by: Ian Welsh
Mon Jan 04, 2010 at 00:01
Forty-five percent of the Democratic base now says they aren't going to vote in 2010 or are thinking of not voting. This is a direct result of Democrats in Congress and the Presidency doing things the base disagrees with or not doing things the base wants to see done. It appears politically stupid to act as they have, and yet, they did. So why?
Elected Democrats at the Federal level are members of the national elite. If they weren't a member when they were elected, they are quickly brought into the fold. They are surrounded by lobbyists, other members and staffers who were lobbyists, as a rule. They learn they need to raise immense amounts of money in the off years when normal people aren't giving, and that the only way to raise that money is for corporate interests and rich people to write the checks. They also receive the benefits of elite status, very quickly. It's not an accident that the every Senator except Bernie Sanders is wealthy.
Whatever Americans think, whether they support a public option or single payer; whether they're for or against Iraq or Afghanistan; whether they agree with bailing out banks or not, elite consensus is much much narrower than American public opinion. It starts at the center right and heads over to reactionary (repeal the entire progressive movement and the New Deal, taking America back to the 1890s).
The elites are convinced they know what has to be done. Not necessarily what's "best", but what is possible given the constraints they believe America operates under and the pressures which elected officials work with. So Obama can say, and mean, that if he were creating a medical system from scratch, he'd go with single payer. But he "knows" that's impossible, not just for political reasons, but because there are huge monied interests who would be horribly damaged or even destroyed by moving to single payer. On top of that, he looks at the amount of actual change required to shift all that money away from insurance companies and to reduce pharma profits, and to change which providers get paid what, and he sees it as immensely disruptive to the economy. In theory, it might lead to a better place, but to Obama, the disruption on the way there is unthinkable.
The same thing is true of the financial crisis. The banks may be technically insolvent, but the idea of nationalizing them all, or shutting them down and shifting the lending to other entities would mean that the most profitable (in theory, not in reality) sector of the economy would largely be wiped out. Add to that the fact that Obama was the largest recipient of Wall Street cash of the major candidates for the Presidency, and the immense influence the banks wield through their alumni who are placed throughout the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and other departments, and the idea of actually radically reforming the banking system becomes unthinkable. Virtually every technocrat giving Obama, or most Senators advice, will be against it.
Moreover they understand that with a few exceptions, the financial economy is the American economy. It's what the US sold to the rest of the world: pieces of paper in exchange for real money which could be used to import real goods, so Americans could live beyond their means.
Shut that down and what's going to replace it? How are you going to avoid an immediate meltdown of the US standard of living? How are you going to avoid a large part of the elite being wiped out? You or I may have answers to that, except to wiping out a large chunk of the elite, which is something which needs to be done, but those who grew up under the system, who believe in the system, and who ran the system don't. What they've done all their lives is what they understand. And more to the point the system has been good to them. The last 35 years may have been a bad time to be an ordinary American, but the elite has seen their wealth and income soar to levels even greater than the gilded age. The rich, in America, have never, ever, been as rich as they are now.
And if you're a member of the elite, your friends, your family, your colleagues—everyone you really care about, is a member of the elite or attached to it as a valued and very well paid retainer. For you, for everyone you care about, the system has worked. Perhaps, intellectually, you know it hasn't worked for ordinary people, but you aren't one of them, you aren't friends with them, and however much you care in theory about them, it's a bloodless intellectual empathy, not one born of shared experience, sacrifice and the bonds of friendship or love.
So when a big crisis comes, all of your instincts scream to protect your friends, your family, and the system which you grew up under, prospered under and which has been good to you. Moreover, you understand that system, or you think you do, and you believe that with a twiddle here and an adjustment there, it's a system you can make work again. Doing something radical, like single payer or nationalizing the banks or letting the banks fail and doing lending direct through the Fed and through credit unions: that's just crazy talk. Who knows how it would work, or if it would work? Why take a chance?
And so, until disaster turns into absolute catastrophe, the elites will fiddle with the dials, rather than engaging in radical change. When the time comes when it becomes clear even to them that radical change is required, they are far more likely to go with their preconceived notions of what's wrong with the US, which are very reactionary, than to go with liberal or progressive solutions.
So you're far more likely to see Medicare and Social Security gutted, than you are to see the military budget cut in a third or Medicare-for-all enacted. You're far more likely to see a movement to a flat tax (supported by idiot right wing populists) than you are to see a return to high marginal taxation.
To the elites, ordinary Americans are pretty much parasites. It's not the bankers, with their multi-trillion dollar bailouts who are the problem, it's old people with their Social Security and Medicare. The elites made it. They are rich and powerful. They believe that their success is due entirely to themselves (even if they inherited the money or position). If you didn't, then that means you don't deserve it.
Democratic party elected leaders, as a group, are members of this elite, or are henchmen (and some women) of this elite. They believe what the elites believe, and they live within a world whose boundaries are formed by those beliefs.
They have no intention of engaging in radical change which threatens elite, which is to say, their, prosperity and power. The financial industry must be saved, the medical industry must be saved. Social Security and Medicare, which they don't need and don't benefit from, not so much. The military, which funnels huge amounts of money to them, must continue to expand (in real terms military spending is now twice what it was in 2000.)
As long as elected Democrats at the Federal level are members of this elite, or identify with the elite they are not going to make fundamental changes against the interests of that elite.
And so, no, there is no "change" you can believe in from this class of Democrats. There is no "hope" of an America which is better for ordinary people.
That doesn't mean things are hopeless, but it does mean there's little hope for anything radical from this Congress or President.
As Adam Smith pointed out, there's a lot of ruin in a nation. America's going to have to endure a lot more of it before things actually change.
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