January 21, 2010

Things Are "Changing" All Right

Probably the best blog I read on a regular basis is Glenn Greenwald's Salon column, which is alternatively labeled "Unclaimed Territory," which is how his old independent blog used to be titled. Glenn gets quoted a lot in news media, and is something of a thorn in the side of Establishment journalism because of his habit of pointing out the systematic fallacies in "Beltway Conventional Wisdom." You might summarize Glenn's main point this way: what is cited as "mainstream opinion" in America is actually nothing of the kind; rather, it is a self-serving consensus worked out by media and political elites as a justification for what they would like to keep doing regardless of "mainstream opinion." Whether he is conscious of it or not, I think Greenwald's ideas are derivative of Noam Chomsky's seminal insight, that "manufactured consent" actually controls the parameters, or bandwidth, of "acceptable" political opinion in American public life.

Two political issues illustrate the accuracy of Glenn's argument: the war in Iraq and the late, lamented "public option" in the increasingly useless "health care reform" bill staggering its way through Congress. On the cable talk shows, on the editorial pages of the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, the claim was often made that the "people" supported the Iraq War and did not favor a withdrawal, precipitous or otherwise. As Greenwald documented over and over again, citing statistically accurate surveys of public opinion, by about 2005 the majority of Americans in fact did favor a withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq, and this percentage grew to over 60% as the war raged on and casualties mounted. This did not stop the Democratic and Republican leadership in both the Senate and House from labeling the "anti-war" crowd radical and "leftist," nor did it stop the talking heads on "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos from repeating ad nauseum that the "people" wanted to withdraw from Iraq only on a "responsible basis," when the "mission had been achieved." The "people" interposed no such caveat; they just wanted us to get the hell out.

The same dynamic has occurred with respect to the public option. A decisive majority, more than 70% of the American people, favor the essential expansion of Medicare to cover everyone. Some polls put the number as high as 74% when support crested. That hope is gone now, lost in the dilatory and confusing "deliberations" of Congress, as they and the White House worked out deals with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Party operatives within the Democratic Party, such as Evan Bayh, nevertheless claim that Massachusetts was lost because the Democrats kowtowed too much to their "leftist" wing in the health care debate. Run that one by me again? No, don't think so. The Democrats lost because they never get anything frigging done.

The media and political elites in the Imperial City live in a comfy and insulated little world where the maintenance of the status quo is profitable, career-enhancing and self-perpetuating. The madding crowd out there on Main Street is a disturbing element for this complacency; the trick is to mollify the unrest while maintaining the status quo, because that's what keeps the money flowing from Wall Street, Big Pharma and Lobbyist Nation.

It now appears that this gambit is becoming less and less successful. The "Renegade," Barack Obama, threatened to upset the apple cart when he was running for office, to challenge this smug self-satisfaction when he arrived at the White House. On arriving there, however, something happened. The origins of his reversal (many call it a betrayal) can be debated without any kind of definitive answer. I choose to look at the situation "behaviorally;" I don't think there's much doubt that he's not doing what he said he would do (one can cite many, many examples of his reversal of position), and the reasons for that are beside the point. The real point is that now he, and the other political elites who played the game of placating the unrest of the common man with ineffective gestures, are beginning to pay a heavy price. The election of Scott Brown and the Republican upsets which preceded his victory in Virginia and New Jersey signal a further advance in what I called in a previous blog "the rise of grudge voting."

These Republicans are being put over the top by independent voters, the same voters who elected Barack Obama. I note today that at long last Obama is talking about (horrors!) actually using the anti-trust laws for the purposes they were enacted: to break up monopolistic behemoths that are "too big to fail" and pose a threat to free competition. That's how far the Washington Establishment had slipped into its solipsistic trance: it looks "radical" now when a Chief Executive talks about enforcing laws put on the books during the term of Teddy Roosevelt. What next? A prosecution for violating the War Crimes Act? (Let's not get hysterical.)

My guess is that these impotent gestures won't make any difference now. It's just a little too obvious what they're doing, and why. Besides, this kind of stuff is not the same as actually being on the side of the Little Guy. If they were on the side of the Little Guy, they would tell credit card companies that they cannot charge usurious rates. They would make the re-importation of prescription drugs legal, and they would allow (for crying out loud) Medicare to use its bargaining leverage with pharmaceutical companies to bring down the price. They would repeal the Bankruptcy Reform Act, Joe Biden's Frankenstein monster of anti-populist intent. These things all provide direct, immediate help to the cash-strapped denizens of Main Street, and they don't cost the federal government anything (they save money). And Congress and Obama won't do any of these things because they would upset their corporate donors. So they engage in these pantomimes of compassion, like "regulating" the size of Wall Street banks. Whoop-de-you know, like-do.

The slightly satisfying feeling now, however, is that this crap isn't going to work anymore. Obama is going to do for the Democratic Party what George W. Bush did for the Republicans: bring it down around his ears. And seriously - who would have predicted that?

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