The 1990s Are Over. Has Anyone Noticed?

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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 Memo, 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 corporate power.

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 politics.

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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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. We 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).
  1. 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 fortunes?

It's certainly not enough to assert our values, we also need to have a practical 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) forever.

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There IS a Way Out of This Hell

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Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 08:52:13 AM PST

Anger.  Despair.  Loathing.  Sorrow.  

The wake of the healthcare debacle could almost make a progressive nostalgic for the Bush Administration.

Not in the weirdly fanciful sense of sophomoric equivalence between the Obama and Bush administrations promulgated by some, but rather in the sense of common purpose progressives felt leading up to the elections of 2006 and 2008.  We knew what had to be done in those halcyon days.  We knew the forces against which we were fighting.  And while we had some disagreements in the selection of our ship's captain, there was no doubt about the danger we faced from the privateer cannons directed against us under the banner of the Elephant.  It was either sink the privateers, or be sunk--perhaps forever.

The wake of the healthcare debacle has irrevocably altered that mindset.  Those heady days now seem far away from the darkness of today, when in our darker moments we talk openly of mutiny, or even of taking common cause with the scurvy-ridden, obscenity-shouting scum floating aimlessly among the wreckage of our enemy's blasted hull.

Glenn Greenwald and Jane Hamsher have come today to embody that sense of disillusionment on our side.  They personify a growing number of disappointed progressives who rightly understand that the battles we fought in 2006 and 2008 were either wholly inadequate to our stated goals, or even wholly irrelevant to them. The Democratic Party, we are told, has been irrevocably subdued, bought out and sold to the highest bidder--a kinder, gentler band of pirates flying a smiling skull-and-crossbones against a cheerful drapeau of bright blue, engaged in perpetual mock combat against our red-flagged opponents in a battle designed to enthrall the onlooking spectators as the true masters pick their unwitting pockets.  We are told that in order to defeat our overlords, we must free our minds from the reality we take for granted, and engage instead in a new fight against corporatism, welcoming whatever aid we may find along the way, no matter how distasteful.

Jeffrey Feldman neatly and eloquently exposes the fallacy of this appeal to false consciousness: it is clear that the Left and the Right hold two vastly different views of the fundamental privileges held by the private and the public.  As Feldman makes clear, the Right envisions a society in which no government can encompass a corporation, while the Left desires a society in which no Corporation can encompass or purchase a government. Moreover, as the Right has become increasingly extreme in its views, the purer manifestations of this Objectivist lunacy increasingly have the loudest, tea-addled voices.  Clearly these twain cannot and will not meet.  There is a Left.  There is a Right.  There is a battle royale, and it is not illusory.  But what, then, explains our inability to chart a true course through the choppy seas of the healthcare debate?  Is it Captain Obama?  Is it our big blue ship itself?  Feldman's most important paragraph is deeply illustrative on this point:

The difficulty is that neither the current political organization nor the current economic concepts in the debate are anywhere close to developed enough to offer a viable alternative.  Even with the existence of the elegantly effective "single payer" idea, there is no equivalently effective model of political organization to achieve it.  And so we are stuck with messy.      [Emphasis added]

Feldman ends with an appeal to strive for a more actionable definition of "corporatism" as a way out of a dungeon inelegantly mapped out by Greenwald and Hamsher.  Yet his antipenultimate paragraph above already shows us the path we must walk, even as he tacitly despairs of even attempting to do so.  It is the same path I advocated earlier in No One Is Going To Save You Fools:

If you want to win, you will ORGANIZE. You will organize in the same way the Right has done for the last 40 years, and you will spend money on persuasion, where it really matters.  You will, in short, make the politicians as afraid of you as they are of them.  The Right has built vast networks of think tanks, newspapers, periodicals, cable news channels, and political advocacy organizations to spread their finely tuned, well-honed messages.  Their politicians may fail them, and their actual policies may be deeply unpopular, but their message machine nearly always works its magic to get them what they want, even when Democrats are in power...

If you want to win, ORGANIZE.  Develop parallel organizations willing to persuade with the power and intensity of a corporation.  As long as people like me are out there, and most of them are willing to work for the highest bidder, you'll need to stop looking for saviors, and instead learn to fight fire with fire.

At the time I wrote those words, many derided them as vague, fanciful and even magical thinking.  It is easy to call for greater organization: the devil, of course, is in the details.  This is true.  Money, time, and credibility are all necessary components of this strategy, and there is no immediately obvious pathway to any of these.  But it is easier and more reality-based to attempt to resolve our organizational deficit vis-a-vis the Right, than to entertain notions of impossibly flawed alliances or resolution of our troubles by coming to a more precise theoretical view of the problem.

The truth is that progressives have the time, talent and ability to work incredible organizational magic far more quickly and more nimbly than the Right has done over the last three decades.  As Markos Moulitsas made clear in Crashing the Gate, the Right developed an incredibly expensive infrastructure designed for a 20th century media environment.  And as effective as they have been, they haven't been nearly as effective as they could be.  The Left can create a far more influential and deeply effective message machine speedily and at vastly reduced cost.

There are a number of reasons for this:

And that is merely the beginning.  There are other good reasons why powerful organizational capacities can easily be within our grasp, but they are a subject for future exploration.  It is time to begin mobilizing organizational ideas now.

The sooner we begin, the sooner we can right this ship, cease the pointless bickering, and chart our course out of this Hell and toward the progressive promised land.

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