Kevin Baker in this month’s Harpers (subscription only):
And so we arrive at the present moment, in which the people are not asked to do anything. The fine words and able presentation of Obama, whether delivered at West Point or on Wall Street or in the well of the House of Representatives, obscure the fact that they are subtle parodies of a century of liberal argument. Whereas the Populists’ soapbox lecturers or the Progressives’ magazine exposés or FDR in his radio “fireside chats” explained the way of the world to the people and argued for why and how that way must change, Obama—like most Democratic leaders—concedes that the way of the world is wrong but tells us why it must stay that way because, some time in the past, powerful interests decreed it so.
Thus we are told that single-payer or a public option may be a good idea but that private insurance companies are simply too well–ensconced for reform. Afghanistan may be hopeless, but we have already committed to it. The power of the people is never activated, nothing much is asked or required of us, even as thugs overrun congressional town-hall meetings.
Instead, the party that claims to represent all progressive interests in this country proceeds with its impervious, self-interested agenda. The administration’s stated priorities for the near future are to balance the budget before a deep recession has abated and to commit the nation to a long-running war in a dysfunctional Asian country that we neither understand nor care about—thereby promising to repeat, simultaneously, the two worst mistakes made by liberal presidents in the past seventy-five years. As for the long term, the White House will form a commission bent on cutting “entitlements,” such as Social Security and Medicare, that are the bedrock of retired Americans’ prosperity.
Obama is an adroit politician and, like the last adroit Democratic president, he may be able to secure another term in the White House. Perhaps he will even be able to keep a Democratic majority in Congress, though this now seems unlikelier by the day. But to treat this as a triumph of activism is to say that a prisoner retains free will because he is able to stay in his cell. Obama, the congressional Democrats, and most of our politicians at every level now maneuver within political confines defined by financial and military interests they cannot conceive of challenging. Perversely, our ruling elite today is one of unparalleled diversity, and includes unprecedented numbers of women, minorities, and individuals who have worked their way up to power on brains and determination alone, usually without having inherited connections or wealth. It is a meritocracy much like the one long envisioned by many liberal reformers—and it has decided to capitulate, reap its considerable rewards, and draw the ladder up after it.
Who will challenge this shining fortress upon a hill? The right-wing pseudo-Populists who have devoured the Republican Party may win some victories in the short run. But the Tea Party and its fellow travelers have already become a jointly owned subsidiary of News Corp. and the likes of Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks lobby. (To understand just how fraudulent the movement is, one need only look at the $549-a-seat price tag for tickets to its first convention, and the $100,000 speaker’s fee paid to Sarah Palin. So much for box socials and sing-alongs.) Right-wing Populism is anyway inherently contradictory, a demand that the state recede to a size that will leave its citizens utterly defenseless against the gigantic forces at loose in the world today. No one is going to abolish the Federal Reserve, or the income tax, or Social Security and Medicare; if they did, small businesses and working people would be trampled beneath the corporate entities bent on their exploitation. The counter-Populism of the right is the prisoner’s last, despairing option, to move from learned helplessness to suicide.
Coming to power when he did, with the political skills and the majorities he possesses, Barack Obama squandered an almost unprecedented opportunity. But it is increasingly clear that he never intended to challenge the power structure he had so skillfully penetrated. With the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations are, once more, people, American democracy has snapped shut again—the great, forced opening of the past 130 years has ended. There is no longer any meaningful reformist impulse left in our politics. The idea of modern American liberalism has vanished among our elite, and simply voting for one man or supporting one of the two major parties will not restore it. The work will have to be done from the ground up, and it will have to be done by us.