hayes’ account, the White House’s “shielding of Blue Dogs from progressive pressure groups” had the “perverse – and maddening – effect of imperiling the very policies (public option, a good cap-and-trade bill) it claims to want passed.” In late October 2009, even MoveOn – an institutional monument to the dog-“call of Obama” – was chastised by its White House masters for raising money for ads that criticized conservative Democrats. It still continued to regularly attend the Tuesday “message” and co-optation sessions.
27. Selfa, “Can the Right Stage a Comeback?”
28. John Pilger, “Power, Illusion, and America’s Last Taboo” (July 4, 2009), read at http://www.johnpilger.com/page.asp?partid=545
29. Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006); David Mendell, Obama: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 248-49; Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), xix-xxxiii,
30. See Sam Stein, “Obama Turns to Populist Pitch to Reclaim Anti-Establishment Mantle,” The Huffington Post (January 21, 2009), read at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/21/obama-turns-to-populist-p_n_431272.html; Jeff Madrick, “Obama Bank Proposal a Beginning,” The Huffington Post (January 21, 2009) at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-madrick/obama-bank-proposal-a-beg_b_432014.html
31. James Ridgeway, “Obama Puts Social Security on the Chopping Block,” Mother Jones (January 20, 2010), read at http://motherjones.com/print/39821
32. Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage, 1989 ), pp.xxxiii-xl
33. Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), p. 328
34. Selfa, “Can the Right Stage a Comeback?’
35. Selfa, “Can the Right Stage a Comeback?”