Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sad but sadly true

Digby comments on the strange opportunity that the corporate Democrats have given the Republicans this year (Bipartisan Revulsion Hullabaloo 01/11/09):

So, here's the hole the Democrats have dug for themselves. The Republicans are out there denouncing them for Wall Street bail outs and coddling bankers and there's nothing anyone who cares about their credibility can say except "it's a bipartisan scandal" and then agree with everything the Republicans are saying.
She's exaggerating a tad on the "everything", of course; she's referring specifically to something Paul Begala said in an interview. But she's right. The Democrats have actually set themselves up to have the Republican Party, whose exclusive purpose for existence is to comfort the very comfortable, present themselves as the champions of the regular folks against the corporations and the Democrats who serve them.

Jackson Lears, the editor of the literary journal Raritan, makes a political/social comment in his Editor's Note in the Summer 2009 number, in which he characterizes the current political moment well, though his comment would have preceded Obama's hardline insistence on taking the public option out of health care reform and before his deal with China at Copenhagen:

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 marked an extraordinary triumph of insurgent democracy. It was a repudiation of the Bush administration's attempt to install executive tyranny and a restoration of moral legitimacy to our public life. Small wonder that from the outset the Obama administration has carried a heavy burden of popular hope. It is too soon to predict policy outcomes, or to evaluate strategies with any precision. And it would be a big mistake to underestimate Obama s talent for building coalitions and getting things done. Still there is no denying that the initial tide of hope has begun to ebb.

In economics as well as foreign policy, the Washington consensus has reasserted its capacity to define the boundaries of "responsible opinion." Signs of centrist hegemony are everywhere: the domination of fiscal and monetary policy by the Wall Street titans who created the economic crisis in the first place; the celebration of failed counterinsurgency doctrines as a cornerstone of military strategy; the determination to "move forward" rather than hold the Bush administration responsible for its crimes. Dreams of transformation have run aground in a fog of politics as usual. [my emphasis]
The concept of "hegemony" in politics and ideology is one that is commonly associated with the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), but which is widely used today to talk about ideological influence, especially in media and culture. Conservatives in Germany, for example, grumble about the alleged "leftwing hegemony" in the press. (While a dubious assumption, the German version isn't nearly as untethered from reality as the American Republicans' notion of the Liberal Press Conspiracy.)

The reason I bring that up is that the concept of ideological hegemony is a useful one if used sparingly and not to promote vague conspiracist notions. And "neoliberal" free-market ideology really has enjoyed intellectual hegemony in our political and business/economic discussions. That's especially true in the Anglo-Saxon countries. But because neoliberal economics became part of the dominant Washington Consensus practiced by the Internation Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in the 1990s, it would up being imposed upon an often unenthusiastic underdeveloped world.

And the Democrats need to break the dominance of that discourse. The idea that deficits and debt for the United States are deadly dangers is becoming more and more a millstone around the Party's neck in trying to enact even modest social and economic reforms. It's a particularly potent ideological notion for Republicans and billionaire anti-Social-Security and anti-Medicare zealots like Peter Peterson. The Republicans in practice care nothing at all about federal deficits and debt. As Dick Cheney famously observed, Reagan taught them that "deficits don't matter". Their prescription at all times and in all situations is for the wealthiest Americans to pay less taxes. Concern about deficits or national debt doesn't hold Republican administrations back from giving all the tax subsidies to the wealthy and starting as many wars as they want.

Old Man Bush's administration of 1989-1993 was something of an exception, but his Party has thoroughly repudiated that approach in practice, as his son spectacularly proved. It's telling that Old Man Bush got more support from Democrats than from his own Party in taking deficit-reducing measures involving additional taxes. Because the Democrats actually do take the deficit and debt seriously and have spent so long preaching the virtue of balanced budgets that they can't seem to stop, even in the middle of an economic crisis where higher federal spending is immediately needed. So when there is a Democratic administration in the White House, the Republicans can symbolically don their sackcloth and ashes and howl about the horrible dangers of budget deficits to oppose Democratic programs. And the Democrats wind up trying to dance around those arguments because they are afraid to repudiate them. For Democratic politicians, Herbert Hoover budget-balancing ideology has long been used as a sign of their businesslike and respectable approach.

But for the Democrats to really establish a new period of reform - and it at this point is by no means clear that President Obama and his administration want any such thing - they are going to have to do more than just pass the occasional popular bill. Just to be clear: passing constructive and popular bills is absolutely necessary. But they are also going to have to start making a case for the benefits of positive government and take on the dishonest deficit scolds like Peter Peterson head on. And they need to address the question of income distribution without running like frightened children from the whole notion. The fact that a Democratic administration had to be forced by public outrage to put limits on egregious salaries and financial institutions that had only survived by getting public money is a sign of how badly the Party has immersed itself in destructive "free market" dogma.

There are lots of reasons for the Democratic base to be optimistic about the current political moment, despite the disappointments with the Obama administration. But it is sobering to think that taking office at a time of two unpopular wars and a financial system literally on the verge of collapse, that the Democratic Party has such reluctance to actually represent their own base and the voting public before financial and industrial lobbyists.

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