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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/14/10

Lead, Follow, Or Get Out Of The Way

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The problem for people like Obama or Pelosi or Reid or just about any Democrat in Congress today is that people increasingly know this. They are feeling it acutely. The decades of complacency have been replaced by the new era of fear and anxiety. Thus we're now seeing signs of a reanimated political sphere. Turnout is up, anti-incumbency is way up, and street rallies and alternative political movements are increasingly challenging the pathetically limited options of the status quo.

We've entered an epoch of political oscillation mood swings would perhaps be the better description in which the two dominant political parties do fantastically well in opposition, but horribly in government. That's because, in reality, neither of them is offering any actual solutions to the problems the shrinking American middle class is grappling with every day. Republicans distract with an endless procession of bogeymen at home and abroad, and with tax cuts that only exacerbate the problem further. Democrats, on the other hand, uh... Democrats, er... Well, I don't know what Democrats actually do. They just kinda sit there taking potshots. Both parties do great in opposition because it's so easy to show how useless the government is, especially if hypocrisy is not necessarily a problem for how you practice politics (and for the GOP it is not only not a problem, it has become a high art form). But it turns out that actually governing after you win in opposition is problematic if you don't have any real solutions to offer. Republicans have been hammered twice in the last two election cycles, once to kick them out of Congress and then again to kick them out of the White House. Democrats will have precisely the same experience in 2010 and 2012, and for precisely the same reasons.

And yet the public will be no more satisfied with the outcome than they are now, and likely less so. It's ludicrous to imagine that the party of Bush and Cheney which has only gotten worse in their absence will actually solve any national problems. Meanwhile, time is running out for Washington to actually produce solutions. Or at least to be seen as serious about producing solutions. People understand that this is not necessarily easily done. Franklin Roosevelt got elected president four times without ever genuinely slaying the Great Depression. But people believed that he was trying, and they knew that the party of Hoover would do nothing. Obama, on the other hand, has done just the opposite of FDR. He has entirely blown the good will which attended his inauguration one year ago, such that even if he were to be serious about dealing with jobs now, it's not clear that he would be trusted enough to be taken seriously, and it's not clear that he could even reap the political benefit from any success he might actually produce.

This was the stupidest imaginable of strategic decisions by this White House. If they thought they could simply continue to win by being not Republicans, they were wrong even in the short term. (Very short term, as it turns out. They got clobbered right away in Virginia and New Jersey, and now also in Massachusetts.) If they thought they couldn't do anything legit to solve problems because they have to placate their real masters on Wall Street, they were wrong in the longer term. Americans are unlikely to continue to countenance such treason from their government anymore, as they lose their jobs, houses, medical care and dignity.

Look, let's be honest, American government was designed by its creators to fail, if by success one means the ability to govern in any real sense and the ability to be responsive to the preferences of voters. It's a pretty ingenious system really, at least for those who have a congenital fear of government, that particularly American paranoia. The system basically requires so much consensus (which is another way of saying that so many actors can block it from moving forward), that only on occasions like the day after Pearl Harbor can it move expeditiously at articulating and legislating national policy. Otherwise, it requires a powerful figure who can light enough of a fire under the recalcitrant co-decisionmakers in the system for anything substantial to happen. And that more or less can only be the president.

In the long nineteenth century of American government, that mostly just didn't happen, in large part because the prevailing view of the role of government was so limited. Today, however, it is more or less expected. It more or less defines whether a presidency is successful or not. Roosevelt and Johnson and Reagan and Wee Bush got what they wanted, and thus had largely successful presidencies, as measured by that yardstick. Of course, in some of those cases what they wanted were really disastrous things, and so those presidencies turned out to be not so successful in the larger sense, by virtue, ironically, of their successes in the narrow sense. In any case, for folks like Bill Clinton or Big Daddy Bush or Barack Obama it's all moot anyhow. They don't aspire to much of anything serious, and they therefore, of course, don't get anywhere near achieving it.

This model for governmental failure created by the Founders has now become even more unruly, at least when Republicans are in the opposition. They have decided to use the filibuster and nomination holds in the Senate to block literally everything the Democrats want to do, including even staffing up the president's administration. Democrats, of course, are just the opposite. Even when they are in the minority by only the barest amount, they still allow the Republicans to do whatever they want, using whatever legislative bullying technique they choose. Essentially what we have today is a situation in which Republicans make life for the vast majority of Americans worse when they are in government, and Democrats do nothing whatsoever when they are given control. Nothing, that is, unless you count destroying the reputation of progressive politics while ironically not actually being progressive at all.

America is increasingly in need of some serious Constitutional shake-ups, and a parliamentary system of responsible government to replace the existing do-nothing model is perhaps at the top of the list. That alternative surely at least has clarity going for it, hence the term "responsible'. You know who governs at any given time, and you get to throw the bums out of office if they don't do it the way you want them to. It's a higher gamble affair, though. It essentially puts all the eggs in one basket, at least for the short term. If we had had such a system in 2005, for example, Social Security would have been effectively destroyed. On the other hand, when people saw in 2008 what Wall Street did to the Social Security accounts they had been building over a lifetime, Republicans would have banished from the halls of government for eighty years.

The system is truly broken, but the truth is that all systems are broken, and all systems are also not broken. It's in the nature of people to switch systems, and to want to switch systems, as a cheap potential solution to their problems. But, in reality, institutions and constitutions don't make nearly as much difference in the quality of governance as does the character and commitments of the people at the helm, and that of those who choose them. Good people with good intentions and a good helping of guts will produce good results, even when faced with daunting obstacles built into the system of governance. Rip-off artists, on the other hand, will not be deterred by mere checks and balances. And those who seek to do nothing while the country burns will be able to under any constitutional order, at least for the short-term.

Major aspects of the current crisis in American politics are deeply fundamental in nature, in the sense that a cavalier and self-interested (often at best) public has allowed the gravest crimes to be committed in its name, as long as it could still sit on the sofa unmolested, slurping beer, scarfing Tater Tots, and watching yet another episode of American Idol. We truly do have the government we deserve.

And yet, to some extent, it "twas ever thus, and still we've managed to do better at times. Moreover, it's hard not to conclude that there has been a concerted effort to dumb down the American public on matters of politics and even their own welfare these last few decades. And why not, eh? There was a helluva lot of money to be made.

But while the breakdown of the country's political system has been near complete ranging from government to opposition party to the media to the public those who ask for our votes by promising serious change, and who invoke the rhetoric of Martin Luther King and the centuries-long tribulations of the enslaved in order to get elected, have a special responsibility to fulfill their commitment. It requires a particular and spectacular brand of treasonous contempt to piss away the beliefs of an entire nation in one's promise and one's integrity, not to mention trashing the legions of people who carried you across the finish line for exactly that reason. Even worse, to mangle the governance of a country at a time of crisis knowing full well what sort of creatures to whom that throws open the doors of the government in the wake of your failure is an egregious crime of historical proportions. How many Weimar Republics or Neville Chamberlains do we need before we figure that one out? Obama's weakness will make Sarah Palin president.

Some folks argue that change never comes from the top and it's a fool's errand to expect Barack Obama or Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi or any other leaders of American government to ever just do the right thing for the right reasons. Maybe that's all true, and I certainly rue the fact that the only people out on the streets these days are the know-nothings of the right. There is a ton of work to be done right now building a progressive movement with the capacity to pressure the country's national leaders into doing the right thing for the country.

But those leaders are part of the problem, too. And it's also the case that some of the great transformative figures of this country or others Franklin Roosevelt, Mikhail Gorbachev, Deng Xiaoping were so much more than history forced them to be. To me, that means both that we should continue to expect a serious contribution from those entrusted with governing the country, beyond what the street forces them to do, and that history vindicates such expectations as being legitimate. In other words, we know from the historical record that it can happen that leaders actually lead, beyond where we folks down below push them to go. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to expect that of the current crop, notwithstanding the crucial role also to be played by the public, the media, social movements, etc.

Few leaders in American history have been as blessed with the ironic opportunity of crisis as has been Barack Obama. This last year could have been written into the history books with an entirely different script, and one which would have massively benefitted the country, the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. Yet, because he is so very much not a man of his time, just the opposite occurred. Clinton got away with being a nothingburger during fat times. Obama is foolishly trying it during a moment of multiple simultaneous national and international crises, and he is failing miserably. As he should be, with such a shamefully tepid agenda.

Barack Obama and his congressional co-conspirators in cowardice will soon be toast, the victims both directly through their own inadequacies and indirectly through their unwillingness to counter attacks upon them by the most destructive elements of American politics of their own failings of character.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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