Aug. 10, 2011
Four Reasons Why Progressives Should Stay Home in November, 2012
Three years of an Obama presidency have created a seemingly intractable quandary for progressive Democratic voters. All of the stable of potential Republican nominees for the presidential nomination have moved so far to the right that they are unpalatable even to the most conservative Democrats, let alone progressives. On the other hand, Obama himself has moved so far to the right that his policies place him well to the right of such conservative Republican stalwarts as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Progressive Democrats thought they were electing a progressive; they didn’t even get a Democrat. They are left with the unsavory choice of voting for an incumbent who has deserted them or a Republican whose every policy stance they oppose. My suggestion to progressives is that they do the unthinkable: stay at home in November, 2012 and allow Obama to be defeated. In the long run, as I am about to demonstrate, the results will be more favorable for the country and for the progressive ideology than Obama’s reelection. Here are four reasons I think so.
1. Obama is clearly not progressive.
While Obama’s legislative accomplishments are far to the right of those favored by progressives, he and his spokesmen have excused that shift with the recurring lament that they did what they could: the obstinate, ideologically driven Republicans wouldn’t allow any more. Though the Republicans certainly have been unreasonable and intractable, I maintain that Obama moved himself to the right with no need for an assist from the Republicans.
The first example of this self-induced metamorphosis was the healthcare debate of 2009. During the 2008 election campaign, Obama made clear that he would support a public option, a government-run alternative to private health insurance that would provide competition to keep premiums down and slow the rapidly increasing cost of health care. As the debate began in 2009, three-quarters of the people in America, according to several opinion polls, favored this public option. In spite of this overwhelming public support, Obama abandoned that option without even presenting it for a vote in Congress. As Obama repeatedly and incomprehensibly negotiated with himself, giving away more and more of the progressive position without getting anything in return from the Republicans, a process that came to be known scornfully as “preemptive concessions” or “preemptive caving,” the chances for real healthcare reform disappeared in a cloud of absurd babble about “death panels” and a government takeover of healthcare, none of which did Obama effectively counter. The final result was a healthcare reform bill that expanded a system of insurance that never worked and left both the quality and cost of health care in the hands of the same greedy health insurance and pharmaceutical companies that caused the crisis in the first place. In other words, it was the best outcome that Republicans and their corporate sponsors could have hoped for—and they got it from a Democratic Congress and a Democratic White House.
The second example of the Obama Metamorphosis came in the form of an attempt to reform Wall Street after the meltdown of autumn, 2008. Again with a large majority of the public favoring strict government regulation of Wall Street in order to prevent recurrence of the debacle, Obama settled for a self-imposed “compromise” that solved nothing, regulated virtually nothing, and left the culprits on Wall Street free to engage in the same greedy, risky behavior that led to the problem in the first place, something they have done with a vengeance. It should come as no surprise that the largest financial contributions to Obama’s 2008 campaign originated with the very banking industry he proposed to reform, or that all of Obama’s appointees to regulatory or advisory positions vis-à-vis Wall Street had close connections to the banking industry. Obama’s alleged efforts to rein in Wall Street were both ineffective and typical – typical of a conservative Republican.
The debt ceiling negotiations of the past few months provide the clearest example of what amounts to an Obama sell-out to right wing fiscal conservatism. Throughout the negotiations Obama insisted on a “balanced approach,” one that included revenue increases accomplished with higher taxes on the rich and/or the closing of egregious tax loopholes exploited by corporations as well as budget cuts. Again a large majority of Americans, even of Republicans, favored such an approach. What Obama finally signed was an agreement that, in Republican Speaker Boehner’s words, gave the Republicans “98%” of what they wanted: deep budget cuts that will severely impact the most vulnerable Americans, cuts that will make the unemployment situation even worse, and no revenue increases of any kind. In a new and troubling edition of political doublespeak, Obama repeatedly referred to a capitulation as a compromise, a total acceptance of the Republican position as a balanced approach, and an economically disastrous piece of legislation as progress.
Obama also agreed to the formation of a 12-member committee charged with finding further deficit reduction by autumn of 2011. If the committee fails, severe, across-the-board budget cuts will be triggered. The problem with that is – the committee was set up to fail. Both Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell have publicly admitted that no Republican will be appointed to the committee who will approve any form of revenue increase. That guarantees that only further budget cuts will be employed to reduce the deficit because, if Democrats on the committee fail to agree on those budget cuts, the triggers written into the agreement will cause – severe budget cuts. There is no mechanism in the agreement that could produce any form of revenue enhancement. This isn’t a compromise; it’s a complete capitulation to the most extreme Republican position, a position which even conservative economists have agreed will likely cause a second recession on the heels of the first and could precipitate a worldwide economic catastrophe. Obama agreed to this and called it progress.
Something even the pundits and politicians who opposed this debt ceiling deal aren’t discussing, and which the general public probably doesn’t know, is that inflation adds approximately 25% to the cost of virtually everything every ten years, and that includes the cost of running the government. That means that every ten years the government will have to cut back 25% of the services it provides in addition to all of the draconian budget cuts mandated by the debt ceiling agreement. That will be necessary because the Republican position, agreed to by Obama, makes new or increased revenues impossible. Increasing unemployment, which reduces government revenue, coupled with the Republicans’ steadfast refusal to increase taxes on those who can readily afford it, added to the inevitable effects of inflation, will likely propel our economy into conditions resembling the Gilded Age of the late 19th century: enormous wealth in the hands of very few people, endemic poverty and unemployment, severe abridgment of the rights of working people to bargain or strike, increasingly violent unrest among farmers and workers. The Republican Party has declared war on the middle class, and Barack Obama has enlisted on their side.
All of these examples of Obama’s Metamorphosis, paired with his inexplicable failure to produce a jobs creation program, have rendered legislative and administrative policy results that are indistinguishable from those of a conservative Republican. If progressive stay at home in November of 2012 and allow Republicans to capture the Senate and the White House, policy movement will accelerate, but its direction will not change. A Republican government will favor the rich, ignore the poor, shrink the middle class, disenfranchise voters from those same groups and generally push the country over a cliff into a new Gilded Age: precisely what is already happening under Barack Obama.
2. Obama can’t be trusted.
Barack Obama ran for president as, in the words of Colin Powell, a transformative figure, an agent of change. He promised that he would fight for a public option, but he reneged on that promise without even a legislative fight. He promised that he would rein in Wall Street and hold those responsible for the debacle of 2008 legally accountable, but he signed off on phantom reforms that have not changed behavior on Wall Street, and no one has spent a day in jail for the disaster their greed caused. He promised that he would end the Bush programs of rendition (kidnapping and transporting sometimes innocent people to a country where torture is permitted) and torture, but CIA “black sites” where citizens of other countries and sometimes American citizens are subjected to harsh interrogation techniques that any civilized person would label torture still exist. In fact, according to Jeremy Scahill of The Nation, the only real change has been that the facilities in question have been upgraded. Obama promised that the Justice Department and the National Security Agency would respect the privacy of American citizens, yet domestic spying continues unabated and even Democratic Senators on the Intelligence Committee (Ron Wyden and Mark Udall) can’t get a straight answer from the Obama Administration concerning the nature and scope of that spying. Obama promised that he would protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, yet he offered cuts in those programs as part of an overture to Republicans during the debt ceiling crisis. He promised in a campaign speech that he would put on his walking shoes and join protesters in Wisconsin who were (and are) being systematically stripped of workers’ rights and voters’ rights by a Republican administration in Madison. He not only didn’t join them, he has not even spoken out in their defense. His Justice Department has done nothing to protect voters’ rights in half a dozen Republican controlled states where people who are likely to vote Democratic are being disenfranchised by lawless administrations.
The only major campaign promise Obama has kept is the dismantling of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and that took Congress nearly three years when Obama could have done it by issuing a “stop loss” order on the day he took office. This is a man who is gifted with the ability to move the masses with lyrical, righteous rhetoric, but his words are as empty as his promises. He has demonstrated no commitment to the principled causes he championed as a campaigner. As he positions himself for re-election, he sheds the hope of millions who trusted him like lint from an old coat.
3. Better a predictable enemy than a backstabbing friend.
When Jon Tester was elected as a conservative Democrat in Republican leaning Montana, he immediately began voting as if he were a Republican. He defended his record by saying that he voted in the best interests of the people of Montana, not one political party. As we have seen in recent years, however, Republican votes are cast in support of the interests of the very wealthy and no one else. When a prominent Democratic fundraiser who supported Tester announced that he would not do so again, a reporter ask him if that wouldn’t guarantee that Tester would lose his re-election bid in Republican Montana. The fundraiser responded that he would rather have an enemy in that seat whose behavior he could predict than to have a friend who stabbed him in the back when his support was most needed. Virtually every Democratic member of Congress and every progressive fundraiser could say the same thing about Barack Obama.
The Republican Party as political enemy is not difficult to predict. They will vote consistently to protect the interests of the wealthy; they have repeatedly assaulted Medicare and Social Security with an eye toward dismantling them; they have announced publicly that their primary goal is the defeat of Barack Obama in 2012. Those avowed policy goals should make political strategy against Republicans rather straightforward and easy. Democrats in Congress, however, who seem to be preternaturally stupid, are further burdened by the knowledge that their putative party leader may cut them off at the knees without reason or warning. Obama has proved more able, and more likely, to administer a mortal wound to the Democratic Party from behind than ever the Republicans could head on.
4. Sudden death vs. death from a thousand cuts.
My psychology professor in college used to describe the United States as a crisis-oriented society. We wait until catastrophe is undeniable and imminent before we act. That tendency has been enormously exacerbated in recent years by conservative groups who have spent millions of dollars to persuade Americans that no problem exists, much less an impending catastrophe. The disaster-in-waiting of global warming, with rising sea levels, droughts, more storms of greater intensity and the probability of world-wide famine, is the quintessential example of crisis denial by well-funded interests who will profit financially from continued inaction. As a result we are the only industrialized country in the world with a seacoast which has taken no action to prepare for the inevitable consequences of global warming.
As health care becomes more expensive and less available, as unemployment continues to fester and grow, as the middle class shrinks and the ranks of the impoverished grow, as more and more wealth is concentrated in fewer hands, our government dithers as if these tendencies were normal or unavoidable. They are only as “normal” as the rent riots, bloody worker strikes, government suppression of voter and worker rights and the generally hellish environment of the Gilded Age of the robber barons.
As William Faulkner once observed, the past is never dead. It isn’t even past. The conditions that typified the Gilded Age have never disappeared, only marginally receded from view and from our collective consciousness. We are inexorably moving back into the Gilded Age. Poverty is growing rapidly in America while the middle class is disappearing and more money is concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few. One in five workers who wants a full time job can’t find one. Republican policy ideas will accelerate this trend: repealing the minimum wage (as presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann has suggested), repealing child labor laws (as many Republican state legislators have proposed), lowering taxes on the wealthy (a trend that increased the buying power of the rich by 42% while it has declined by 2% for the middle class), ending Medicare (as the Ryan budget plan, supported by 98% of Republicans, would do), gutting the regulatory authority of the EPA, OSHA, the FDA and other government agencies (which would re-establish the brutal working conditions of the Gilded Age and the utter helplessness of consumers in the face of corporate greed). If Republicans gain control of the Senate and the White House, their enactment of these policy proposals will push the working people of America off an economic cliff within a few years if not months. As counterintuitive as it may sound, that is exactly what I believe should happen. Here’s why.
The return to the economic catastrophe of the Gilded Age is inevitable. It’s only a matter of how fast we get there. Republican policies are forcing us rapidly in that direction, while Democrats in the Senate provide only a moderate slowing of the disaster. Obama’s policies are also moving us back to the 19th century, just not as fast as the Republicans. The danger is that the coming recession, possible a depression, will be deeper and last longer because most Americans don’t know the history of the Gilded Age, don’t see the similarities with what is happening around the country today, and are blissfully unaware that the crisis is already upon us. If the disaster overtakes us gradually enough, as it is now doing, millions will accept it as the status quo, aware of the decline, but accepting it as a normal downward trend that we can’t do anything about.
Returning Republicans to power in 2012, allowing them to implement unimpeded the policies they’ve supported, will accelerate the catastrophe to the proportions of a massive train wreck. Everyone will recognize the crisis for what it is because of its very suddenness. More importantly, because the Republicans will be fully in charge, people will know whose policies are to blame. Under Obama’s leadership, Republican policies are slowly suffusing our economy with the seeds of economic ruin for the poor and the middle class. His acquiescence to these calamitous policies, albeit gradually and with much negotiating and debate before capitulation, serve to slow the disaster while doing nothing to reverse it.
Our ability to reverse the destruction of the middle class lies in the recognition by the majority of Americans that the crisis is now. As long as most Americans have doubts about how bad things will get and who is causing them to get worse, there will be no stopping the current trends until we have fully emerged into a new Gilded Age. Our one chance to avert the train wreck before it actually happens is to convince Americans that it is about to happen right now, not in some remote, dubious future. To convince Americans that the train is already wrecking, we must turn full control of the government over to Republicans. They will implement policies which will accelerate the wreck and make it obvious to all, and finally, perhaps for generations to come, leave no doubt as to who is to blame.