Is democracy in America fundamentally flawed? Do our political parties offer significant enough political choices? Do they actually engage in consequential political debate, offering alternative political policies? Are we so accustomed to inconsequential elections that our major newspaper confuses real consequential politics with authoritarianism? . These are the questions posed by Martin Plot in the past couple of weeks at DC. I think they are important questions, and I find insight in the answers he presents, but I don’t completely agree with Martin’s analysis. He thinks the democratic party in America may be over. I think it has just begun. Tonight, I will bluntly present my primary disagreement. Tomorrow, I will consider the implications of our differences and add a bit more qualification to my commentary. I welcome Martin’s response and anyone else’s.
First, though, I must acknowledge the insight of his media criticism. I think the Times reporter is inaccurate about politics in Argentina for the reasons Martin presents in his post, and further elaborated in his reply to the post. The reporter may very well hang around the wrong people, listening to critics who are far from unbiased and with questionable democratic credentials. And he may not fully appreciate that fundamental change can occur democratically, with radical changes in social policy, because this has not a common feature of American political life since the 1930s. Such a reporter can’t tell the difference between the democratic, and the authoritarian and populist left.
And when Martin notes that factual lies can persist because they are left unopposed in our fractured media world, in response to my concern about the power of fictoids, I think he is onto something very important.
But I do disagree with Martin’s overall appraisal of Democratic politics and the Presidency of Barack Obama, thus far. Put simply, I am not as sure as Martin is that President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have not offered a significant alternative to the Republican Party and the Presidential leadership of former President George W. Bush, both in terms of platform and enacted policy. I don’t deny that “mistakes were made” in the development of this alternative. Perhaps more could have been accomplished. And I realize that Obama and the Democratic leadership have not played their hand particularly well in the competition with the Republicans, but this doesn’t mean that a different hand wasn’t being played. And, we should remember that there were significant winnings as the game proceeded.
The Obama and Bush administrations have proven to be fundamentally different in many ways, and it is important that we don’t lose sight of this. Instead of a failed attempt to privatize social security, there was a successful accomplishment of healthcare reform. The reform is initially modest and not all that Martin and I would wish, but the precedent has been set. Decent healthcare is emerging as a citizen’s right. America’s relation with the rest of the world is on a much different footing. The repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” is now supported by the Secretary of Defense and the military leadership. It will soon be a policy of the past, no matter how much kicking and screaming comes from John McCain. And most significantly, for the future prospects for a democratic society, there are very different Supreme Court Justices now being nominated and confirmed.
Given these very big differences in program and enacted policy, I think the notion that there is no empty space for politics in America, which Martin suggests drawing on Lefort, is a sophisticated way of saying that the parties don’t offer different programs, and don’t represent very different visions of the American common good and American identity. I think this is simply not true.