|Dday has an excellent bead on this over at Hullabaloo:
Dionne goes on to describe a panel he witnessed Tuesday with Jared Polis, Donna Edwards and Raul Grijalva - three of the most progressive members of Congress, but three whose names aren't in the Village Rolodex, and whose views have almost no impact on the way the debates in Washington are presented to the public. That doesn't mean they don't have power and importance - their decision along with the Progressive Caucus to pool their power and force the public option into the health care debate was masterful - but it confuses the way Obama is presented, and the space to criticize him from the left. Edwards explained this very specifically:
Polis, Edwards and Grijalva also noted that proposals for a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system, which they support, have fallen off the political radar. Polis urged his activist audience to accept that reality for now and focus its energy on making sure that a government insurance option, known in policy circles as the "public plan," is part of the menu of choices offered by a reformed health-care system.
But Edwards noted that if the public plan, already a compromise from single-payer, is defined as the left's position in the health-care debate, the entire discussion gets skewed to the right. This makes it far more likely that any public option included in a final bill will be a pale version of the original idea.
Her point has broader application. For all the talk of a media love affair with Obama, there is a deep and largely unconscious conservative bias in the media's discussion of policy. The range of acceptable opinion runs from the moderate left to the far right and cuts off more vigorous progressive perspectives.
And actually, this SUITS Obama. If he wanted to pick his enemies, he's much rather have Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney than Jared Polis, Donna Edwards and Raul Grijalva. For one, the public has a fairly definitive opinion of those conservatives, at least relative to Obama, and the President wins those debates without saying a word. For another, Obama has no need to move from the moderate center if the Beltway criticism doesn't approach him from that perspective. His choice of advisers and policy options clearly put him in that moderate mainstream of the Democratic Party, and it's where he feels - has always felt - the most comfortable.
The only real problem here is the fundamental one: what works politically in Versailles has no relationship whatsoever to the real world. Politically acceptable health care reform will not actually reform health care, any more than a politically acceptable approach to global warming will actually save the planet. This has been seen repeatedly throughout history: Empires fall in large part precisely because of this-elites grow increasingly insular and out of touch until the whole thing falls apart. Obama has shown himself masterful at elite politics, he has, as dday points out, the best enemies he could possibly hope for. And he's equally adept at pleasing the masses. But the one thing he can't do is actually solve the problems America faces, because to do that he would actually have to stand for transformational change. And that is the very last thing that he has in mind.
In his study of world history, and the patterns of imperial rise and fall, macro-historian Arnold Toynbee noted that in the period of imperial decline, there was a possibility of renewal. In fact, Toynbee saw the 1960s counter-culture as a potential harbinger of such renewal, and welcomed it enthusiastically. Obama speaks the commodified language of transformation, but he means something entirely different. Obama-style transformation is almost entirely personal, as revealed by the transactional/transformational dyad: the transactional politician defined as one who does deals, versus the "transformational" politician defined as one who changes lives.
What this distinction totally leaves out of the picture is the transformation of political structures that in turn change everyone's lives. When it comes to this--the traditional, non-commodified meaning of transformational--Obama is downright phobic, panicked, for example, by even a hint of suspicion that government ownership of GM might make any difference whatsoever. He's almost more afraid of such a thought than Rush Limbaugh is. But it is only such systemic transformation that can possibly save a declining empire from its fate, and turn the impulse for renewal into a reality. Without fundamental shifts in policy and power relations, the insular logic of insider power politics will repeatedly drive empire up against the rocks, over and over and over again, until destruction is finally achieved.
The basic problem of empire is the dominance of special interests. The larger the empire grows, the more power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few, who are not simply individual actors, but who have powerful institutions supporting them. The logic of how such actors interact and the logic of how they maintain their power bases becomes the dominant, two-fold logic of how empire works. At present, there are at least four power bases whose logic prevails over virtually all else, so much so that their repeated failures must repeatedly be bailed out by others: the military-industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry, finance and media/electronics/communications. (It's worth noting, as does Kevin Phillips, in American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, that the Bush family has been involved in three of these four for several generations-oil, finance and the intelligence side of the military-industrial complex. The fourth, Benjamin Barber notes in Jihad vs. McWorld, is the one economic sector in which America still dominates the world.)
This is why, for example, the utter disaster of the Iraq War did not lead to the discrediting of anyone who supported the war, no matter how horribly wrong they were, nor did it lead to the elevation of anyone who effectively opposed it, whether in the media or politics. (Obama, quite notably, virtually stopped opposing the war once he entered the Senate.) It's why Obama's rhetoric about the war on terror has changed (even dropping the name), but the war itself continues with increased military spending, and most of Bush's management still in place. It's why the finance sector has been bailed out, while the auto industry has been allowed to fail, and no coordinated effort has been made to create a new green transportation sector, and it's why the insurance companies (part of the finance sector) are effectively strangling any sort of effective health care reform. Weaker sectors of the capitalist economy are now being sacrificed willy-nilly, along with the usual Reagan-era victims, while the sort of grand restructuring that could improve (or at least save from disaster) the lives of the vast majority is not even whispered of, even as charges of "socialism", "fascism", and "Marxism" fly like an endless aerial armada of bats out of rightwing hell.
Returning to Dionne's column, the basic problem with it is that Dionne himself is too much a creature of Versailles. He is, to be sure, an unusually critical creature, and that's nothing to scoff at. The pressures to conform to its routine venality and vapidity are intense, and Dionne has done an admirable job of resisting these pressures for a very long time. Yet, he cannot help that he is an insider, however critical he may be, which is why the issues of empire I point to here simply do not figure in his narrative, however critical and perceptive it may be in its own terms.
p.s. I wrote the above on Friday, before Bill Moyers Journal aired. Dionne's piece was used to kick off the discussion, but Moyers simply ignored the aspects that Dionne got wrong, and focused on what he got right--the media context and how dysfunctional its rules and routine practices are. Of his two guests, Jay Rosen was particularly good at hammering home specific aspects of this problem:
BILL MOYERS: .... The columnist E.J. Dionne, writing in "The Washington Post" this week, wrote, "A media environment that tilts to the right is obscuring what President Obama stands for and closing off political options that should be part of the public discussion. When Rush Limbaugh sneezes or Newt Gingrich tweets, their views ricochet from the internet to cable television and into the traditional media. It is remarkable how successful they are in setting what passes for the news agenda." Do you agree with him?
JAY ROSEN: I think there is a dynamic where it is in the interests of reporters to portray our political debate as standing between people like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich on the right, and Barack Obama on the left. And what E.J. Dionne was saying is that there are plenty of people to Obama's left who deserve as large a platform as a Rush Limbaugh or a Newt Gingrich or perhaps even more so.
And I think this involves one of the subtler things that journalists do in our public life, Bill. Which is they set the terms of what a legitimate debate is. They marginalize certain people as not a part of it. And they include other people, who perhaps ought to be marginalized as a central part of it. And it's very hard for us to hold them accountable for those decisions, because they are subtler than we sometimes recognize.
Brooke Gladstone made some good points as well, most notably here, which leads into another great observation by Rosen:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I do think, though, we have to be careful in not regarding the media as solely the mainstream media, as solely the mainstream television news outlets. Or even the big daily papers. There is a huge raucous, wide-ranging discussion going out there. And even though it is not the dominant media in this country yet, it will be a far more democratic discussion as we move forward.
BILL MOYERS: You're talking about-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I really do believe that.
BILL MOYERS: -the internet? Permanently?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I am talking about the internet. I'm talking about all the different conversations, local, national, and global that are outside the realm of these filters and these nervous Nellies who are concerned about being perceived as liberals.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, but the big megaphone belongs still to the networks. Both the commercial networks and the cable channels, right? So, ultimately, all this has to be filtered through their microphone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Bill, and I'm asking you this honestly, 'cause I don't know the answer. Do we know that Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich have managed the great task of tarring Sonia Sotomayor as a racist? I don't think so. Rush Limbaugh backpedaled just as Gingrich had, to a certain extent, earlier this week. And said that he would support Sonia Sotomayor if she turned out to be pro-life. Well, that's, you know, at least a policy question that Rush Limbaugh raised. Very out of character for him. Just as earlier Gingrich said, "I'm sorry I used the word racist." He backed away from the word. He didn't back away from the charge, as we know.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that's a valid point, Brooke. But the fact of the matter is they still got away with some deplorable tactics.
I mean, here is the twitter that Newt Gingrich sent out. And which got huge play throughout that stage you were talking about. "White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw." Now, that's not ambiguous. That's very clear. Sotomayor is a racist.
JAY ROSEN: I don't think it's true that what's on television automatically influences the American people. Sometimes people look at what the shouting heads are saying. And they reject it. And certainly that may have happened with Gingrich in this case. But it's true that because he is perceived as a legitimate political figure, he may say something that's completely out of bounds, and yet it will ricochet around the political system.
Because we don't have a press that's willing to say, "this is not a legitimate argument this person is making." We don't have a press that's willing to say, "this, he said it, but it's completely out of bounds. Or it's completely baseless. Or it has no grounding in reality." We just don't have a group of political interpreters who are willing to say that.
None of this is super-genius stuff. It's just sensible, sane and sober. And on national broadcast tv.