Thoughts on why a progressive presidency is impossible…for now

If you have the inclination and lots of free time, I highly recommend reading Eric Alterman’s latest manifesto, railing against the Right, Big Business, the Mainstream Media and all the powers-that-be that make it impossible for real progressive reform to take hold.

In Alterman’s own words, the piece examines the failure of the Obama Administration to deliver on many of his campaign promises, not from lack of will, or conniving deceit, but rather:

“From a series of structural bottlenecks in our system that encourage conservative transformative change but stand in the way of its progressive counterpart.”

These include:

“– The legacy of the Bush administration
— The structure of our political system and the antiquated rules of the Senate
— The political power of money
— The ideological antipathy of many Americans to strong government
— The power of right-wing media
— The varying weaknesses of mainstream media
— And the disciplined and yet entirely-divorced-from-reality character of contemporary conservatism coupled with the disparate ideological composition of the Democratic Party, among others.”

While I would argue that at times Alterman sacrifices the better argument for the sake of political expedience (for instance, if one of the roadblocks to progressive change, according to Alterman is ‘the ideological antipathy of many Americans to strong government,’ shouldn’t we be questioning the progressive agenda, or developing more convincing arguments in favor of centralized reform rather than push this agenda despite the general will of the public?), I think he is right on about one thing in particular: it doesn’t matter who has a better argument, it’s who has a better narrative—and in this department, the Right has won the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public.

Whether it be during the debate about TARP, Healthcare reform, financial reform, etc., it never mattered how necessary these reforms were and how easy it should have been to argue in their favor, because the Right always took and still manages to take the pot with it’s two word trump card—“Government Takeover”.

The debate over the healthcare bill was a perfect example of a unique occasion in our nation’s history to debate honestly and intelligently the role of the State in the welfare of its citizenry. How can we as a society justly and equitable distribute access to healthcare? Should we adopt a single payer system? What about a public option? Absent both of these, how can we make sure all Americans have access to affordable healthcare, while being protected from the more egregious practices of the Insurance Industry? But just as all creatures will fight dirty for their survival, when the powers that be saw their fortunes threatened, the debate turned away from the rational and the intelligent to the inflammatory and the utterly nonsensical. “Death Panels!”, “Hitler!”, “Socialism!”; it didn’t matter how little resemblance these cries bore to the actual policies being proposed, because the Right’s trump card made any policy proposition, no matter how reasonable and necessary, un-American and tyrannical.

Perhaps the best instance of the victory of the Right-Wing narrative is with the recent debate over financial reform. Considering the recent financial crisis, which hurled America and much of the world into international chaos unparalleled in this generation, financial reform should have been as easy to pass. At no other time since perhaps 9-11 has the American public been so unified in its anger toward a certain group, and in its demand that something be done to stop such a disaster from ever happening again. Yet, monolithic opposition from the right managed to clip much of the bills fangs. Why? Because it doesn’t matter how necessary a certain measure may be; any attempt by the government to control some aspect of private industry and the free-market represents a “government takeover”— an intolerable affront to all that America stands for.

Alterman is right that a progressive presidency is impossible for now, for as long as the Right has the power to instill an existential fear into the heart of the American public with these two words, and as long as the Right’s narrative manages to convince people that government takeover is not only possible, but imminent, no other argument and no other narrative stands a chance.