The Democratic National Convention’s message was simple: “Give Me More Time”. Every great speech, or bad speech for that matter, had at its core the argument that George W. Bush wrecked the economy, and slowly but surely, Barack Obama is repairing it. You might not feel it, but as Democratic partisan Paul Krugman notes, “there’s a pretty good case that the stage has been set for a much stronger recovery over the next few years.”
What is striking about the two conventions, and the commentary around it, is there is very little discussion of what Obama’s policies have actually been. Obama, through various programs centering on the Wall Street bailout, basically reinflated financial assets owned by the wealthy while foreclosing on everyone else. The data shows the result – inequality has gotten worse, faster, under Obama, than it did under Bush. There are new jobs, but they are sparse, and low-paying. Corporations are beginning to recognize that the end of the middle class is a permanent condition, and shifting their marketing to a “barbell” model, selling products to the high and low end. And today, while people are focusing on a poor jobs report, negotiations for the large and secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership, the so-called NAFTA on steroids, are going on in Virginia.
The reason there has been no discussion of this real agenda is because Romney agrees with it, as does most of the elite political class. The new shape of the American experiment is taking place.
The larger consequences of having two candidates who share similar policy ideas, who both believe in police state tactics to suppress whistle-blowers, who both are driven by their allegiance to a wealthy political class, are not acknowledged. It isn’t that American democracy is at risk. American democracy was at risk, perhaps four or eight or 12 years ago. Today, speaking of democracy in America is quaint — the country increasingly resembles an undemocratic state, with a free wealthy elite and a much larger poorer populace, constrained by monopolistic corporations that collude with the government.
In fact, the lesson of the 2012 election, if we are honest with ourselves, is simple, and disturbing. America is shifting from a democracy into an authoritarian state. This authoritarianism is soft, with some remnants of an open civil society, and there is as yet no violence used against domestic political actors. Nazi Germany we are not. But after 14 years of political crises, starting with the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the extreme financial deregulation of the late 1990s, it’s time to face the music about what kind of country we have become. The 2012 election is more than a contest of cynicism and disillusionment, it’s an unveiling of a new quasi-authoritarian political system in place of the traditional norms of democratic deliberation.
In this system, there are democratic spaces, but those are restricted to those who fund super PACs. Everyone else is sitting in a different kind of polity, a weird space where there is the possibility of voting, but no possibility of that vote mattering. Obama OMB chief Peter Orszag exemplified this contradiction when he called for mandatory voting, while at the same time calling for depoliticized commissions insulated from voters to make key policy decisions. This is the new model, the form of democracy without the content. Stripped of roughly $7 trillion of wealth in the form of lost home equity over the past four years, the broad mass of Americans effectively have no right to participate in policy deliberations, no access to an increasingly consolidated media, and, hemmed in by a corporate Supreme Court, less and less access to the courts. A peaceful attempt to petition the government for redress of grievances in the form of the Occupy movement was destroyed through the use of paramilitary police forces, mostly commanded by Democratic mayors. The toenail clippings of this new state are the 2012 elections, dominated by big money and a political class led by corrupt actors.
American politics is not broken, it is working well. It’s designed around rules that run the country a bit like a prison full of well-behaved people who mostly willingly submit to whatever it is the authorities want them to do, while ensuring that troublemakers get co-opted or spanked. The really rough stuff isn’t here yet for most people, but when we see another economic shock, it will get very ugly.
The Democratic Convention reflected this. There simply wasn’t any discussion of the real policy framework of the administration, just an argument that Obama needs more time to fix the mess left by Bush. In lacking a real conversation, in either convention, about where our democracy is headed, we are seeing that we in fact do not have one.