Barack Obama's Progressive Problem

Eric Alterman Discusses Kabuki Democracy


The 2010 elections showed exactly how much ground the left has lost since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. But according to Nation columnist Eric Alterman, while the president and progressives have made mistakes, the decline of the left can also be blamed on the American political system itself. In his new book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, Alterman lays out the ways in which the current political culture makes it harder for progressives to accomplish their goals. He chatted recently with U.S. News about how lobbyists, the Supreme Court, and the right-wing media have hurt the progressive cause, and what Obama and the Democrats can do to save themselves. Excerpts:

How has the political system turned against the left?

In a few ways. Number one: Obstruction has become easier than ever. Number two: The media has grown much, much more conservative. It's very hard for progressives and liberals to get their message heard. Conservatives are defining the terms of the debate.

In your book, you criticize Rupert Murdoch's Fox News and Wall Street Journal. What does that say about the media in general that these outlets have flourished?

There's no sense anymore of collective responsibility on the part of the media. Different parts of the media are playing to different segments of the population, and there is this really somewhat crazy segment of conservative America these days. Fox News has definitely exploited the ignorance and the anger of these people.

How could Democrats have counterattacked better since the 2008 elections?

There's no question that one of the biggest surprises of the Obama presidency is how silent he has been from the bully pulpit. I expected him to be a liberal Ronald Reagan, and he hasn't even tried to be. John Kennedy was very good at moving the country through rhetoric. Even if he wasn't that progressive in the legislation he passed, he inspired a lot of other people who then went out and did exciting things. Obama hasn't even tried to do that.

So, what do you have against lobbyists?

Basically it's a system of legalized bribery. There's nothing preventing a lobby from saying to a staffer, "Listen, I think you're doing a really good job writing this legislation. When you're done, there's a job for you on our side." There's nobody on the other side. You have a conscience, but once you've been in Washington for a long time, it's hard to listen to your conscience when everybody else is living better than you and feeling more powerful and having a better time, and you're not getting anything done anyway. The culture is transformed in the direction of wealth.[See which industries give the most to Congress.]

You also say the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United was a major blow to the left.

No question. Now corporations can decide they want to seat a representative without revealing that they're doing it. The mere act of supporting something that a powerful corporation doesn't like, anywhere in the country, can get you targeted and beaten, and they don't have to take responsibility for it. It's kind of like a secret stealth attack on democracy.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Is Citizens United Hurting Democracy?]

In your book, you say that Senate rules are also slanted to benefit the right. How so?

Because the conservative parts [of the country] are the parts that are underpopulated, you can hold up legislation in the Senate with 41 votes representing barely a third of the country. That's just what's happened over the past two years under Obama. There's no question it's unfair and undemocratic, but there's also no question there isn't any easy solution.

Are there any leaders emerging that could help the left?

Movements make the leader. Barack Obama could be that leader if we had a stronger movement, the way he appeared to be during the election. But the left needs to pay a lot more attention to institution-building, to the battle of ideas, and to self-discipline. And from that, leaders will emerge.

[See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]