Saturday, February 12, 2011

Herbert on the Weakening of US Democracy

As Bob Herbert writes in his most recent column:

As the throngs celebrated in Cairo, I couldn’t help wondering about what is happening to democracy here in the United States. I think it’s on the ropes. We’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only.

While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.

So what we get in this democracy of ours are astounding and increasingly obscene tax breaks and other windfall benefits for the wealthiest, while the bought-and-paid-for politicians hack away at essential public services and the social safety net, saying we can’t afford them. One state after another is reporting that it cannot pay its bills. Public employees across the country are walking the plank by the tens of thousands. Camden, N.J., a stricken city with a serious crime problem, laid off nearly half of its police force. Medicaid, the program that provides health benefits to the poor, is under savage assault from nearly all quarters.

Read the rest here. Herbert has been steadily moving Left in the last year or so. Unlike most of the usual suspects on the Opinion pages (Paul Krugman included), he is sober about the Democratic Party, and he is right on target about how progressive changes are brought about:

The Egyptians want to establish a viable democracy, and that’s a long, hard road. Americans are in the mind-bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.

I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”

I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo.

I must admit that Herbert's reaction to the (ongoing) Egpytian Revolution resonates with me. And he's drawing the right inference here: we need to learn from Egypt, not break our arms patting ourselves on the back for allegedly "showing them the way to freedom". We need to see Egypt as an example that impinges on the ways in which the status quo right here at home is legitimated by those in power. Though those in power will attempt to appropriate recent events in Egypt in order to encourage us to reaffirm status quo beliefs, in reality the events in Egypt should lead most Americans to drastically revise their basic beliefs about their own society and their own political process.

What the Egyptian people are learning in the course of struggle is what we need to learn as a society right here, right now: without struggle, there is no progress. Acquiescing to the barely "lesser evil" and settling for a few stale crumbs from those in power is not tantamount to struggle; this is resignation. We need social movements that are organized independently of the two major corporate parties which can force the system to honor its demands. We need to model progressive activism on the labor movement of the mid 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 60s. The cynical, conciliatory "credit card" activism of is not a way forward, but the surest means of thwarting real change.


JM said...

On the subject of Krugman, am I crazy or does this person have a completely different take on Krugman's assessment of the bailout than I do:

He thinks that this column:
is praising the bailout when I think it really really isn't.

Otherwise, on the subject, great job Herbert!

Anonymous said...

I don't know about Herbert. He is the most left of center of all the columnists published in the major dailys. Still, if the anonymous editorial writers of the wsj are at 0 and say leninology is 100, Herbert might make it to to 50. If he became as left as Krauthamer, to name an easy target, is right, he would quickly b labeled crazy, angry, black man and marginalized.

On the other hand, I see no reason to criticize him or greenwald, hedges or anyone trying to puzzle through exactly what's wrong here. It took me a long time to get where I am and even among well meaning friends who have heard me make the same analysis for years, there is little actual comprehension. I save my fire for what Obama and his ilk do, rather than what some ink stained wretch swimming against the tide manages to get into an op-ed page.


t said...

As I understand it, Krugman's position has been consistently something like the following. The bailouts were good in a sense, but temporary nationalization (with the idea of selling off later at a profit) would have been better. I say "in a sense", because PK thinks that the bailout of the institutions was necessary given their systemic function... but he thinks that the way in which the bailout was conducted was awful. That is, he thinks that the bailout should have also included serious institutional reform.

I favored nationalization at the time, but didn't see the argument for selling the banks back off- it seems to me that there are strong reasons for certain basic parts of the banking system to be under public control.

On the Herbert question, I agree. I'm interested, for sociological/political reasons, in the fact that he seems to be drifting left as a liberal op/ed columnist for the NYTimes. He's no committed socialist, and I agree that he would get slammed for all the reasons you mentioned if he were more resolutely left on the pages of the NYTimes.

I see the Herbert columns as way to get conversations started with leftish liberals who are on the fence and open to moving further left (since, as far as I can tell, Herbert is one of them).