Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Coakley v Brown: Should Anybody Care?

If by “democracy,” we mean what the word says, rule by the demos (the people, as distinct from social or economic elites), it is plain that all liberal democracies are undemocratic. They may (somewhat) respect the form, but not the content, of genuine democratic governance. But each undemocratic “democracy” is undemocratic in its own way. Still, in all cases, the party system is mainly to blame. It has been that way for more than a century and a half – from the time it became clear that with suitable institutions and with political parties mediating public deliberation and collective choice, the propertied classes had nothing to fear from extending the franchise to the propertyless masses. The party system made democracy safe for capitalism.

However, in most countries, the party system allows for the electoral expression of the views voters actually hold – once the elites’ ideological apparatus has had a go at shaping opinion. In recent decades, mass media has been the most important component of this ideological mechanism, but we should not discount the impact of the educational system and, in benighted quarters (which is to say, almost everywhere), of churches, synagogues and mosques. In nearly all cases, the demos gets to vote its will, more or less. That will is then thwarted at a later stage; usually, as parties shape ruling alliances. In the very rare instances where even that does not suffice, capital has other, less directly political, means to assure that its will be done.

But then, in this matter as in so many others, America is “exceptional.” Here, in the Land of the Free, our semi-institutionalized parties have all but duopolized the electoral system, even to the point of making ballot access for “third” parties costly and difficult. The result is that we progressives are effectively disenfranchised – except insofar as we can sometimes exercise our “voice,” impotently in most cases, in primary elections. Thus the compromises and betrayals that normally happen after general elections in most countries happen here before general elections even take place. In many respects, the results are similar; elite rule is maintained. But the American way impoverishes the political culture even more profoundly than happens elsewhere. Elsewhere, it is generally possible to vote for something, and therefore to organize and militate for what one believes. Here all we can do is vote against the greater of two evils.

Of course, when the right candidate appears, progressives, if they are sufficiently muddleheaded, can delude themselves into thinking they are voting for something. That’s what happened in 2008. Barack Obama ran a center-right campaign; if the gossip mongers who wrote Game Change can be believed – and there’s no reason to think they can’t – he was the establishment candidate from the get go. But because he could present himself as a Rorschach man, in whom voters saw what they wanted to see, he raised expectations; and because so many voters – left, right, and center -- allowed themselves to be deluded, many of them now feel betrayed.

But no one should feel betrayed because, while nothing (or almost nothing) has been delivered, nothing was promised either – as anyone who paid attention to what was really going on, as distinct from what they wanted to believe, would realize. Disappointment is another matter. I never expected much from Barack Obama, as readers of this blog know. But I did think that he was better than Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Now, I’m not sure. So I’m disappointed. But even before he started filling his administration with Clintonites and Wall Streeters, it was clear as day that, though the first of his hue to crack the ultimate glass ceiling, Obama is still just a Democrat. And, the name not withstanding, Democrats are anything but the party of the demos. All that can be said in their behalf is that they are the party of the Lesser Evil.

Thanks to American exceptionalism, there is no constructive way to express this disappointment electorally – because to vote against a Democrat one must vote for a Republican or at least vote (or not vote) in a way that makes it easier for a Republican to win. This is what the Coakley v Brown election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts is about. This is why in the bluest of blue states [I still can’t figure out how the Republicans got red] a tea-bagger in sheep’s clothing might actually win.

I confess that I am ambivalent about the prospect. In a more democratic political system, it would be salutary to lose one for the (new) Gipper, even if it means electing a Republican Senator. But with our media and with our party system, it’s all but a sure thing that the wrong lesson would be drawn from a Coakley defeat. Though it is hard to imagine how anyone could think anything of the sort, the lesson that will be drawn will be that Obama’s “agenda” is somehow too left for the country at this time; that, like a good Clintonite, he ought to move even farther to the right. Needless to say, the opposite is true – had he and the Democratic leadership used the political capital they had a year ago more “audaciously,” they’d be no worse off than they now are, even if it all came to nought, and, win or lose, the country would be on a better track.

But, of course, the election is not just a (deformed) referendum on the Obama administration’s first year. Obama’s health care initiative is also at stake. Conventional wisdom has it that, if Coakley loses, Obama and Company will pressure House Democrats to accept the Senate’s version of health care reform and then ram through a vote – so that Obama will have a “victory” under his belt.

Maybe, this would be better for the country, not just the Democrats, than an outright defeat, though that is far from clear. There are some worthwhile insurance reforms in the Senate bill and it would increase the number of insured persons. But it would do so at great expense to the public and at some expense to many “middle class” workers. And it would benefit private insurance companies and other health care profiteers egregiously. It wouldn’t just enrich those malefactors either; it would entrench their power.

It would be far better, of course, to start over with a clear and defensible plan to make health care a right, not a commodity; a plan that would insure universal coverage, lower costs dramatically, and benefit everyone (except the profiteers). But nothing so sensible has a chance of happening – not in this “democracy.” More likely, if nothing passes, the cause of health care reform will be set back for another generation, just as happened with the last Clintonite reform adventure.

So, on balance, I suppose there is no choice but to hope that Coakley wins. But I wouldn’t mind if it doesn’t come out that way. What it boils down to is whether we should care more about consequences or desert. The consequences of her winning or losing are debatable, though it probably is true that, all things considered, it would be better if she wins. The one sure thing, though, is that the Democrats deserve to lose, and Obama with them.

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