The 1990s Are Over. Has Anyone Noticed?
Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 02:44:18 PM PST
As we reach the end of the Zeroes, the first
decade of the 21st century, it may seem an odd question to ask whether
anyone has realized the previous decade, the 1990s, are over.
Yet judging by the discussions in recent days about the health care
bill, progressive activism, left-right alliances, corporatism, etc, it
is quite clear to me that way too many people are still trapped in
obsolete political thinking more appropriate to the 1990s than to
today. By doing so they've lost touch with fundamental changes that
require us to shift the way we think about our politics if we are to
get the things done that we entered politics to achieve.
I'll start with this matter of "corporatism." Glenn
Greenwald was essentially correct
in identifying corporate power as the primary obstacle for
progressives, as the main opposing force we face. Unfortunately a lot
of the discussion about his article has focused on the issue of
"left-right alliances," obscuring the truth of the matter.
If you want to defeat the right, we must defeat corporatism.
This is a truth I thought we'd all learned during the decade now
ending, but apparently we did not.
The right-wing in the United States is still a fringe movement when
you look at its overall numbers. Teabaggers are a noisy but tiny group
not worth the concern. Even after 30+ years of right-wing dominance of
our politics, their ideas remain fundamentally unpopular.
So why do they dominate politics? Because they made an
alliance with the corporations.
This isn't some conspiracy theory, this is lived reality and
historical fact. In 1971 future Supreme Court justice and right-wing
activist Lewis Powell wrote a famous plan, known as the Powell
arguing that corporations needed to fund a network of right-wing
institutions in order to protect their profits and their power.
Although there is some debate
about just how influential the Powell Memo was, we do know that its
ideas were indeed taken up in the years after 1971. Billionaires like
the Scaifes helped fund some of the key right-wing institutions in this
country, just as oil companies have funded
groups like the Reason Foundation
in order to mainstream far-right ideas. Oil company money is a
well-known source of climate denialism; Fox News is still a loss leader
for Murdoch, Ailes and co.; and a whole class of movement conservatives
make their living on wingnut welfare
- people whose books don't sell and who can't get real jobs that are
instead able to become right-wing pundits because they're subsidized by
People like Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, etc, etc, would
never have become major figures in our politics all on their own.
Without the support of corporate power, right-wing ideas may well have
remained on the margins of American life, where they'd been since the
1930s. It was not at all inevitable that those ideas would become
mainstream by the late 1970s - corporate power and money put them
there, and corporate power and money keep them there.
There is indeed a lot of anger at corporations among the right-wing
base. But their leaders are experts at channeling that populist anger
in other directions - against the government, against the media,
against liberals, against people of color, against women, against
non-Christians, foreigners, on and on.
And it is possible to win some of those people over to progressive
populism. Perhaps not many, but enough to make the effort worthwhile.
Not as high a priority as organizing the younger and infrequent voters
who are far more deeply progressive into a powerful political force,
but still worth doing if the opportunity presents itself.
Yet neither of those things - exploiting anti-corporate resentments
among some of the right-wing base for our purposes, or solidifying the
great progressive base into a powerful movement - will occur until we
all recognize that the 1990s are over, and stop trying to relive its
What I mean by "1990s politics" is the notion that progressives must
abandon their own beliefs, desires, wants and needs, and sign on to a
neoliberal, pro-corporate agenda that is inimical to them out of a
deliberately misstated assessment of "political reality." 1990s
politics was dominated by the notion, embodied in Bill Clinton, that
progressive values may be correct, but they are fringe, unrealistic,
fanciful, and when held fast, are a threat to incremental change and
enables the possibility of a right-wing resurgence.
As we should have learned at the end of the 1990s, and especially
during the 2000s, the exact opposite is true: it is neoliberalism
and pro-corporate policies that are unrealistic and open the
door to a right-wing resurgence. But few people seem interested in
learning that lesson.
Until we break down and abandon 1990s politics, we'll never allow
ourselves to lead the fight against corporatism that the American
people desire and deserve. And we will merely repeat the mistakes of
the last 30 years, empowering our most basic enemies - the corporations
- and let our other enemy, the right, back into office.
Let's take a closer look at what I mean by this. There are a number
of pernicious ways that progressives are inveigled or forced to abandon
what we know to be true and right, and throw our support to a political
program, neoliberalism, that is inherently hostile to us.
- Espousing progressive rhetoric, but excluding
progressives and their ideas from the policymaking process.
Neoliberal politics as practiced by center-left figures like Bill
Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama rely on the mobilization of
progressive support through use of progressive frames and ideas in
speeches, while excluding progressives from the actual sausage-making.
Progressives are not given equal seats at the negotiating table -
instead deals that favor corporations and enhance their wealth and
power are cut without progressive input, and get sold with progressive
branding. Progressives are then told to support that deal as "the best
we can get" or as "a historic progressive achievement" even if in fact
it is neither.
- Misstating "political reality". Too
many progressives have been taken in by the lie that the neoliberal
assessment of political realities is true - that we have to coddle
conservative Democratic Senators instead of organizing to break them
and win their votes. "This is the best we can get given the present
circumstances" can be a powerful argument to progressives who
desperately want to do something about health care
reform, for example and who do not believe in their own power to
achieve progressive reforms. This frame ignores the fact that
"political reality" is malleable, but it's a widely held belief
nonetheless. Typical politics involves someone encountering opposition
and, instead of assuming that opponent - Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman - is
firm, you instead find ways to either break them or go around them. It
has been done many times before and can be done again. Neoliberals
don't want to do this, because people like Nelson and Lieberman share
their political goals. Progressives should want to do this,
but they talk themselves out of it by accepting a much too narrow
definition of "political reality". It's the basis by which progressives
rolled over and let Clinton push through a neoliberal agenda after
1993, creating a lost decade and weakening the Democratic Party to the
point where Bush could seize and hold power for 8 long years.
- Discrediting progressive opposition.
Whenever neoliberal programs like welfare reform, financial
deregulation, NAFTA, or an insurance mandate are opposed by
progressives, neoliberals have created a very powerful set of practices
by which that opposition is discredited. Progressives who oppose these
corporate-friendly deals are derided as "unrealistic," "naive," or as
some derivation of "hippies." That latter frame is telling, as it plays
on the notion that the reason the 1960s ended and the right-wing took
power was that "hippies" alienated the public and caused every
electoral disaster from Reagan's 1966 election as governor of
California to Nixon to Mondale's 1984 loss to the 2000 election. Other
times, progressives are called "purists" or "ideological" for doing
what you're supposed to do in politics - advocate forcefully for your
goals, drive a hard bargain, and walk away from a deal that costs you
more than it benefits you. Pursuing anything other than
corporate-friendly neoliberal policies is seen as flirting with
socialism, which was temporarily discredited in the 1990s, but is still
a very realistic and practical solution to many of our problems.
- Offering sweeteners. One of the
things that makes neoliberal policies as practiced by center-left
parties so effective at blocking progressive opposition is that those
policies, which are corporate deals written into law, often contain
some genuinely good policies - though never so good as to create
lasting change, or to reverse the fact that corporations will benefit
more out of the deal than anyone else. Even though this current health
care reform bill is a massive and unprecedented giveaway to a health
insurance industry that has long ago experienced market failure, the
presence of some good subsidies is used as a cudgel to force
progressives to back the bill - and if we don't, then #3 gets put into
play - our opposition gets discredited as outlined above.
- Using the right-wing as a bogeyman.
Progressives are told that unless we support neoliberal corporate
deals, we are going to let the right-wing back into power. This is in
fact an effort to rewrite history. The reality is that it is neoliberalism
that lets the right-wing back into power by demobilizing
progressive activism and alienating swing voters.
have seen this happen several times since 1980. Jimmy Carter was the
first Democrat to embrace neoliberal policies (Reagan merely took it to
a much greater degree). Carter's neoliberalism led Ted Kennedy to run a
failed primary challenge and caused swing voters to shift to Reagan.
Bill Clinton's neoliberalism demoralized the progressive base, and
caused enough swing voters to shift to Bush to let him seize power in
2000. (The fact that Clinton also caused enough progressives to shift
to Nader is never seen as a political reality that progressives must be
wooed to be kept on board, but is instead seen as some inherent
character flaw of progressives.) We saw it in Canada in 2006 when the
Liberals lost power to the Conservatives, and we are going to see it
next spring when the Labour Party gets to enjoy a humiliating replay of
the 1979 election at the hands of David Cameron and the Conservative
Party. All of those had in common a center-left government that
emphasized neoliberal policies that increased corporate power and in
doing so demoralized the base, which will usually show up once to save
the center-left from a return of the right (1996 in the US, 2004 in
Canada, 2005 in Britain) but can never do so twice (2000 in the US,
2006 in Canada, 2010 in Britain).
- Asking progressives to internalize criticism,
to become self-hating. This is probably the saddest aspect of
1990s politics of them all. Good politics is about authenticity
- speaking your own truth, pursuing what you really want, instead of
living a lie. It's also a good way to live one's life. Obama won a big
electoral victory in 2008 by embracing authenticity in his campaign
rhetoric. He is also governing that way - as an authentic neoliberal.
Progressives, however, are asked to believe that their own values,
views, concepts, morals, desires, wants and needs are somehow
illegitimate, flawed, undesirable, pathetic, weak, reckless, fanciful,
and worst of all, damaging to the broader movement. Progressives get
treated as the crazy aunt to be kept in the attic when company comes
over. It's worse than insulting, it's stunningly bad politics. But too
many progressives have internalized these beliefs, and are thus
unwilling to own their own power.
The "political reality" is that American politics underwent massive
change in the 2000s,
yet too many progressives still act as if it's still the 1990s, and
that we must hide our progressivism away and embrace neoliberal
policies that do nothing for us out of some deluded vision of what it
takes to stop the right. By further empowering corporations who use
their wealth and power to fuel the right-wing, we're simply handing our
power over to our enemies, instead of using it to advance our own
goals. It's as if FDR had given the technology for the atomic bomb to
Stalin and Hitler but told Oppenheimer that we couldn't do it ourselves
because we might cause problems for the US abroad.
Americans don't want to be governed by corporations. It wears them
down mentally and physically at the workplace. It takes away their
money and their rights in our political systems. Poll after poll after
poll still shows that progressive ideas are popular in this country,
yet it's we who are supposed to bite our tongues
while neoliberals destroy our economy, our freedoms, and our political
It's certainly not enough to assert our values, we also need to have
strategy for achieving them.
Sometimes that will necessitate compromise, either with neoliberal
corporatist Democrats, corporations themselves, or the right-wing. But
we should approach those situations from a position of strength.
Instead we've been approaching them from an internalized sense of
weakness, where we believe the things that are said about us by people
who want to block our agenda from becoming law.
Sometimes the most practical thing you can do is throw off the
obsolete ideas and frameworks of the past. Until we realize that the
1990s - and the 2000s - are really over, that progressives have the
ability to drive our agenda forward and defeat both the corporations
and their right-wing stooges, we will be reliving the 1990s as a sort
of permanent Groundhog Day (itself an iconic product of that decade)