Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Our Role in Keeping the Home Fires Burning
Regardless of what happens tonight in Massachusetts, the next ten months will crucial in determining the course of not just the Democratic party, but the longevity of Progressivism. Pushing aside the hype, the nail-biting, the hand-wringing, and the self-righteous smirking from across the aisle, we might be best served by examining closely the strategies we have employed before now. Within us lies some solution, but these strange times have scattered our voices and sent us chasing a whole flock of wild geese. I am not yet ready to concede that the election of Barack Obama and with it the revitalization of the Democratic party was merely one of the brightest flashes in the pan ever conceived and realized. A stubborn part of me is unwilling to see promise be defeated by power, and not the other way round.
I know now that it is foolishness personified to believe that the Democratic Party, nor any of the existing spheres of influence currently established will provide the strong leadership we need. Back in 2006, I was, of course, certainly elated that we had won back control of the House and the Senate, but my reservations then were that the core of the majority body were the same bumblers and bloodless supposed "leaders" whose inaction led to a loss of control in the first place, back in 1994. Unfortunately, these fears seem to have been confirmed. Some have proposed term limits to counter-balance this tendency and while I have my own reservations regarding that solution, I know that surely there must be a better way than what we have now. Long ago, my home state, Alabama, knew that its concerns were likely subordinate to that of wealthier, more well-connected states, so it consistently has elected the same weasels to office, knowing that with seniority comes power and with power comes the ability to set legislative priority.
Even dating back a hundred years ago or more, the state continued to elect the same decrepit, graying elder statesmen for this very reason. The most notable example of this was when, out of fear that these men would die in office, a special election was held, whereby voters could select not only these long-standing candidates for perhaps the last time, but also those who would immediately take power the instant they passed away. "They will be our pallbearers", one of the ancients was reported to have said at the time. This unique balloting situation was partially due to the fact that Alabama was a poor state and couldn't afford the additional expense of printing out a second round of ballots if one of its aging representatives died, but it was also due to the fact that the state wasn't willing to give up its share of influence in the Congress until it absolutely had to, either. If Robert Byrd runs again, one wonders if the voters of West Virginia would be similarly inclined to pursue this strategy. One also wonders if this unique course of action had been employed in Massachusetts had Ted Kennedy's illness come to light back in 2006 how different the situation facing us today would have been.
I think part of what we are struggling with is an ability to adjust to uncertainty. I have recently noticed that workers in their forties and fifties, those who have paid into the system for years, are now beginning to get laid off in scores. First came the low-wage earners, then came the young, now a group previously insulated from layoffs. This makes for an angry, confused electorate, one which might finds itself unable to construct much in the way of a unified front from within, but still votes to throw the bums out when it comes time to cast a ballot. What I do know, based on observing larger trends over time, is that the economy will come back eventually. This is, of course, not exactly comfort food to those drawing unemployment and subsisting on a fraction of their previous income. And, we must admit, nor is it a good sign for the party in power.
We can tout a stimulus as a job saver, but the true measure of its impact might potentially not be measured for years. The same goes for health care reform. What leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many about the program is that it begins collecting the necessary tax revenue to properly fund it almost the instant it is enacted, yet is not fully implemented until 2014. Not only that, some parts of it will not be in full force until a few years after that. While this implementation stage might be the only way the system can go into effect without toxic shock, that very fact has and will prove to be a powerful talking point for Republicans and disaffected Independents already skeptical of increased taxation, for whatever means.
In situations like these, the natural inclination is to look for a historical antecedent, and some point back to the 1982 Mid-Congressional elections as well as the 1966 cycle. Neither of these fit the profile neatly. The Democratic majorities in the House, for example, were far greater than they are now. In 1966, the Democratic party shed 47 seats but still had a majority cushion of more then 50 seats. In 1982, Republicans picked up 26 seats, but the majority Democrats still had over 100 more than the GOP. No one knows the number of seats that will be lost this coming November, but I still am unconvinced that control will change hands in either chamber. What is more likely is severely reduced numbers which will likely require more conciliatory and concessionary measures with minority Republicans. And, to be blunt, perhaps that isn't all bad since resounding majorities in both the House and Senate have not prevented legislation from proceeding forward at anything more than a snail's pace. The Republicans may have put all of their winnings on obstructionism, but inter-party fighting has proved itself a far more effective opponent than anything the GOP has flung at it.
What concerns me more is the completely justified anger at Wall Street and big business, who have methodically bought up every seat at the bargaining table if not other seats in other contexts. This sort of conduct is indefensible from whichever context it is examined, and President Obama and the Democrats in power could launch attacks against this base inequality that would prove to be very popular with voters. Though a few Republican voices might sound the alarm, it is a position that rarely goes sour and can always tap into an endless source of anger, frustration, and bile. Populist anger at the wealthy is an ancient tactic and one that even the most fervent second-guesser can do little more than scream about, since few actually will listen, or have much in the way of general sympathy.
As for more contentious matters, Democrats must avoid letting their opponents frame the issue for them. To some extent, I understand anyone's fear of big government, if only from the context of reduced efficiency of work and decreased quality of service. Since the Recession began, I have noticed that in many government agencies, budget shortfalls and layoffs have gummed up or slowed to a trickle what would seem to be rudimentary, straightforward processes. In so doing, this has given government employees no incentive to do an efficient job. If you will please pardon, I will again return to cite a personal example from my own life. When I filed for food stamps two and a half months ago, the framework existed to allow and encourage claimants to send out applications online. But, as I found when it took twice as long as it ever should have to receive my benefits, budget deficits prevented the agency from being able to hire and train the necessary people to process these online claims. Thus, my file sat on a desk for a month and if I had not contacted an advocacy agency, it would probably still be there.
In Progressive circles we talk frequently about Good Government™ and its enormous potential to do a massive amount of laudable things. I, of course, believe in it as well, though I recognize that up to now it is still a dream kicked further and further down the road. President Obama was swept into power talking about the merits of smart government and, lamentably, up to this point, I'm afraid I don't see it. Yet, neither am I willing to sagely propose, as some do, that there is some purity in the private sector. Different name, same trough. I suppose it depends on that which you fear the least. It is the formation and perpetuation of systems which have shortchanged all of us that leads people to make conclusions as to the ultimate success or failure of any new enterprise, government or otherwise. Our pessimism might not be justified, but our skepticism is not.
Though I too have engaged in finger-pointing as to why we've reached this climacteric a mere year after it seemed like we were on top of the world, I recognize that it is ultimately a self-defeating activity. In the end, it doesn't matter whose fault it was, unless that entity or collective body is willing to reform itself. Barack Obama was a rock star once, not a vacuous celebrity as some tried to paint him. Having released a critical disappointment that didn't sell nearly as well as advertised, he is now facing the first openly hostile reviews of his career. Yet, have no fear, fans. Americans love a comeback, particularly with an extensive tour attached to it. Someone as talented and as capable easily has the dexterity and strength to exceed our wildest expectations again, but only if he has the help he needs and he presses an agenda with a reasonable chance of succeeding.
No person is an island. We have wept and prayed and fasted and purged and been delayed by the same impasse. My own contribution to a growing canon of proposed solutions is that we take a more active stance within government itself. Anyone can lock arms, hold hands, and sing stirring songs. Anyone can find themselves beholden to Protest Culture™, whereby one assumes that rallies, marches, and symbolic posturing are sufficient in and of themselves. Anyone can oppose and find with opposition a million followers, a million voices of affirmation, and a million friends and supporters validating each and every sentient point. We can hold the feet of our elected Representatives to the fire, but I believe in the value of electing new feet that won't need to be forced towards the fireplace on a maddeningly consistent basis. This is within our power.
I am reminded of how much talk yesterday revolved around a plea for us to not sanitize the legacy of Dr. King and to keep his memory alive as a revolutionary who made many in positions of power very uncomfortable. Indeed, if all we remember him today was as a purveyor of sentimental, feel-good platitudes, then we forget that he was more than that. Far more. Had he been merely Santa Claus, he would not have been assassinated. At times, traditional liberalism has been reduced all too often to a never-ending Pete Seeger concert, with the sting removed and without any obligation whatsoever to be self-reflective. When I left a more conservative, more Christ-centered faith of my own accord and moved towards unashamedly activist liberal faith, I always found it curious how easily the John Lennon song "Imagine" was adopted as a kind of mission statement of sorts. If one examines the lyrics literally, its lyrics advocate an atheistic, anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist Utopia---a fact that gets overlooked due to the attractiveness of the melody, which obscures what even a cursory examination of the words implies.
It is time for Democrats to be bold and edgy again. I see this all the time in the blogosphere, but I rarely see it among elected representatives. And even when a Representative or Senator does stick his or her neck out, it is usually to make a splash by forcefully uttering some patently inflammatory or controversial statement, knowing full well it will be media catnip. The immediate impact is usually positive, but few know how to push their agenda beyond immediate shock value and dramatic statements that sound compelling at first hearing, but often are a bit on the childish end of the spectrum by the end. And, it hardly needs adding, even these sorts of attitudes are in short supply, all told. No one ever confused the base as being anything less than fired up and ready to go. If those elected to serve us are not willing to listen to us, we have an obligation to replace them with those who will, and in so doing, being willing to drafting candidates from within our ranks to fill the slots. Those willing to complain are legion, but those willing to serve are often not. Participatory Democracy does not depend on a particular Patrician class we deem the experts and the only sorts that can get the job done. The skill set needed now and forever is only the willingness to run and the ability to learn the game.