A Solution to the 'Progressive dilemma' in U.S. Electoral Politics...
By Ernest A. Canning on 12/20/2009, 5:01pm PT  

Guest editorial by Ernest A. Canning

There have been a few occasions during my 62 years when I heard something profound that stuck with me.

The year was 1969. I was attending a freshman college history class, shortly after returning from Vietnam, when my professor said:

If the American Right can be criticized for its insensitivity to the plight of the common man, the American Left can always be criticized for its inability to count.

His words came back to me as Brad Friedman and I simultaneously made guest appearances on Live from the Left Coast with Angie Coiro.

While the topic was Afghanistan, a concern emerged over the splintering of the Left as a product of what Coiro described as strident "rhetoric," such as the suggestion that President Obama was a "sell-out" or the announcement by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) that he intended to introduce a privileged resolution to stop the "criminal enterprise" in Afghanistan. The concern was the potential for that "rhetoric" to adversely impact the Democratic Party in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Unfortunately, in part due to technical difficulties they had on the show that night, I failed to adequately articulate my concerns, which go to the core of the Progressive dilemma in U.S. electoral politics....

On one end of the Progressive spectrum we find individuals like Ralph Nader who see little or no difference between the Republican and Democratic Parties. Both Parties represent the interests of Empire, the military-industrial complex, Wall Street and corporate America, though one is more ideologically driven than the other. In their view, both Parties compete for the same corporate campaign funds, with a greater percentage of those funds currently flowing to Democrats because, in Barack Obama's enchanting eloquence, corporate America has found an individual who could best take from the poor and give to the rich while convincing us all that he intends otherwise.

Their electoral politics response is to avoid the "lesser-evil" trap and turn to Third Parties. In terms of electoral success, Third Party politics in the U.S. have historically amounted to an exercise in futility.

At the other end of the spectrum, one finds Progressives who are wringing their hands; cringing at the thought that the "rhetoric" will hurt Progressive chances in the next election. They fear a return to the insanity of the eight years that proceeded the 2008 election.

Theirs is an exercise in denial that evades the core question as to whether it can be assumed that a particular candidate represents anything other than corporate America simply because they place a (D) at the end of their name.

The vital distinction between uninformed wingnut "rhetoric" and valid criticism from the Left.

Brad Friedman's interviews of the wing-nuts in Griffith Park, depicted in the short film "Tea Party Express II: Rise of the Tea Bags" was hilarious precisely because it exposed the lack of substance in right-wing propaganda. Thus, when a wing-nut claims that Obama is a Socialist, my response is to chuckle and say, "Would that it were so!"

(The hilarity by no means negates the ugly potential for violence produced by dangerous right-wing incitements, such as that engendered by the Fox News/Chamber of Commerce hit piece directed at the Velvet Revolution; incitement which produced a spate of expletives and threats of violence and death towards the group.)

But when an astute journalist like John Pilger makes the case in a powerful video that Obama is nothing more than "a marketing creation"; when that assessment is supported by the analysis of one of this nation's most respected, Progressive intellectuals, Noam Chomsky, the first question that should be asked is --- Is there substance to the allegation? Not, what impact is the allegation going to have on the next election?

Obama’s approval ratings dropped precipitously between 01/27/2009 (approval of 63.3%; disapproval 20%) and 12/15/2009 (approval 48.7%; 45.3% disapprove).

Given the limited play a John Pilger or a Noam Chomsky receives in corporate media which control 95% of what we see, hear, and read, it would be a stretch to think that this precipitous drop flows from "Leftist rhetoric."

The real explanation can be found in the gap between what Chomsky described as Obama's "soaring rhetoric" and policies which reveal that this President is not "as advertised." This credibility gap permitted the right-wing echo chamber, so ineffective during the 2008 campaign, to gain traction.

Progressive is mainstream

There is the core problem of what Chomsky describes in Failed States as "the democracy deficit" --- what he described on Democracy Now as the "very substantial gap between public opinion and public policy on a host of major issues." The gap is created because the public perception of candidates is the product of skillful marketing designed to deceive --- a gap that is aided by the exclusion of substance by a corporate media whose wealth is enhanced by the electoral process.

The paucity of substance in corporate media "news coverage" forces candidates to expend enormous sums on deceptive, 30-second spot ads. Aside from an occasional billionaire like Ross Perot, usually that financial arrangement means that only those candidates who have amassed a huge, corporate-funded campaign war chest are capable of purchasing significant air time.

Progressive candidates and organizations, struggling to get out their message, are forced to seek meager funds from those who can afford it the least, and those paltry contributions find their way into the coffers of the corporate media; further exacerbating an already obscene gap in wealth where the net worth of the richest one percent is greater than that of the bottom 90%.

Only those candidates who can purchase significant air time are deemed "viable" by the corporate media. The public is sold on the idea that if they vote for anyone who is not a "viable" candidate, they are "throwing away" their vote.

Time and again, Chomsky demonstrated the effectiveness of this strategy in Failed States, e.g. during the 2004 Election, "a majority of Bush supporters not only support the Kyoto protocol but mistakenly believe that Bush does too."

As we demonstrated in "Single Payer and the 'Democracy Deficit'", thanks to the corporate media substance deficit, U.S. elections have devolved into shallow, image-driven affairs in which issues are evaded --- a point reflected by the August 2007 blind-poll which contained the policy positions of Democratic Presidential candidates but not their names. The result: Kucinich 52%; Hillary Clinton 3.6%, Obama 3%.

The gap between the policy positions of the electorate and its "representatives" can nowhere be better demonstrated than on the subject of health care reform, where 60% favor a single-payer (Medicare for All) system [PDF]. The number swells to 76% if one compromises by offering a "public option" which would allow all citizens to choose between private health care insurance and a public plan --- that's 76% of all Americans! Yet, time and again the corporate media, which skewed perceptions by over-coverage of wing-nut protests, portrayed Democrats who, satiated by health insurance lobby money, oppose even a "public option" as somehow "centrist."

News flash! If a Senator adopts a policy (elimination of the public option) that is to the Right of 76% of all Americans, he or she does not occupy the Center.

The resultant bills, which place hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and greater power into the hands of the health insurance cartel, whose greed is the source of the fiasco; bills which force almost everyone under 65 to buy insurance, are referred to as a necessary "compromise" --- even as the brief ray of hope in a Medicare buy-in, as well as the public option, were being snuffed out.

Pseudo-reform is precisely what you get when private greed replaces public good in the legislative process. The pending Senate bill was drafted by Liz Fowler, a former VP for Public Policy and External Affairs at WellPoint (now Anthem/Blue Cross). Fowler served as a senior aide to Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), the largest recipient of health insurance cartel campaign contributions in Congress. In the House, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) inserted an amendment which "would give developers of innovative biomedical drugs 12 years of statutory protection from generic competition, significantly extending their patent rights" --- an amendment which, according the Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, would provide "a big payoff to biotech firms and their venture backers by hindering the entry of a new class of generic drugs into the market."

If Progressives are willing to accept the health care legislative obscenity emerging from Congress simply because it bears the Orwellian label --- reform --- then we are all in serious trouble.

Obama's poll numbers sink as he abandons the Progressive/mainstream

Can you recall the spontaneous exuberance of Election night, 2008? Do you remember the multi-racial, multi-ethnic crowds filling Chicago's Grant Park (photos) and New York's Times Square (photo); Jessie Jackson's tears? It involved more than a recognition that, finally, our nation elected an African-American President. After an eight year nightmare, that night had the feel of stepping from the darkness into the light.

But the reason for the celebration proved ephemeral. Time and again, be it the selection of Lawrence Summers & Tim Geithner, as opposed to Paul Krugman & Joseph Stiglitz, superficial reasons for refusing to bring those who ordered torture before the bar of justice, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and continued retention of the infamous Blackwater/Xe, Obama has demonstrated, by his actions, that his true constituency is Wall Street, the military-industrial complex and corporate America.

Acting both directly and through his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the President betrayed Progressives (and with that betrayal, the majority of citizens) when he chose to meet privately with the pharmaceutical lobby, where he "promised to oppose proposals to let the government negotiate drug prices and extract additional savings from drug companies," and when he sent Emanuel to pressure the Democratic House leadership to strip the Kucinich Amendment from the health care bill --- an amendment with both conservative and progressive appeal as it would have protected states rights by permitting states to adopt single-payer systems if they so choose.

As we previously reported, "The Kucinich amendment was supported by 13 of the [House Labor & Education] Committee's Republicans." In the Senate, an amendment offered by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) would permit Americans to purchase FDA-approved prescription medications from other countries where the cost is approximately one-third of what Americans pay for the identical pharmaceuticals in the U.S. The amendment was supported by Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME), John McCain (R-AZ) & Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Despite the support of those three Republicans, the Dorgan amendment failed by a 51 to 48 vote.

Thus, the President's backroom deal with Big Pharma places him to the Right of some fairly conservative Republicans --- this despite Obama's prior support of permitting the purchase of FDA-approved pharmaceuticals from Canada as a member of the U.S. Senate and his support for single-payer health care reform as an Illinois State Senator.

The level of disgust was summed up when Thom Hartman paraphrased the remarks of Reinhold Niebuhr:

First they came for the banksters, and showered them with money and put them in the Administration in a way that was not change we could believe in.

Then they came for the military industrial complex, and sent more and more of our children to die in faraway lands that had never attacked us in a way that was not change we could believe in.

And now they've sold out our hope for a national health care system not run by millionaire gangsters in suits. And who is left to speak for us?

It is not criticism of Obama from the Left but a willingness to cling to the coattails of a man who has betrayed the Progressive cause that will take Progressives down to defeat. But there is an alternative...

Democracy and the election of those who "represent" our interests

As noted from the outset, neither Third Parties nor denial offer a viable solution to the Progressive electoral dilemma. But there is an alternative. It requires recognition by otherwise astute Progressives, like Ralph Nader, that the Democratic Party is not a monolith. There exists, today, a relatively new (5 year old) organization, whose policy positions mirror those to be found in, for example, the Green Party. That organization is the Progressive Democrats of America. It is an organization which has sought to take on corporate Democrats, like Jane Harmon (D-CA), by challenging them in Democratic primaries --- an organization which, recognizing that knowledge is power, seeks to mobilize and inform the grass roots.

It is a good strategy, but one that must be expanded. What is required is a solidified Left.

By taking on corporate Democrats in the primaries, rather than as Third Party candidates, individuals like Ralph Nader could eliminate the "lesser-evil" trap that drives so many to vote for a Democrat, any Democrat, for fear of the next Richard B. Cheney on the horizon.

Capture the Party. The nation will follow.

Epilogue: In reviewing the thoughtful comments of our readers, I realized that I had adequately described the Progressive dilemma but had not fully explained the solution.

"PDA's mission is to strengthen the voice of progressive ideas within the Democratic Party by using 'inside/outside' and 'grassroots fusion' models of working both in the Democratic Party as well as working with other progressive organizations."

"The inside/outside model of political reform is the method being used by the Progressive Democrats of America to change the Democratic Party but also foster a broad grass-roots progressive social and political movement."

Both the corporatists who make up the Democratic Leadership and their top-down governance of the Party must be targeted for change. If an individual represents something other than the grassroots, e.g. if an individual is beholden to corporate America, he or she should be targeted for replacement.

Democracy can only be realized when we come to understand that those who now occupy positions of "leadership" are not in charge of the Party's future; that only those who are prepared to "represent" the interests of the great masses, who make up the grassroots of the Democratic Party, should be entrusted with "leadership responsibilities."

The solution I propose is (1) Real democracy inside the Democratic Party --- a bottom-up strategy that targets those who now control those levels of powers, followed by (2) Real democracy in general elections, in which a unified Left, operating through a new Democratic Party, reconstituted through the PDA methodology, presents itself as truly representing the Progressive mainstream.

Recall that in "Single-Payer and the 'Democracy Deficit'" I quoted former British MP Tony Benn:

I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world; more revolutionary than socialist ideas….Because...you have the power to use it to meet the needs of your community….

If the poor in the US and Britain turned out to vote for people who represent their interests it would be a real democratic revolution…

Make no mistake, what I propose is a revolutionary change to the structure of the Democratic Party --- the peaceful, non-violent, Velvet Revolution we commonly refer to as "democracy."

In Tony Benn's view, my proposal is simply that we first make the Democratic Party democratic, and that we then use that truly democratic platform to accomplish a revolutionary change that would erase the "democracy deficit" by ensuring that the public interest is exalted over private greed, always!


Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California state bar since 1977. Mr. Canning has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science as well as a juris doctor. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968).

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