Magical Thinking and Political Disenchantment

The first time I read Mark Twain's The Gilded Age, what struck me most was the almost complete absence of the president from the social and political panorama portrayed in the novel. In its political satire, the work focuses almost exclusively on the machinations of the congress and the absurdities of the appropriations process. Over a century later, the political culture of the United States has become a veritable cult of the presidency. Both the office and the person of the president have been invested with powers, both real and imaginary, which exceed the constitutional mandate of the executive branch and the material abilities of any single individual. (It is no wonder we have witnessed the proliferation of executive "czars" who rule over various policy fields -- there are now well over twenty, by some counts.) No person could possibly fulfill the various and conflicting imaginary, symbolic and real mandates currently invested in the office of the president, not to mention his person. It is a recipe for political disillusionment and disenchantment.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, in progressive and liberal circles there is a growing discontent with both the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. The list of grievances is already quite long. At The Left Coaster, Paradox writes:
Liberals have noted with a fair degree of distress since January that the election results have yielded very few liberal policy implementations—the continuing wars abroad and on drugs, high defense spending, tax cuts, finance, environmental and national security stances, none of these are remotely liberal.
One disgruntled Daily Kos diarist writes:

We're not going to see real reform in health care . . . accountability for our human rights abuses . . . civil rights restored . . . real economic/finance reforms . . . real environmental reforms . . . real fulfillment of equal rights. There will always be excuses. But, the movement behind putting him in office wasn't about excuses. It wasn't about keeping the status quo. He led us all to believe we were fighting for change.

Another, under the moniker Lonely Texan, argues that progressives fail to win substantive political battles, "because we do not hold our politicians accountable for their actions." Indeed. Holding a politician accountable means voting him or her out of office. Many liberals and progressives simply do not perceive the contradiction between the values and policy preferences they hold dear and their continuing support for the Democratic Party. Scholars and Rogues lays out the situation quite bluntly: "Democrats to Progressives: We're just not that into you."

Bill Maher recently delivered a critique of the reigning two-party system, in which he articulated what are likely the sentiments of many liberal and progressive Democrats:

Shouldn’t there be one party that unambiguously supports cutting the military budget, a party that is straight up in favor of gun control, gay marriage, higher taxes on the rich, universal health care — legalizing pot — and steep, direct taxing of polluters? These aren’t radical ideas. A majority of Americans are either already for them or would be if they were properly argued and defended. What we need is an actual progressive party to represent the millions of Americans who aren’t being served by the Democrats. Because, bottom line, Democrats are the new Republicans.

In a press release, the Green Party has responded to Maher's call, writing: "Hey, Bill, we're over here! What you described is the GREEN PARTY! We already exist!"


Samuel Wilson said...

Progressives must disabuse themselves of the hysteria whipped up by Democrats against Republicans if the Greens or other Progressive parties are to flourish. It will be inevitable in the course of building a progressive party that it will result in Republicans winning elections, unless there is a mirror movement among ideological conservatives. Unless progressives want to delude themselves into thinking they can go all the way on the first try, they'll have to harden themselves to endure Republican rule with the understanding that neither party is going to destroy the nation in four or eight years, or any more rapidly than the two major parties have been doing in tandem for quite a while now. Bipolarchy or duopolism encourages a Manichean attitude toward elections that third parties must strive to refute even though they may have a more negative view of one major party, because of ideology, than the other does. There's a challenge for you.

d.eris said...

In liberal and progressive circles, this ideological narcissism of small differences can be especially virulent. It is most clear at Kos or Open Left, for instance, when an author braces for the blowback from angry commenters for even suggesting anything other than Democrat orthodoxy. Perhaps it is wrong to label such folks liberals or progressives, since they are really only Democrats.