Who’s Dysfunctional Now?

Against the Current, No. 146, May/June 2010

The Editors

THE GOOD NEWS is that the Republicans and the Tea Party movement not only lost the health insurance reform vote, but made such a obscene spectacle of themselves that everyone now knows who and what they really are. The bad news is that the Democrats now take credit for passing “health care reform” when in fact they’ve gutted it — hiding who and what they really are.

What and who is dysfunctional in the present U.S. political system? Just about everything — as we’ll briefly explore here. We can begin with health care, as it sums up the situation about as well as anything could. The leadership of Physicians for a National Health Policy, who have been fighting for genuine reform for so many years, had it exactly right when they stated on March 22:

As much as we would like to join the celebration of the House’s passage of the health bill last night, in good conscience we cannot. We take no comfort in seeing aspirin dispensed for the treatment of cancer. Instead of eliminating the root of the problem — the profit-driven, private health insurance industry — this costly new legislation will enrich and further entrench these firms…require millions of Americans to buy private insurers’ defective products, and turn over to them vast amounts of public money.

We fully understand what the Republican and “teabagger” opposition to the bill was about. Much of it is pure-and-simple racism and blind hatred of president Obama. Even more is a cynically manipulated paranoia (“death-panel” bullshit) driven by rightwing media and by the insurance lobby, which prefers to block any change at all for as long as it can. What’s less visible is that the bill itself was effectively written by those very same interests to “insure themselves,” i.e. to scoop up the millions of people and their premiums that will be ultimately covered by the health care system.

It wouldn’t be so pathetic if the fight for authentic universal national health insurance (what’s called single-payer) had been honorably fought and lost this time around, helping to prepare for future battles. But the Pelosi-Reid Democratic leadership suppressed that possibility from the beginning — even before wimping out on the “public option” — and ultimately, along with president Obama, muscled single-payer advocates like Rep. Dennis Kucinich to vote for the final product in the name of party discipline.

That includes extending the despicable Hyde Amendment to restrict women’s right to insurance that covers abortion. This will force women (or their employers) who purchase coverage through health insurance exchanges to write separate checks for an abortion care rider, which Rose Ann DeMoro, director of National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association, rightly calls “a burdensome segregation of funds that in practice will likely mean few insurers will cover abortion and perhaps other reproductive medical services.”

Rarely have such epic political labor pains birthed such a sad substitute for serious reform of a broken system.

Democracy or “Bipartisanship”?

A growing current of conventional and op-ed wisdom holds that the U.S. political system is broken because “bipartisanship” and traditions of civility have collapsed. Certainly, the current stone-age Republicans’ strategy of filibustering every piece of legislation (aside from war spending) contributes to the atmosphere of gridlock. If the Senate Democrats are halfway serious about an agenda of finance industry reform, or new job creation stimulus — or if they even want to pretend they still care about the Employee Free Choice Act — they will have to change the rules that require 60 votes to simply take a vote.

Indeed the Senate itself is deliberately designed as an undemocratic institution, where the smallest state gets the same two votes as the largest — and where Washington D.C., a predominantly Black city with a larger population than a number of rural states, has no representation. If each Senator is calculated to represent half of a given state’s citizenry, those 41 “party-of-no” Republican Senators speak for considerably less than 41% of the U.S. population.

But there are at least two more fundamental issues here. In the first place, there is more “bipartisanship” than appears on the surface — and the last thing our society needs is more of it.

Exhibit A: Senators Charles Schumer (NY) and Lindsey Graham (SC), respectively considered in the moderate liberal and conservative camps, are co-sponsoring “immigration reform” that would not only require undocumented immigrants to admit to a “criminal” violation and pay fines to qualify for a path to citizenship, but would compel every citizen to carry a biometric identity card to get employment or public services.

If there is one cause to unite libertarians and civil libertarians, conservatives and leftists, Christian fundamentalists and immigrant rights activists, it should be to smash this appalling, punitive, racist Big Brother intrusion on everyone’s life and freedom.

Exhibit B: John McCain (AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (CT) are those bipartisan blood brothers who would have constituted the 2008 Republican ticket until the religious right threatened a convention floor revolt, forcing McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin and thereby boosting Tina Fey to fame — and smoothing Barack Obama’s road to the presidency. The McCain-Lieberman duo are now sponsoring a bill for the President to order the indefinite detention of anyone in the world, including American citizens, alleged to be “unlawful combatants” against the United States. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their torture-memo lawyers never even dared to propose this.

Exhibit C: In the guise of education reform, “No Child Left Behind” is being repackaged by the Obama Education Department as “Race to the Top.” This entails scapegoating teachers in “failing” schools, charterizing public education and gutting teacher unionism. The mass firing of the entire teaching and auxiliary staff in Central Falls, RI, a largely working-class and Latino district, was openly praised by president Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan.

Meanwhile, without even getting Republican support for the weak legislation on climate change stalled in the Senate, president Obama threw his supporters in the environmental movement under an oil slick by ordering the vast expansion of offshore drilling. To be perfectly honest, he did indicate during the presidential campaign that he would do this, but most of his admirers chose not to pay close attention.

What’s needed is a whole lot less of this bipartisanship, and a lot more struggle for democracy. Elsewhere in this issue of Against the Current, Malik Miah discusses what this means for the African-American community and Allen Ruff surveys the continuity of Obama’s foreign policy with a century of U.S. global dominance.

Who’s Minding the Store?

There’s a second dynamic, which we can only briefly note here. Even as the quantity and power of money pouring into lobbying, campaign funding and smear-tactic attack ads expands without limit, there appears to be a peculiar decline of what might be called “capitalist discipline” in bourgeois politics, in the interests of the system as a whole.

We mean by this the discipline that did apply, for example, when it briefly appeared that the reappointment of Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke might be threatened from both the conservative and left-liberal wings of the U.S. Senate because of the massive popular anger over the bank bailouts. When the financial markets and the European banks trembled over the prospect of a chaotic fight over the Fed’s policies, the opposition to Bernanke rapidly receded.

Yet it’s remarkable how much of that discipline has evaporated. Money dominates politics as never before, but it’s the sectoral money of the insurance or the pharmaceutical lobbies, or the fossil fuel industry, or the banking or auto industries before the latter went belly-up. Big business rules, and organized labor is weaker than at any time since the late 1920s, but the interests of capital as a whole aren’t harmonized in any stable fashion.

When one Republican Senator, Richard Shelby (a so-called deficit hawk, no less), holds up not one but 70 of president Obama’s appointments, most of which are entirely noncontroversial, to secure some bridge-to-nowhere earmark for Alabama, there are normal mechanisms by which the ruling class, through the party leadership, tells him, “dude — you just can’t do that!”

There are also norms of U.S. bourgeois politics where the minority party doesn’t openly proclaim that it will use filibuster procedures on every question to destroy a president — whose ability to act as the chief executive officer of U.S. imperialism in regard to Iran, China and even Israel among other things is weakened if his domestic authority collapses. Somehow, these norms have severely eroded.

As this issue goes to press, it appears that the Senate Republicans plan to follow the same course to block the nuclear weapons reduction treaty drafted by U.S. and Russian presidents Obama and Medvedev — a deal to reduce their nuclear stockpiles from wildly insane to merely crazy — which is considered critical to securing Russian cooperation in imperialism’s united front against Iran. Because ratification requires a two-thirds Senate vote, until the treaty can get eight Republican votes it probably won’t even be brought to the Senate floor. Leaving the treaty in limbo would severely compromise president Obama’s standing as the administration tries to muscle Iran, work out currency agreements with China, and handle other complex issues of managing the empire.

On the home front, it is entirely clear to every bourgeois thinker that the present insurance system has become a monster that will swallow the economy whole if it isn’t radically changed. The fact that the Republicans, only one year after their 2008 defeat, had become not just the party-of-no but the party of rule-or-ruin-at-all-costs, finally woke up the somnolescent Democrats who saw that their inability to govern could lead to an electoral debacle.

Many commentators now see the political dysfunction leading the United States toward infrastructure collapse, economic decline and fiscal catastrophe. How this will play out in the struggle in the Republican party — whether it becomes capital’s “responsible” party of savage budget-cutting or is captured by the teabagging-militia-racist lunatic fringe — is an open question.

For working people and the social movements, the bigger issue is whether the mess in the system and the deep popular disgust will lead to hunkering even deeper down in the corrupt and corporate Democratic Party — or perhaps open opportunities for a genuine new independent progressive politics.

ATC 146, May-June 2010

1 comment

  1. Although Kucinich may have been “muscled” (and perhaps bribed) to vote for this horrible bill that until shortly before the vote he had been saying was unsupportable, Kucinich is still responsible for his own actions. It was his decision to sell out and vote for the bill–and also his decision a few months ago to back down from bringing single-payer up for a vote. Virtually the entire Democratic Congress is to blame for shoving this horrible piece of legislation down our throats, not just the leadership.

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