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American Politics: Football with a Script

November 13th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I follow U.S. politics because I think it’s important to know who’s pulling the levers of power in the world’s most powerful country, but it often feels like watching a game of football. The Democrats had possession of the ball for two years, and during that time they pushed legislation while the Republicans mounted a strong defense, limiting them to a field goal at best. The Democrats’ recent loss of the House of Representatives prompted them to punt the ball and gear up to spend the next two years on defense, defending themselves against relentless investigations as well as the inevitable push to undo the good parts of health care and financial reform.

But something about this match doesn’t seem right. All of the moves seem choreographed, the outcome pre-determined. It feels less like a sporting event and more like a scripted reality TV series in which the actors already know what’s coming but they try to act surprised when it does.

I’m not the only one who had the idea that the Democrats were trying to throw the 2010 election. Some were making that claim as early as March, when the Democrats’ refusal to put the public option for health insurance up for a vote revealed to everyone with a shred of intelligence that they never actually wanted it in the first place. The public option would have been a touchdown for the Democrats, exactly the kind of genuine systemic change that the voters were hoping for when they went to the polls in 2008, but they never even made a serious push for the end-zone.

Clearly there were other forces at work—forces more powerful than either of the teams on the field—who had determined from the beginning that there would be no government-run health insurance option to compete with the profit-driven corporations. All the Democrats needed was a good excuse to give it up. Republican filibusters worked perfectly when the Democrats had 60 seats, as all they needed were one or two conservative Democrats to play the villain and join the Republican filibuster until the public option was removed. But when Scott Brown was elected and the Democrats had no choice but to push the legislation through under a process that required a simple majority, the Democrats were caught with their pants down. That wasn’t part of the script.

It should have been obvious to everyone then and there that the public option’s failure had been planned all along. But the corporate media did its job by brushing it off and diverting peoples’ attention long enough for the Democrats to pick their pants back up and go on pretending that they were actually trying to get real reform done.

That was a deeply significant moment. The fact that politicians from both parties are working to serve the corporations and not ordinary Americans has seldom been more obvious.

I believe we’re at another one of those moments of clarity right now. There’s no reason the Democrats should have lost the mid-term elections as badly as they did. Even with their constant caving-in on the most significant aspects of legislation, they still managed to get a lot more positive things done than the Republicans have for as long as I can remember. People may have short attention spans but they still remember the eight disastrous years of the Bush administration and the economic crisis brought to us by Republican policies. The Democrats had a winning narrative if they’d only chosen to aggressively push it, but they didn’t. Rather than constantly remind people of what a miserable failure Republican policies have been for the middle class, many Democrats chose to run against their own party, touting all the ways in which they were unlike the president and more like their Republican opponents.

The fact that the Democrats who most blatantly followed that strategy did poorly in the elections should have made it clear that it’s not compromise and capitulation that voters are after, but real significant change. With a few notable exceptions, strong progressive fighters won and corporatists lost. The message of the elections on the Democratic side should be clear: Democratic voters want their leaders to stand up to the Republicans and fight for real change, and if they don’t see that happening they’re going to stay home.

But that wasn’t the message the Democrats were supposed to get, and they seem to be going to great lengths not to get it.

According to the script they all seem to be following, the Democrats were supposed to lose big in 2010 and thus put a stop to the two-year period of reform that the country’s most powerful interests decided to allow. They got everything they wanted under Bush (short of the privatization of Social Security) and enriched themselves greatly at the expense of the middle class. The demand for reforms were so great in 2008 that they must have decided to toss the people a bone, to let the Democrats take the ball for awhile and give progressives the impression that they were getting what they wanted. Naturally, they wouldn’t let anything too drastic go through, but they’d succeed in getting half of progressives to believe that what they did get was the best they could hope for.

At this point, half of the people still reading this will be rolling their eyes and dismissing me as a conspiracy theorist. Half the people really believe that the Democrats did the best they could for the American people and the reason they lost the election is that independent voters decided they didn’t actually want liberal policies.

But consider how well the theory fits the facts: The Democrats had a chance to vote on the Bush tax-cuts before the election. They could have extended those tax-cuts for 98% of Americans and let the cuts for the wealthiest 2% revert back to pre-Bush levels. Not only would this have taken $700 billion out of the deficit, but it would have been extremely popular. The Democrats could have shown themselves to be true fighters for the middle class, willing to do something that would only benefit them and not the super-rich. They might have even been able to ride the issue to electoral victory.

But they decided not to force a vote, and look what happened. As expected, the Republicans won control of the House (and they would have won the Senate too if it weren’t for unscripted elements like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell) and the peddlers of conventional wisdom in the mainstream media immediately started calling for the president to get “back in the center”, to “show some love for Republican leaders”—essentially to bow his head. Some have even gone so far as to say Obama shouldn’t even run for a second term and instead spend the next two years doing everything the Republicans want him to do.

Suddenly there’s an opening to extend those Bush tax-cuts for the top 2% after all! The president can say he’s doing it in response to the election results, as though the voters’ most resounding message was to cut those poor rich people a break.

There was never any chance that the rich would let their taxes go up in the first place. They just had to dangle that out there, make it seem like a real possibility so that progressives would go on believing that the system can still be potentially changed from within. The script may have its twists and turns, but in the end the rich always get what they want.

The truly ominous thing is what lies on the horizon regarding spending cuts. Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission revealed their proposals this past week, extremely unpopular measures including cutting Social Security and Medicare, raising the retirement age, slashing the federal workforce, and increasing the gas tax, all while cutting taxes for corporations!  (And how convenient that this should come at a time when the president is in Asia and can’t be easily reached for comment?)

From here the narrative should move in a very predictable direction. Obama and the Democrats can play the good guys as they criticize these proposals, but in the end they’ll have to implement some of them. It’ll be mirror-image of the health care fight: rather than being forced to give up on the best elements in order to get the half-decent ones through, we’ll be forced to accept some of the least objectionable proposals in order to prevent the most egregious from going through. And just as those of us who complained about the public option’s failure were told that we were too liberal and shouldn’t complain just because we didn’t get “every last thing” we wanted, we’ll now be told that we shouldn’t complain just because we didn’t block “every last thing” we didn’t want. Some compromise was necessary, they’ll say. Obama and the Democrats did the best they could.

It should be abundantly clear by now that Obama and the Democrats are not doing the best they can. It’s as though they’ve got wide receivers in the end-zone during every play but the quarterback just runs a few yards before allowing himself to be tackled. Whether he ultimately falls short of the first-down and loses re-election remains to be seen, but judging from the direction the script has been going so far I’d say it’s a distinct possibility.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying there is some organized group of wealthy and powerful individuals who really have planned out the entire political football match ahead of time (though that idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds). It’s enough that the system is rigged in such a way as to ensure the best possible outcome for the already-rich-and-powerful every time. They’ve got enough money to buy enough politicians who will do their bidding. Not every Democrat agrees to follow the script, but enough of them do. And sadly, the president is one of them.

That is what the progressive movement is confronted with right now. They thought they’d finally found someone to change the game when they got Obama elected in 2008, but since then they’ve just been playing the exact same game in which the outcome is predetermined. They think the president should do more passing and less running, but they’re not suggesting he quit the game altogether.

It’s up to us to leave the stadium and go directly to the script-writers themselves. We have to demand that they burn what they’ve written so far and start composing a new story, one in which our team actually tries to win, or perhaps even one in which there are more than just two teams to root for.

We need a script in which the income disparity between the rich and the middle class actually goes down, where the federal deficit is reduced by cutting military spending and not entitlements, where Americans are put back to work through massive investment in infrastructure and research, where we actually do something about climate change and environmental destruction, where Wall Street bankers actually face consequences for crashing the economy, where war criminals are put to justice even if they used to be the president or vice president, where homosexuals have the same rights as everyone else, where billions of dollars a year aren’t flushed down the toilet on a failed war on drugs, and where every child has the same opportunities as every other child regardless of where they come from.

But that script is very difficult to write. The one we’ve got now is much easier: put all our hopes in politicians and lament our helplessness as those hopes are dashed repeatedly. Watch our team get crushed and go home in defeat. Until we acknowledge what’s actually going on—that American politics is just a scripted game of football designed to keep us all in line—that’s all we’re going to be doing.

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