The System Is Broken

We may be selling the original Manichaeism short — I wouldn’t know — but the word has come to refer to a way of looking at the world through a two-color prism that sorts everything and everyone into two piles — good/bad, right/wrong, light/dark, us/them. You might remember that Glenn Greenwald wrote an excellent book about Manichaeism in the Bush Administration. In short, looking at the world this way is a distortion of reality that lures people into doing terrible things in the name of Good.

Although Manichaeistic thinking is more pronounced on the Right, there’s a version of it common on the Left also. This is the view that sorts all Democratic politicians into one of two categories — they are either pure and noble defenders of the righteous liberal cause or blackhearted, corrupt sellouts to the moneyed Powers That Be. And while the default mood of righties is seething resentment, the default mood of lefties may be either annoying self-righteousness or deadening cynicism, or the two combined.

The recent much-discussed essay “Liberals Are Useless” by Chris Hedges is a good example. I have enjoyed much of Chris Hedges’s work over the years, but this essay could be an object lessons in How Progressives Marginalize Themselves. Although Hedges makes some valid points, too much of the essay amounts to his self-righteously lambasting “liberals” for not being liberal or cynical enough, and then proudly announcing that he remains pure because he voted for Ralph Nader.

Excuse me for being cynical, but I think Ralph Nader is useless, and cynics who vote for him are doubly so. It’s easy to stand outside the system and rail about how awful it is, which is all Nader does any more. Hell, I do it all the time. Ain’t nothin’ to it. But that’s about all progressivism did from the 1970s until very recently, and look how effective that was. As long as that’s all we do, nothing is going to change.

“Anyone who says he or she cares about the working class in this country should have walked out on the Democratic Party in 1994 with the passage of NAFTA,” Hedges says. In fact, with few exceptions progressive activists pretty much walked out on party politics altogether in the mid-1970s, and nobody noticed. It’s been only very recently that we’ve been putting our energies back into party politics, as opposed to standing around on street corners and handing out fliers for the cause du jour.

Whether we like it or not, the fact is that nothing gets done except through the system, and the system is two parties, and that’s how it’s going to be until we revise how we run elections. As I see it, we either play the game as it is or take our ball and go home. The former is going to be frustrating and messy, and we may fail. But if we do the latter, failure is certain.

I think the biggest problem we face right now is not that our political leaders aren’t as good as they used to be, but that the system is broken. This is bigger than just whether President Obama or Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid are trying hard enough. None of those people are beyond criticism, but simply carping at them as “sellouts” isn’t helping any of us.

Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article “Obama’s Big Sellout” is a variation on the “It’s Obama’s Fault” meme that is currently popular on the Left. Brad DeLong — not exactly a rube — finds the piece riddled with errors, beginning with the positions on issues that Barack Obama took during the 2008 campaign. See also Tim Fernholz.

In a post called “Blame Obama First,” Matt Yeglesias explains that it’s the whole bleeping government, not just President Obama, that is not performing as hoped.

The implicit theory of political change here, that pivotal members of congress undermine reform proposals because of “the White House’s refusal to push for real reform” is just wrong. That’s not how things work. The fact of the matter is that Matt Taibbi is more liberal than I am, and I am more liberal than Larry Summers is, but Larry Summers is more liberal than Ben Nelson is. Replacing Summers with me, or with Taibbi, doesn’t change the fact that the only bills that pass the Senate are the bills that Ben Nelson votes for.

The problem here, to be clear, isn’t that lefties are being too mean to poor Barack Obama. The problem is that to accomplish the things I want to see accomplished, people who want change need to correctly identify the obstacles to change. If members of congress are replaced by less-liberal members in the midterms, then the prospects for changing the status quo will be diminished. By contrast, if members are replaced by more-liberal members (either via primaries or general elections) the prospects for changing the status will be improved. Back before the 2008 election, it would frequently happen that good bills passed congress and got vetoed by the president. Since Obama got elected, that doesn’t happen anymore. Now instead Obama proposes things that get watered down or killed in congress. That means focus needs to shift.

Michael Tomasky, writing for The Guardian

Watching American politics through British eyes, you must be utterly mystified as to why Barack Obama hasn’t gotten this healthcare bill passed yet. Many Americans are too. The instinctive reflex is to blame Obama. He must be doing something wrong. Maybe he is doing a thing or two wrong. But the main thing is that America’s political system is broken.

How did this happen? Two main factors made it so. The first is the super-majority requirement to end debate in the Senate. The second is the near-unanimous obstinacy of the Republican opposition. They have made important legislative work all but impossible.

The super-majority requirement – 60 votes, or three-fifths of the Senate, to end debate and move to a vote on final passage – has been around since the 19th century. But it’s only in the last 10 to 15 years that it has been invoked routinely. Back in Lyndon Johnson’s day – a meaningful comparison since American liberals are always wondering why Obama can’t be “tough” like Johnson – the requirement was reserved for only the most hot-button issues (usually having to do with race). Everything else needed only 51 votes to pass, a regular majority.

Steve Benen:

Over the last several months, the right has come to believe that the president is a fascist/communist, intent on destroying the country, while at the same time, many on the left have come to believe the president is a conservative sell-out. The enraged right can’t wait to vote and push the progressive agenda out of reach. The dejected left is feeling inclined to stay home, which as it turns out, also pushes the progressive agenda out of reach. …

… Remember: nothing becomes law in this Congress unless Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman approve. Literally, nothing. That’s not an encouraging legislative dynamic, and it’s not within the power of the White House to change it.

It is within the power of voters to change it.

Obama has asked Congress to deliver on a pretty large-scale agenda. For all the talk about the president’s liberalism or lack thereof, the wish-list he’s presented to lawmakers is fairly progressive, and it’s not as if Obama is going to start vetoing bills for being too liberal.

But Congress isn’t delivering. The two obvious explanations happen to be the right ones: 1) for the first time in American history, every Senate bill needs 60 votes, which makes ambitious/progressive policymaking all but impossible; and 2) there are a whole lot of center-right Democratic lawmakers, which, again, makes ambitious/progressive policymaking that much more difficult.

I think Jane Hamsher is just flat-out wrong when she writes that a health care reform bill with no public option and no Medicare buy-in — what Joe Lieberman wants — is “giving Obama what he wanted anyway.” Yeah, that’s what most of the Kewl Kids are saying. But I think what Obama wanted is whatever reform he could get from Congress. And as Steve Benen says, Congress isn’t delivering. It can’t deliver, because it’s broken. Yeah, there are lots of things Obama could have done differently, but had he done any of those things we may have been no better off than we are now.

The relationship between progressive activists/bloggers and Democratic politicians is, um, dynamic. The same figures might be on the “bad” side on one issue (David Jay Rockefeller, warrantless wiretaps) and the “good” side on another (Jay Rockefeller, health care). Sometimes characters are re-cast in relation to other characters; for example, Hillary Clinton’s miraculous makeover from corporate sellout to champion of progressivism during the 2008 primaries.

But this has always been so. People are a lot messier and complicated than archetypes. Earl Warren became a champion of civil rights, but before he became a Supreme Court Justice he was one of the chief proponents of the Japanese Internment during World War II. Likewise, FDR — champion of progressivism that he was — was complicit in the internment and also made a deal with southern Dixiecrats that left African-Americans out of the New Deal. Harry Truman got his start in politics through a friendship with one of the most corrupt city bosses of all time.

And the moral is, if you’re looking for knights in shining armor, rent some movies.