No Good News for Democrats Because There’s No Good News

“All politics are local,” Tip O’Neill famously said, and the political smoke signals being sent up locally going into the 2010 midterms all point to systematic failure on the part of the governing party. Democratic constituencies have been forced to sit back while the politicians they elected are helpless in the face of an unprecedented attack on public institutions.

There’s no good news for Democrats this election season because there’s no good news. Yet it’s hard to believe that the American people this November are going to return the party to power that not too long ago lied the nation into war, doubled the national debt, and collapsed the economy. When has a political party ever been returned to power so soon after destroying the lives and livelihoods of so many people?

There was a window of opportunity to bring Wall Street to heel and to bolster the neglected and maligned public sector institutions, but President Obama chose instead to play nice with the Republican nihilists in the Senate who don’t care about anything other than fooling enough people to win the next election and squeezing every ounce of political gain out of each 24-hour news cycle. It’s hard to believe that even in our duopoly people would be stupid enough to return the Republicans to power after they killed the American dream for so many millions of our fellow citizens. In a normal country, the Republicans would be out of luck for at least a half dozen election cycles.

Then again, the Republican Party has the Koch brothers and every other rich bastard showering them with money; the Supreme Court augmenting its Bush v. Gore disgrace with Citizens United opening up even larger floodgates of corporate political cash; right-wing talk radio from sea to shining sea; Fox “News,” and an enormous echo chamber, etc. Most mainstream media commentators talk about the angry Right as if it were a full-fledged social movement. But in reality, it’s just an elaborate exercise in ruling-class power, the rich versus everyone else, much of it cloaked in Astroturf and liberal sounding “public policy” groups like “Americans for Prosperity,” etc. The Oligarchs control such a loud megaphone they can drown out everybody else. They’re sophisticated too. Vilifying ACORN, and public schools, and the role of government (unless it’s serving corporations and rich people).

In 1988, Michael Dukakis made a fatal error when he failed to defend the term “liberal” when Lee Atwater and Poppy Bush were savaging him and dirtying up the word. Now we’re losing the word “progressive” too. Twenty years later, it appeared for a time that Obama was going to reclaim the legitimacy of government action on behalf of working people and the downtrodden. It appeared that he was going to reclaim the liberal tradition in this country so maligned by both parties since the days of Jimmy Carter.

But he didn’t. And now his party might pay the price.

Often missed in the mainstream commentary about the angry political climate is the fact that it was “conservative” ideas, “conservative” policies, and “conservative” governance that brought the country to the sorry state it finds itself in today. Deregulation for corporations like Goldman Sachs, DeCoster egg farms, and British Petroleum; privatization of vital public services including “national security”; tax cuts for the Oligarchs and corporate behemoths; the wholesale denigration and denuding of vital government functions relating to health and safety and infrastructure; grossly inflated budgets for warfare that are rife with waste, fraud, and profiteering while social programs were slashed that might have helped average folks; not to mention the dumbing-down and Atwaterization of our political discourse.

The entire eight years of the George W. Bush presidency proved what terrible stewards of the common good contemporary Republicans have become. Chalmers Johnson describes Bush in the introduction of his new book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope. Bush, Johnson writes,

“was a man superficially well enough qualified to be president. The governor of a populous state, he had also been the recipient of the best – or, in any case, most expensive – educations available to an American. Yale College and Harvard Business School might have seemed like a guarantee against a sophomoric ignoramus occupying the highest office in the land, but contrary to most expectations that was precisely what we got. The American public did not actually elect him, of course. He was, in the end, appointed to the highest office in the land by a conservative cabal of the Supreme Court in what certainly qualified as one of the most bizarre moments in the history of American politics. . . . The history books will certainly record that George W. Bush was likely the single worst president in the history of the American republic. Nonetheless, they will also point out that he merely accelerated trends long under way, particularly our devotion to militarism and our dependence on the military-industrial complex.” (p. 3; 5)

There are no longer any truly “teachable moments” in America anymore because for a moment to be “teachable” there must be a populace willing to learn something new. Everything that happens to this country — terrorist attacks, economic collapse, war, bungled natural disasters, oil spills — is absorbed, spun, manipulated, and chewed up until it doesn’t mean anything anymore. It all just becomes more political fodder for the Right to win tactical points in 24-hour increments. It’s death on the installment plan. In the diseased and dysfunctional politics of contemporary America we can see how otherwise sensible people are tricked into fighting against their own interests.

From 1995 to 2007 the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. Creepy men like Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and Jack Abramoff pillaged the treasury and bankrupted the nation while pretending to be more pious than the rest of us. Any criticism of Bush, we were scolded, was a criticism of “America”; to criticize the President in “war time” (even when he was prancing around in a Top Gun costume on an aircraft carrier) we were told was “unpatriotic” or downright “treasonous.” This knee-jerk jingoism ruled the roost. Yet the moment Obama became president no criticism or accusation was out of bounds, “war time” or not.

Right now public schools, public parks, public health, and public safety are all being gutted before our eyes and the Democratic politicians at the local and national levels have thus far been powerless to stop any of it, and in many cases they have been its enablers and “bipartisan” co-conspirators. Even the previously sacrosanct “first responders” (police and firefighters) are being downsized, laid off, “furloughed,” or forced out with early retirement. Look at Sacramento for instance, a Democratic city in a Democratic district in a Democratic state where Democratic constituencies are getting creamed. Where are the Democrats we elected who were supposed to stop the bleeding of the public sector?

While Obama was trying to play nice with Wall Street he allowed the Republican Right to blame our current economic catastrophe on public employees, Fannie and Freddie, unions, taxes, and regulations. The Democrats have already lost the 2010-midterm elections because they have already lost the narrative. And if they do lose big this November it will be because they appeared helpless to stop the draconian cuts in social programs that have eroded the quality of life at the state, county, and municipal levels, which are what people who vote in midterms are going to be thinking about the most. The Republicans didn’t have to “nationalize” the midterm elections because this time around the “local” politics are playing out in their favor.

Joseph Palermo

Crossposted with Joseph A Palermo

Published by the LA Progressive on September 8, 2010
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).