Saturday, June 23, 2012

Comparing Points of View to See How Things have Broken

Those wondering how it is that the American political system has become as ineffective as it appears to be might do will to compare two opinions on the matter. The first comes from a post to NYRBlog by Gary Wills entitled “The Curse of Political Purity.” This is a response to a video uploaded by Harvard Law School Professor Robert Mangabeira Unger, who taught two of the courses Barack Obama took at Harvard. As Wills describes the video:
His message is that “Obama must be defeated” for failing to advance the progressive agenda.
Wills admires Unger for his principles but he argues that our political system is such that there is little significance in voting for any individual. Rather, one should vote for the party and the constituency supported by that party. This leads him to draw the following distinction:
To vote for a Democrat means, now, to vote for the party’s influential members—for unions (including public unions of teachers, firemen, and policemen), for black and Latino minorities, for independent women. These will none of them get their way, exactly; but they will get more of a hearing and attention—“pandering,” if you want to call it that—than they would get in a Republican administration.
 To vote for a Republican means, now, to vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex. It does no good to say that “Romney is a good man, not a racist.” That may be true, but he needs a racist South as part of his essential support. And the price they will demand of him comes down to things like Supreme Court appointments. (The Republicans have been more realistic than the Democrats in seeing that presidential elections are really for control of the courts.)
If we then turn to “Getting Away with It,” the latest contribution to The New York of Books by Paul Krugman, we discover that this distinction is, at best, out of date and, as a result, tragically misconstrued:
But while the economy now may bear a strong resemblance to that of the 1930s, the political scene does not, because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are what once they were. Coming into the Obama presidency, much of the Democratic Party was close to, one might almost say captured by, the very financial interests that brought on the crisis; and … some of the party still is. Meanwhile, Republicans have become extremists in a way they weren’t three generations ago; contrast the total opposition Obama has faced on economic issues with the fact that most Republicans in Congress voted for, not against, FDR’s crowning achievement, the Social Security Act of 1935. 
This is basically a latter-day version of Gore Vidal’s assertion that the United States has only one political party, which is the Party of Wealth. A more recent source of this insight was The American Ruling Class, both the book by Lewis Lapham and the documentary by John Kirby, both of which have the same punch line:
Why change City Hall when you can buy it?
So, while Max Weber theorized that politics is basically the legitimation of the exercise of power, our own political system has now devolved to a state where the only power that matters is wealth. This may be better than the brute military force that keeps a dictatorship in power, but it is a far cry from any conception of democracy. It is also the world in which 99% of the population are those at the mercy of the 1% who control the wealth, no matter what system of laws may be managed by government. In other words the Occupy movement was an attempt to refute Wills’ distinction and make clear that 99% of the American people cannot count themselves as constituents of either political party; but, because wealth is all that matters, neither party particularly cares that the practice of politics come to this state of affairs.

No comments: