The Elusive Dream Of The Left-Right Coalition

Chris Hayes in The Nation:

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. But it always seemed possible that the sheer reactionary insanity of the Bush administration would have a conservatizing effect on the American polity. Because things had gone so wrong, it was a more than natural reaction to long for the good old days; the Clinton years, characterized by deregulation and bubbles, seemed tantalizingly placid and prosperous in retrospect. The atavistic imperialism of the Bush administration had a way of making the pre-Bush foreign policy of soft imperialism and subtle bullying look positively saintly.

Toward the end of the decade, as the establishment definitively rebuked Bush and sought to distance itself from his failures, the big-tent center-left coalition took on an influential constituency–the Colin Powells and Warren Buffetts–who didn’t want reform so much as they wanted restoration. This was reflected in a strange internal tension in the Obama campaign rhetoric that simultaneously promised both: change you can believe in and, as Obama said at a March 2008 appearance in Pennsylvania, a foreign policy that is “actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush’s father.”

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.

So what, exactly, is it that ails us?


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 progressive critics hold that we can and should do better. The Medicare Part D model is a terrible way of running a government for a number of reasons. First, and most practical, it’s expensive. When paying off protection rackets is the price of passing legislation, you have to come up with a lot more money. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices would have saved the government as much as $30 billion a year. The strong public option would, according to the Congressional Budget Office, save $85 billion over ten years. Once everyone has laid claim to their vig, you soon find yourself tapped out.


It’s indisputably true that the political system is run by wealthy plutocrats and much of what passes for democracy is kabuki. Same as it ever was, I’m afraid. But that’s not exactly the point. It’s still worth participating, doing what you can, containing the damage, stopping the bleeding, fighting the fight — for its own sake. After all, history shows that humans have managed, somehow, to actually make progress over time. You just can’t know what will make the difference.

If you don’t think that’s worth anything, however, you do have a choice. The obvious alternative, as PinNC wrote in TBOGG’s comments, is this:

If you really think that the political system is broken beyond repair, you have a blueprint from the 1770s to help you out.

Pick up your muskets, kids, or STFU.


Yesterday Digby turned me on to a post at The Nation by Chris Hayes, a post every progressive who’s feeling that maybe Obama, Emanuel, Summers, Geithner… have been so awful that who the hell should even bother to vote. No Hope, no Change; screw you, right. Not really. Conservative governance is the problem and as much as that has been internalized by Democrats and Obama– which is what makes progressives so disgusted with them– it doesn’t come close to the real deal, American Republicanism. In looking at what ails us today Hayes says “it’s useful to distinguish between two separate categories of problems we face.”

Reihan Salam:

For me, the right’s “fatalism about government” reflects its basic optimism about the capacities of citizens working together voluntarily, and about markets as a decentralized discovery process that proves more far more resilient than top-down hierarchies. And interestingly, Hayes calls for a “re-democratization” of society, only his way of getting there differs markedly from the conservative vision.

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.

So in this new year, while the White House focuses on playing within the existing rules, it’s our job as citizens and activists to press constantly for changes to those rules: public financing, an end to the filibuster, the breakup of the banks, legalization for undocumented workers and the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, to name just a few of the measures that would alter the balance of power and expand the frontiers of the possible.

Public financing would stymie the Gene McCarthys and the Ron Pauls, ending the filibuster in a sharply polarized environment would encourage extreme policy swings and efforts to entrench the power of one political party or movement, and the centerpiece of EFCA remains the elimination of the secret ballot. I’ve written about how some aspects of EFCA might make sense and also about how we should pursue regulatory reforms that encourage alternative models of worker representation, but I was discouraged by how Hayes’s vision of re-democratization differs so little from the aims of the very top-down organized labor movement.

Ross Douthat:

On the right-left point, for I think he’s basically right about the difficulties inherent in any actual netroots-Tea Party coalition. What I would like to see, though, is a world where the left learns some things from the right, and vice versa, about how to approach the problem of corporatism. A Nation-reading lefty needn’t accept that big government is always corrupt government, for instance, to recognize the possible advantages of legislative incrementalism (because the bigger and more “comprehensive” a bill becomes, the more opportunities for rent-seeking it affords) and the virtues, in some cases at least, of pursuing state-by-state reforms rather than nationalizing every major issue. And a Tea Partying conservative needn’t give up on the goal of limited government to recognize that if you don’t care about how the government we do have gets run, corporate interests will come rushing in to run it for you.

These insights aren’t likely to be the basis for some grand bipartisan agenda that could unite ideologues on both sides in perfect policymaking harmony. But I think that they have the potential to produce better legislative outcomes no matter which side holds the reins of power.


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