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March 26, 2010

We Need a New Language of Politics

Posted in: Uncategorized

Yesterday after AEI sacked David Frum, Bruce Bartlett put up a post about it. Which the DNC promptly sent around in this email:

Date: Thu, Mar 25, 2010 at 5:38 PM
Subject: Bartlett on Frum
To: firedoglake

Key point: “Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI ‘scholars’ on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do… donor community is only interested in financing organizations that parrot the party line…”

David Frum and the Closing of the Conservative Mind


Bruce Bartlett

As some readers of this blog may know, I was fired by a right wing think tank called the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing a book critical of George W. Bush’s policies, especially his support for Medicare Part D. In the years since, I have lost a great many friends and been shunned by conservative society in Washington, DC.

Now the same thing has happened to David Frum, who has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute. I don’t know all the details, but I presume that his Waterloo post on Sunday condemning Republicans for failing to work with Democrats on healthcare reform was the final straw.

Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI “scholars” on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn’t already.

Sadly, there is no place for David and me to go. The donor community is only interested in financing organizations that parrot the party line, such as the one recently established by McCain economic adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin.

I will have more to say on this topic later. But I wanted to say that this is a black day for what passes for a conservative movement, scholarship, and the once-respected AEI

A while back Jake McIntyre wrote an interesting post (for which he was widely pilloried) noting that the same people who supported this bill were those who supported the Iraq war.  Not a coincidence. The health care bill is a neoliberal victory, just as the Iraq war represented a neoliberal triumph. As willyloman said in a Seminal diary yesterday, neoliberalism is now being rebranded as populism, with the President acting as chief salesman.  But in emails like this, and Nancy Pelosi’s trumpeting of the bill’s Heritage Foundation roots, it’s clear that the Democrats know what they’ve done. They have no intention of reversing themselves now.  And they are consciously punching the progressive hippies whose messaging and ideals brought them their majorities in the first place.

In the end, as Dave Dayen says, there was one progressive bill that passed yesterday — the student loan reform bill. It was a stunning defeat for the Wall Street banks, despite the fact that much of the savings got cannibalized to pay for the fix in the excise tax. But the health care bill was not a progressive victory. It is Medicare Part D on steroids, with its elaborate exchange network created expressly to funnel money to private corporations — the very thing that necessitated the Nelson/Stupak amendments.  The give away of IP rights on biologics to the pharmaceutical companies bears more resemblance to the sale of Russian airports to the oligarchs than it does to the New Deal, and contrary to those embracing the “starter home” theory of this bill, we’ll never get that back. Ever.

There is danger, as David Minzer says, that liberalism is going to be blamed for the flaws of neoliberalism with the passage of this health care bill.  That is true.  But the larger problem, which David and I were discussing yesterday, is that our language is inadequate to describe the political dynamic.  The left-right paradigm is insufficient, in that it presumes everything can be explained within the context of back-and-forth shots fired between political “tribes” that have coalesced within the two party system.   But they’re firing past the larger corporate players who operate freely within both camps, whose role is rarely accounted for.  And it should be clear by now that they have captivated leadership on both sides, who openly boast about that alliance.

It doesn’t mean that there aren’t meaningful differences between right and left — obviously there are.  But the limitations surrounding the current dialectic don’t account for the large and very powerful hand that determined the outcome of the health care debate long before it started. Paul Street quotes Sheldon Wolin from 2008:

“Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors [will] make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society.”

Street asserts that the corporate world placed its bet on Obama in 2008, to stand as its new public face.  And as Street predicted, Obama served his purpose and successfully neutralized  the resistance on the left that had stood in the way of Social Security privatization.  Willyloman is right to note that the jobs bill takes the first bite at that apple — the giant pot of money that Wall Street has been salivating over for years (many don’t remember that Ezra Klein and I were scrapping over White House attempts to start cutting back social security benefits shortly after the inauguration last year).  That effort will only gain momentum hereon in.

In the end, the “liberal interest groups” lined up to act as enforcers for the corporate agenda, stepping up to kill the public option.  The neoliberal New Republic played the role of leading light just as they did on the war, with Jon Chait throwing the finger to progressives “freaks” who still hewed to Obama’s campaign promises.  But this is not a “liberal” health care bill.   It fulfills a corporatist agenda, with a few inadequate liberal bandaids thrown in to “posterize” for the bill.  But no acknowledgment of those in the middle class who are hurt as the money is ripped out of their pockets and transferred straight into the coffers of corporate players in exchange for a product they can’t afford to use.

Back in December, Marcy Wheeler wrote what I think is perhaps the most important piece of the entire debate, called “Health Care on the Road to Neofeudalism”:

If the Senate bill passes, in its current form, it will mean that the health care industry was able to dictate–through their Senators Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson–what they wanted the US Congress to do. They will have succeeded in dictating the precise terms of legislation.

Now, that’s not the first time that has happened. It certainly happened on telecom immunity. It certainly has happened, repeatedly, on Defense contracting (see also Randy Cunningham). But none of these egregious instances of corporations dictating legislation included a tithe–the requirement that citizens pay corporations to provide their service, rather than allowing the government to contract the service.

This is a fundamentally different relationship we’re talking about–one that gives corporations vast new powers. And the fact that–with one temper tantrum from Joe Lieberman–the corporations were able to dictate the terms of this new relationship deeply troubles me.

When this passes, it will become clear that Congress is no longer the sovereign of this nation. Rather, the corporations dictating the laws will be.

I understand the temptation to offer 30 million people health care. What I don’t understand is the nonchalance with which we’re about to fundamentally shift the relationships of governance in doing so.

We’ve seen our Constitution and means of government under attack in the last 8 years. This does so in a different–but every bit as significant way. We don’t mandate tithing corporations in this country–at least not yet. And it troubles me that so many Democrats are rushing to do so, without considering the logical consequences.

We need a new language to talk about politics, because we’ve just taken an extremely radical step in our system of governance. And we need to start talking about what we have done.

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