A familiar progressive narrative in the United States goes something like the following: “we could have achieved so much if it weren’t for the Southern racists, the religious reactionaries, the corrupt billionaires and the undemocratic procedures.” There is no question that many American institutions are deeply undemocratic, and purposefully so; it is equally evident that some of those driving the shutdown are, at best, uninterested in the normal democratic practices of convincing others of their views, and, at worst, looking for any means necessary to protect their unjust and unequal privileges. But the recent flurry of effort to decipher just who this right-wing is reproduces a persistent error in the progressive narrative: a failure to address the conservatism of Democrats and the chaos and passivity of the American Left.
For instance, one prevailing question has been why the Republican Party would be willing to engage in apparent ‘anti-business’ brinksmanship that threatens the stability of global financial markets and draws us closer to another credit crunch? One explanation is that business does not control the Republicans (also here), which is why it can engage in seemingly irrational, ideological political games. Another explanation is that a “small group of radicals” are acting rationally with respect to their own interests, even if those interests are not the same as the national interest. Michael Lind has made the most persuasive version of this argument, claiming that this is a movement of regional elites or “local notables,” who find their power threatened by global financial markets and nationalization of social policy. Joe Lowndes reasonably argues this somewhat overlooks the national basis of the movement, and the tacit support of it among the Republican Party as a whole. And Doug Henwood has added the important point that a background class condition for these kinds of political games with American credit-worthiness and the stability of global finance is the increasingly fragmented and short-termist orientation of the capitalist class.
The emphasis of all these analyses is on the relative power and rationality of a right-wing movement. In this environment it is easy to forget some things about the Democrats and whatever stands to their left. The initial phases of this battle have essentially featured Obama going to the mats to defend the Republicans of the 1990s from the Republicans of today. Recall, for instance, that the basic principles of “Obamacare” including the individual mandate come from Republican thinking circa 1994. As the negotiation now seems to be transitioning from the health care law to spending and entitlements, it is again worth recalling the Democratic embrace of the conservative position. Obama and the Democrats’ wider approach to the budget process is to affirm the need for balanced budgets (in contrast to at least some right-wing Keynesianism). Presenting themselves as the party of responsible government and budget moderation is their only idea, even at a time when the cost of government borrowing is at historic lows. This is pretty thin gruel, especially for a public laid low by persistent high rates of unemployment, stagnating wages, and crappy jobs. All in all, the Democrats don’t have much on offer as an alternative. All they have is their much-vaunted moderation – a moderation that can’t even make sense of the occasional political necessity of disruption.
But what is most striking about the present is not the virtues of moderation but of the potential power of conviction. One detects, behind all the anxiety about “extremists,” “radicals,” and “militant minorities,” a degree of envy. On the Right there is a group with enough commitment to a shared project that is willing and able to disrupt the ordinary functioning of government. If only the Left had such wherewithal. We might, at the very least, get something more than than the economically stagnant, politically oppressive Mugwumpery of the Democratic Party.