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Cheer up, Progressives, You're more Powerful than you Thought!

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I'm not sure which prankster is responsible for this, but somehow I got added to an email list for subscribers to the right-wing magazine The American Spectator. When the emails first started arriving, I resisted the temptation to send them directly off to my spam folder and decided to take a peek inside.

And boy, am I glad I did, because my weekly trips into the Bizarro world of right-wing "thought" have left me feeling - to use an oft-abused word - "empowered."

After all, what lefty wouldn't feel a few inches taller after reading an editorial entitled Beware the Emboldened Left?

And, as someone who has no fondness for the for-profit insurance industry, how could I not be cheered by Spectator columnist William Tucker's prediction that the result of "Obamacare" will be "insurance company bankruptcies"? (Somehow, Wall Street failed to get the news.)

Of course, it's easy to dismiss all of this as a Glenn Beckian paranoid fantasy of the sort that places the now-bankrupt ACORN at the center of a George-Soros-funded plan for Marxist revolution.

But, as much as it pains me to say it, I think the Spectator might be on to something. For example, there's columnist Philip Klein's prediction that, "Once he signs the comprehensive health care bill into law this week, Obama will ...complete the third major wave of entitlement expansion in America."

I'm assuming waves one and two were Social Security and Medicaid, respectively (unfortunately, the Spectator doesn't provide translation for outsiders like me, who are deaf to its dog-whistle politics.)

While the Spectator's facts may be shaky, their fear is real enough. Specifically, their greatest fear is of a government "entitlement" that, once established, can never be taken away. Any political movement largely comprised of elderly folks, some of whom show up at rallies with "Keep your government hands off my Medicare" signs, must understand this point all too well.
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Yes, I know, those of us who will soon be forced to buy insurance from for-profit insurers aren't exactly feeling "entitled" at the moment.

Perhaps a better word than "entitlement" is "expectation." Whatever else it has accomplished with its kinda-sorta reform, the Obama administration has succeeded in creating the expectation among tens of millions of Americans that the government is somehow going to help them get insurance. Those expectations have been further raised by the dishonest rhetoric that Obama himself has used to sell the bill, saying just last week in Iowa, "32 million people are going to have health insurance because of this legislation." Please note that it's "going to have", not "going to be forced to buy." The gap between that rhetoric and the reality millions of Americans are going to be facing come 2014 is an organizing opportunity big enough to drive an ambulance full of pro-single-payer doctors through.

What the Spectator sees that you and I usually don't see is a relentless march toward the expansion of government spending and government services, and if you confine your view purely to Social Security and Medicare, it's hard to argue with that point of view. Although the U.S. military now consumes roughly half of all government discretionary spending, spending on Social Security and Medicare push the military down to about a quarter of total spending. The fact that we taxpayers are spending more to help people than to kill people must be a never-ending annoyance to the folks at the Spectator.

Furthermore, there's the growing acceptance of fundamental progressive ideas that the Spectator's columnists have to contend with. No question is more central to our national political debates that this one: When people run into serious problems, should they be left to fend for themselves, or should they get a helping hand from the government? Oddly enough, "Leave 'em to die in the gutter!" doesn't appear to be the basis of a winning political platform.

Now mix in a general sense of cultural besiegement, as they observe the growing weakness of some of their favorite "wedge issues", witness a new spirit of tolerance among evangelical youth, and watch record-breaking crowds flock to a film that argues for the right of indigenous people to violently resist imperialism, and you start to see why someone on the right might see progressivism as a relentless - and even unstoppable - force, even if few progressives see it that way.
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So why don't more progressives see ourselves as powerful? I think it's because we don't compare our power to the waning power of conservatives, but instead choose to measure ourselves against our true - and strongest - opponents, the corporations. Given corporate ownership of all three branches of government, progressive victories in the court of public opinion don't translate into progressive victories in public policy.

In fact, a good short summary of today's zeitgest might be: "An increasingly progressive public held in check by corporate power." All real political battles today are between progressive forces and corporate forces, with corporations usually winning. Conservatives aren't even in the game any more.

This increasingly common struggle between progressive ideals and corporate power often manifests itself in messy compromises along the lines of, "OK, we'll provide you with more services, but our corporate funders have to get first bid on the contracts." That's the formula that produced the Obama health care plan, although it's Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, who should probably get credit for originating the formula with the 2003 establishment of Medicare Advantage, a prescription-drug benefit administered by for-profit insurers (Why didn't that count as the "third major wave of entitlement expansion in America"? Sorry, but you'll have to ask Spectator columnist Philip Klein that question.) The fate of Medicare Advantage, which is on its way to becoming a government-administered program after for-profit insurers reaped a bit too much profit at taxpayer expense, gives some hope that corporate contracts are temporary, but entitlements are forever.

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Steve Burns is Program Director of Wisconsin Network of Peace a Justice, a coalition of more than 160 groups that work for peace, social justice and environmental sustainability.

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