What’s the big lesson for American from the Bush-Obama years?

Here is an excerpt from an article that deserves to be read in full.  You’ll see in Hayes’ recommendation the vagueness that results from unwillingness to say that we’re responsible for our problems — and only we can fix them.  Instead he resorts to abstractions like “democratization”, long words that in effect hope for the Blue Fairy to make our system work better.

 “System Failure

by Christopher Hayes, The Nation, 14 January 2010 — I have inserted headlines dividing this article into 4 sections.

  1. History
  2. Analysis
  3. Diagnosis
  4. Treatment

(1)  History

There is a widespread consensus that the decade we’ve just brought to a close was singularly disastrous for the country …

American progressives were the first to identify that something was deeply wrong with the direction the country was heading in and the first to provide a working hypothesis for the cause: George W. Bush. During the initial wave of antiwar mobilization, in 2002, much of the ire focused on Bush himself. But as the decade stretched on, the causal account of the country’s problems grew outward in concentric circles: from Bush to his administration (most significantly, Cheney) to the Republican Party to–finally (and not inaccurately)–the entire project of conservative governance.

As much of the country came to share some version of this view (tenuously, but share it they did), the result was a series of Democratic electoral sweeps and a generation of Americans, the Millennials, with more liberal views than any of their elder cohorts…

If the working hypothesis that bound this unwieldy coalition together — independents, most liberals and the Washington establishment — was that the nation’s troubles were chiefly caused by the occupants of the White House, then this past year has served as a kind of natural experiment. We changed the independent variable (the party and people in power) and can observe the results. It is hard, I think, to come to any conclusion but that the former hypothesis was insufficient.

(2)  Analysis

So what, exactly, is it that ails us? In pondering the answer, it’s useful to distinguish between two separate categories of problems we face.

  • The first are the human, economic and ecological disasters that demand immediate action: a grossly inefficient healthcare sector, millions un- or underinsured, 10 percent unemployment, a planet that’s warming, soaring personal bankruptcies, 12 million immigrants working in legal limbo, the list goes on.
  • But the deeper problem, the ultimate cause of many of the first-order problems, is the perverse maldistribution of power in the country: too much in too few hands. It didn’t happen overnight, of course, and the devolution has been analyzed and decried by a host of writers and thinkers in these very pages.

It’s also not the first time. Indeed, the story of the American Republic is the never-ending task of redistributing power that always seems to collect and pool and re-form, a cycle in which we break up the power trusts, only to find them reassembling, Terminator 2-like, and requiring yet another dose of the founders’ revolutionary fervor to be broken up again. The central and unique paradox of our politics at this moment, however, is that our institutions are so broken, the government so sclerotic and dysfunctional, that in almost all cases, from financial bailouts to health insurance mandates, the easiest means of addressing the first set of problems is to take steps that exacerbate the second.

(3)  Diagnosis

… There’s a word for a governing philosophy that fuses the power of government and large corporations as a means of providing services and keeping the wheels of industry greased, and it’s a word that has begun to pop up among critics of everything from the TARP bailout to healthcare to cap and trade: corporatism. Since corporatism often merges the worst parts of Big Government and Big Business, it’s an ideal target for both the left and right. The ultimate corporatist moment, the bailout, was initially voted down in the House by an odd-bedfellows coalition of Progressive Caucus members and right-wingers.

In the wake of the healthcare sausage-making, writers from Tim Carney on the right (author of the provocative Obamanomics) and Glenn Greenwald on the left have attacked the bill as the latest incarnation of corporatism, a system they see as the true enemy. There is even some talk among activists of a grand left-right populist coalition coming together to depose the entrenched interests that hold sway in Washington. Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake touted her work with libertarians to oppose Ben Bernanke, more AIG bailouts and the Senate healthcare bill (“What we agree on: both parties are working against the interests of the public, the only difference is in the messaging”); David McKalip, the tea-party doctor who got into trouble for forwarding an image of Obama with a bone through his nose, wrote an open letter to the netroots proposing that they join him in fighting the “real enemy,” the “unholy corporate/government cabal that will control your healthcare.”

I don’t think that coalition is going to emerge in any meaningful form. The right’s anger is born largely of identity-based alienation, a fear of socialism (whatever that means nowadays) and an age-old Bircher suspicion that “they” are trying to screw “us.” Even in its most sophisticated forms, such as in Carney’s Obamanomics, the basic right-wing argument against corporatism embraces a kind of fatalism about government that assumes it will always devolve into a rat’s nest of rent seekers and cronies and therefore should be kept as small as possible.

… But the corporatism on display in Washington is itself a symptom of a broader social illness that I noted above, a democracy that is pitched precariously on the tipping point of oligarchy. In an oligarchy, the only way to get change is to convince the oligarchs that it is in their interest — and increasingly, that’s the only kind of change we can get.

In 1911 the German democratic socialist Robert Michels faced a similar problem, and it was the impetus for his classic book Political Parties. He was motivated by a simple question: why were parties of the left, those most ideologically committed to democracy and participation, as oligarchical in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right? Michels’s answer was what he called “The Iron Law of Oligarchy.”  {Wikipedia}  In order for any kind of party or, indeed, any institution with a democratic base to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. As this bureaucratic structure develops, it invests a small group of people with enough power that they can then subvert the very mechanisms by which they can be held to account: the party press, party conventions and delegate votes. “It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors,” he wrote, “of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.”

(4)  Recommended Treatment

What the country needs more than higher growth and lower unemployment, greater income equality, a new energy economy and drastically reduced carbon emissions is a redistribution of power, a society-wide epidemic of re-democratization. The crucial moments of American reform and progress have achieved this: from the direct election of senators to the National Labor Relations Act, from the breakup of the trusts to the end of Jim Crow.

About the author

Christopher Hayes is The Nation‘s Washington, DC Editor. His essays, articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Nation,The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, The Guardian and The Chicago Reader. From 2005 to 2006, Hayes was a Schumann Center Writing Fellow at In These Times. He is currently a fellow at the New America Foundation. His wife works in the White House Counsel’s office.

Click here to see his articles in The Nation.

For more information on the FM site

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.   Such as…

Posts on the FM site about solutions, ways to reform America

  1. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  2. Obama might be the shaman that America needs, 17 July 2008
  3. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  4. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008  
  5. Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  6. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  7. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
  8. What happens next? Advice for the new President, part one., 17 October 2008
  9. What to do? Advice for the new President, part two., 18 October 2008
  10. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
  11. The first step on the road to America’s reform, 29 May 2009
  12. The first step to reforming America (the final version), 7 December 2009

Afterword

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