Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Democratic Administration and The Internet-Left Fringe: Keeping the Center to the Right, Regardless

I want to return to a primary point of my posting Monday about the White House putting progressive bloggers into our places.

One of my primary points in that posting is that the new administration is dominated by a centrist mentality that wants to control a new discursive space that opened in the U.S. with the last election. And the control tactics being employed to guard access to the center may well close that discursive space before it yields reforms that have any lasting effect on American culture and political life. Which may return us to a point further to the right than we were before the election of a Democratic president and Democratic Congress.

If we imagine the circles of power in social groups and organizations (in this case, in the nation’s national political life) as concentric circles moving from wide circles at the margins to a tight circle at the center, what I’m proposing is this: the last election represents a strong desire on the part of many of those populating the circles towards the periphery to open the discursive space at the center—to overcome the tight controls that keep the central circles of power closely guarded and constricted. To bring more and more of us who live towards the margins to the center in, at the very least, a national conversation about the future of our democracy.

This is what I mean by opening a new discursive space, and by characterizing the last election as a potential opening to a discursive space with the promise to transform American culture and political life in some significant ways. I read the election as a desire on the part of many Americans to retrieve our democracy, to set it back on track after years in which it has so badly malfunctioned that it may well be irretrievable if we do not act soon and decisively.

And what I see happening now is this: for whatever reason (I can offer some suggestions about what I think some of these reasons are), the new administration has deliberately chosen to read the last election as something other than a mandate for the transformative change it promised us, and for which a large majority of us voted. Instead, it wants to keep warning us that change of any sort under the current Democratic White House and Congress will be bought at a bitter price—the price of ongoing contention between a popular majority and a small fringe right, and the price of social division.

Once empowered, once it was placed in office by a popular mandate, the new administration began offering the majority of us who voted for change we believe in a new script: don’t get your hopes up. Accept that change will and has to be incremental. Stop being petulant and immature. Grow up and realize that politics is dirty business in which cold pragmatism must always trump discussions of values and core ideals. Stop being literal-minded about the connection between what authority figures promise and what they do.

The question I want to ask in my last posting and in this one is why the new administration has chosen to receive its popular mandate with provisos that, essentially, shut the door to the process of social transformation for which many of us thought we were voting. Why the sudden need to paint a tiny minority of disempowered fringe-right citizens as the driving force of all political deliberation in this country, so that nothing that can be considered or accomplished by the new administration will happen without strong attempts to appease that minority—and rebukes to the majority of citizens who stand decidedly to the left of that minority, if the last election is any indication of the national political tenor now?

As I say, I can think of a number of reasons that the new administration has chosen to move in this direction. First and foremost among them is, of course, the plain and very lamentable fact that our democracy is now owned by an economic elite who pull the strings, regardless of what the majority of citizens want. That economic elite has paid for and owns a large number of members of Congress—of Democratic as well as Republican members of Congress.

I also think that the centrist Democrats who now surround the new president as his chief advisors have imbibed core tenets of the neoconservative ideology that dominated the political and economic life in the final decades of the 20th century. The current Democratic leaders in both the White House and Congress see political life as a process of pragmatic adjustment in which the center tries to hold things together as interest groups with more or less clout battle for control, and in which the government eventually accedes to the demands of the most powerful interest groups.

The Democrats who now control the discursive space at the center of our national political life are tone-deaf to discussions about values. They roll their eyes at rhetoric about hope and transformation. The phrase human rights is not even on their radar screen. They see such discussions as na├»ve. The real forces that shape a nation and its political life, they believe—every bit as much as their neocon predecessors did—are economic forces, and, in particular, economic elites.

This administration has internalized key principles of neocon ideology, and intends to keep the center to the right—even when a majority of Americans call for changes to the left of what the administration regards as feasible. One of the primary ways in which this centrist game is being playing out now is through attempts to discredit anyone perceived as left of center, even when that “anyone” happens to be a clear majority of Americans.

Hence the need to tag progressives as an internet-left fringe, the left of the left, and so forth . . . . This is a cynical political game that warns a majority of Americans that what we believed we chose in the last election is absurdly idealistic and not feasible. It is a game designed to keep a majority of Americans who voted for progressive change out of the discursive space of the center. It is a game about allocating power and controlling the gates to the power center in order to assure that the center remains essentially unchanged, despite the last election.

As Glenn Greenwald notes at Salon today,

At least as I always perceived it, the "liberal blogosphere" -- to the extent that's a cognizable entity -- has devoted itself to criticisms of two failed institutions: (1) the establishment media and (2) the Democratic Party leadership. And the primary cause of discontent with the Party is exactly the criticism which Silver applies here to the Obama White House: meekness, a constant compulsion to accommodate so-called “centrism” for political gain, a failure to embrace true transformative change (regardless of whether that's due to political fear or actual belief). Why would anyone expect -- or want -- blogs, which arose as an outside agitating force against Beltway institutions and leaders, suddenly to cease this pressure and criticisms because now it's Barack Obama leading the way in doing these things instead of Harry Reid, Rahm Emanuel, Steny Hoyer and Congressional Democrats?

I hope some of those now guarding the passages at the center will find a way to hear what Greenwald is saying these days. If not, we may well find that we’ve moved two steps back with an election that seemed to most of us all about moving one step ahead.