Friday, August 2, 2013

Alien vs. Predator, or, Why Liberals Lose When They Take on Corporate Power: Part I

All right, it's the moment you've been waiting for. I've been explaining why "liberal" is not a badge of shame (as the O'Reillys and Limbaughs of the world would have it be) but the name of an honorable tradition of thought about freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. So why don't I call myself a liberal? What more do I want?

Plenty! Let's remember what liberalism has always been about: liberty, the freedom to make a good life of one's own design. And let's recall the strategy that liberals have used since the late nineteenth century to ensure liberty. Modern liberals use state power to check and constrain the power of capitalism, which they see as posing the greatest threat to our ability to live free and flourish. 

Does the strategy of posing state power against corporate power work? Only if we control the state AND state power is stronger than the power of capitalism. But neither of these is true.

Do We Control the State?

The primary tool of democracy is elections. Leave aside all the questions about stolen or fraudulent elections that agitated so many of my friends in 2000 and 2004, and even the voter repression tactics the Republicans practiced in 2008 and 2012. When elections run right, are they a powerful enough tool so we, the people, can use them to get the government we want?

Edward S. Greenberg once asked "what parties and elections would have to look like if they were to truly be vehicles by which political decision makers were kept responsible and responsive to the American people" (The American Political System: A Radical Approach, 1989). I like his answers.

1. Candidates and parties should present clear policy choices to the American people, and these policy choices should concern important issues.

2. Once elected, officials should try to carry out promises made during the campaign.

3. Once elected, officials should be able to transform campaign promises into binding public policy.

4. Elections should strongly influence the behavior of those elites responsible for making public policy.

It's not clear that ANY of these four conditions are met in America.

1. Sure, the last presidential race presented us with clear choices on some crucial issues. Some of these choices were very narrow, however.  Should we keep on using drone strikes abroad and surveillance at home at the current, unprecedented level, or become even more aggressive?  Should we cripple the economic recovery through across-the-board federal budget cuts or by targeted cuts?  For most of us (and especially for the poor and the unemployed), these are not choices but threats.

Meanwhile, out of 535 Congressional elections, only a handful were seriously contested. Bottom line: if you wanted to change the way government works by finding enough candidates who agreed with you and electing them into office, you were out of luck.

2. Do candidates try to keep their campaign promises? The answer seems to be, "When they must." But LBJ ran promising "no wider war" in Vietnam and then sent tens of thousands more troops. Ford (an unelected president) pardoned Nixon after swearing not to. Reagan ran against "big government" and created the biggest budget deficits in history, before the current administration! George H.W. Bush famously promised "no new taxes," but bowed to reality and broke his promise. Clinton ran on "putting people first," but as Bob Woodward documented, he actually put the needs of bond markets first--he cut social programs that help the many and the vulnerable in order to shrink the budget deficit, pleasing the few and the rich.

George W. was the dangerous exception to the rule. If we hadn't stopped him from keeping his campaign promises, God help us!  Obama was very careful to raise hope without making very many promises.  He also has the built-in excuse that whatever he tries to do, the Republicans automatically oppose.

3. American government is set up to keep elected officials from making broad changes in policy. Most of the time, control of the three branches of government is split between the two major parties. When the national government is split, it's difficult to make dramatic changes on issues people know and care about.

When the Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court are all dominated by people from one side of the political spectrum, they still have a tough time making changes. Each branch is protective of its own powers and jealous of giving too much to either of the others. They compete as much as they coordinate, despite party. Besides, as we have seen in the recent NSA scandal, the Republican Party includes moralists and libertarians (and some out-and-out fascists). The Democrats house technocrats, progressives, and socialists. Party affiliation doesn't make them concert their efforts around one platform. Most are too busy calculating what will ensure their own personal re-election!

Finally, if the federal government seems united, then state and local governments can oppose and at least delay the national agenda. Look at Massachusetts with gay marriage, California with medical marijuana and tough clean air standards, or southern states' opposition to civil right and anti-poverty legislation and programs. For better or worse, we live in a system of fragmented state power. And this is the tool we want to use to humanize an entire economic system based on self-interest?

4. Even if we had competitive elections with choices that reflect what people truly need--and politicians tried to keep the promises that got them elected--and government weren't set up to impede the progress of any dramatic changes--most of the choices that affect our daily lives are not made by government. Quoting Greenberg again, "Elections hardly affect decisions relating to the location of businesses, the growth of cities, the development of technology, the center of work, the shape of educational experience, or the distribution of wealth and income."

Beyond Wishful Thinking

It's still worth fighting elections to put candidates in office who can use state power for what it's worth. But it's not worth as much as we imagine. We are strangers in our own land, and when liberals think they can address the alienation of vast parts of the population through another law or another policy, they are engaged in the wishful thinking that has become another synonym for "liberal."

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