The budget-cutting bill has finally been passed and signed. Further cuts will be decided by an undemocratic group of six legislators on a “supercommittee” tasked with finding another $1.5 trillion. In the meantime, Washington continues to engage in partisan shadow-boxing and to ignore the weakening economy and growing unemployment. The deal leaves Democrats divided and confused by Obama’s total capitulation to Republican demands.
More ominously, the stalemate in Washington has undermined the legitimacy of government in general. Polls carried out by the Pew Research Center show that the public is overwhelmingly frustrated by the debt limit debacle. Voters see government as being stacked in favor of the rich and powerful – and they see Democrats as being equally responsible.
Greg Sargent in the Washington Post explains how it happened: “Dems weren’t prepared to allow default — no matter what. Republicans, by contrast, treated the debt ceiling hike as a necessity, but one that had to happen on their terms. … And Dems made this possible by accepting the dynamics of the situation as Republicans defined it.”
Talking Points Memo, trying to figure out why the Democrats caved to the Republican ultimatums, wrote: “The party’s … error was its collective decision to buy into the basic ideological theme underlying the debt limit demands: That deficits are an immediate threat that needs to be dealt with now, largely, if not entirely by cutting spending … Once that dynamic had been set into motion, it proved impossible to stop.”
From the time Obama came into office, his plan was to return to a Clinton-like rational approach to government after the extreme conservatism of the Bush administration, but which would leave corporate and Wall Street domination of the economy intact. That’s why he fatally misjudged the Republicans, assuming that Boehner would not endanger corporate interests by holding the country’s credit rating hostage to appease his base. The capitulation thus stemmed from the Democratic leadership’s acceptance of market ideology at a time when social tensions produced by the very working of the markets were running high.
As Paul Krugman points out: “It is, of course, a political catastrophe for Democrats, who just a few weeks ago seemed to have Republicans on the run over their plan to dismantle Medicare; now Mr. Obama has thrown all that away. And the damage isn’t over: there will be more choke points where Republicans can threaten to create a crisis unless the president surrenders, and they can now act with the confident expectation that he will. In the long run, however, Democrats won’t be the only losers. What Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question. After all, how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation’s economic security, gets to dictate policy? And the answer is, maybe it can’t.”
Obama’s apologists are spreading a false optimism that Obama will ride the storm and not get blamed for the mess. They assume that they can take the Democratic base for granted because they don’t have anywhere else to go. Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, claimed “Whatever qualms or questions they may have about this policy or that policy, at the end of the day the one thing they’re absolutely certain of — they’re going to hate these Republican candidates. So I’m not honestly all that worried about a solid or enthusiastic base.”
But Obama is not going to walk away from this defeat. There are signs that discontent with Obama’s role is encouraging opposition to the national leadership within the party’s ranks. Vijay Prashad reports that “the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party (CDP) passed a resolution in support of a primary challenge to Obama. The meeting of the Executive Board of the CDP took place in Anaheim, not far from Disneyland, and it was in one corner of that larger meeting that the Progressives took their stand. As far as I know, this is the first official indication of a part of the Democratic Party calling for a primary challenge to Obama. …”
A polling company that has studied closely voters’ actual opinions has found that they have become increasingly alienated from government over a period of time – and that they identify government with Democrats. “They think that the game is rigged and that the wealthy and big industries get policies that reinforce their advantage. And they do not think their voices matter. That government and the elite appear blithely to promote globalization and economic integration, while the working population loses income, makes the frustration more intense.”
Disenchantment with government created an opening for anti-government populist rhetoric. According to the pollsters’ results, the growth of this sentiment, which found a focus in the Tea Party, began in the fall of 2008 after the Wall Street bailout, well before Obama started his stimulus program.
“This distrust of government and politicians is unfolding as a full-blown crisis of legitimacy sidelines Democrats and liberalism. Just a quarter of the country is optimistic about our system of government — the lowest since polls by ABC and others began asking this question in 1974. But a crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism. It doesn’t hurt Republicans. If government is seen as useless, what is the point of electing Democrats who aim to use government to advance some public end? …
“In our recent Web survey of 2,000 respondents, voters respond strongly to Democratic messages on the economy only when a party leader declares, ‘We have to start by changing Washington. … The middle class won’t catch a break until we confront the power of money and the lobbyists’.”
Democrats need to convince the public that they are capable of forming a government that will work for them, as baby boomers retire and people’s housing and medical needs grow. People want security in old age and an income if they are sick or disabled. They want government to defend them, not the corporations who laid them off.
Voters get their first chance to have their say in the recall elections in Wisconsin. Despite the possibility that the debt limit capitulation will affect the turnout, Charles Chamberlain, political director for activist group Democracy for America, was optimistic that the recall effort would succeed. “The real parallel here is we’ve got a Democratic party in Wisconsin that’s doing exactly what people want their Democrats to be doing,” he said. The Wisconsin Democrats’ willingness to shut Wisconsin down over Walker’s legislation offers voters a chance to send a message to national Democrats about how they want them to behave, he added.
The election result won’t be determined by the activities of the national Democrats and the money that right-wing groups are pouring into the election. Ordinary Wisconsinites were quietly incensed at Walker’s union-busting budget and the anti-democratic manoeuvres of the Republican legislature. Even though the major protests at the Capitol are over, day in and day out people are canvassing and campaigning at grass-roots level throughout the state for the overturn of the Republican majority.
Democrats who agree with this agenda should help form Wisconsin clubs within the party prepared to replace corporate-sympathetic Dems in the 2012 primaries with candidates committed to defeating the austerity drive in Washington, ending tax loopholes for big business and financiers, and extending government to create jobs with a living wage for the unemployed.