Democratizing Wealth, Democratizing Power

What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution
by Gar Alperovitz
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013

Popular accounts of American historical development suggest that American politics are fundamentally cyclical, swinging back and forth between periods of reform and retrenchment.

Following this theory—an idea espoused by prominent liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—the re-election of Barack Obama should have been cause not just for short-term exultation at the defeat of Mitt Romney and the far Right, but also sustained excitement that a reform agenda has been given four more years.

In reality, few progressives feel this way. The net result of Obama’s re-election is a perpetuation of the status quo in Washington—a gridlocked Congress that has bought hook, line, and sinker into deficit hysteria, thereby all but guaranteeing that the next several years will continue to be marked by high unemployment, austerity, and painful cuts at the local, state, and federal levels. Disturbingly, this climate is likely to foster widespread disillusionment with the capacity of progressive political leadership to produce meaningful change.

Could Obama have done better with the hand he was dealt, going back to 2009? Some observers argue that he could have gone for a bigger, better-crafted stimulus clearly tied to concrete, visible infrastructure projects on a large enough scale to bring down unemployment more rapidly and, in doing so, averted the loss of Democratic control in Congress in 2010. Perhaps by prioritizing economic recovery over health care, he could have short-circuited the Tea Party and maintained control over the political agenda. Others say Obama should get more credit for helping to avert a depression and for passing a health care bill that, while flawed, at least goes a long way toward establishing the principle of universal health care as a right.

But what if this debate about Obama is largely beside the point? The correct question to ask is not whether Obama could have done better (he could have), but what the frustrations of the Obama era teach us about the capacity of liberal politics to deliver meaningful change—even with a charismatic, intelligent president at the helm.

Poverty has gone up, not down, over the past five years. The nation still has no meaningful policy, let alone a comprehensive strategy, for addressing climate change. Labor is still flat on its back as a force in the nation’s economic life. The defense and security budgets still command an exorbitant share of resources. Obama’s health care bill, though it has important progressive elements, does too little to tackle the cost inefficiencies associated with a private insurance–based system. The nation’s politics are as dominated by money as ever, and the Right has become even more extreme on many issues.

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