Kabuki Democracy: The Responses

Many readers missed the point of my recent Nation piece, says Eric Alterman.

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Barack Obama's inability to make good on many of his most significant campaign promises so far is less a reflection of the administration’s strategic errors or any backing away by Obama from those promises but more a series of structural bottlenecks in our system that impede progressive change. (AP/Paul Beaty)
Barack Obama's inability to make good on many of his most significant campaign promises so far is less a reflection of the administration’s strategic errors or any backing away by Obama from those promises but more a series of structural bottlenecks in our system that impede progressive change. (AP/Paul Beaty)

Late last week I published a 17,000 word article on The Nation’s website called “Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now.” The article is here and the did a short summary of it here. Thanks, I’m guessing in considerable measure, to the incredible reach of Mike Allen’s “Playbook,” where it was generously featured on the morning it appeared, the article garnered a tremendous number of responses in the blogosphere and in the larger media.

The various reactions have been extremely instructive. Given the length of the piece an awful lot of people did not bother to read most of it or even enough of it to understand its central argument before commenting on it. My main point—as I understood it anyway—was that while Barack Obama has unarguably failed to make good on many of his most significant campaign promises so far, this is less a reflection of the administration’s strategic errors or any demonstrable backing away by Obama from those promises in most but not all instances. Rather this failure results from a series of structural bottlenecks in our system that encourage conservative transformative change but stand in the way of its progressive counterpart.

Broadly speaking, I identified:

  • The legacy of the Bush administration
  • The structure of our political system and the antiquated rules of the Senate
  • The political power of money
  • The ideological antipathy of many Americans to strong government
  • The power of right-wing media
  • The varying weaknesses of mainstream media
  • And the disciplined and yet entirely-divorced-from-reality character of contemporary conservatism coupled with the disparate ideological composition of the Democratic Party, among others

Most of the commentators ignored these larger points, however, and focused on the introductory paragraphs where I set the stage by describing liberal unhappiness with the Obama administration. An (un)healthy percentage did not manage to get past the very first sentence.

One of the first uses of the piece came from Peggy Noonan on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Ironically, Noonan ignored the rather lengthy critique in my piece of the role played by the discourse of the page upon which she was writing, both historically and contemporaneously. I note that its “audacious refusal to countenance reality can be breathtaking,” but owing to the fact of the “political spectrum [having] shifted too far to the right… the oddball ravings in the paper’s opinion pages are considered comfortably within the spectrum of responsible opinion.”

Instead she focused exclusively on my description of progressive disappointment with the administration and somehow forgot the arguments I made as to why I thought it was misplaced. My guess is that Noonan never made it to those arguments, but I can’t be sure.

I can be sure about that, though, in the case of Politico’s Roger Simon. Simon proudly proclaims he “did not go on to read the remaining 17,000 words of the article—I am saving it for my next coma—and that is because I had trouble grappling with the phrase ‘significant accomplishments notwithstanding.’”

I must admit that I understand people who feel they have better things to do with their time than read 17,000 words of political argument. I do not, however, understand political columnists who quote the content of articles whose arguments they proudly announce cannot be bothered to understand. In Simon’s eagerness to demonstrate his contempt for anyone who does not share his belief that Obama’s “significant accomplishments” (my words, not his) are not sufficient either to a) take care of all of the candidate’s promises during the election season and b) win the president the enthusiastic approval of those who supported him during the 2008 election in time to avoid electoral catastrophe in 2010, he does not even countenance the reality that any casual follower of American politics knows to be true.

Neera Tanden, my CAP colleague, made a similar argument in The New Republic. But unlike Simon she read the article and found it insufficiently respectful of what Obama and company have been able to achieve. I have some sympathy for this argument—just as I also have some sympathy for its opposite: that the administration could have fought harder, done a few things differently, proposed a more Reagan-like transformational program from the start, and thus might have yielded important dividends down the road.

But at least Tanden was shooting at the proper target and demonstrated her differences with the actual content of the piece, a discussion we continued on “Hardball.” Ditto Peter Beinart, who offered a similar argument to that of Tanden on The Daily Beast. And in a front-page piece in Politco John F. Harris and Jim Vanderhei deployed the very same tactic to make their larger point that the White House believes liberals do not sufficiently appreciate them.

Leaving aside the fact that this was not my argument’s focus—rather it was merely a way to introduce the larger problem—where I think this response is weakest, however, is its refusal to grapple with the fact that fair or not, liberal and progressive disillusionment is real. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll public confidence in the president has hit a new low and the enthusiasm gap for the next election appears so profound it is likely to mirror 2008—only in reverse!

Sure, liberals still support and admire their president, but they sure don’t give the impression of being willing to man the barricades as they did two years ago. As Democracy editor Michael Tomasky argued regarding both my piece and his article, “Against Despair,” “progressive change in the country so far is not so much a function of lack of presidential will as it is of other structural factors in our system that even a president can’t wave a wand and bend to his will…. American liberals need to think about deeper systemic reforms and forms of pressure.”

To be honest, as far as I could tell the vast majority of the responses from those who read the article felt I let the president off the hook for too much, too easily. This is what I take to be the implication of Matt Yglesiais’s reservations.

One of the extremely rare responses from nonliberals that addressed the piece’s actual argument came from a blog called And though it threw a few insults my way, I was grateful for its understanding and restatement of what I take to be the real stakes in this fight.

“Despite Alterman’s liberal bias,” its author concludes in a post called “Face It,” “the systemic corruption he discusses should outrage conservative and independent voters as well as liberals.”

You’ll notice that aside from Noonan I’ve not spent much time analyzing the conservative response to the piece, which was actually quite extensive. That’s because, unfortunately, I did not come across any reactions that engaged the substance of the article. Most complained about the length, and insisted that whatever systemic weaknesses to which the article pointed were merely evidence of “democracy” at work.

For instance, his snideness aside, James Taranto argues that “Voters seem to be operating under the assumption that the president’s ideology is aggravating rather than relieving the country’s economic troubles.” But in fact he has no idea why “voters” are acting the way they do, or at least presents no evidence for it. Nor does he engage with any of the arguments made in the piece, including, particularly, why specious conservative arguments are taken seriously throughout the mainstream media despite the frequency by which they are contradicted by all available data.

But then again, it was really long article, and there is so much more to misinterpret on behalf of the wealthy, the powerful, and the (Christian) fundamentalist. The Journal’s editorial board has many more arguments to misrepresent before it rests.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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