Saturday, September 12, 2009

Obama, the Democrats - and a new progressive ascendency?

We're almost eight months into the Obama Presidency now, with a solid Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress. There hasn't been an opportunity like this to enact major progressive reforms since 1965. I'm still hopeful, even very hopeful. But I'm also trying to be realistic. My current framework for understanding the partisan political situation in the US at the moment runs something like this.

The severe breakdown in quality of our national press is the most serious weakness of American democracy.

The Democratic Party in practice is a center-right Party. (Just to be clear: I'm not in favor of a third-party movement.)

The Democratic base is composed of labor; people who want government to open access to jobs, education, healthcare; liberal activist groups like civil-rights and environmentalist groups.

The Democratic leaders are largely under the sway of the Party's corporate wing rather than its popular wing.

The Republican Party is a reactionary Party. Calling it right-reactionary, as in conservative-to-reactionary, would be generous.

The Republicans have been operating for decades with a plutocrat-pulpit alliance. In 2009, that means an alliance of corporate advocates of what James Galbraith call the Predator State with with the Christian Right. The perpetually predicted split of the two factions remains perpetually beyond the horizon.

The Republican Party is operating both with radical ideas (e.g., support of torture, Cheney's Unitary Executive theory for [Republican] Presidents) and fanatical attitudes. The two don't have to go together. But with today's Republican Party, they do.

Moderate-to-conservative pragmatic goals like humane immigration reform, enforcement of anti-torture laws and Internet neutrality, should be possible under a federal government dominated by center-right Democrats.

The outcome of the health-care debate will show whether reforms that are more explicitly liberal in the American context, reforms that are opposed by the corporate wing of the Democratic Party such as health-care reform and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), will be very difficult to achieve vs. extremely difficult. If health care reform is defeated - or, what amounts to the same thing, if a deeply flawed version is passed - prospects for a genuinely liberal direction of policy and politics will be badly damaged.

The practical debate in foreign policy right now is less between liberals and conservatives than between varieties of pragmatists, on one side, and the Cheneyist-nationalists and neocons on the other. A lot of real progress that liberals would be happy to see can be made with a genuinely pragmatic foreign policy with which the corporate wing of the Democratic Party can live, even if they're not especially enthusiastic about them.

The American military is just plain too big; as long as the US spends something like half the military budgets of the entire planet, even leaders of good will be excessively tempted to rely on war as a solution to foreign policy problems. And the military that is there for leaders of good will can also be used by Bushes and Cheneys. Under a center-right Democratic Party, ending the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and cutting out military boondoggles like Star Wars are very possible achievements. (Keeping in mind that possible doesn't mean easy.)

Even most Democratic liberals aren't ready to challenge the kind of deeper-seated problems of militarism and triumphalism in foreign policy that people like Andrew Bacevich and Tom Englehardt have been critically analyzing so well in recent years.

Nuclear arms-control and disarmament, and dealing with the very real problems of global climate change, are critical issues for the future of humanity. In theory, those could be consensus goals across the mainstream political spectrum. In practice, without a relatively long period of liberal political ascendancy, it's hard for me to foresee how the US can achieve what's necessary. A Republican Party that is seriously committed to solving those problems is not the Republican Party we have right now. And I can't see that a center-right Democratic Party that trembles in fear of being accused of liberalism is ever going to be able to do so either.

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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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