Hints from Sheldon Wolin's Democracy, Incorporated.
The mounting frustration with Barack Obama now endemic among political progressives can be succinctly expressed in a single question: How is it possible that the transformative change we expected from him, and in which we all so ardently believed, can have been so quickly overrun by the dismal reassertion of business as usual?
Obama's election three years ago "fired up" the world with hope and expectation. The French looked forward to "a less arrogant American foreign policy." The Germans saw him as "the fall of the Berlin wall times ten." And in the U.S., then-President Bush himself observed that, in Obama, the people had chosen a president "whose journey represents a triumph of the American story." In every corner of the globe, the potent symbolism of this black/white man with an international heritage seemed to presage new possibilities for bridging the world's divisions and bringing justice to the deprived and oppressed.
Now, less than three years later, we have learned the harsh lesson again that, as meaningful as such driving dreams may be to the human spirit, they don't easily translate to reality. In spite of Obama's efforts, or in their absence, there is no more peace in the world than there was under Bush, and justice still takes a back seat to power. The list of examples is long.
The killing goes on in Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo is still a going concern, and, with American acquiescence, the West Bank has now become a showcase of apartheid and the Gaza Strip a prison. America's military budget continues to match the defense spending of all other countries combined, its foreign policy still seeks to dominate other nations, and the reach of its empire remains unbounded. As before, hundreds of military bases in scores of countries secure American corporate interests worldwide.
Inside our own shores, corporate greed and sway continue unchecked, and, thanks to the Supreme Court, desired outcomes in federal elections can now be bought more easily than ever before. Income disparities have reached levels that are both absurd and obscene, even as many millions of Americans look in vain for a job and millions of others have lost their home. As our infrastructure continues to decay and inhibit our potential for economic growth, we take no steps to mobilize the large numbers of unemployed who could be usefully put to work in its repair. At the same time, the major efforts needed to develop renewable energy sources and effectively confront global climate change are set back by corporate concern for short-term profits and, among some in Congress, blind disregard of scientific fact and environmental reality. Discouragingly, too, in spite of a full year of legislative work, the health care reform program was passed only with parliamentary hook and crook and unseemly compromise, and its vital extension of coverage to millions of Americans who are presently uninsured stands at risk of overturn by the courts.
For political progressives, the reforms called for in our foreign and domestic policies seem obvious and compelling. We need therefore to ask ourselves this question: In light of the human and intellectual promise so many of us saw in Obama, why has he failed even to address, much less seek to reform, the country's fundamental problems? Put another way, why has he chosen to address only peripheral problems with half-measures that are politically safe but leave untried the transformative change essential to a more peaceful world and a fairer, more caring society at home? For instance: Why not negotiate immediately with the Taliban in Afghanistan, offering to withdraw all American troops and to provide massive help in rebuilding the country in exchange for a laying down of arms, acceptance of the Afghan constitution, and voluntary integration into the established political order? Similarly, why not at least try to take the profit motive out of health care insurance once and for all by pursuing first a single-payer public plan?
A Context for Understanding.
In my judgment, an excellent source for better understanding both the limitations and possibilities for change in American foreign and domestic policies can be found in the pages of Democracy, Incorporated (Princeton University Press, 2008), a comprehensive study of the American political order by Sheldon Wolin, a retired professor of politics at Princeton and one of the world's leading political theorists.
While it is admittedly late to call attention to this book now, two reasons may justify doing so. First, considering its merits, Democracy, Incorporated has been sadly under-reviewed and so far largely overlooked. More importantly, its analysis, though perhaps more directly pertinent to the mindset and policies of the late Bush administration, sheds important light on the disappointment many progressives feel so acutely now in Barack Obama. In explaining the limitations on change inherent in the American system, the book shows us why no modern American president, even an idealistic, intelligent and charismatic one with a party majority in both houses of Congress, can by his own powers alone initiate transformative change. Such change, the author argues, can only originate with the people themselves.
In the view of Sheldon Wolin, American democracy is now captive to an interdependent "copartnership" of corporation and state, in which the president "is modeled after the corporate CEO. [He] is neither above politics nor is he a popular tribune ". Rather his role is, in part, to protect and advance the economic and ideological interests that form the dynamic of [the corporate state]" . If Wolin is right, we can understand why Barack Obama, regardless of his personal qualities or the high hopes invested in him, confronts barriers at every turn to any efforts for meaningful change. The real hope for change, Wolin suggests, lies in the people themselves. They must become true participants in the democratic system, understanding the changes that are needed, mobilizing to push for those changes, and demonstrating for them in ways that the political order cannot resist.
The following paragraphs will offer an overview of Wolin's comprehensive analysis.
The Anatomy of American Governance.
Wolin's overarching thesis is that America's national political order has evolved into what he calls an inverted totalitarianism. Unlike the top-down dictatorships of a Stalin or a Hitler, America's form of "totalism" is rooted in an interdependent "copartnership" of corporation and state that, like any individual corporation, is hierarchically structured and headed by a strong executive (the President). Both the corporate and state components of this amalgamated enterprise are managed by policy-makers and administrators who, in many cases, are the product of privileged backgrounds and a system of elite university training and professional connections that Wolin describes as "self-validating" and "self-perpetuating."
Wolin identifies this managerial class as "the elites." They are the proverbial Best and Brightest who shape the decisions and oversee the operations of America's defining institutions: among them, the federal government, business corporations, financial institutions, the mass media, the major political parties, corporate law firms, think tanks, religious organizations, and the various commercial channels of American popular culture.
It can be inferred from Wolin's text that the elites represent two special challenges for American democracy. The first is that, because they gain their experience and understanding of life in privileged circumstances and in conjunction with power and influence, they tend to carry out their responsibilities with little or no regard for the concerns and needs of ordinary Americans. Instead, their focus -- sharpened by the potential for great monetary reward and/or personal prestige -- is fixed on the goals of maximizing the profits and/or influence of their organization, and, in the case of business corporations, of strengthening the power of the state to help them consolidate and expand global markets.
The second challenge presented by the elites is that, although they run pretty much the entire show of American economic and military power, they are largely insulated from popular influence. One reason for this is the barriers imposed by what Wolin describes as "managed democracy" -- an arrangement -- to be more fully explained in the following section -- in which democracy is systematized in a way that effectively suppresses citizen participation. Another reason the elites are insulated, in Wolin's view, is that the American public as a whole has little or no awareness of itself as a political counterforce; it appears, instead, to be either oblivious of, or apathetic toward, the distancing of government policy from its own needs and concerns. We can guess that at least one reason for this is the common popular belief that, despite recurrent historical evidence to the contrary, the complex decision-making required in national governance is best left exclusively to those who have demonstrated their superior capacity by dint of advanced degrees from elite universities. A major point in Wolin's book is that this perspective must be reversed. In order to reorient government to a concern for the common good, he believes, ordinary people must organize themselves as a conscious counter-elite that makes its own voice heard.