In the aftermath of the midterm elections, politicians and pundits on either side of the partisan divide urged Democrats and Republicans to stop their bickering and get down to business. Sound advice, to be sure. But if recent history is any guide, such efforts are doomed from the start. As the saying goes, "The water is wide." And when it comes to putting the interests of everyday Americans before those of partisans and private interests, it's a bridge too far.
Saying this, I'm not being cynical, or partisan for that matter. A clear-eyed assessment of our political system reveals a twisted, shortsighted and self-interested logic that represents a far more ominous threat to our democracy -- and our whole way of life -- than any ideological differences we might have.
"Apathy and indifference does nothing to free the mind or liberate the spirit. These attitudes only support an increasingly ruthless status quo."
Besides, cynicism is easy. And it's available 24/7. You'll find cynicism packaged for maximum entertainment value on talk radio and the rolling news channels.
By the same token, partisan rancor isn't the problem -- American's have always been a partisan lot. Partisanship is most troubling when it is symptomatic of a far more debilitating condition: intellectual laziness.
Put differently, apathy and indifference do nothing to free the mind or liberate the spirit. These attitudes only support an increasingly ruthless status quo.
Small wonder, then, that Democrats and Republicans alike, financed by Wall Street and egged on by the corporate media, are talking bipartisanship these days. It's a sure fire way to make certain that "change" is just another word for "business as usual."
The record is clear on this. Midway through his first, perhaps only, term in office, President Obama's performance is nothing more than a "kinder and gentler" take on his predecessor's.
Without putting to fine a point on it, Obama is no agent of change. Apart from his skills as an orator, Obama's real gift is for half-measures and sellouts. Ironically, about the only thing he's been truly committed to is escalating the war in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
"Midway through his first, perhaps only, term in office, President Obama's performance is nothing more than a 'kinder and gentler' take on his predecessor's."
care insurance reform and the "draw down" in Iraq, to domestic surveillance programs and the Wall Street bailout, Obama has repeatedly appeased conservatives in both parties -- and the narrow corporate interests they represent. Meanwhile, the interests of everyday Americans run a distant third.
Consider the administration's post-midterm approach to the Bush-era tax cuts. Before the midterms, Obama's stated objective was to keep those tax cuts in place for everyone but the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. The administration seemed resolute on this point, despite hysterical claims of "class warfare" on talk radio, cable news and the conservative blogosphere. No sooner had the midterm election results come in than administration officials indicated its willingness to extend tax cuts for the rich -- just as the new Republican majority had been clamoring for.
The same thing happened with Obama's timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. The administration's goal was to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011. In the wake of the midterm elections -- and with an assist from hawks like John McCain and a compliant press corps -- Obama has done an "about face" on this deadline. The new date for the end of combat operations in Afghanistan is the end of 2014.
These are textbook examples of the flip-flop. Uncharacteristically, Obama's GOP opponents aren't making much noise about this. And you didn't hear very many pundits call it that way either. Instead, as the so-called conventional wisdom has it, Obama needs to put aside his partisan ways and start working with Congressional Republicans.
For instance, in his post-midterm analysis, Washington Post columnist David Broder advised Obama to "return to his original design for governing, which emphasized outreach to Republicans and subordination of party-oriented strategies. The voters have, in effect, liberated him from his confining alliances with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and put him in a position where he can and must negotiate with a much wider range of legislators, including Republicans."
"Apart from his skills as an orator, Obama's real gift is for half-measures and sellouts."
Leaving aside Broder's tendency of late to espouse increasingly screwy opinions -- in October, the once-respectable columnist seriously suggested that war with Iran would solve our economic problems -- Broder's take on the midterm elections ignores Obama's repeated efforts to work with Republicans these past two years.
But Broder isn't alone. As Fairness in Accuracy in Reporting noted in a recent media advisory: "With the Democrats suffering substantial losses in Tuesday's midterms, many journalists and pundits were offering a familiar diagnosis (Extra!, 7-8/06; FAIR Media Advisory, 2/3/09): The Democrats had misread their mandate and governed too far to the left. The solution, as always, is for Democrats to move to the right and reclaim 'the center.'"
Even the erstwhile former Democratic congressperson from Indiana, Lee Hamilton, believes the Obama administration is guilty of pushing its legislative agenda past the Republicans. In a recent op-ed Hamilton wrote, "The leaders of both parties have made cold calculations they can accomplish more by not cooperating with each other than striving to find common ground. The Republicans have rebuilt their political standing through unyielding opposition; the Democrats have notched their legislative goals by finding ways to short-circuit Republican involvement."
Assessments of this sort willfully ignore recent history. If anything, Obama was too conciliatory when it came to dealing with Blue Dog Democrats and Congressional Republicans. As I noted in my previous column, from the outset, the "Party of No" made it perfectly clear that its goal was to deny Obama any legislative victories. Nevertheless, Obama and the Democratic leadership bent over backwards to appease Republicans -- to no avail. Either the political class and the corporate press are in serious denial or the whole lot of them is suffering from historical amnesia.
In any event, for all of their hyperbole and obstructionism the Republican's came out on top. Consider, for example, the "historic" health care legislation. For all the good it does to provide coverage to those without insurance, the bill's real purpose is to lock in the insurance industry's power and influence over the public's access to health care for the foreseeable future.
"Obama and the Democratic leadership bent over backwards to appease Republicans -- to no avail."
And you can bet your bottom dollar that despite all the talk about "gutting Obamacare," Congressional Republicans aren't about to mess with the insurance industry's payday.
Former insurance industry executive Wendell Potter made this point recently on Democracy Now! According to Potter, the health bill does have some important provisions. "But it doesn't reform the system. It is built around our health insurance system, as the president said. And they want to keep it in place, because it also guarantees that they will have a lot of new members and billions of dollars in new revenue in the years to come."
At the end of the day, it's painfully clear that Democrats and Republicans can and do get things done for their constituents -- the business interests and corporate behemoths that are buying and selling our democracy for the sake of a greasy buck.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.