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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 1/8/11

America's "Kabuki Democracy" -- The System is Rigged

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An authentic Noh drama mask from the classical Japanese dance-drama form known as kabuki by Maki_C30d

"Face it, the system is rigged, and it's rigged against us. Sure, presidents can pretty easily pass tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful corporations. They can start whatever wars they wish and wiretap whomever they want without warrants. They can order the torture of terrorist suspects, lie about it and see that their intelligence services destroy the evidence. But what they cannot do, even with supermajorities in both houses of Congress behind them, is pass the kind of transformative progressive legislation that Barack Obama promised in his 2008 presidential campaign."" Eric Alterman, "Kabuki Democracy, Why a Progressive Presidency is Impossible for Now"

The Democratic Party has become increasingly dominated by corporate interests. Corporate power has tugged the Democrats rightward. With shock troops, like most recently the Tea Party, corporations have been able to create mass hysteria through the injection of massive amounts of corporate dollars into elections. This is a development that has been worsening ever since the era of Ronald Reagan, when Democrats like Tony Coelho decided they would have to start accepting large amounts of corporate money in order to compete with Republican campaigns like Reagan's.

A memo written by Lewis F. Powell, who was then a corporate lawyer and a member of the boards of eleven corporations, wrote a memo on August 23, 1971, that outlined the need to fight back against an "attack on the free enterprise system" in America. The Powell Memo influenced and inspired the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other organizations to form. The institutions dedicated themselves to educating people, shifting the values of the public, and building a movement that could convince more Americans that government needed to work ensure limits on business and moves against corporations were being effectively curtailed.

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson write about all of this and more in their recent book, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. Of significance is the fact that they not only profile the Republican Party's moves to empower businesses but also how the Democrats opted to shift away from being a party that depended solely on campaign dollars from labor and various affluent liberal institutions. Through the Democratic Leadership Council and organizations like Third Way, which received immense support from Bill Clinton when he ran for and served as president, the Democratic Party willed itself into the role of a competitor that would be working tirelessly each election to dial for more corporate dollars than the Republicans.

It is the developments in politics and the corporate domination of Washington that popular writer on progressive politics for The Nation, Eric Alterman, is responding to when he writes about what he calls "kabuki democracy." When he writes about key dilemmas in U.S. politics, he is responding to the way a system has organized itself to protect the monetary interests of a few at the top, an oligarchy, at the expense of those at the bottom--the poor, working and middle classes.

In his book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, recently published by the Nation Institute, Alterman acknowledges what many progressives have come to understand in his new book published by the Nation Institute, : What the left is faced with is a system. What is making it impossible for President Barack Obama to advance progressive change is the system. And, as long as the system is allowed to perpetuate and preserve itself, that system will continue to produce unsavory outcomes for Americans on issues related to the economy, the wars, civil liberties and justice, health care, the environment, etc.

Many of the issues raised in Alterman's new book demand the focus and attention of progressives. Gridlock in governance, particularly the Senate, routinely prevents progressive change. The power of corporations has turned progressive organizations into anemic entities, which pose a miniscule threat to corporatist leaders in Washington. And, the need for reforming elections and ensuring all Americans have voting rights has never been more urgent. But, unfortunately, Alterman chooses to suggest that Obama is trapped in the system, progressives are trapped in the system, and little progressive change is to be expected from presidents like Obama unless progressives are able to "fix" the system and make it easier for progressives to get progressive change.

That is not a problem because changes to rules in Congress and new government regulations setting limits on corporate influence are not to be supported by progressives. It is a problem because it obfuscates the reality that the Democratic Party is and has been complicit in allowing society to organize so that corporations are able to wield influence and exploit a broad swath of the American population. And, unless the Democratic Party leadership and the function it serves in this society is fully illuminated, any amount of critique and calls to action will be futile to efforts for progressive change.

Throughout Kabuki Democracy, consideration of the Obama presidency's failings is offset by explicitly outlining what President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney did when they were in power. For example, at one point the book outlines how Cheney's actions virtually ensured there would be problems when the BP Gulf Oil Disaster happened in April of 2010. Such a framing does more to give progressives a pathological easiness, a sense that Obama was really meant to not make progressives happy when he took power. It suggests that there were all these pitfalls and traps that were inevitable and lets off the hook the many decisions that Obama has made. It allows progressives to not fully confront the implications of decisions, especially the appointment of staff to the Obama Administration, which progressives might have thought only the Bush Administration would appoint.

Unmistakably, salient points are made by Alterman that should not be taken lightly. He correctly frames the situation progressives face by noting that "particularly" on a "large swath of issues that involve someone's monetary profit and someone else's loss, [the system] can barely be said to be a democracy at all--unless one takes the view held by some in Washington and Wall Street that money fulfills the function not only of free speech but of citizenship itself." He correctly suggests, "Merely electing better candidates to Congress is not going to be enough."

Under what can be presumed to be good motivations, Alterman contends that progressives "must work to transform our culture to re-ennoble the notion of the "public good." His urge to have the Senate change rules to improve government, his call for a "little imagination and a great deal of hard work and patience" is worth heeding, and his plea for progressives to not "expect it to be easy" to make change and "don't be surprised at the resistance of those who profit from politics as usual" is based in an understanding of the dilemmas progressives face as a result of U.S. politics. But, Alterman stops short of addressing some key issues in relation to activism, organizing and politics.

It is not difficult to understand why Alterman's analysis and calls to action are limited when one considers a portion of his book, which gives him the opportunity to revert back to the personality the directors of the documentary An Unreasonable Man introduced audiences to in 2007. While offering up solutions that might help advance progressive change, Alterman writes about how House Parties and Democratic Party Clubs could re-ignite a progressive movement. He writes about the campaigns progressives could wage and explains, "They could be as progressive as they like so long as the campaign stayed positive; and win or lose everyone would agree to support the Democrat in the election." What Alterman means exactly by "positive" is not clearly stated, but presumably, "positivity" would hinge upon not excoriating the Democratic Party for its complicity in allowing injustice and suffering to permeate throughout local, state, and federal governments in America.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for
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