Liberals/progressives who identify in some way with the Democratic Party are hesitant to talk about the need for a third party for a number of reasons, all of which relate to the deeply-rooted two-party tradition in American politics, which itself is closely related to our winner-take-all electoral districts.
But if the year-end tax deal felt something like the bottom falling out for liberal activists, having a Democratic President embracing Social Security Phaseout will shock large segments of the Democratic Party's less-activist voting base in ways that are bound to have serious consequences of some kind or other. The "payroll tax holiday" in the tax bill was a concrete policy action leading toward Social Security Phaseout. But since our star pundits both support Phaseout and can't be bothered to do much actual analysis, people getting their news from TV mostly haven't heard much about that aspect of the tax deal.
Danny Schechter chronicles the militant reaction to austerity measures in Europe, where cutbacks in a number of countries like Greece, Spain and Ireland are more severe than anything we've yet seen here, in Battle Over Austerity Measures Has Moved from the Suites to the StreetsCommonDreams.org 12/19/2010. We're bound to see more of those. But street protests in the United States face a real hurdle to their effectiveness; or, more specifically, protests with economically progressive or antiwar goals face a real hurdle. The Tea Party has FOX News and a large network of conservative media infrastructure to provide massive publicity for Tea Party events, both to promote them ahead of time and to give lavish coverage of the events themselves.
What we broadly call the left in the United States has no infrastructure of such scope and such exclusively propaganda function. The FOX News coverage generates competing coverage in major mainstream media outlets, because the corporate media are terrified of being called "liberal", even though no living breathing liberal thinks that anything like a Liberal Press conspiracy exists in the US. The massive antiwar demonstrations in 2002-3 and the large immigrant-rights demonstration in Washington in March 2010 pulled only a fraction of the coverage that the Tea Party astroturf events do.
The European media still has a functioning free press, in other words, so major protests can actually get serious coverage. Our Establishment press in the US has become so conformist to government and corporate priorities that major protests for liberal-left causes can't even get a reasonable amount of unfriendly coverage!
That doesn't mean that protests are unimportant. On the contrary, protests are an important way of energizing activists and encouraging their continued involvement. In one way, the breakdown of corporate-press news coverage could conceivably have the beneficial side-effect of forcing protests to focus more on involving participants in a variety of political-pressure actions, with less emphasis on theatrical protest tactics staged for the media.
The independent press and blogosphere have a continuing role to play. The Internet, like radio and television, can be co-opted to some extent, even to a large extent, by corporations and government, just as with radio and television. But not entirely. For that matter, radio and television haven't been co-opted entirely.
But for the immediate future, for progressive priorities to get the advocacy they need - and even for programs like Social Security that until 2010 were bedrock Democratic Party programs - there will have to be a more organized progressive opposition within the Democratic Party, one specifically willing and able to mount primary challenges against Democrats who oppose Social Security, for instance. In electoral politics as we have it in the US today, if your side can't make politicians pay a price for siding with the opposition on key issues, they aren't going to take your side seriously.
This isn't an abstract speculation. The netroots and labor have supported some important primary challenges. Even though the primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas failed, that effort by labor and the netroots was a gain for progressive politics. The polls in Arkansas showed she had virtually no change of winning, and indeed she lost even though defeating a labor-backed primary challenger should, in the High Broderist scheme of glorious Centrism, have given here "centrists" cred to attract those independents our star pundits are telling us long for Democrats to be moderate and bipartisan. What the challenge did do was to build a sense that for Democrats to side with Republicans on a key issue like health care means that you may have to pay a price for that decision. Individuals can help this process along by contributing to primary challengers or progressive organizations like MoveOn.org rather than directly to the Democratic Party.
A lot also depends on what the Progressive Caucus in Congress does. Going back to the critically important debate over the public option in health care reform, the truth is that the Blue Dogs out-negotiated them. The Blue Dogs were willing to kill the legislation to take out the public option, and also to put in some anti-abortion restrictions. The Progressive Caucus was not willing to kill it over the public option. In the blogosphere, even Markos "Kos" Moulitsas eventually got on the bandwagon for the public-option-less version of the bill, threatening to support a primary challenge to Congressman Dennis Kucinich if he voted against it.
There were more members of the Progressive Caucus who had declared that the public option was a redline minimum of what they would accept than there were Blue Dogs. We'll never know for sure what would have happened if the Progressive Caucus had been as willing as the Blue Dogs to kill the bill to get their minimum. What happened in reality is that the Blue Dogs hung tough, and the White House brought heavy pressure on the Progressive Caucus to go along. Given that Obama considered health care reform a signature achievement, it's certainly feasible to speculate that if he were more afraid of defiance from the Progressive Caucus than from the Blue Dogs, he likely would have pressured Joe Lieberman and the Blue Dogs to fall in line for the public option. Even though he had made a deal with healthcare lobbyists to get the public option out of the legislation.
We need a Progressive Caucus in both Houses of Congress these next two years that will be willing to kill some bill important to the President if they don't get a critical concession, like preserving Social Security.
But that brings me back to the most representative expression of the current dilemma for Democratic voters and activists. We have a Democratic President who is poised to fight for the phaseout of Social Security. That, coming in the middle of an economic depression in which both parties decline to use the necessary and practical Keynesian stimulative remedies to create jobs, really puts American politics into unknown territory. There's no guarantee that the outcome will be a good one.
Our star pundits in struggling to conceive the Tea Party in a way that fits with comfortable Beltway Village conventional wisdom have been reaching back to historian Richard Hofstadter's classic essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", originally published in 1964. It would be far too wild and crazy for them to go to someone like Dave Neiwert or Sarah Posner who have been covering rightwing politics for years. As in, recent years including now. Those same pundits almost to a person share the clueless Village assumption that getting rid of Social Security ("entitlements", in the Republican code they've adopted) is the only responsible course of action. If they were to check out the chapter in the book version of The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965) called "“Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics," even they might notice that he held up Social Security as an example of something that responsible conservatives support. Even the version of the "Paranoid Style" essay published in Harper's in 1964 is a much-abridged version compared to that in the book.)