Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

You Corporatist Shill!

Obama is a Corporatist Sell Out! seems to have become one of the battle cries on the liberal blogosphere at the moment, and partly  inspired by Al Giordano’s excellent article We Have Met the Corporation and It is Us (hat tip to Happy in VT for the link) this seems worthy of a wider moose moot. I was hoping to write something more linked and substantial and elegantly argued, but given the holiday season, thought it best to get this modified comment out there, sooner rather than later.

You may disagree but, from this transatlantic perch, it seems that there is some justice on focusing on the role of commercial and corporate interest in the US legislative life. As the Health Reform process has made quite clear, the US system of campaign finance, legislative checks and balances, is quite prone to effective lobbyists, paid handsomely by their corporate clients, surely because they get results.

But to go from this recognition of corporate influence, to a conspiratorial Chomskyite hegemony and argue that ‘everything is about corporate power’ seems to be – as Al Giordano says – to both state the obvious and miss the point.

Also forgotten in this born-again anti-corporatism is what Alinksy, Gandhi and others have demonstrated: To create and sustain successful political movements and revolutions, you have to turn small triumphs into ever increasing larger ones. If you don’t have victories along the way and call them that, the people lose hope and motivation to back any movement or revolt.

And yet that is precisely what the bill-killer tendency (and we will surely see them behave the same incoherent way on future battles: immigration reform will be next) is pushing: This sense that nothing is progress, nothing can be defined as a win, and that winning itself is evil if it doesn’t overturn everything. Even that might be understandable if they had a coherent plan for what winning would really look like, for what kind of society and system they would build to replace corporate capitalism. But they don’t have even a skeletal blueprint yet.

Some people have been shocked, shocked, shocked, that Obama has failed to take on and destroy American capitalism in his first year. They call him a traitor and sell out. Anyone who doesn’t recognise this is a liar, Obamabot and shill.  

There’s a lot to be written about corporate America, and a lot that’s already been said, but the idea that the democratic party was ever going to challenge American capitalism at its core is frankly ludicrous. To call out Obama or the democratic party for this is just a recipe for self immolation.

Coming from a European left background, I’m equally aware of the danger of the corporate interests of government, and find that state capitalism has little to recommend it to corporate capitalism: the interests may be a little more accountable, but the monopoly is near perfect. We have had ‘socialist’ governments in the UK, with mixed successes. Great triumphs in thinks like civil rights, healthcare coverage and improved education, but problems with nationalisation and choosing commercial winners, who then go on and atrophy through the risk averse tendencies of  bureaucratic control.

And I won’t even go there with my long experience of former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

All government or collective intervention isn’t socialist, but nor is all commercial or capitalist activity a corporate conspiracy. Different sectors compete with each other, as well as different players within a sector. Insurance and financial services also provide employment, can be broken up by firmer anti trust laws, can be regulated more heavily, and – with reform of corporation law – can be made more answerable to their shareholders.

There are many routes to mitigating corporate power in the US and beyond, without resorting to an apocalyptic world where hope explodes into despair.

A lot of this comes down, I think, to the effects of the credit crunch, and the realisation for a whole generation that some of the underlying premises of the economy in the last 25 years were flawed. We’re still undergoing a crisis in neo classical Reaganomics and laissez faire deregulaiton; an ideology which has basically dominated Anglo Saxon thinking for over a quarter of a century.

Formulating what can replace or mitigate that: a wider appreciation of human development and wealth beyond the absentee landlord form of capitalism we have today; is an urgent priority. There are elements of Obama’s thinking and organisation, especially what he has derived from Alinsky, which could be useful here.

The US system of checks and balances seems to me to be radically malfunctioning in the modern era of sophisticated lobbying and corporate campaign finance. Does this need to be reformed? You bet. Is this all Obama’s fault. Clearly not. Is he completely captured by these corporate interests, and has been deceiving us all along with the liberal parts of his mainly centrist approach?

Some people have made their minds up on the latter, after merely a year of governance. I certainly haven’t. It could be argued that the health care bill is a victory, a sign of hope rather than despair, and a small step towards a greater goal, rather a capitulation and total retreat.

My broader question to my fellow Mooses, a sincere question which I don’t pretend I know the exact answer to, is how to keep things progressing.

Do accusations of betrayal, threats to leave the democratic party, actually constitute an effective left wing lobby pressure on a centrist government?

Or do such manoeuvres actually undermine the progress claims to adherence from the Obama administration?

Are there simple effective ways to increase the power of the ordinary voter over your politicians, instead of the over representation of monied special interests?

Surely these are the sort of discussions you should be having on the left, rather than accusing your leaders of betrayal, and forming alliances with destructive right wingers.


  1. rfahey22

    I think people who are constantly outraged and accuse others of betrayal, being a shill, etc. just get tuned out after a while.  I do understand that in order to be taken seriously, sometimes people have to be inflexible about their demands and willing to walk away from a deal in order to get their point across.  But, to be effective, that sort of tactic can only be applied in situations where people actually have leverage.  With only 58-ish reliable votes in the Senate, and the Republicans in full-on reactionary mode, there isn’t much leverage to be applied.

    As for increasing the power of ordinary voters, I suppose it would help to further restrict congressional lobbying and bar elected officials and their staff from becoming lobbyists themselves for, say, five years after they quit working on Capitol Hill.  Campaign finance reform might also help, though that whole issue is a mess due to the First Amendment implications that it raises.  It seems likely to me that corporate interests will find a way to influence elections no matter what reforms are adopted.

    Ultimately, it may be more effective to develop a better messaging infrastructure than to try and empower individual voters.  I think that voter preferences tend to be molded by media and other sources of information – it isn’t the case that people wake up with an opinion on an issue and that opinion is then communicated directly to politicians.  Generally, I think people seek out information about an issue from sources that they trust, and then they conform their opinions to those sources.  As a result, those trusted sources play a central role in creating/molding the views of the “ordinary voter.”

    Over the past 30 years, the right has developed various think tanks and other quasi-legitimate organizations that crank out position papers on any number of issues, which politicians then cite as authoritative.  The rightwing media amplifies this message, and it becomes ingrained in voters, who then more or less regurgitate the exact same position in calls and letters to their politicians.  The left is beginning to develop its own messaging apparatus, but right now things are pretty disorganized and as a result it is probably hard for politicians to understand what an “ordinary voter” on the left wants in a healthcare bill, or on economic policy, etc.

    Politicians are human beings – they need to be able to synthesize all of the calls/letters that they receive, or have the synthesis done for them.  The key would be to develop organizations that can synthesize voter preferences and turn them into policy recommendations that are easily digestible to politicians but not overtly political, if that makes sense.

  2. Strummerson

    is a more effective way to hold his feet to the fire without echoing the Coulter-Limbaugh-Beck troika or the Teabag thugs.  I am deeply disappointed in his handling of HCR.  I don’t know for a fact that he could have done better, but I expected a little more communication of a more progressive vision and that might have helped.  It would have been forgivable if it had failed.  And given his inability to pull in any allies from the Dark Side, I cannot see how this might have cost him a shilling (British refs for a brit diary) in political capital.  

    But my larger concern is that a year into Obama’s presidency, the netroots still seem dominated by the manichaean structure of the primaries where debates were structured according to affiliation.  If all we can be is a bifurcated camp of Obama worshippers and Obama demonizers, we won’t be anything that approaches a critical and effective left flank.  The reasonableness of the dialogue here at the Moose never ceases to encourage me.  But I wonder whether this might be exported a bit more as an asset across the b-sphere where it might do some real good.  On the other hand, I’ve spent too much time lately sparring with the vanguard of resurgent bile spewers over at MyDD.  Believe it or not, they are insulting louis’s mother over there at the moment.

    Sorry if this reads as a bit of a useless ramble.

  3. From his blog today

    My own view is that 2009 has been an extraordinarily successful year for Obama. Since this is currently a minority view and will prompt a chorus of “In The Tank!”, allow me to explain.

    The substantive record is clear enough. Torture is ended, if Gitmo remains enormously difficult to close and rendition extremely hard to police. The unitary executive, claiming vast, dictatorial powers over American citizens, has been unwound. The legal inquiries that may well convict former Bush officials for war crimes are underway, and the trial of KSM will reveal the lawless sadism of the Cheney regime that did so much to sabotage our war on Jihadism. Military force against al Qaeda in Pakistan has been ratcheted up considerably, even at a civilian cost that remains morally troubling. The US has given notice that it intends to leave Afghanistan with a bang – a big surge, a shift in tactics, and a heavy batch of new troops. Iraq remains dodgy in the extreme, but at least March elections have been finally nailed down.

    Domestically, the new president has rescued the banks in a bail-out that has come in at $200 billion under budget; the economy has shifted from a tailspin to stablilization and some prospect of job growth next year; the Dow is at 10,500 a level no one would have predicted this time last year. A stimulus package has helped undergird infrastructure and probably did more to advance non-carbon energy than anything that might have emerged from Copenhagen. Universal health insurance (with promised deficit reduction!) is imminent – a goal sought by Democrats (and Nixon) for decades, impossible under the centrist Clinton, but won finally by a black liberal president. More progress has been made in unraveling the war on drugs this past year than in living memory. The transformation of California into a state where pot is now more available than in Amsterdam is as remarkable as the fact that such new sanity has spread across the country and is at historic highs, so to speak, in the opinion polls. On civil rights, civil marriage came to the nation’s capital city, which has a 60 percent black population. If that doesn’t help reverse some of the gloom from Prop 8 and Maine, what would? And, yes, the unspeakable ban on HIV-positive foreigners was finally lifted, bringing the US back to the center of the global effort to fight AIDS as it should be.

    Relations with Russia have improved immensely and may yield real gains in non-proliferation; Netanyahu has moved, however insincerely, toward a two-state solution; Iran’s coup regime remains far more vulnerable than a year ago, paralyzed in its diplomacy, terrified of its own people and constantly shaken by the ongoing revolution; Pakistan launched a major offensive against al Qaeda and the Taliban in its border area; global opinion of the US has been transformed; the Cairo speech and the Nobel acceptance speech helped explain exactly what Obama’s blend of ruthless realism for conflict-management truly means.

    The Beltway cannot handle all this. And that’s why they continue to jump on every micro-talking-point and forget vast forests for a few failing saplings.

    Yes, we have. And yes, we still are the ones we’ve been waiting for – if we still care enough to swallow purism and pride and show up for the less emotionally satisfying grind of real, practical, incremental reform.

  4. louisprandtl

    didactic abilities today. Thus my comment was and I quote

    “Ok then to use your handle (none / 0)

    “Obama is the evil tool of corporations, sold us out to the capitalist pharmaceutical, insurance and medical industry. If only one of us was in the President’s chair, he/she would have waived the magic wand, and we would have single payer or nationalized healthcare, no problem.”

    Thanks for the education bruh!

    by louisprandtl on Wed Dec 23, 2009 at 02:19:05 PM EST

    [ Parent | Reply to This ]

    Beat that brit!

  5. sricki

    In answer to your question, I don’t really know. Personally, I see very little evidence that this administration is fussed by what the liberal blogosphere or leftist activists think. So while I would love to apply some pressure in several areas, I don’t know that we are realistically capable of doing so. And on some issues, perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe.

    The danger for Democrats in 2010 and 2012, as I see it, is not so much a resurgence from the Right — but a depression on the Left. If too many people sit on their hands, a dissatisfied Right and middle may be the death of us. As it stands right now, a lot of people in Left blogistan may not vote at all. It’s hard to get a feel for what that means in the “real world,” though, as I know we’re not exactly a very large percentage of the population or even the party (many of us are Independents anyway). But I, for example, will not vote for the Democrat currently representing me in the House. He voted for Stupak and against HCR. That’s not just a conservadem — that’s a Republican with a “D” beside his name. He will not get my vote, and I don’t care in the least if a Republican replaces him. It will make no difference, in my opinion, except that it won’t be as bitter a pill to swallow when the newly elected Republican Representative for my district opposes legislation I support.

    If enough Democrats and Left-leaning Independents feel the same way about their Representatives and Senators next year, I feel certain we will lose seats — perhaps a good number of them, at least in the House.  

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