Out With the Old Politics, In With the New


anachronism_pilloryAs the curtain finally goes up on the election season one full decade into the 21st Century,  our politic conversation remains hopelessly mired in the previous century. The complex problems of the contemporary world are ignored as conservatives sneer about states rights, of all things. The Karl Rove generation of the Right hates the sixties, and in their obsession they never left the decade that ended forty years ago.

Even progressives who want to move on are stuck in old habits. Defending against anachronistic right wing attacks, they too are acting in a costume drama or period piece. The message legacy of the 20th Century is dangerously out of date.  The Right blames big government for everything.  The Left, always on the defensive, fights off accusations of socialism and communism — failed 19th Century models about as relevant as the telegraph. I’ve never met a serious socialist or communist. Any still around are made of straw.

While we’re stuck in the old politics, the corporatists have consolidated real power.  A corporatist believes that corporations transcend democratic institutions, safeguards, the public will, checks and balances. He aims for rule by corporation, unfettered by any regulations, voter reprisals or legal accountability. So-called tort reform was about ending public accountability for corporate wrongdoing.

It’s the corporatist who is the real enemy of a free, transparent and open market. I’m a fan of the profit motive, I’m aware of the efficiencies big companies can maintain, efficiencies that improve our quality of life. I am opposed to their absolute political power. People deserve financial reward for risk and accomplishment. Corporatism eliminates its risk, however. Banks’ unregulated and dangerous lending practices caused the Great Recession. Taxpayers were then made to cover their losses. That’s corporatism.

The health insurance industry — an industry that produces nothing of value; it earns all of its profits from the denial of coverage, care and benefits — is the poster child of corporatism. Those corporations that do deliver actual goods or services — the energy industry, for instance — come to believe that the good they do means they are good and blessed to the bone no matter what negative consequences they produce as well. They are so good they, and not an elected government, should be in charge.

This is a blind ideology, of course, and it is how good people — people who care for their families and neighbors — can do bad things, like poison the environment and resent any effort to clean it up.

This fundamental issue — the issue we should be discussing — has been raised recently by three progressive writers:  Ed Kilgore in The New Republic, Glenn Greenwald in Salon, Jeffrey Feldman at Daily Kos. Here’s Greenwald on the corporatist merger of government and big business:

In the intelligence and surveillance realms, for instance, the line between government agencies and private corporations barely exists.  Military policy is carried out almost as much by private contractors as by our state’s armed forces.  Corporate executives and lobbyists can shuffle between the public and private sectors so seamlessly because the divisions have been so eroded.  Our laws are written not by elected representatives but, literally, by the largest and richest corporations.  At the level of the most concentrated power, large corporate interests and government actions are basically inseparable.

Jeffrey Feldman says this:

In our politics, very loud participants in the debate do not agree with this basic idea.  There are currents of conservative thought extending all the way back to the founding of the republic that argue against the power of government over private land holders, and slaveholders, and monopoly holders–and shareholders. These currents have found their expression in a politics of the right in this country that has and still does call for the dismantling of our government in order to advance a specific alternative:  an America in which the constitution forbids government to encompass private business.

Feldman recommends democratic capitalism with a constitutional separation of private corporations and the state, by that he means the government shouldn’t be swallowed by or become the mere servant of unaccountable corporatists. We are at that point today.

The trouble is, stuck in old, worn-out, 19th and 20th Century arguments, neither the Left nor the Right respond appropriately to the current political and economic circumstances. Tea Party libertarians are manipulated by the corporatists into fretting about big government without ever seeing the loss of political and economic freedom that a pure corporatist takeover would mean. The Center-Left likes to coddle the corporatists. That’s how health care reform has become a big giveaway to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Those further to the Left cannot seem to escape last century’s baggage. They see the dangers of corporatism, but they seem wedded to big government as the solution.

There are other solutions, solutions that can whittle the size of government and regain control of unaccountable corporatists. We could start with serious campaign reform, something beyond the stupid, stop-gap reforms from do-gooders who think bureaucratized campaign and lobbying reporting requirements will get the job done.

We need publicly financed campaigns at all levels, and absolute limits on campaign spending. If we are going to limit corporatist power, we’ve got to eliminate the source of that power:  their purchase, through campaign contributions, of the government.

We’ve got to re-open the courthouses and make corporations accountable and responsible for their actions. Tort reform was a great con, and everybody knows it. It was simply another move by the corporatists to escape all accountability, at the ballot box or the courthouse.

There are some things better done by all of us working together through what should be a universal, cooperative enterprise called government. Security is a big, good, catch-all term for what we should keep out of the hands of the corporatists. That means the military, police and fire protection, economic and consumer protections, and yes, health care.

I have great admiration for the economic wildcatters and pioneers of our past. Capitalism will work to benefit all if we will recognize that it’s the corporatist predators — not mythical socialist unicorns — who threaten it.

But to even start this discussion we’ve got to escape the dumb language of the past. It’s a fool’s game, and we’d better quit it. It’s going to take some time. Progressive candidates in 2010 can and should campaign against corruption. And corporatism is simply corruption by another name. They should stump for significant campaign reform and an end to corporate ownership of government. In other words, we can begin the real fight.

Progressives can take back the populist flag, and show enraged Americans that we’re on their side. But final victory is a long way off, and we should recognize that. Asking candidates to go all the way with us before the opinion environment is seeded — before what Feldman calls a consciousness change takes place– would not be productive. We can, however, begin.

Author: Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as MoveOn.org. In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”

7 thoughts on “Out With the Old Politics, In With the New”

  1. Excellent description of how we got here and where we can go. Great call to arms, too. Makes it seem worthwhile to run for something you know you’ll lose, just to start people hearing those two planks (significant campaign reform and an end to corporate ownership of government); starting the foundation for the next guy’s (or gal’s) platform.

  2. Excellent post. I had read the articles that you link too and I agree that this is the main issue facing the country. We are moving to a corporatist model, but the change has been so incremental that there has not been a debate about it. In our military, health, and financial sectors, the change is almost totally complete. Texas has moved in that direction in the transportation area as well.

    I don’t think the government is taking over the economy (as the teabaggers like to howl) as much as the corporations are taking over the government. I haven’t been able to think about this much or come to any conclusions, but I believe this is the right way to frame the issue. A corporate democracy would definitely produce stability, but I don’t think it is good for either the public or private sectors. I immediately think of Mexico, where this type of governance is the rule. They have high prices for private goods and low provision of public goods.

  3. You are on the money with virtually every word…I can only take mild exception with the contention that the center-left wants to “coddle” the corporatists…They are are caught in the vice of “real politic”..and they are damned if they do and damned of they don’t because the lazy media can’t get a grip on the realities; and they don’t even try. The media helped Gingrich demonize the word “liberal” and they helped him make people believe he and his cohorts were actually conservatives instead of the raving reactionaries they are. So, the “center left” is caught between trying to be progressive and trying to win elections so they can amass the legislative number necessary to cover their rears and make necessary changes.

    1. I agree. Your analysis better describes the motivation of the center-left, though the results do look coddling a lot of the time. We have to help them out of the bind by redefing the debate. It won’t be easy, but it will be right.

  4. Harley is right to point to the role of the media, but wrong on the arrow of causation.

    The media tends to reflect what official Washington is saying – when the Republicans moved to the right, this moved the center of gravity in the media. When Democrats moved to the right, arguing that this was necessary to win elections, this also moved the media conventional wisdom to the right – and part of why this shift happened is because people within the Democratic Party benefited from the idea that liberal were electorally radioactive.

    The funny thing is that despite the beating the term “liberal” takes in public opinion polls, progressive policies and values continue to enjoy widespread support. Running as a progressive doesn’t hurt one with the voters, it hurts one with elites. But if Democrats continue to run to the right (despite the fact that its not required to attract voters) they just contribute to the problem of how the media portrays them.

    What’s more, one of the great advantages Republicans have enjoyed over Democrats is the belief among regular voters about whether they stand for anything. Democrats will always be seen as the liberal party – if they run away from that, they just seem wishy washy.

    Republicans realize this, which is why they talk about their conservatism as if it’s a good thing. They started doing that at a time when most voters did not agree – but they did it long enough to make that conventional wisdom. Democrats must embrace a populist progressivism if they want to change that. There is no way to change any of this without embracing those values.

Comments are closed.