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Jan 27 2011

Another path for the future

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

If an economic calamity is to be averted in the US, it will require a popular revolt against the power of the oligarchy because the political leadership is not going to do take action against it.

The Democratic Party is unlikely to be the leader of a mass movement for change because its base is far too quick to capitulate to its party leadership. The party’s base seems to be always bewildered as to why their party does not follow through on its promises but as Glenn Greenwald points out, it is absurd for progressives to be puzzled by Obama’s willingness, even eagerness, to capitulate to his seeming political opponents, because it they who are enabling this very behavior. It is worth quoting him at length.

Why, angry progressives seem to be asking, would Obama ignore the views of his so-called “progressive base” while seeking to please those who are his political adversaries?

But it’s perfectly rational for Obama to do exactly that. There’s a fundamental distinction between progressives and groups that wield actual power in Washington: namely, the latter are willing (by definition) to use their resources and energies to punish politicians who do not accommodate their views, while the former unconditionally support the Democratic Party and their leaders no matter what they do. The groups which Obama cares about pleasing — Wall Street, corporate interests, conservative Democrats, the establishment media, independent voters — all have one thing in common: they will support only those politicians who advance their agenda, but will vigorously oppose those who do not. Similarly, the GOP began caring about the Tea Party only once that movement proved it will bring down GOP incumbents even if it means losing a few elections to Democrats.

That is exactly what progressives will never do. They do the opposite; they proudly announce: we’ll probably be angry a lot, and we’ll be over here doing a lot complaining, but don’t worry: no matter what, when you need us to stay in power (or to acquire it), we’re going to be there to give you our full and cheering support. That is the message conveyed over and over again by progressives, no more so than when much of the House Progressive Caucus vowed that they would never, ever support a health care bill that had no robust public option, only to turn around at the end and abandon that vow by dutifully voting for Obama’s public-option-free health care bill. That’s just a microcosm of what happens in the more general sense: progressives constantly object when their values and priorities are trampled upon, only to make clear that they will not only vote for, but work hard on behalf of and give their money to, the Democratic Party when election time comes around.

I’m not arguing here with that decision. Progressives who do this will tell you that this unconditional Party support is necessary and justifiable because no matter how bad Democrats are, the GOP is worse. That’s a different debate. The point here is that — whether justified or not — telling politicians that you will do everything possible to work for their re-election no matter how much they scorn you, ignore your political priorities, and trample on your political values is a guaranteed ticket to irrelevance and impotence. Any self-interested, rational politician — meaning one motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle — will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional. And they’re well-advised to do exactly that.

It is probably the case that a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Democratic base contributed to the Democrats’ defeat in the 2010 midterm election. But what Obama cares about is getting re-elected in 2012, and he knows full well that come March or April of that year — if not earlier — most of the progressives who are now continuously complaining about him will be at the front of the line waving their Obama banners, pulling out their checkbooks and whipping into line anyone who is not similarly supportive. By contrast, corporate institutions and Wall Street tycoons will pour their money into Obama’s defeat if he does not show them the proper level of deference and accommodate their policy demands, but will support him (as they did in 2008) if he pleases them. Resource disparities between those factions are significant, but it’s also due in part to their own choices that Wall Street is empowered, and progressives are irrelevant.

This is why the oligarchy is most successful in its attempts at squeezing the poor and the working and middle classes when Democrats are in power.

It is for this reason that I see the Republican Party’s base in the tea party, for all its manifest faults, as more likely to create the conditions for change than the Democratic Party’s base. The latter is still stuck in a passive mode that puts their faith in a leader. Some of them still see Obama as that savior while others are getting disillusioned and are seeking a new hero. Their desperate need for a noble standard bearer who will fight their battles for them is something that saps their energies. In the words of Galileo (put into his mouth by playwright Bertolt Brecht in his Life of Galileo), “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

At least the Republican base is wary and suspicious of their leadership. At least they realize that political leaders should fear them and that it is up to them to be vocal and active in putting pressure on them. Their growing suspicion that they are being manipulated by their political leadership at least provides some hope for a re-awakening and organizing.

What progressives need to do is develop a common agenda with those who are also disaffected with the power of the oligarchy. This will require a different attitude towards the Tea Party, paleo-conservatives, and libertarians. Rather than wholesale rejection of those groups, we should seek to form alliances on those issues that we can agree upon, and there are surprisingly many.

Next: A possible common agenda

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Somite

    A problem with this view is that I don’t think the tea party movement is real. It is an astroturfed group that is mobilized when an agenda needs to be pushed by certain economic interests. Note how they were vociferous and blamed Obama about the deficit but how quiet they were when the tax breaks where recently renewed.

    Also, sharing an agenda with the right wing might lead us to compromise in social and science issues where I find the right wing position untenable. Including, gay marriage, stem cells, science education, etc.

  2. 2
    Steve LaBonne

    I’m afraid I’m with Somite. Where the teabaggers are concerned there’s just no there there. And insofar as it’s a genuine nexus of sentiment- I won’t say movement because it’s neither organized nor spontaneous enough to be one- at all, it’s motivated primarily by raw racism (I deserve my government benefits but those people shouldn’t have them) and religious obscurantism.

    If this is the only way forward, there truly is no hope.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    Somite and Steve,

    I know that what I am suggesting is a hard sell, especially in the US which does not have a tradition of coalition or united front politics. I will elaborate on what I mean in tomorrow’s post.

  4. 4
    G

    Hmm. What about Libertarians? They are good on the social and science issues, but isn’t their attitude, if some people get all the money, well good for them? I’ve never gotten a good answer on this, but it seems that if we don’t like a corporation’s actions, we are supposed to vote with our dollars. Nevermind that many of these companies don’t even do business directly with the consumer, or overreach so far it would be impossible to boycott them. (Like ADM, although the Libertarian would say in a Libertarian world, there would be more competition.)

  5. 5
    Somite

    Thanks for the response Dr. Singham. I look forward to it.

  6. 6
    Richard Frost

    One example of the “unlikely bed fellows” scenario Mano seems to be encouraging here was provided by Alan Grayson and Ron Paul. Both campaigned vigorously for a thorough audit of the Federal Reserve to expose the magnitude of its off-balance-sheet activities. Unfortunately, that kind of outreach made no impression on the morons in Grayson’s district, who replaced him with an ultra-conservative religious bigot.

    I did some indirect campaigning for Grayson in the run-up to the election. Although he was one of the most interesting and outspoken congressmen in the country, the poor sod never had a chance in this district. My next door neighbor’s lawn included a sign – appropriately adjacent to the advert for their baptist church – that read “My congressman is a kook.” They probably don’t even know what off-balance-sheet activities are.

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