There can be little doubt that the biggest loser in this election was the political brand of Karl Rove and his politics of divisiveness and fear. The major policies of the Bush administration, including the war in Iraq and its overwhelming bias toward the super-rich, were also repudiated. Earth to Neo-Cons: In the words of Sarah Palin, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
What remains unclear, however, is what kind of mandate president-elect Obama and the Democrats received. What we can say, even this early in the game, it that it is evident who will have a seat at the table as a direct representative with a participatory role, and who will not.
Business as Usual: Wall Street and the DLC on Top, Others on Tap
The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), along with many top corporate representatives– especially from the financial sector—and some moderate Republicans, are already on the short list of candidates for cabinet posts. Let’s call them pragmatic, experienced centrists (PECs). Let’s acknowledge that Obama needed the Clinton DLC for its past experience; that pragmatism is needed to seek workable solutions for urgent problems; and that governing from the center best fits his personal style as a bargainer and as a diplomatic conciliator,
And yet—something is missing. Where is the voice of even a single significant and experienced representative of ordinary working Americans or public-interest groups representing them? The short list of those missing in action so far: labor; women (remember them?), environmentalists; veterans; the peace movement; and civil rights, anti-poverty, consumer, and public interest groups, among others. They may be added later, but so far there are none. Such candidates exist. Take, for example, Dean Baker, an economist who predicted the economic meltdown and spoke out against a massive corporate bailout. James Galbraith, Joseph Steiglitz, Bill McKibbon or [insert your favorite non-DLC economic policy expert here] also come to mind.
“But Obama Will Listen to Liberals and Ordinary Americans”
Obama may listen to liberals and progressives and will certainly implement some reforms. But those seeking access must first pass the PEC gatekeeper, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Surely there are strong gatekeepers other than him. His appointment undercuts Obama’s claim of seeking to reach out and to listen, unless you think a dead fish in the mail is an effective means of outreach. More importantly, we need to ask how much Obama is beholden to such DLC operatives–whose de-regulation policies aided and abetted the economic problem we now experience (i.e. NAFTA, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act) and who went along with the Bush war policies that led to the military occupations we now are mired in.
Can This Party Save Us or Be Saved from Itself?
Most Western democracies govern by means of a parliamentary system, ensuring at least some political diversity, accountability, and minority representation. Americans, in contrast, are enamored of a “winner take all” system in both their electoral and their legal arenas. Reform measures—take your pick—Instant Run-off Voting (IRV), public financing of elections, and others that might move us towards more inclusive representation are eschewed.
In the past election, even in states with projections of large Democratic majorities, third parties failed monumentally. In California, they netted only 1% of the vote, far short of the 5% minimum needed to be competitive. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi trounced peace activist Cindy Sheehan. Whether or not one favors any particular alternative candidate, this demonstrates the degree to which the DLC-dominated Democratic party is potentially positioned to resist progressive orientations to issues. Of course, the major operative force working against more progressive political alternatives is money—which Obama and the DLC garnered more effectively than did the GOP. Much of it was from the financial sector.
The Mixed Message of the California Election
Progressives have much to rejoice about in the past election with the election of the first Black president and the repudiation of the neo-cons. But there is also much that does not inspire hope for meaningful change. It is not just the problem of lack of resources for social programs. Nor is it that supposedly liberal California endorsed institutional racism (see Proposition 5); and adopted discrimination into the state Constitution (see Proposition 8).
This is a byproduct of the lack of any countervailing force to a two-party system awash in money, the driving force to resistance of more fundamental reforms. Unless progressive democrats, independents, and third-party activists can rally their forces into some form of coalition, I fear any meaningful change will be aborted or short-lived. The PECs need to be sent a message quickly and forcefully. Mine would be: Don’t offer us petty cash or deny us a seat at the table. Otherwise, you can keep your small “change.” And to the grassroots, I would say: ”Organize!”
Gene Rothman, DSW, LCSW, is a retired social worker who worked with homeless and incarcerated veterans in the latter part of his career. He is active with Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles (PDLA) and Families to Amend Three Strikes (FACTS.) He also writes an occasional monthly editorial for the Social Action/Social Justice Council published in the “NASW California News.” The opinions expressed here are his alone.