The Democrats are in a shambles. Progressives, ne liberals, are in particularly dire straits. They have been marginalized and their influence on public policy wanes even as events reconfirm their values, their philosophy and their historic cause. They face an election that pits extreme rightists against an incumbent president who fits comfortably into the national establishment’s moderate wing. They have no standard bearer. Their core constituencies are being ignored or patronized. The terms of debate on the great issues of the times have been set without reference to them or their ideas.
They have themselves to blame since they have committed the Seven Sins of politics.
Democrats are slow on the uptake. Their reaction time – whether to events, shifts in public mood, or Republican actions – is lethargic compared to the quick response of the latter. This goes along with a tendency to drift lethargically with the tides rather to make their own waves and to ride them resolutely. Exhibit number one is the swelling anger in the country after the financial breakdown of 2008. This was a natural for the Democrats. The discrediting of Republican dogma and their business underwriters, the abuse of financial power, exposure of the fatal flaws in the snake oil of market fundamentalism, a spotlighting of the huge gap between the fortunes generated by casino capitalism while mean earnings for salaried people stagnated. Yet it was the crackpot right through the subsidized Tea Party movement that channeled all that passion to the reactionary end of the political spectrum? Democrats, liberal Democrats anyway, still can’t figure it out. Nor can they accept the glaring truth that they were sold out by the Obama administration in the name of the White House’s own self-serving commitment not to rock the boat by doing anything that challenged seriously the status quo. The same scenario developed with the 2010 volte-face in the direction of ‘austerity’ and subverting Social Security and Medicare in the name of budgetary discipline.
Even with the campaign season under way, it is Republican personalities and ideas that dominate the news. They are omnipresence. Their off-the-wall schemes set the terms of discussion, e.g. Paul Ryan and repealing the New Deal. Democrats presenting other views are most notable by their absence. The ‘conservative media bias is not the main reason – although it exists. Anyone who argues powerfully and vociferously will draw the cameras. A blast of any kind stirs the pot, even at FOX – and publicity is the name of the game nowadays. Yet getting a Liberal Democrat to a microphone is a rarity – one of the minor secular mysteries of the age. Those few who do show up usually do little more than offer a few bromides framed defensively in a timid voice. Progressives and liberals are simply too slothful to exert themselves
Avarice is the hallmark of our times. Its close companions are egoism and a craving for the status that only access to the circles of power can provide..Journalists, think tankers, embryonic politicos all want to be seen in the right places, to stay on the good side of the powers that be, to network promiscuously, and thereby advance their career, career success as measured primarily in terms of money. The net effect is to mute critical thinking, mute public expression, and to inculcate the ethic of caution. Timidity prevails, Social conscience shrivels; and the moral compass is thrown out of kilter. The status quo is reinforced – a status quo that includes the relentless onslaught on enlightened public policy and on the interests of most Democratic voters.
The most bizarre feature of the liberal segment on the political continuum is the absence of righteous anger. Nearly every day presents us with glaring policy sins and outrageous acts. Many emanate from the White House itself: gross assaults on civil liberties, the vilification of public school teachers as the source of all that ails America, intensification and geographical extension of the mindless and counter productive ‘war on terror,’ intensification and geographical extension of the mindless and counter productive ‘war on drugs’ – now concentrated on home grown marijuana, inhumane and indiscriminate round-ups of ‘illegals,’ and cosseting of the American plutocracy. Yet these outrages get just intermittent attention and muted criticism of the perpetrators among mainstream liberals. One must search out the marginal websites to find pointed, sustained criticism. Liberal Democrats can’t stand the sight of blood – especially when it’s their enemy’s. Doubly so, when one of their enemy is in their midst.
Having a nominal Democrat in the White House, of course, provides an all-purpose excuse for pulling one’s punches. Obama, it is believed, is the only thing that stands between us an a homophobic Supreme Court. So the President and his henchmen are allowed to get away with just about everything, including murder (Afghanistan, Yemen, Honduras) to the sound of silence on the so-called Left. There, the pundits amuse themselves with zapping Sarah Palin and giggling at Herman Cain – although neither presented nearly the threat to a humane America that Rahm Emanuel and his buddies did.
“I should be where those guys are.” That is what a very large slice of the liberal Democrat political class is thinking. Rampant individual careerism is an accessory to collective sins of public policy. This is a segment of American society that always been heavily populated with the ultra ambitious and self-seekers. In the past, though, it was leavened by conviction, by an ethic of professional responsibility, by a sense of decency and a capacity for embarrassment. Those traits have diminished. There is also a pull factor in the equation that reinforces the ‘push’ factor. For anyone with the requisite audacity, the sky’s the limit. Look at the last decade’s presidential aspirants. Look at the wild men (and women) who populate Congress along with their legion of non-descript, look-alike colleagues. Look at the people appointed to senior foreign policy positions based on appealing demographics and network connections. Look at the fawning reporting of journalists from prestige papers – and the rewards they receive. The ‘why not me’ mentality understandably grows – the inescapable consequences for the degradation of public life follow.
Pride is a sin when it comes to mean a preoccupation with insignia of rank and badges of privilege. That is the way it is today. Pride from doing one’s public duty well; from acting with integrity for the sake of principle, action dictated by a moral compass, action that subordinates the narrow self-interest to something bigger – all of those behavior are an endangered species. Whistleblowers are persecuted (in defiance of the law), loyalty is measured in mafia terms, exploitation of the language and imagery to mask base purposes is the norm. Doing anything to remain in the inner sanctums of power is justified by reference to the needs of already bloated bank accounts, parachuting from government service to serve mammon offered by those one had sworn to regulate is taken for granted. This is the norm – and it is widely praised. As to the pride of an Archibald Cox, of a George Marshall, of a Judge Sirica ,of a Congressman Peter Rodino and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, of a Brooksley Born. Well, that may be too retro for current tastes and ambitions.
The lust for power, for money, for celebrity – those are the sins that bedevil us today. Sexual lust is a constant source of titillation when it involves celebrities, is illicit, and mildly deviant. Then it becomes a diversion from the things that matter. Power may be the ultimate aphrodisiac, as Henry Kissinger once said. Celebrity and money are not far behind. Those three, these days, corrupt our public affairs far more seriously than they corrupt our person morals.
An insatiable appetite for the superficial and fleeting is especially dangerous for liberals. For they must struggle to shift attention onto the basics; they must husband time and energy to counteract the inertia of the times; they lose when the game is played in fantasy land. Yet they, too, suffer from the affliction of attraction to the glittering and the off-beat. For them, it is a fatal attraction.
Venial sins or mortal sins? Makes scant difference as far as public ethics are concerned. The accumulation of venial sins has mortal consequences.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.