Democracy Incorporated describes certain tendencies in American politics and argues that they are serving to consolidate a unique political system of “inverted totalitarianism.” Rather than attempting a summary of the volume, I want to examine a contemporary political development that, it could be argued, invalidates or undermines my thesis. I am referring both to the unprecedented election in 2008 of an African American as president and to the widely held expectation that the Obama administration would proceed promptly to undo the excesses of the Bush regime, many of which I had used as evidence in support of the thesis of Democracy Incorporated.
In adopting “change” as the signature theme of his presidential campaign, Obama chose an idea as American as the proverbial apple pie. Ever since the nation’s beginnings, Americans have seen themselves as futurists, notable for their receptiveness, even their addiction, to change and to its counterfeit, novelty. Typically, change was considered to be virtually synonymous with progress, with the promise of steady material improvement in the lives of most citizens as well as a better future for their children. Change thus tended to be identified with expanded opportunity rather than with a fundamental shift such as that represented by Jacksonian democracy, when power relationships among groups and classes were significantly altered. Another example of fundamental change was the abolition of slavery, although arguably the political promise of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments was not realised until the presidential election of 2008.
Throughout much of American history, government has been an active promoter of fundamental change. The Civil War amendments were aimed at undoing past wrongs associated with the institution of slavery. New Deal programmes significantly improved the lives of ordinary people, especially the poor, and marked a change in direction, away from free-market capitalism and toward a mixed economy notable for significant governmental initiatives and “interference” in the economy.
Thus we have two distinct conceptions: or of change, each involving active governmental intervention. One we can call mitigative or tactical change. It seeks to redress a situation or condition without significantly modifying power relationships (e.g., a “tax break for the middle class”). The other, paradigmatic or strategic change, institutes not only a new programme but recasts basic power relationships: it reforms, empowers, sets a new direction (e.g., a single-payer health care system). Democracy Incorporated describes the paradigmatic change represented by the amalgamation of state and corporate power.
Sometimes a paradigmatic change takes the form of an attack on an entrenched or longstanding status quo – for example, reducing the power of the antebellum plantation owners. Sometimes a mitigative change might seek to undo a previous paradigmatic change in order to restore, to a limited extent, the status quo ante. For example, that included governmental wiretapping, surveillance, and denial of due process, might be undone by restoring prior practices more respectful of due process and First Amendment rights.
Paradoxically, Obama’s victory might turn out to be a reaction, a yearning for a certain status quo ante that would rescind some of the changes introduced by the Bush-Cheney administration, such as torture of detainees. If so, then the change promised by the 2008 election may be more mitigative than paradigmatic, aiming to restore or modify rather than opting for a sharply different direction.
In the mid-twentieth century, starting with the Cold War and its anti-communist crusade at home and abroad, and attaining its consolidation in the Reagan counterrevolution, the national fixation on change, while it retained a strong economic and technological driving force, was joined to a new and self-conscious conservatism. The result was a unique dynamic: change that professed to look backward to some distant “city on a hill.” It was not regressive in the sense of actually restoring the past. Rather than “new conservatism” appealed to an idealised, mythical past as a strategy in its “culture war” against “liberalism.” It combined political, religious, and cultural elements into an ideology that appealed to Founding Fathers, the “original” constitution, biblical texts, “family values,” the sanctity of “traditional marriage,” and a militant patriotism. (“America, Love It Or Leave It.”) Its economic ideology also looked to an imagined past, to a “free economy” where harmony and prosperity had resulted from enlightened selfishness and “small government.”
Conservative politics, however, was far from being merely nostalgic. In deliberately promoting inegalitarianism it qualified as paradigmatic. The celebration of the unchanging provided ideological cover for the basic aim of reversing or modifying as much as possible the changes previously introduced by egalitarian social programmes. By reducing or eliminating programmes that had helped to empower the Many, inegalitarianism reinforced a structure which combined state and corporate power. Although the administration of George W. Bush would continue and even intensify the attacks on liberal social programmes and the “liberal culture of permissiveness,” it substituted a new paradigm that would refocus the dynamic which anticommunism had first generated. It would push outward in an aggressive quest for imperial hegemony, an emphasis different from the somewhat more provincially minded Reagan conservatives. The new paradigm would display a unique feature, one virtually unknown to previous versions of national identity. It would define the scope of its dominion by postulating an enemy – terrorism - that had no obvious limits, neither temporal nor spatial, nor a single fixed form. Thus the new paradigm introduced a monumental change that redefined national identity, overshadowing “republic” and “democracy.” The “United States,” hitherto a name that denoted the lower half of a continent, now signified a global empire.
Empire constituted a paradigmatic change, yet, like that love that dare not speak its name, it was repressed during the 2008 campaign even as the role of the presidency was evolving from a national to an imperial office. Attention was directed instead to the unprecedented spectacle of an African American candidate competing for and winning the highest office in the land. Before gauging the extent and type of change represented by that election, we need to ask: against what background has that change taken place? One might argue that throughout much of the twentieth-century white Americans have accepted and adulated African American public performers – musicians, actors and actresses, and writers – even as the most white Americans tolerated segregation, discrimination, and racial slurs. Following the 2008 election all manner of established groups began to press their agendas on the incoming administration: environmentalists, health care advocates, state governors, antiwar groups, and, inevitably, corporate lobbyists. Strikingly less prominent were those advocacy groups representing African Americans. Had the election of “one of their own” had the ironic result of inhibiting instead of empowering?
Before August 2008, when the public first began to become (or be made) aware of the brewing economic crisis, “change” had been primarily associated with ending the American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and with a promise both of sweeping socioeconomic changes (e.g., health care reform, environmental safeguards) and of political reforms (e.g., restoring constitutional protections, outlawing the practice of torture, disavowing an expansive notion of executive power). Yet there was no talk of halting construction of the huge permanent American embassy in Baghdad, only Obama’s promise to honour the Bush timetable for withdrawing most troops from Iraq during the summer of 2009 while rebuilding the military commitment to Afghanistan and pursuing the Taliban into Pakistan: in short, no talk of disentangling from our imperial commitments.
In the immediate aftermath of the election it became increasingly apparent that Obama’s notion of change was a highly pragmatic one. The specific kind of change and their scope and depth would be contingent on circumstance and political calculations, rather than determined by the intensity of the public reaction against Bush-Cheney policies – that is, mitigative rather than paradigmatic.
At the outset there was the opportunity of choosing the actual agents of change, those who would head the departments and preside over the courts. The controlling premise appeared to be that there was a relatively small political class, an elite, from which crucial appointments should be made. The operatives who were selected to be in charge of finance, economic policy, foreign affairs, regulatory policy, and health care proved to be seasoned deciders. Before the debacle of compromised cabinet nominees (Daschle, et al), Obama’s original cabinet selections consisted primarily of Clintonistas, suggesting that they had been chosen before the gravity of the economic situation became widely acknowledged. They represented, in other words, a decision which assumed that the economy would remain more or less on course that the situation in Iraq was being stabilised. This is borne out by the fact that, even before Obama took the oath of office, he and the leaders of the Democratic Party largely followed the initiatives proposed by the Bush administration during its final weeks. The major one was the $600 billion bailout of the major banks and credit institutions whose arcane and largely unregulated practices were mainly responsible for the crisis. At the same time, the Obama administration hastened to staff its councils with seasoned veterans from the financial world. Save for the huge sums involved and the brazenness of the giveaway, what could be more unchanging than the perpetuation of the cozy and longstanding relationship between Washington and Wall Street?
One might conjecture that paradigmatic change is less likely during periods of prosperity when members of society are presumably contented, but that when things are going very wrong society is apt to be more receptive to major, even paradigmatic changes. However, as the interval between 4 November 2008 and 20 January 2009 began to shrink, grandiose promises of change gave way to proposals for rescuing the economy rather than altering its fundamentals. Once the economy began to slide ever more downward, it was widely reported as inevitable that notions of change would have to be scaled down and subordinated to new priorities of confronting a worsening economic climate. Thus as change yielded to the priorities and requirements of policy and administrative decision making, the scope of change “contracted” and got lost in translation. Supporters, too, began to change, consoling themselves that Obama would at least be better than Bush: if not change, then a respite.
Politically sobered by the encounter with complexity, Obama adopted nuance and exchanged the rhetorical flourishes of the political campaign for the measured, inside discourse of “policy” and “decision making.” Policy is commonly defined as the attempt to formulate a set of rules and guiding principles of action for achieving a specified purpose or outcome. It might also be described as the revelatory moment when the commitment to substantive change is tested. Judging from some of the early decisions of the Obama administration, the two paradigmatic opportunities presented by the apparent stabilisation of Iraq and the economic recession were squandered in favour of “rescuing” or restoring as quickly as possible the economic status quo ante and of increasing the imperial military presence in Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Crisis called for continuity, not departures.
It was not the banks alone that failed; so too did the political and economic imagination. In desperation liberal pundits and think-tank employees decided to go “historical,” hoping to find inspiration in FDR’s New Deal and its response to the Depression. Besides overlooking that FDR had no more embittered opponent than the great bankers of his day (he called them “economic royalists), it seems not to have occurred to establishment theoreticians that the main point of FDR’s action was that he did not try to imitate his predecessors or seek an earlier precedent for his programmes. He chose, instead, to innovate, or, more accurately, to experiment with paradigmatic changes. It is revealing of the deep conservatism of our times that references to the New Deal have largely avoided associating it with the notion of “experimentation” even though during the 1930s the phrase familiarly used was “the New Deal experiment,” which was suggestive of a departure from business as usual and of a commitment to trying new and untested ideas. It was also overlooked that FDR was pressured from below by popular movements demanding programmatic action: Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth,” the Townsend Plan for guaranteed incomes for all citizens.
If FDR and the New Deal exploited an opportunity for change, Obama and his administration assumed automatically the limits of change. Which raises the question of whether the truly profound change of the twentieth century, the dominance of corporate power - politically, economically, and culturally – has not produced an equally profound change: the effective management of the citizenry. Clearly, these two developments – corporate dominance and a managed electorate – point to a certain political rigidity that is reflected in perhaps the most striking aspect of the present predicament: the absence of alternatives other than variations on the theme of economic orthodoxy. When the idea of nationalising the banks was being suggested it provoked an immediate storm: it was alleged as tantamount to “socialism.” The Obama administration panicked and immediately declared it had no such plans, thereby denying itself a range of more imaginative remedies.
That reaction points to another great regressive change: the paucity of intellectual proposals that deviate from the current orthodoxies. This reflects a quiet but paradigmatic change: a shift in intellectual and ideological influence from academia to think tanks, the vast majority of which were conservative and dependent upon corporate sponsorship. Whereas the former had on occasion housed and nurtured deviants, “impractical dreamers” of new paradigms and challengers of orthodoxy, the think-tank inmates are committed to influencing policy makers and hence their horizons are restricted by the demands of practicality and constricted by the interests of their corporate sponsors to proposing mitigative changes.
Shortly before his inauguration President-elect Obama tried to explain why it would be necessary to scale down some of his promises for wide-sweeping social and economic reformers by saying that “we must look forward rather than back.” In effect, that was then, this is now. Yet Obama’s remark was misleading on both accounts. First, the new administration was being less than candid about the systemic significance of the solutions it was introducing. In using the financial institutions as the means of recovery it was reinforcing the state-corporate alliance. The significance of the placement of governmental representatives on the boards of various banks and financial institutions was in effect the legitimation of that alliance and of the paradigm shift which it represented. The fundamental nature of that shirt was underscored in the bailout of General Motors Corporations. The terms of the settlement involved the co-optation and neutralisation of a powerful trade union, the United Automobile Workers. Under the terms of the bailout, the government –or as it was said “the taxpayers” – lent GM $50 billion. The union, which had also been forced to buy a 55 percent share in Chrysler, now had to draw upon its pension fund to purchase 17.5 percent of the shares in GM. The union further agreed to a wage freeze and pledged not to strike. In return it received representation on the corporations governing board but with the proviso that its shared would not bring voting rights. The workers’ union also agreed to accept the loss of several thousand jobs of its membres. Thus, under the terms of the “agreement,” the union was, in effect, incorporated and rendered a party to its own humiliation and, given the highly doubtful future of GM itself, facing a possible chance of losing everything.
Obama’s reluctance to look backward had a more profound significance than the abandonment of a policy promised during the presidential campaign. From the beginning of his presidency he made it clear that he would strive to “reach out” to congressional Republicans and to make change a bipartisan affair. The crucial consequence of that strategy was to suppress any serious attempt to educate the public concerning certain potentially impeachable actions of Bush administration officials, most notably the extreme expansion of presidential powers (including “signing statements), the practice of torture, the denials of due process, and, above all, the lies that were employed to justify the war waged against Iraq. Rarely has Santayana’s famous dictum – roughly, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” – been more relevant. When the actions of the Bush administration are compared to the one that led to the attempted impeachment of President Clinton, we have the clearest indication of the limited vision of the Obama administration. While “the audacity of hope” which Obama wrote about in his autobiography certainly has been fulfilled by the fact of his own election, that audacity does not appear to challenge the system of power which has brought the nation an endless war, bankruptcy, recession, and high unemployment. Change aplenty and all feeding the drift toward the system described in the pages that follow.