Eric Alterman Article

 The American Family Gazette

Volume II, 1009

Eric Alterman, a champion of and advocate for a progressive, or just liberal political agenda—I’m not quite sure which— recently penned an article in the magazine The Nation (August 30/September 6) bemoaning the fact that the results of the Obama Administration after eighteen months in office are somewhat of a disappointment in his eyes (which from his presentation I generalize to the eyes of “all of the Left.”). This would presumably comprise a center-left, a liberal-left, and a progressive-far left, whatever that might describe. Will Rogers would probably have described it as the Democratic Party.

I would describe this all-encompassing rive gauche as covering the field of half of a bell-shaped curve; obviously, the “left” half. In his view of the explanation of how this disappointment comes about, Mr. Alterman, in effect, rejects most if not all responsibility of progressivism, or liberalism (?), for this result; he rationalizes, he excuses, and he finds scapegoats.  In short, he sounds like a frustrated (if not spoiled) liberal or progressive—which is it? Does it make any difference?

Following his article, The Nation presented a series of six brief reactions, or commentaries, on Mr. Alterman’s article, by likewise credentialed “leftists” (who sound very leftist, to me). These joined in support of Alterman’s conjecture. Some extended his arguments. One, by Salim Muwakkil, noted that Alterman’s advice seemed almost elementary, but that he needed almost 17,000 words to make a case for it.  For the sake of simplicity, and brevity, I have condensed what I would consider the basics (the elementary) of Mr. Alterman’s The Nation article down to about 660 words, and present it here for your review and edification; possibly even your enjoyment, to wit:

“Significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment. It’s possible that he fooled gullible progressives into believing he was a left-liberal partisan when in fact he is much closer to a conservative corporate shill.  The Beltway view of Obama, meanwhile, posits just the opposite. But the truth is that it does not much matter who is right about what Barack Obama dreams of in his political imagination.  The far more important fact, for progressive purposes, is simply this: the system is rigged, and it’s rigged against us.

The American political system is nothing if not complicated and so too are the reasons for its dysfunction.  Some are endemic to our constitutional regime and all but impossible to address save by the extremely cumbersome (and profoundly unlikely) prospect of amending the Constitution. Others are the result of a corrupt capital culture that likes it that way and has little incentive to change.  Many are the result of the peculiar commercial and ideological structure of our media, which not only frame our political debate but also determine which issues will be addressed.   A few are purely functions of the politics of the moment or just bad luck.

If we really mean to change things instead of just complaining about them, it would behoove us to figure out which of these choke points can be opened up and which cannot. I go into great detail about these phenomena in my article “Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency is Impossible for Now” but below is a précis.

*The Bush legacy.  As a New York Times editorial put it, Obama “took office under an extraordinary burden of problems created b y President George W. Bush . . .”

*The structure of the Senate and the power of the minority.  . . . a system that, as currently constructed, gives the minority party no strategic stake in sensible governance.

*The power of money.  When attempting to determine why the people’s will is so frequently frustrated in our system, one must turn first and foremost to the power of money.

*The culture of finance.  During the 1990’s, when both parties benefited from massive investments in Congressional war chests by investment bankers and their allies, the ideology of Wall Street—that unfettered innovation and unregulated financial markets were good for America and the world—became the consensus position in Washington on both sides of the political aisle.

*The power of American ideology.  Thomas Paine first opined, “the government is best which governs least,” and this retains a powerful appeal to many Americans.

*Aggressive dishonesty and partisanship in the conservative media.   . . . nothing on the left can compare to the power of talk-radio, Fox News and their network of like-minded multimillion-dollar think tanks.

* Weakness of the MSM.   The decline in reporting, the focus on personality, the low level of intellectual discourse, the focus on a single narrative, and the relative lack of attention devoted to almost any complex public policy issue.

All of these developments represent significant structural impediments.  If America is to be rescued from the grip of its democratic dysfunction, then merely electing better candidates to Congress is not going to be enough.  We need a system that has better, fairer rules; reduces the role of money; and keeps politicians and journalists honest in their portrayal of what’s actually going on.

Progressives who take movement organizing seriously need to develop their institutions independently. To do so, however, they will have to put aside traditional differences that have separated them in the past, particularly those between liberals and progressives who think of themselves as left of liberal.  We need better, smarter organizing at every level and a willingness on the part of liberals and leftists to work with what remains of the center to enact reforms that are a beginning rather than an endpoint in the process of societal transformation. This is pretty much the only way things change in our system.”

So there it is, in a nut-shell. Now, it’s hard to argue with Alterman on most of those issues he highlights that are impediments to progressives/liberals. I will comment briefly on his points, and then make some general observations, perhaps even an unsolicited recommendation or two.

The Bush legacy:  No doubt about it, Obama & company took over from an administration operating in the philosophic style of Reagan: Government is the problem.  Keep it off the back of business to the degree politically possible.   But save for the possible extremism of their approach, any incoming administration has to bear the burden of what went on before.  For all we know, they may have supported and/or continued a number of the Bush approaches. They certainly appear to have maintained at least some of them.  It’s one thing to criticize government from the outside looking in, quite another to be the one inside responsible for running the show.

The structure of the Senate and the power of the minority: No doubt some validity on this point. I would guess, however, this tends to treat both parties about the same, depending upon who is in the driver’s seat.  It’s more a matter of perspective.  Are you the majority, or are you the minority?

The Power of money:  This is, has been (for eons), and absent real and significant change, will continue to be, in this writer’s opinion, the number one problem with politics and government, or more correctly, the results of government.  No doubt about it But just because one side is better able to raise more money than the other, that’s not a legitimate excuse for claiming under-dog status.  Before you need to pay to make your case, you first have to have a case to make.  More on this below.

The culture of finance:  This was a big mistake that the political, as a whole, made and we are all suffering from it today.  Oversight and boundaries do not equate to over-regulation.  In just about every activity that has major ramifications on individuals and the country as a whole, someone or something without a direct personal interest in it needs to be monitoring it. That’s just sound management; it’s called auditing.

The power of American ideology:  I don’t think many Americans would argue with that ideology put forth by Paine.  I wouldn’t.  I don’t accept it as a libertarian (the minimalist state theory) philosophy, but one which says government has a place in our lives, even a significant place, but it can overstep that, in the eyes of most Americans. This is a significant issue:  how much government is enough? How much government can we afford, or how much should we have to cough-up for the privilege of being governed?  And, as I favor majority rule which is not tyrannical, there will always be a certain minority who may object.  Okay, object; object and “organize,” progressives; but look behind you:  there doesn’t appear to be a lot of us following you, or even paying much attention.

Aggressive dishonest and partisanship in the conservative media:  Funny, I usually hear that the media is liberal in sympathy.  But as in this case, perhaps it’s just partisanship making such protestations.  But I do agree, conservatives have done better in long-term promotion of their philosophy to America across the airways.  It’s not that liberals haven’t tried, they have.  I suggest Mr. Alterman,, read Matt Bai’s 2007 book, The Argument, Billionaires, bloggers, and the battle to Remake Democratic Politics.  It’s a rather sad commentary on the Left’s inability to make headway in this area.  Not a bad example of the results of democratic indecision making, or governing by committee. Not what I would call very cost-effective either. They might then also want to peruse Jane Mayer’s article, Covert Operations, in the August 30 New Yorker.  It seems that the brothers Koch do not rely heavily on consensus when spending their money to promote their particular political philosophy, or agenda. I wonder why George doesn’t work that way; perhaps he does.

Weakness in the MSM:  See comments immediately preceding.  In addition, there is more than a grain of truth in Alterman’s description of the attenuating news (and editorial) coverage in what remains of much of our MSM.

Mr. Alterman refers to these as “significant structural impediments to any progressive-minded president . . . even one who comes to Washington with ostensibly impregnable majorities in both houses of Congress.”, a la Barak Obama.  Therefore, his failure to please, or to greater please, progressives (it’s not clear here whether he pleased or pleases plain old liberals) is simply not his fault.  It’s the system, stacked “against us.” Well, I would agree, in part.  But I would question if this is really the basic problem behind the progressives not getting what, apparently, at least these progressives appear to want. Which is?  Societal transformation! (“We need better, smarter organizing . . .  to enact reforms that are a beginning rather than an endpoint in the process of societal transformation [my emphasis]).

“To dream the impossible dream . . .” Societal transformation!  Well, I guess this pretty well clears up my question of just what a progressive must be: the mirror image of an anarchistic libertarian; representatives of the far extremes of our political spectrum. They—both of them—represent societal directions that the majority, a supper majority no doubt, of Americans have no interest in moving. Progressives and libertarians represent the real threat to American democracy. Too strong an accusation?  Allow me to inject here a few words in this connection in support of my contention.

“There have always been political alternatives for those holding values and views at the extreme ends of that ideological curve.  Most play their political game down between the five-to-ten yard lines of the political field.  While an uphill battle to be sure . . . these marginal political players always have the opportunity to convince others (within the rule of law) of the merits of their political views, thereby increasing both their ideological acceptance and political influence.

The risk in the political game we play is this:  Those at the extreme ends of the field may convince the rest of us to play their game, ideologically speaking.  By our definition and their location on the spectrum, that game is not a moderate one.  It is highly ideological and hence highly partisan.  By its nature, it ignores the wills and concerns of many in its pursuit of its political and social objectives.  A second aspect of this risk is when one or the other—or both—of the main Parties, in a tight match, decides to forgo the middle and take their game down to between the five-and-twenty-yard lines and settle for a highly ideological ”win,” if they can pull it off;  the hell with the rest of us.

In the first case, the Party at the extreme end succeeds in shifting the ideological balance of the country in their favor.  That’s largely a decision the electorate makes.  In the latter case, one Party or the other—or both—makes the decision not to play primarily in the middle where most of us are but to conduct their game further down the spectrum of ideology, e.g., to largely ignore any but their own party faithful, their base, so to speak.  They haven’t shifted the ideological balance of the country; they have simply decided, politically, it is not in their best interest—which is to win—to try and sustain a “big- tent” philosophy.

Either way, however, the result tends to be the same.  Broad political representation diminishes.  Government focuses on pleasing a minority not the majority.  We get imbalance. We also get what we have recently been experiencing:  hyper-partisanship in governing. As one or the other Party attempts to govern primarily for results favoring their own ideology, the other as vigorously tries to block it.  The result is that little is accomplished in the halls of government.” (From Chapter Six, The Gathering of the Clan (2009) by TR Harry)

Now doesn’t this, just a little bit, sound like Alterman & Company’s complaint: Progressives are not getting from government what they want, even though they have a government generally congenial and responsive to a liberal view of society.  Why not?  Because their opposites won’t allow it, any more than they would their agenda, should the tables be turned. And rightly so! Pure Progressive—far left/Libertarian—far right political philosophies—as well intentioned as both may hold them–do not fit the greater American model of democracy and representative government today. Mr. Alterman highlights this himself in his article: “. . . the president’s problem is that he and his allies in the Democratic Party just overplayed their hand in the last year and a half, moving policy too far left, sparking an equal and opposite reaction in the rightward direction.” The Atlantic—not generally recognized as an overly conservative leaning magazine—went further suggesting it was his (Obama’s) failure to “repudiate the left” and make it his enemy.  That was probably a bit “far out” for a Democratic administration to even consider.  But I do agree they tried to move too far left too fast.

I’ve hear it said that in the case of Libertarianism, it’s all chiefs and no Indians, and that’s why they haven’t made much in the way of political progress. It’s not really a tribe at all, just a council of war chiefs. I suspect the same can be said about progressives. One difference I might point out is that libertarians seem to have a pretty fixed (clear) political and social viewpoint; it’s not complicated and both are ones that most people can (1) recognize, (2) evaluate, and (3) relate to.  And they seem good at keeping on message, and have, as a movement, patience in bringing people around to their viewpoints; or at a minimum, planting doubt about the value of their nemesis’s viewpoints.  Can the same be said for progressives?  Questionably.  They would probably have to call a meeting, organize a movement, or movements, and try to come up with some ad hock general philosophical consensus on an issue-by-issue basis about this.  I can appreciate their approach, up to a point.  You wouldn’t want to offend or possibly omit anyone on the Left in trying to develop such positions of social and political ideology. That wouldn’t be good for solidarity. Admittedly, this assumes that there is a basis for solidarity on the left.  Again, referring to Matt Bai’s illuminating exposé, too often such an approach yields disappointing results. And then progressives complain, or just plain sulk.

The libertarian movement profess to just want smaller government, less regulation, lower taxes (to over-simplify their agenda—their political goal as set out in the party platform is significantly more radical). Progressives want to “transform society” (to quote this article). While both agendas would be somewhat revolutionary (transformative), at least the libertarians define their objectives with what appears to be specifics, not broad abstract concepts. I would describe Michael Kazin’s follow-up commentary to Alterman’s article as typical of this.  I highlight my point here:

Says Kazin: “Since the feminist awakening of the 1970’s, we have had several grassroots campaigns—successful ones, like the battle against apartheid; apparent busts, like the much-hyped crusade for global economic justice; and some that are still fighting for their causes (global warming, gay marriage). But there has not been a mass campaign, much less a movement, capable of addressing what should be the central domestic issue of our time:  the yawning gap in income, education and health-care between the economic elite and a majority of working Americans. . . . we need . . . to enact policies to aid the great majority.” Read this brief paragraph again: It’s a stump-speech to the already converted.

Now, it’s not entirely clear from this, but I will assume we are speaking domestically here (apartheid?), as that is the thrust of Alterman’s article, and in fact of the bulk of Kazin’s comments. Consider his focus on issues of income inequality, global economic justice and global warming; all serious and deserving issues for political debate.  But they are ever-so-much broader—even esoteric— sounding than the far right’s smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation message.  Americans in general can absorb and relate personally to the latter arguments for change.  How does the average American relate to those of Mr. Kazin?  Probably by asking themselves, “how much is that going to cost me?”

And while there are without question sectors of society that are worse-off than others, such broad all-encompassing professions as “we need . . . to enact policies to aid the great majority,” are disingenuous, and most recognize them as such.  The great majority of Americans, by almost any measure, is neither suffering from poverty, lack of health care or educational opportunities. While there are unquestionably pockets that experience privation in these areas—and need to be better addressed— it is almost impossible to support a call for societal transformation to accomplish this. Some examples in support of this:

People and Families in Poverty by Selected Characteristics:   1959 & 2008*

                                                                   1959            2008

Number in Poverty (in millions)                        40               39.8

Poverty rate                                                   23%            13.2%

  • Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008. Source:  US Census bureau


Not to minimize the significance of about 40 million people, but does a poverty rate of 13.2% (Even if, disappointingly, projected to be as high as 15% in 2009) sound like “the great majority?”  Admittedly, there is variation by race, age and familial status within this over-all rate, but credibility is stretched by the claims of progressives and apparent reality. Even the miserable poverty rate for Blacks at about 24% in 2008 does not represent a “vast majority.” And little or no consideration is made or alluded to By Mr. Kazin regarding the anti-poverty programs in support of these needy already in place by governments.  These are neither insignificant, nor un-mitigating in the on-going struggle against poverty, or in his terms, income inequities (and I do agree that there are glaring inequities).

The same might be said of the issue of health-care. The percentage of people without health insurance (note, not necessarily without access to health-care) in 2008 was 15.4%.  In 2008, 255.1 million Americans (84.6%, by simple subtraction) had health insurance, and by implication acceptable (if often highly expensive) health care. And that, my progressive professional mourners, is what is generally referred to as “the great or vast majority.”  Again, this is not to down-play any need to further reduce these numbers on income inequities, health provision, or even possibly education issues.  It’s to highlight that Progressive claims for any need for sweeping societal transformation to accomplish this are supported by their cause upon very shaky foundations.  And their problem, in my humble opinion, is that that “vast majority” of Americans recognize this. As I said earlier: look behind you, there are not a lot of us following you.

You can organize all you wish, produce in-house movements to your heart’s & conscious’s content.  But without an agenda that is (1) recognized as reasonable and (2) evaluated as needed by a broader public, you are simply having an intramural activity among yourselves.  Progressives too appear to be but a war council without a tribe to follow it or support its agenda.  And that is how it should be, under our political system. Progressives don’t need “better, smarter organizing at every level”, Mr. Alterman.  They can organize, and reorganize, until the cows come home, as they say.  Progressives need a better, clearer and more focused agenda to present to America, if they want to be listened to by any broad and self-interested public. Good luck!  I am tempted to recommend to Mr. Alterman & Company the well known Serenity Prayer in this connection. In addition to its generally considered good advice, it reinforces his observation regarding those choke points.

Now, I would like to bow-out with one brief message or opinion if you prefer, in support of at least part of Alterman’s argument regarding those choke-points in our democracy. They exist, and his selection is certainly not exhaustive. While not intending to marginalize any of the seven points he discusses in his The Nation article, in my analysis nothing of any significance is going to change in the way we conduct our politics or govern our people until the cost of politics is addressed, and the issue of money and its influence is once and for all faced and then corrected. Once faced, itself a difficult task, real change, not simply the perception of change, not just adjustment and/or partial reform will be required; a totally different way of financing our elections established. When a continual campaign by our elected politicians for money becomes unnecessary, then maybe, maybe, the results of government will improve.  Maybe we will see Balance—with a capital “B”— more closely restored in our society. For those with a curiosity as to just what this Balance—with a capital “B”—encompasses, I refer them to Chapter Nine in The Gathering of the Clan.


Thomas Richard Harry
September 2010




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