Tuesday, July 28, 2009


It is looking ever more likely that good old-fashioned corruption will undo the Obama administration’s milquetoast plan to reform the health care system. All that needs to happen is for “the public option” to be compromised away, along with the ability of states to set up single-payer systems on their own. The problem is not graft per se; at least not for the most part. It’s the whacky idea, sustained by obtuse Supreme Courts for more than three decades, that constitutionally protected free speech blocks serious efforts to keep moneyed interests from making “campaign contributions” more or less as they please – in other words, from buying benefits by “investing” in candidates.

In this era of “change,” the health care profiteers this time around have been hedging their bets. Some pharmaceutical interests and some in the for-profit health care industry, along with the AMA, decided to cast their lot with “reform.” Of course, if they start to smell blood, they will probably still jump ship. But they will be winners either way, since liberal Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration have already given them most of what they want. The private insurance industry, however, fears an “existential threat” in the so-called public option. That’s why, for the most part, they’ve cast their lot with the blathering ideologues of the Republican Party and their Democratic counterparts, the “Blue Dogs.” The insurance industry is poised to make the month of August a time for “pre-positioning” right-wing forces in preparation for “Obama’s Waterloo,” as the pathetic but dangerous Jim Demint, Senator from South Carolina, famously put it.

Obama could still prevail. Indeed, if only he’d cease his self-defeating bipartisanship and tamp down his zeal for working out deals, his administration could still deal old-fashioned corruption a blow. Then, unfortunately, the moneyed interests would not exactly lose out. But neither would their nefarious greed unequivocally impede a pale semblance of progress.

Thus old-fashioned corruption may still be dealt a blow. Even in our not very democratic system, this is possible in dire enough straits; and the straits now are dire enough. The question is whether liberal Democrats and the Obama administration will rise to the occasion.

But even if Obama gets his way, real (small-d) democrats will have little to celebrate; for defeating the bought and paid for Blue Dogs and Max Baucuses of the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity, and their even worse colleagues in the Greater Evil Party, will not get to the heart of the corruption that afflicts us. Our democracy is riddled with another, deeper corruption that is much harder to extirpate.

It is worth recalling that, until the end of the eighteenth century, “democracy” was regarded in educated circles in much the way that “anarchy” now is – as a theoretical possibility that no one in his right mind would actually favor. That sense of things changed irreversibly when the American and French Revolutions, and cognate movements elsewhere, turned the demos, the people (in contrast to elites), into actors in the political arena. It took several decades, though, for the perceived challenge democracy posed to property to subside.

The first line of defense was to restrict the franchise to (male) property holders. But that strategy seemed increasingly frail as democratic sentiments continued to rise (in tandem with anti-democratic sentiments of various, but mainly ecclesiastical, colorations). It all came to a head in Britain in the 1840s with the Chartist movement -- where a clear attack on propertied interests took the form of a struggle to extend the franchise to adult males regardless of property qualifications. The Chartist threat was a major factor in the development of the modern party system. It is that system that has made “democracy” safe for capitalism – though at the cost of corrupting the democratic ideal fundamentally, irrespective of how much old-fashioned corruption there may be.

The party system works differently in different places. In parliamentary regimes, there are usually many (bureaucratized and disciplined) political parties that are obliged by circumstances to govern through coalition arrangements. On the one hand, this system does allow most citizens to express themselves politically inasmuch as they are able to find a political party with which to identify. On the other hand, the exigencies of coalition governance generally stifle democratic aspirations; usually because small parties, representing parochial interests at odds with the interests of the majority, must be accommodated. Even so, on the whole, the system does permit a semblance of “rule by the demos.” This is especially true when, as in most countries, old-fashioned corruption is not, as it were, constitutionally protected.

Here, in the Land of the Free, where electoral campaigns are, for the most part, privately financed, old-fashioned corruption is built into the system. But even if our judicial and legislative branches were more (small-d) democratic, even if the Supreme Court’s rulings on campaign funding were set aside, the pressures that work against real democracy in parliamentary regimes would corrupt democracy in our system too. The difference would be that, as happens now, centrist-tending coalitions would form (implicitly) before elections take place – effectively disenfranchising many, perhaps most, voters. There is always the “danger,” of course, that, in primary elections, “fringe” candidates will prevail by appealing to their respective parties’ “base.” In recent decades, this seems to have been more a problem for Republicans than Democrats. Being afraid to take their own side, “liberal” voters in Democratic primaries have tended to vote like pundits – gravitating towards “the center,” as conventional wisdom defines it (not because that is where they are in their aspirations, but because that is how they think Democrats can win). John Kerry’s victory in the 2004 Democratic primaries exemplified this phenomenon perspicuously. That a more progressive candidate than Obama did not prevail in the 2008 primaries was, at least in part, a consequence of similar ratiocinations on the part of Democratic voters.

As I’ve pointed out in countless entries, Obama ran to the center-right in the primaries and has been moving rightward ever since. Thus, no matter how much Rahm Emanuel goes on about not letting a good crisis go to waste, that’s exactly what the Obama administration has done – with health care reform and nearly everything else.

With health care, the time was right: we could have replaced the increasingly untenable status quo with a single-payer system. But, for that, instead of taking the obvious solution “off the table,” Pelosi-style, Obama would have had to defend it forthrightly, spending his political capital as freely as he doles out real capital to our real rulers on Wall Street. And because Republicans could never be brought on board, he would have had to drop the whole bipartisan effort that has blighted his presidency to date. That was not to be, because that would constitute a real challenge to the underlying corruption of the regime; something Obama has not shown the least inclination to take on. Single-payer is superior in every way to the mishmash Obama is promoting, but that is an irrelevant, if inconvenient, fact. For Obama and the rest of the Party of Pusillanimity, the POP, it is more important to pay obeisance to the structural corruption that is our party system by supporting the GOP-POP duopoly than to do the right thing.

Obama’s bipartisanship in this matter at least, is therefore not just an ill-conceived strategy. It is that, of course, but it also represents a (re)affirmation of the system in place. The catastrophes Cheney and Bush bequeathed Obama made that system vulnerable in ways it has not been for decades. Had there been a will, there would have emerged a way if not to change it fundamentally, at least to reform it structurally. But this was not to be. In consequence, even the modest reforms Obama envisions may not be either.

Of course, no Democrat could lead an assault on our two-party system itself. But there was a chance fundamentally to modify the structural corruption of democracy that our two-party system institutionalizes. Then the health care crisis could be made better. Then too the rest of an agenda suited for our time could fall in place.

This would be a victory for (small-d) democracy as well. For then those of us not stuck in the dead center, as defined by the arbiters of conventional wisdom, might actually be genuinely enfranchised for the first time. We might then have something not just to vote against, but instead to vote for. It isn’t happening though. Thus, sadly but predictably, we can only conclude that the time is now past due for even the most inveterate Obama boosters to face reality; and to realize that, barring a major change of course, “change we can believe in” is not going to happen on Obama’s watch.

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