Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Obama and the Continuing Disintegration of the Center-Left

I was going to post something about Obama’s apparent decision to endorse a “compromise” semi-surge in Afghanistan, but then it occurred to me that there is nothing new to talk about; it is the same old, same old. He is continuing his own pattern of leading-by-following, and in this he is representative of the global center-left, which has been slowly putting itself to sleep since the 1980s. This is worth a few words, perhaps.

In a sense, it all goes back to the return of the hard right as a potent political force in the 1980s. This was more pronounced in the English-speaking world than elsewhere, but a parallel pattern can be seen in societies that had stronger social-democratic traditions. For various reasons, the leading parties—the Democrats in the US, Labor in England, the Social Democrats in Germany, the Socialists in France, the party-of-the-month in Italy (currently the Democrats)—came to redefine themselves as the non-right. Vote for us, they said, and prevent the right from undoing our former hard-won victories.

In part, this transformation reflected a misreading of the new political climate. The problem was defined as “appealing to the voters” and assembling a governing majority, but this was the symptom, not the cause. As a mass of polling data largely confirms, there has been no seismic shift in public opinion; this is not why the roll-back right has gained the initiative.

In a capitalist society, where prosperity depends on business investment and politicking itself is a capital-intensive enterprise, governing majorities are always assembled from the top. First there must be a sufficiently large segment of business and financial interests willing to mobilize behind a political project, and then this project must be sold to the electorate. The rise of the right is based in large part on the coalescing of such a mosaic of elites behind their program. Sometimes they win and sometimes they lose in their pursuit of an electoral majority, but they are always a force, and each win further institutionalizes their objectives.

The core problem of the center-left is that they do not have a base in the business/financial upper tier, except as a brake on the ambitions of the right. In other words, they do not have a program that can attract the support of enough of these interests, which they can then take to the voters. But without a program they become progressively less effective as political mobilizers, and they achieve little to nothing in their terms in office.

In Europe the crisis of the center-left has reached its Wiley Coyote moment. In most of these countries the political system is organized to permit a number of minority parties, and voters who still believe that parties should have programs have abandoned the center-left dinosaurs for these alternatives. In no country, however, is there any prospect that one of the newcomers, or even a coalition of them, will succeed in governing. The triumph of the right, in the context of one of capitalism’s worst traumas, is mainly a matter of filling a vacuum.

In the US the Democrats stumble on as the party of the non-neocons. The Bush legacy elected Obama, just as Clinton survived thanks to the willingness of Newt Gingrich to periodically scare the bejesus out of everyone with a modicum of reality contact. But there has been and is no program. Obama’s “program” in health care is to get a bill passed, whatever its content. His “program” on climate change is to get a bill passed, eventually, of some sort. His “program” on finance is to prevent a collapse and hope that the system will reform itself. His “program” on Afghanistan is to identify the minimum number of additional troops that will protect Democrats from the accusation that they are soft and unpatriotic. In short, he is likely to further hollow out the Democratic Party as a political enterprise and leave little legacy of social progress. The only reason the Democrats will not implode as their European counterparts have is that our system effectively excludes minority parties, and the Republicans are scarier than ever.

We need a dramatically different direction in politics.


Anonymous said...

Don't worry Peter. The next slickly packaged new thing will be along in just a minute, so you will be able to pour all your hopes and dreams into another savior who will end up stepping on your face to hand those dreams over to Wall Street.

That person is already being groomed...

Sandwichman said...

"We need a dramatically different direction in politics."

Agreed. What happened in the 1980s -- i.e., Reagan/Thatcher -- was not so much "a return of the hard right" as the formation of a new growth and foreign policy coalition that contained elements from the old New Deal/Great Society coalition (the neo-conservatives). To understand the 1980s, you have to go back to the break up of the liberal consensus in 1967-68, particularly over the Vietnam War but also with respect to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The center-left strategy through Clinton and Obama has been to try to resurrect the old liberal coalition. It is a strategy that gives a veto to the most reactionary elements of the old coalition and makes it beholden to Lieberman. It is quite obviously not a dramatically different direction.

The supposed left part of the center-left strategy suffers from a nostalgia for the New Deal, which overlooks the important detail that the power balance within that earlier coalition was radically different than anything that could be wired together today.

Today's left in the center-left coalition takes a position closest to the realists of the 1930s coalition; the centrists today correspond to the old center-right and today's "moderates" are recycled Hoover Republicans. The Old Left of the 1930s died out and the New Left of the 1960s masturbated themselves into one or another variety of impotence.

The key to a "dramatically different direction in politics" may well be a reconsideration of the legacy of the New Deal realists (starting with section 7(a) of the NIRA). Make no mistake -- Obama's surge in Afghanistan is brought to you by the same thinking that guided LBJ into the quagmire in Vietnam. But the Pentagon Papers were so long, long ago, all is forgotten if not forgiven.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

If this whining keep up, I really am going to vomit...The never was a Camelot - it was a movie!

TheTrucker said...

This was one very, very good post from Peter Dorman whether I or anyone else agree with all or part of it. The EconoSpeak blog needed it.

After all, the name of the "science" was once "Political Economy". For it is ever the politics that control the economy.

There is need among economists to "wake up" to the political problem, but that need doesn't exist in the common ranks. In here we are well aware of the political problem. And it is the top down nature that is the real malady. Based on the original Madison sales job, the House of Representatives should have either 6,000 or 10,000 Members.

Check this out


_NO_ _WAY_ was the Senate to have been elected in state wide elections. James Madison would puke.

We have a "top down" government because the people have no real power. In smaller electoral districts the representatives cannot be isolated from the voters and blow dried by Wall Street. State legislatures should decide how to determine who will represent the state in the US Senate.

"Increasingly, Senators were elected based on state referenda, similar to the means developed by Oregon. By 1912, as many as 29 states elected Senators either as nominees of party primaries, or in conjunction with a general election. As representatives of a direct election process, the new Senators supported measures that argued for new legislation, but in order to achieve total election reform, a constitutional amendment was required.

The Congress had resisted proposing the amendment and so the states pushed to take action into their hands. Usually only the Congress proposes amendments, but two thirds of the states can call for a new constitutional convention to propose amendments (in either case, ratification by three-fourths of the states is required for adoption). By 1910, 31 states had called for such a convention (one short of the then-required number), putting additional pressure on the Congress to propose the amendment.[3]"

Tom Geraghty said...

I'm confused by this post.

You say, "The core problem of the center-left is that they do not have a base in the business/financial upper tier . . . they do not have a program that can attract the support of enough of these interests . . ."

But then, you criticize Obama for essentially trying to do exactly that -- come up with a program that has some semblance of being progressive while also being acceptable to the business/financial upper tier.

And what exactly is this "dramatically different political direction" that will result in a robust center-left program that will be acceptable to business and financial elites?

We need a left wing that can scare the bejeezus out of the elites as much or more so than Ginricha and the teabaggers?

Tom Geraghty said...

I guess it might also help if (when) there were (is) another economic crisis on the scale of the Great Depression to delegitimize business/financial elites and economic orthodoxy.

Is that what we're reduced to? Waiting for the next Depression?