Saturday, October 30, 2010

Monsters, Noses, & What Comes Next: Thoughts on the 2010 Congressional Elections

Some liberal commentators have displayed something akin to a panic at the prospect of a big Republican win in Tuesday's congressional elections. Keith Olbermann, Paul Krugman, and others have expressed their despair that fickle voters would return to power the advocates of the failed policies that, among other things, decimated the U.S. economy, sending it plunging into the deep pit in which it now remains stubbornly trapped. They've correctly outlined the extreme reactionary nature of the current Republican party, a party that has adopted its lunatic fringe as its mainstream.

In my view, most of these liberals presently sounding the alarm see this last as too recent a development. It's actually something that's been going on for quite some time, and their failure to recognize it doesn't speak well of them. They're right about one thing, though--it really is worse than ever. The hard core of the American right has, for decades, been an ever-rightening gaggle of overly reactionary reactionaries, but, while the broader, less insane Republican party with which they largely associated has always been a relatively narrow coalition, there had always been some little room for more reasonable--or, more precisely, less unreasonable--voices. In recent decades, though, that hard core has dragged out the long knives and ran them through just about anyone who wasn't as brutish, stupid, insane, and ass-backwards as it is. This was greatly accelerated by the 2008 campaign and its immediate aftermath, which saw the Democrats absorbing larger portions of the moderate and run-of-the-mill conservative demographics, leaving the hard core right to rebuild the Republican party. They've made it into a monster more monstrous than it has been in the lifetime of most people reading these words.

Now, that monster stands poised to take over, and progressive commentators are beside themselves at the prospect.

Their "solution," however, is not terribly helpful. They just tell us we should hold our noses and vote for Democrats.

The "hold our noses" part is necessary because the Democrats, in the last two years, have been abysmal failures. The Obama not only failed to roll back the horror that was the above-the-law, dictatorial chief executive built by the Bush administration, it refused to prosecute those responsible for it, and has actually defended most of its elements from every substantive challenge, allowing it to pass into precedent. The Obama and his party entirely squandered the historical opportunity handed them by the public in 2008, a chance to really get some things done; instead of anything that could be mistake for progressive change, all we've gotten from them are warmed-over conservative Republican policies. Even if the Democrats pulled off some incredible upset win on Tuesday, there's absolutely no reason to believe they'd behave any differently for the next two years than they have for the last. The nose must be held if voting for most Democrats because they don't deserve our vote. Most people, I suspect, aren't going to give it to them, either.

It's clear that the far right is just as much a horror show today as its fiercest critics insist, and there's no doubt it could do a great deal of damage if allowed unfettered power. It's just as clear, though, that, in spite of the alarmist sentiment coming from the liberals, it isn't going to get that sort of unfettered power. The reactionaries aren't winning hearts and minds. There's been no sudden upsurge in public enthusiasm for far-right policies or attitudes. Indeed, most people totally--even viscerally--reject both. The only reason the reactionaries are even being allowed anywhere near power now is because, at a time when the economy is in the toilet and the Democrats who hold the majority suck, they control the Republican party, which, in a theoretically two-party state, is considered the only viable alternative for expressing discontent. If they were to win both houses of congress on Tuesday and were to begin implementing their nuttier policies, the public would turn on them instantly. The right has managed to, broadly, rule the U.S. for decades, regardless of which party had a majority, but the far right is inherently self-destructive.

That shouldn't be read as underplaying the damage it could more realistically do. Even without an overwhelming win, they could block any effort at reform. But then, again, practically no one, among the elected, is offering any real reform anyway. Would it really be such a loss if the Obama was prevented from implementing the same kind of Republican policies, in the second half of his term, as he did in the first half?

This election is historically significant for a few reasons. It's the first election after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the "Citizens United" case, which guaranteed a significant degree of conservative success at the polls. In the wake of that ruling, corporate America has flexed its muscles in the ongoing congressional campaigns, with Big Money frequently outspending the parties and candidates in an effort to purchase an even more compliant congress. As long as this ruling remains uncorrected, this trend will only get worse as time goes by. This is also a census year, and to the extent that Republicans win at the state level, they'll be the ones directing redistricting efforts in the states based on that census, using the process to gerrymander as many safe Republican districts as they can manage.

The energy of progressives, though, shouldn't be so heavily directed toward playing electoral politics and trying to maintain a temporary majority in government for those who are (or at least seem) less reactionary. That energy should, instead, have been directed toward pushing for progressive reforms from the Obama and the Democratic congressional majority for the past two years. Only days after Obama's election, Tom Englehardt wrote a prescient piece I approvingly quoted (with some caveats)[*] at the time:
"Leave Obama to them [political Washington] and he'll break your heart. If you do, then blame yourself, not him; but better than blaming anyone, pitch your own tent on the public commons and make some noise. Let him know that Washington's isn't the only consensus around, that Americans really do want our troops to come home, that we actually are looking for 'change we can believe in,' which would include a less weaponized, less imperial American world, based on a reinvigorated idea of defense, not aggression, and on the Constitution, not leftover Rumsfeld rules or a bogus Global War on Terror."
Progressive reformers didn't bother, and now, it's too late. Regardless of what happens with this election, liberals need to finally get off their asses, roll up their sleeves, and do what Englehardt suggested years ago: raise some hell, and keep raising it.



[*] The biggest one being that Englehardt gave Obama a pass on taking the blame. I thought--and think--he can take lots and lots of it.


Anonymous said...

I am 66% right there with you. I see having to vote for someone who doesn't represent my ideas and interest a mockery of democracy in the highest form.

So, the dilemma is, we're either to vote for the criminally dishonest and/or insane, or send a message to the people who spent 2 years laughing at poll numbers that tell them what their base wanted, that they still hold our vote hostage.

I actually think it's akin to the Patriot Act. Giving our consent to a terrible, unAmerican program, because it may protect us from the terrorists.

But I am 33% on their side, too. It is my fear of "two steps backwards, one step forward" where, if they are in charge, a future progressive victory might be in the form of... making schools public again. Or remaking Social Security.

I feel the damage will be intense, the opposition so insane, that I don't know where I'd stand, in the end.

Anonymous said...

Lemme just add to that.

It is possible to meet somewhere in the middle of these two points. Though I respect people like Olbermann's intentions, there's NO denying that it comes off as sniveling, that they would tell you to bite the bullet and vote democrat, with such ENTHUSIASM.

I'd respect someone a lot more if they were to say something like.. "Vote for them if the alternative is insanity, but never forget. Never forget their failures, and the indignity of forcing your hand. Start organizing a campaign to defeat them, the DAY they are elected, so that we never have to make such a disgusting decision in the future."

classicliberal2 said...

"It is my fear of 'two steps backwards, one step forward' where, if they are in charge, a future progressive victory might be in the form of... making schools public again. Or remaking Social Security."

A point I was trying to make in the original piece is that they can't do that level of damage--the public would crucify them if they even attempted it. Even the overwhelming majority of the people who will be voting for them don't support anything like that. I don't want to underplay the damage they could realistically do, but things that extreme are somewhere on the same scale of likelihood as an alien invasion, Britney Spears being admitted to MENSA, or Brett Ratner making a good movie.

Most of the liberal (as opposed to Democratic sycophant) commentators taking up the "vote Democratic" cause seem to offer a more-or-less realistic portrait of the sad mess we now have, and simply make a "lesser of two evils" argument, but I really dislike their habit of not hitting the Democrats harder when making their vote pitches. I'm definitely with you on that one--that's why I wrote the post to which we're replying at the moment. The time to have been loud and demanding was the last two years.

If Obama had harnessed the incredible enthusiasm that surrounded his election and used it to positive ends, he'd have been able to get nearly anything, and he and the Democrats would be unbeatable now.

He began, instead, by repeatedly and boldly insulting those who had just elected him. The echoes of their cheers hadn't even died out yet when he decided to cut them out of any prominent position in his administration, to appoint all the people he'd just defeated to run his foreign policy, and to invite fascist clown Rick Warren to deliver the benediction at his "historic" inauguration. And it never got any better.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so optimistic they won't act on their insane beliefs once they are in power. Why? Because years ago, I would have NEVER believed someone who came back in time and told me someone who literally ran from the press and bragged about it, had a shot at being elected.

But, oh, the power of infinite money. Even if they don't win, the precedent is set that they bought and spent their way to appearing legitimate as candidates.

'Niceguy' Eddie said...

Agreed entirely. (Still... how do YOU plan to vote? Because I'm certainly still "gonna hold my nose" and vote Dem, without a doubt!)

Just one observtaion... I think you give the American people and the power of democracy a lot more credit than I'm willing to right now. I'm not sure your relative optimism on either front is warranted.

classicliberal2 said...

"Just one observtaion... I think you give the American people and the power of democracy a lot more credit than I'm willing to right now. I'm not sure your relative optimism on either front is warranted."

I don't dabble in any illusions with regard to democracy or the public, or, at least, I hope I don't. People can be terribly misled, they can react badly out of anger or fear, or make bad choices when they don't feel as though they have any other, but, in the end, they usually get it right. It's a fact that progress is rarely consistent. It doesn't move in a straight line, but, measured over time, the trend-line is usually upward.

A lot of people will vote for Republicans today. If the Repubs win big, it won't be because their ideas have won--the public doesn't agree with what passes for "ideas" from them. It will only be because people are fed up, the economy is in the toilet, the Democrats suck, and, in a two-party state, the Repubs are seen as the only other viable option for expressing discontent. That doesn't give the Repubs any sort of mandate, and it doesn't put them on any sort of solid footing for the next election. It just means things are stalled for a while.