I often receive email from readers which goes something along these lines: “Thank you for your article identifying the problems with American politics and government. But what are the solutions?”
David Michael Green [print_link]
I am flattered that anyone would expect me to be able to solve that mystery, while being simultaneously chagrined that I don’t think I have very much in the way of good answers. In part that may be because I’m not smart or creative enough to solve that problem, anymore than I’m equipped to cure cancer or discover a unified field theory of physics. But in part it is also because the problem itself (like curing cancer or theorizing physics) is very difficult. The evidence for that is that no other progressive that I’m aware of is offering a serious solution. It’s not like we on the left are spending our time these days debating the merits of multiple proposals on the table. Or even one…
Consider the magnitude of the problem, to start with. American society and government is, it seems to me, in the worst shape its been in since at least 1932. Unparalleled and unmitigated greed of astonishing proportions has turned the federal government into a feeding trough for special interests, on an epic scale. This has produced what is essentially an economic war on non-elites for the last three decades, which has succeeded in dramatically redistributing wealth upward, so that the US now resembles any good banana republic or feudal society in this regard. More or less all policy decisions during this era have been oriented toward that one goal, certainly including those concerning taxes, subsidies, trade and labor relations, not to mention our uncontrolled military spending and wars. Even so-called welfare state program expansions like Bush’s prescription drug plan or Obama’s health care initiative are really massive feedbag redistributions of public wealth to corporate actors, dressed up with enough trinkets for the hoi polloi so as to appear that their purpose is to improve the health of real Americans.
Moreover, all the traditional bulwarks against this natural tendency for power and wealth concentration to occur have been effectively neutralized, starting with the hijacking of the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton is one of the worst criminals of our time (and yet many stupid, gaga, celebrity-inebriated Democrats still worship him), in many respects far more guilty of far greater sins than Reagan or Wee Bush. We expect Republicans to lie and to represent the interests of Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce. Clinton, on the other hand, bears more responsibility than anyone for turning the Democratic Party into a more smiley version of just the same thing. Obama is following suit. He is as corporate as it gets. You’ll find his constituents in mansions and boardrooms, not in two-bedroom houses across middle America.
The upshot is that there is no political party in Washington anymore advocating for the needs and interests of real working people. That was not always the case. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the Democratic Party was a (very imperfect) vehicle for the representation of hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans, and the (very imperfect) policies they put through reflected that. Even Republicans largely went along for the ride back in those days, never seriously seeking to dismantle such programs or radically reorient such policies.
The same might be said of the media and other institutions of or related to American governance, such as the courts and universities and even corporate America, in those days a far less pernicious actor than today. The long and short of it is that the political mountain to climb today seems so much larger than in the past. Anyone paying attention to what is happening should have a strong sense of the walls closing in around us, faster and faster. The downsizing of the American middle class may be happening with greater rapidity these last two years, as jobs become scarce and employees are forced to work longer and get paid less, but it is only an acceleration of a process that has been going on full bore for three decades now. And there is no one in Washington today to hear your screams of agony. Why would they? They’re the ones who have been doing the torturing.
Today, you can have the biggest worldwide collection of protest rallies ever, and it will not change a thing.
Similarly, the road ahead is difficult because the tactics of resistance employed with mixed success in the past seem almost completely spent today. Does your congresswoman remotely notice when you send a letter about an issue you care about? Yeah, if you’re BP or Goldman Sachs. Otherwise, you’re about as likely to get their attention as either of those outfits are to be responsible for the damage they’ve done. How about a march on Washington? Does anyone even notice those anymore? In the 1950s and 1960s they were relatively fresh and drew attention accordingly. Today, you can have the biggest worldwide collection of protest rallies ever, and it will not change a thing. We know that because that is exactly what happened in the run up to the Iraq invasion of 2003. I could be wrong about this, but something tells me that George W. Bush wasn’t paying a lot of attention to our raised voices back then. Heck, people don’t even notice anymore when gunmen shoot up their workplace and then kill themselves, something that happens with alarming regularity. Why would they notice yet another protest march, especially when they’re worrying about keeping a roof over their heads?
The sad truth is, it seems to me, that breaking through the wall of indifference today requires either a volume we aren’t organized enough to generate, a desperation we haven’t gotten to yet, or a creativity that largely eludes us.
But, maybe focusing on tactics is part of the problem. Tactics should ideally serve strategy, strategy should in turn serve objectives, objectives should be a product of problem analysis, and analysis should be rooted in theory. It seems to me that we progressives are decent when it comes to identifying objectives – though even here there will certainly be disagreement – but not much else. We can probably agree on such policy propositions as living wage requirements, regulating corporations in the public interest, ending wars or addressing global warming. But discovering the strategy or tactics to make those things happen eludes us, as does perhaps a theory of the deeper nature of our condition.
I don’t have answers to these questions or solutions to fill in these blanks. But perhaps I can advance the conversation a bit by suggesting that we ought to think first about the nature of the situation we face, certainly before we begin trying to identify problems, or specifying strategies and tactics to address those.
It seems to me that there are three major possibilities here, each with its own implications about how to proceed toward fixing the country and what ails us. Each successive possibility implies a greater depth of despair with respect to the condition we’re in, and therefore a more radical solution necessary to address that situation. But, that said, none are easy fixes.
The first analysis of our national malaise, the one invoking the least pervasive depth of the problem, goes to the question of policy. Here, one could argue that we simply have lousy policymakers making lousy policies. The obvious solution, therefore, is to replace them. Equally obvious, meanwhile, is that the Republican Party is completely hopeless. A best case scenario is that they will continue to represent the aspirations of plutocrats and frightened, stupid, racist, homophobic, ancient middle and working class crackers of the Bible Belt, until that lovely generation becomes irrelevant and disappears. We know that parties can change, especially since the GOP began life as an abolitionist vehicle for the likes of Abraham Lincoln. But we also know that parties can die, as did the Whigs. In the case of the Republicans, the latter is a more likely and probably better outcome.
That leaves basically two choices going forward. One would be to launch a viable third party that stood for progressive principles. As noted, third parties do come to power in the United States, so this is clearly not impossible. But the last time it happened was 150 years ago, so it is just as clearly not probable. All the institutional arrangements in American government and politics – most especially our district (often erroneously described as the “first past the post” model) electoral system – are conveniently arrayed to prevent any third party from arising. I’ve seen (and participated in) numerous attempts in my lifetime to go down this path, including the current Green Party. None have come remotely close to cracking open the system. As evidence of that, consider this: of the 535 people who are now (and, I’m pretty sure, throughout my lifetime) members of Congress, not a single one comes from a third party. Not even one. And not for want of trying either. This record of astonishingly complete failure is a product of a system designed (quite effectively, we must acknowledge) to shut out real choice at all costs. And it works.
The other remaining remedy for this first analysis of what ails the country is to take over the Democratic Party. That’s a long hard job, but I think it is one that is possible to accomplish. We’ve seen this happen constantly throughout history, with different cohorts and factions grabbing control of either party, typically by out-hustling their rivals, and with parties morphing in character over time. The Republican Eisenhower/Ford moderates who had owned the party in the post-war years lost control over the last generation or so to the Reagan/Bush corporate hacks masquerading as radical conservatives. The tea party movement is an effort to complete that movement. Pretty much the same thing has happened to the Democratic Party, where Clinton/Obama-style corporate hacks masquerading as New Democrat/Third Way moderates have taken over that party from the Kennedy/Johnson/Mondale-type old school liberals. In short, it can be done. If we think that the problem with America is simply that the wrong people are making the wrong policy choices, then this is, in my judgement, the best remedy to address that condition, and possibly the only one.
But what if the problem lies deeper? What if the reason that the wrong people are making the wrong policy decisions is rooted in the corruption of our institutional framework, which is set up to produce precisely those people and precisely those policy decisions? In short, what if the country’s campaign finance system is the problem, designed quite purposively to insure that the special interests of the overclass are attended to, and the rest of us ignored or at best placated? What if, therefore, political parties become virtually irrelevant, because each one is as bought-off as the next?
There is, of course, massive evidence that this is precisely the case. In the old days, railroad and other robber-barons would simply drop a paper bag full of cash on a congressman’s desk and instruct him on how he would be voting. Today, the process is slightly more subtle, but the effect is absolutely the same. Money completely rules American politics, and policy choices are made almost entirely to serve the plutocracy. Those folks invest thousands, in exchange for which they get back billions. Meanwhile, politicians get elected, and later, rich as well. Everybody wins. Except, er, the public, of course.
If this is what we judge to be the core problem, then the requisite solution takes the form of campaign finance reform. That is no easy mountain to climb, either, not least because there are quite real freedom of speech issues to be grappled with, along with the entirely bogus ones that would be instantly generated by the Scalia bloc (AKA the deeply regressive majority) of the US Supreme Court to utterly destroy any attempt by Congress at getting money out of politics. Oh, and best of luck getting the people who owe their jobs and perks and riches to the current system to change it in the first place. The solution here is pretty clear – publically financed campaigns – but it would probably necessitate a constitutional amendment to pull it off and make it stick. With the clout and moral authority Obama had in early 2009 he might have been able to do this if he had effectively used the bully pulpit to vociferously make his case to the public, moving them to demand that Congress act and the states ratify. It would have been enormously difficult, but the benefits would be gigantic. Of course, though, he didn’t even raise the topic. And the opportunity to do this again is probably lost for another generation or more.
But what if the problem of American politics and governance runs even deeper still than the systemic corruption of a campaign finance system that purchases government on the cheap for the wealthiest among us? What if there is an oligarchy that (as James Douglass asserts, regarding JFK) will physically destroy anyone who remotely challenges its authority and its profits? What if any sort of replacement of officials or systemic fix would be entirely superficial and wholly irrelevant to the question of actual governance? What if Eisenhower’s warning about the extremely dangerous influence of the military-industrial complex was as prescient as it was ignored?
Then, of course, we’re into something much deeper altogether. And any sort of contemplated solution becomes a much heavier proposition, likely involving mass public action of some sort and a serious reconfiguration of the country’s power structure and system of governance. That’s probably a fancy way of saying ‘revolution’, though there are possibilities of serious change which imply less freighted repercussions than are typically associated with that term. Wholesale reform doesn’t necessarily require guillotines or mob violence. Look at the ‘velvet revolutions’ of Eastern Europe as examples, among others. Another possibility would entail finding ways of splitting the governing class into factions and encouraging them to destroy one another in a civil war – a progressive divide and conquer strategy. Or a perhaps non-violent Gandhian civil disobedience approach for confronting power. There are other conceivable strategies as well, all of which involve wholesale – essentially revolutionary – change, addressing the key question of who governs.
So which of these three scenarios of escalating pathology is the correct one? How bad is it? And what, therefore, is required?
Many on the left opt for the third analysis, and are indeed contemptuous of anyone whose own assessment comes in anywhere short of that. I am partially sympathetic to that conclusion, but also somewhat dubious because of the simple empirical reality of American history. Conditions were horrid for most Americans prior to the 1930s, and women and gays and minorities were subjected to every form of assault. Then it got a lot better (and in some ways – gay rights, notably – even continues to do so now). A broad and robust middle class was even created where one had not existed before. The distribution of wealth was dramatically changed in a favorable way. Civil rights were pushed substantially forward. Civil liberties were expanded. Environmentalism was born in American politics and in the consciousness of the public. Attitudes changed, policies changed, and the lives of hundreds of millions of us were enormously improved.
These are all huge developments that would require utter fictionalized historical revisionism to deny (so, I say, let’s not). And, they were the product of politics, leading to better policy. In the last thirty years, moreover, we’ve been watching a steady reversal of these gains on every front. Again, this is happening because of politics and resulting policy choices. The upshot is that it is hard for me, in the light of these plain historical facts, to see the political system immutable and fixed. To reach that conclusion, one would have to argue either that change never happened, or that it was once possible but no longer is. I don’t reject the latter notion out of hand, but neither have I seen evidence for such an argument.
My own sense is that the system may be amenable to meaningful reform efforts short of something so dramatic as 1789. It also may not, but it strikes me as worth trying the lesser tumult to see if that works. Revolutions, among other untoward and unwanted consequences, tend to have an unhappy unpredictability to them. The one in Russia in 1917, for example, led pretty directly to Stalin. China’s gave the country Mao, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, all in the name of serving the people. Not that you can exactly make revolutions happen on demand, anyhow.
In any case, any attempt to seriously divorce money and monied interests from governing choices will be a monumentally uphill battle in its own right, and one which will be fought fiercely. It would also have the unfortunate potential, as similar attempts have shown in recent decades, to simply rearrange the landscape without changing the country’s essential power structure. As others have noted before, money in politics is like water rolling downhill. You may be able to block it one place, but it will try very hard to find another way down the mountain, and it will typically succeed.
But if I am asked what is my prescription for the reform of American politics, I guess this would be my starting point. Campaign finance reform seems, on the one hand, a mind-numbingly technocratic solution to a fundamentally moral problem, and on the other a wholly inadequate response to our current situation. It may be both.
Yet it may be the single key to solving ninety percent of our problems, and also, subsequently, to changing our attitudes and the fundamental relationship we have with our own system of governance. It is also, in its own way, a profoundly moral response to the sickness of our time. It calls for nothing short of public policymaking in the national interest, rather than to satisfy the bottomless greed of special interests.
It might, therefore, radically change this country for the better.
And though it also might not, it certainly seems to me a worthy starting point toward that end.
What is to be done? That is my final answer, Regis.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN teaches political science at Hofstra University.