In Brief: 17,000-Word Critique of 'Kabuki Democracy'

A comprehensive examination of the political system's flaws

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The Obama administration has been a disappointment so far, argues crusading liberal writer Eric Alterman. His 17,000 word critique, published in The Nation, was dubbed an "agenda-setter" by Beltway-favorite Mike Allen of Politico. If you don't have time to get through the whole story today--or if only to whet your appetite for the whole thing--here's a digest version.


Few progressives would take issue with the argument that, significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment. As Mario Cuomo famously observed, candidates campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Still, Obama supporters have been asked to swallow some painfully "prosaic" compromises.


None of us know what lies inside the president's heart. It's possible that he fooled gullible progressives during the election into believing he was a left-liberal partisan when in fact he is much closer to a conservative corporate shill. An awful lot of progressives, including two I happen to know who sport Nobel Prizes on their shelves, feel this way, and their perspective cannot be completely discounted. The Beltway view of Obama, meanwhile, posits just the opposite ... [T]he president's problem is that he and his allies in the Democratic Party "just overplayed their hand in the last year and a half, moving policy too far left, sparking an equal and opposite reaction in the rightward direction."... Personally, I tend more toward the view expressed by the young, conservative New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, that Obama is "a doctrinaire liberal who's always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf.


The American political system is nothing if not complicated and so too are the reasons for its myriad points of democratic dysfunction. Some are endemic to our constitutional regime and all but impossible to address save by the extremely cumbersome (and profoundly unlikely) prospect of amending the Constitution. Others are the result of a corrupt capital culture that likes it that way and has little incentive to change. Many are the result of the peculiar commercial and ideological structure of our media, which not only frame our political debate but also determine which issues will be addressed. A few are purely functions of the politics of the moment or just serendipitous bad luck. And if we really mean to change things, instead of just complaining about them, it would behoove us to figure out which of these choke points can be opened up and which cannot.


Faced with countless challenges merely to restore some sensible equilibrium to US policy regarding say, long-term deficits or financial regulation, Obama faces the conundrum of a system that, as currently constructed, gives the minority party no strategic stake in sensible governance. The two parties are demonstrably different in this respect. Democrats, even in the minority, participate in solutions designed to improve governance. ... This is rarely true of Republicans, who are suspicious of government on principle and opposed to successful programs in practice. ... The minority party has myriad means to bottle up legislation, and owing to a breakdown in comity among senators, no special interest is deemed too small or insignificant to monkey up the works.


Of course when attempting to determine why the people's will is so frequently frustrated in our system, any author would be remiss if he did not turn first and foremost to the power of money. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics calculated that approximately $3.47 billion was spent lobbying the federal government in 2009, up from $3.3 billion the previous year ... Despite his attempts to transform the way business is transacted in Washington, special interest money worked its will through Barack Obama's agenda in Congress to the point where it is simply foolish to discuss almost any issue without focusing first on who was buying what from whom.
The problems caused by money in the system are certain to worsen in the near future as a result of the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down a century of laws limiting such corporate spending for political candidates as part of their rights to "free speech." This has opened up new opportunities for all corporations, but none so much as those working through the US Chamber of Commerce, which now acts as a middleman for many corporations looking to act without footprints.


Americans are often said to be philosophically liberal but programmatically conservative. Such tendencies are reinforced by what appears to be a historically immutable libertarian streak, coupled with a distrust of centralized power in both liberal and conservative political traditions, which considerably complicate any efforts at liberal reform. It was the liberal hero Thomas Paine who first opined that "the government is best which governs least," and this retains a powerful appeal to many Americans regardless of the merits of any given government program.


As a result of a more-than-forty-year assault on journalism by right-wing funders--coupled with the decimation of so many once-proud journalistic institutions--an awful lot of the most influential perches in what remains of our media are populated by people whose loyalty to journalism is vastly outweighed by their commitment to conservative talking points.


All of the developments discussed above represent significant structural impediments to a progressive-minded president seeking to carry out his democratic mandate, even one who comes to Washington with ostensibly impregnable majorities in both houses of Congress ... Obviously, if America is to be rescued from the grip of its current democratic dysfunction, then merely electing better candidates to Congress is not going to be enough. We need a system that has better, fairer rules; reduces the role of money; and keeps politicians and journalists honest in their portrayal of what's actually going on.


Since the Obama administration is clearly happier with a top-down approach, progressives who take movement organizing seriously need to develop their institutions independently. To do so, however, they will have to put aside traditional differences that have separated them in the past, particularly those between liberals and progressives who think of themselves as left of liberal. ... Of course progressives need to keep up the pressure they have begun to place on the mainstream media not to adopt the deliberately misleading and frequently false frames foisted on readers and viewers by an increasingly self-confident and well-funded right-wing noise machine. ... Indeed, with regard to almost every single one of our problems, we need better, smarter organizing at every level and a willingness on the part of liberals and leftists to work with what remains of the center to begin the process of reforms that are a beginning, rather than an endpoint in the process of societal transformation.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.