Change We (Were Foolish to) Believe In

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 The U.S. 2010 midterm elections are over, and the postmortems have begun.  Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the influential liberal magazine the Nation and a frequent guest on television talk shows, said in a recent fund appeal,

Dear Nation Reader,

There’s no disguising it, the results of the midterm elections were, with few exceptions, grim, as candidates who are intent on rolling back decades of economic and social progress were swept into office.

But this is no time to despair. It is time to stand and fight for a real debate about ideas and for small-d democracy. The Nation is committed to that work, and to ensuring that our truth-telling journalists lift their ideas into our country’s all-too narrow debate.

Before the elections, I kept getting emails from telling me that this would be the most important election in my lifetime.  Those nasty Republicans, led by the crazy people in the Tea Party, were intent on overturning everything that the good Democrats had wrought.  Now Ms. Vanden Heuvel is telling me that this is going to happen unless we “fight for a real debate . . .” 

Here is what I think. Thanks to government largesse, banks and other corporations are now awash in cash, and profits have soared to record levels. Yet, the banks are not making loans, and the corporations are not buying new equipment and opening new facilities.  Despite gross misconduct, no top corporate officials have been prosecuted, and many of the very companies that put the economy in the ditch are as flush as ever.  Were those nasty Republicans in power when this happened?  No. 

There is an enormous shortfall of demand for goods and services in the economy, a shortfall only the government can possibly fill.  The best way to do this would be to engineer public employment projects.  There are thousands of possibilities, from public housing and transit to sewage system repair to the national parks and monuments.  State and local governments need help, as do the unemployed, whose ranks are filled with record numbers who haven’t worked in many months.  Has it been those nasty Republicans who are responsible for what the government has not done?  No.  It was the Democrats whose economic stimulus package was inadequate to the task at hand.  It was Obama who thought that all was well and began to talk about deficit reduction long before this was necessary. 

In fact, it was Obama who appointed a deficit reduction commission, whose preliminary recommendations include raising the social security retirement age to sixty-nine, cutting the federal workforce by 10 percent, and lowering the corporate income tax.  These would each harm working people. Tens of millions of workers perform jobs that wreck their bodies and spirits long before age sixty-nine; to force them to work until then is unconscionable.  Furthermore, the social security system is now in good shape, and modest changes, such as an increase in the maximum taxable income, will keep it healthy for a long time to come.  Slashing the federal workforce will do nothing good for the economy.  Useful and efficient government agencies like the Social Security Administration are already overworked, and further cuts will reduce the quality of life for many people.  The corporate income tax is already low, and the share of federal tax revenues collected from corporations has been in decline for decades. The burden of this tax, according to most economists, is on stockholders, and given that stocks are disproportionately owned by the rich, it is a progressive tax, one that takes a larger share of income as income gets higher.  Cutting this tax will, therefore, increase an already remarkable income inequality, which will harm us in myriad ways, not least of which is a further reduction in our already anemic political influence.

Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan, a war that seems to be endless and in which every soldier who dies does so for nothing.  The Afghan government is corrupt, as are the private U.S. contractors who perform tasks that the U.S. government ought to do.  The arch enemy of the United States, Iran, sends boatloads of cash to our corrupt stooges in Kabul, making a mockery of all the vitriol directed at Tehran (the Iranians are also strong allies of the Shia running Iraq).  Did those nasty Republicans force Obama to direct murder and mayhem against the Afghans?  Hardly.  Obama promised as much during his campaign against Senator McCain.

The Obama administration has ballyhooed its reform of the horrid U.S. healthcare system.  My friends at the United Electrical Workers union tell me, after careful study, that the new healthcare arrangements will be worse than what we have now.  I don’t doubt it.  The drug and insurance companies are drooling over all the money they’ll be making.  Medicare recipients are going to pay for part of the new plans with foregone benefits, and the federal government is still not going to use its enormous buying power to force the drug monopolies to lower their prices.  The Democrats put no effort into single payer, despite its popularity.  Now they are blaming those mean Republicans for promising to try to scuttle Obamacare.  But who is really at fault here? 

Now that the Republicans control the House of Representatives, will the Democrats stand tall and fight them off with progressive principle?  Will they move to the left?  Only a fool like Katrina vanden Heuvel could believe this.  What is being played out here is as old as the rise of modern U.S. capitalism.  The Democrats and the Republicans take turns serving the interests of capital.  The Republicans rule with such disdain for the working class that a public backlash drives them from power.  Then the Democrats promote capitalism with a human face.  Business and its allies go wild and scare the people with stories about incipient socialism.  These days, with a moribund labor movement and limited public political sophistication, the scare tactics work pretty well.  The Democrats respond by moving to the right; the Republicans regain their lost political power; the Democrats shift further right; and then the Republicans win absolute power, and the whole sorry process starts over again.  Watch now as Obama gravitates to the right.  Watch as he parrots vanden Heuvel and babbles on about civility and calm debate.  Watch as he caves on rescinding the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  Watch as he turns up the heat on Iran when the next presidential election gets nearer.  Watch how he champions every kind of environmental degradation, from offshore oil drilling to hydraulic fracturing.  Watch how the liberals and their more thoughtless radical allies tell us that this is the most important election of our lifetimes.

When Obama was running for president, few liberals and for that matter, not that many radicals, wondered how an unknown junior senator with almost nothing on his political resume could become the Democratic nominee and then president.  It didn’t seem to occur to them that the money men and women must have thoroughly vetted him and found him to their liking.  That his populist rhetoric was just that, verbal bread and circuses to pacify the masses and give them false hopes.  There was plenty of evidence for this, available to anyone willing to look, as is made clear by Rodger Hodge in his aptly titled book, The Mendacity of Hope. I urge you to read the excerpts from this book on my friend Louis Proyect’s blog (Louis Proyect: the Unrepentant Marxist).  Or check out Adolph Reed and Glen Ford. Maybe my erstwhile radical friends, who went door-to-door for Obama, have now read such material and feel at least a little foolish for their naivete.  Surely their dreams for “change we can believe in” were dashed when they saw Obama eager to take the economic advice of a swine like Lawrence Summers.  If that didn’t do it, then maybe the recent revelation that George Bush told British leaders during the campaign that he would have endorsed Obama if they’d asked him will do the trick.  I can only hope so.

[Note: The cartoon at the beginning of this post is taken from the excellent Black Agenda Report, in an article by Bruce A. Dixon on Nov. 10, 2010.]

12 Responses to Change We (Were Foolish to) Believe In

  1. Joe Pivarnik November 14, 2010 at 5:02 am #

    Good read on our current Democrat vs. Republican ideals, Mike. Your paragraph on the Deficit Reduction Committe is similar to a Paul Krugman piece on it that I read today. Personally I never expected much from Obama. I see him as a definitive Chicago politician.

  2. Lajany Otum November 14, 2010 at 6:12 am #

    I see him as a definitive Chicago politician.

    Do you mean Chicago, as in the city, or Chicago, as in the School?

  3. Michael Fiorillo November 14, 2010 at 1:37 pm #


    You are absolutely right. Obama was the candidate of diversion, literally diverting and neutralizing the collective energies that had built up in revulsion to the Bush years. That his foundation and hedge fund backers had years ago selected and groomed him – and that he, in his almost pathological need for acceptance and validation by the “right” kind of people, is so eager to enact that role – for that role is increasingly apparent.

    As I just commented on Doug Henwood’s blog, it’s win-win for the ruling class: A Democrat and a black man become the public face of austerity. There’s a devilish symmetry to it.

    PS: I’m a big fan of your travelogues and postings in general

  4. Jim Creegan November 15, 2010 at 12:58 am #

    Subject: Fwd: Debating Obama
    Date: Sun, 14 Nov 2010 15:53:57 -0500


    A propos your “Change We Shouldn’t Have Believed In”, I thought you may be interested in this letter I sent to The Nation last summer in response to Eric Alterman’s
    apologia for Obama, the lead article in a so-called forum titiled “Debating Obama”. The letter was never printed. Letters in response were limited to immoderate praise for Alterman and a couple of nauseatingly polite criticisms.


    Jim Creegan

    To the Editor:

    Eric Alterman understandably feels obliged to explain why the high the hopes he and so many others placed in Barack Obama, and solid Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, have been so swiftly disappointed. He answers that even the efforts of the most well-intentioned reformers are bound to fail in a political system rigged against change by entrenched rightwing interests. This argument, however, evades the important question: Are Obama and the Democrats part of the solution or part of the problem?
    Obama’s “political imagination” may be imponderable, as Alterman writes. The meaning of his actions, however, is clear enough. No rightwing force outside the White House compelled Obama to pick two star pupils of the Robert Rubin school of financial deregulation—Tim Geithner and Lawrence Summers —to head his economic team. It was not the Republicans who killed the public option; their unanimous opposition to any proposed Democratic healthcare measure was assured from the outset. It was Obama who, in the summer of 2009, made secret deals with the medical industry to abandon the idea of a government-run plan, and, in alliance with the Blue Dogs, sent Rahm Emanuel to twist the arms of Congressional Democrats still holding out for the public option. Are Republicans forcing Education Secretary Arne Duncan to widen Bush-initiated attacks on teachers’ unions and public education?; are they the ones who have set up a debt commission chaired by a leading Republican deficit hawk, Alan Simpson, and advised by Peter Peterson, private equity billionaire and long-time crusader for Social Security “reform” (read: cutting benefits and/or raising the retirement age)? What “entrenched interests” were behind Robert Gibbs’s recent calculated swipe at the “professional left”? None of the above (I limit myself to examples from domestic policy) is an instance of helplessness in the face of the Republican right. All are deliberate initiatives on the part of the Obama administration.

    The game is even more rigged than Alterman imagines. The business oligarchy has at its disposal not only a party of outright lackeys, but a second party that specializes in channeling any real pressure for progress into support for candidates who campaign in platitudes (“hope”, “change”) and govern for the profiteers. Alterman has long been bamboozled by the Democrats. In 2000, he stridently denounced Ralph Nader for daring to challenge their game of electoral bait and switch. Confronted now with the self-evident failure of his politics, Alterman does not question his faith in the Democrats. Instead he presents an elaborate rationale for persisting in his allegiance, misportraying Obama as a beleaguered progressive instead of the right-centrist he has shown himself to be.

    I believe it was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again in the expectation of a different result each time. How much longer will progressives continue to think they are electing another FDR and getting presidents like Carter, Clinton and Obama, who differ with the Republicans only concerning the pace at which to take the country in a rightward direction.

    Jim Creegan
    New York, August 16

  5. John Halle November 15, 2010 at 2:36 pm #

    Dear Michael,

    Thanks for this.

    Here’s a widely ignored article I wrote on the subject which you might be interested in:

    It’s from March-but I wouldn’t change a word of it.


  6. mike November 16, 2010 at 4:06 pm #

    Joe, I agree. Obama is just another politician, in this case Chicago-style. And no one gets to be president now without the approval of the rich.

    Lajany, I think Joe meant city, although his first chief economic advisor was from U. of Chicago, not a good sign.

    Michael, Your points are right on target.

    Jim, Thanks for posting this wonderful letter. Eric Alterman is like vanden Heuvel, a fool.

    John, Thanks for the link to your fine articlle. Much appreciated.

  7. Mike B) November 18, 2010 at 2:21 am #

    What’s been lost in an historical process of authoritarian induced political amnesia since the dawn of the 20th century is knowledge, amongst the workers themselves, about how the wage system separates the product from the producer hence, political power from the working class. What replaced it was a time-sink of leftist discourse based on appropriate tactics to reform the capitalist system and keep the conservatives out of power, up to and including alliances of anti-fascist unity. This was combined with how best to defend the Soviet Union or support incipient ruling classes in their struggle for national independence. IMO, it’s no wonder the left feels that it has to keep moving to the right in order to remain relevant to the realities which our rulers lay down via their polytricksters. Class consciousness has been effectively replaced with many forms of liberalism. Materialist dialectical analysis has been replaced at the grassroots level by moral discussions swirling around ruling class leaders’ goodness or evil.

  8. Jim Farmelant November 25, 2010 at 3:04 am #

    Back on November 6, 2008, two days after the presidential election, I wrote the following on the Marxmail List (

    Obama has made no secret of his intention to govern as a centrist in the Bill Clinton mode. He has certainly not hidden from the public
    his views concerning a whole range of issues both foreign and domestic.

    Liberals and progressives, it seems to me, have managed to do a bang-up job of deceiving themselves concerning Obama’s true political inclinations. It’s as if they have bought into the characterizations of Obama that the GOP
    made during the campaign and put plus signs where the Republicans had placed minu signs: that Obaba is really a “closet” socialist who intends to engage in a massive redistribution of wealth and so forth.

    So, I expect that after Obama has been in office a while and he has managed
    to make a few crucial decisions, and perhaps bombed a country or two, that
    maybe a certain level of disillusionment will begin to set in.

    The ascension of Obama into the White House merits comparisons with JFK’s ascension of forty-eight years ago. Like Obama, JFK’s ascension was greeted with very high expectations from his supporters. Eventually, a certain
    level of disillusionment set in, and of course his assassination would be the most disillusioning event of all. However, at that time there were
    thriving social movements, most notably the civil rights movement. So when disillusionment set in, for many people that would lead not to a relapse back into apathy but to a radicalization which would drive much of the politics of
    the 1960s.

    So, it will be interesting to see how things play this time around.

    Jim F.

  9. Jim Farmelant November 25, 2010 at 3:09 am #

    I would also add that back even under Bush, given the debacle he experienced in attempting to privatize social security, that social security would, ironcally enough, be safe as long as the GOP was in the White House, but if a Democrat got back in, then all bets were off. Progressives seem to have forgotten that Bill Clinton intended to use his second term to push for social security reform that would involve at least a partial privatization. As it turned out, it was Monica Lewinsky who seems to have been the salvation of social security at that time. Now that we, once again, have a Democratic president, now it seems that social security might once again be thereatened with “reform.”

  10. senecal December 1, 2010 at 6:51 pm #

    We shouldn’t forget that all Presidents are figureheads — Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush I, famously. Actual power to set agendas, block or promote laws, is more widely distributed, and includes committee chairmen, senior Senators (Feinstein). party leaders (Pelosi), opinion makers, etc. If Howard Zinn was miraculously elected President, his beautiful agenda would be mangled from the start by this thoroughly corrupt political, judicial and opinion-forming machinery.
    Richard Estes (American Leftist) ironically hints at Obama’s skill in maneuvering this hellish landscape, and achieving his actual goals, by the title of a recent post: “Obama’s Midterm Victory.”

    Mike B: you gave me something to think about!

  11. Jim Farmelant December 2, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    Looking at Mike’s post from a year ago, and my post on the Marxism List from three years ago, I cannot help but say how right I was. And it seems that now given the fact there is indeed disillusionment with Obama there are the beginnings of a new radicalization in the US, just as there was in the 1960s. Time will tell how all this plays out.


  1. Michael Yates on the midterm elections « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist - November 14, 2010

    […] Change We (Were Foolish to) Believe In […]

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