Tuesday, February 22, 2011I get the sense that liberals are starting to realize that there are serious institutional obstacles to any sort of progressive revival. The amazingly rapid recovery of the conservative movement after its crushing defeats in 2006-2008 have been deeply discouraging - we all thought that the worm had finally turned (so to speak) but now things look if anything darker than they did in 2005. Even with a Democratic President and a Democratic Senate, Paul Krugman has stated that the the U.S. is for all intents a purposes an oligarchy. All public policies are for the benefit of the wealthiest among us, or at least that no policy can be enacted without their consent, what Glenn Greenwald has described as corporatism.
Kevin Drum argues persuasively that the decline of unions has not only had a direct negative effect on the American economy by removing a counterweight to business, but that this decline has made the Democratic Party a less effective instrument for middle and working class economic concerns. Elected officials have to get re-elected, and and without unions leading Democrats have had to turn more and more to big business.
Eric Alterman is making a related point in his book Kabuki Democracy. I haven't read it yet, but if the article it's based on and the reviews of the work are any indication, the basic point is a sound one: American politics is structurally biased against liberal reform.
In one sense the Obama administration has been deeply disappointing. I've argued for some time that what concerned me about his presidency wasn't details of the legislation he had or hadn't passed, but his sense of priorities. My belief is that there are structural problems afflicting American politics that require structural solutions. Obama's presidency, whether in respect to the stimulus bill or health care or what have you, has been essentially policy-oriented, accepting the structure as it is. This inattention to the more deep-seated set of problems means that all his victories are provisional, and that the underlying trajectory of the United States remains unchanged. And now the opportunity has been lost.
It's all very discouraging, to be sure, but I'm pleased that Obama's failure to revive liberalism has sparked some soul-searching among liberals. Thinkers like Drum, Hacker, Krugman, and Drum have come around to the idea that we're going to have to do more than simply elected a Democratic President and Congress to solve our problems. What we have to do is set out a new agenda for the Democratic Party as a whole - one that addresses the fundamental problem of economic and political inequality.