It’s the system, man!

The other day I was thumbing through my copy of Winner-Take-All-Politics, the excellent book by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson which, better than any other work I have read, explains how and why, over the past few decades, income inequality in America has increased so dramatically. I came across a passage which I think is well worth highlighting, and which I will excerpt here:

[Our society’s] preoccupation with specific personalities and insistence on attributing everything that happens to the qualities of individuals is a form of blindness. We see individuals, but not the organizations that help to pool their resources and can vastly extend their range of social action. [. . . ] To understand our politics, and the remarkable transformation it has undergone, we need to cultivate a different sixth sense: a deeper awareness of the powerful role of organizations.

[. . .]

[T]he tendency to see the world in highly individualized, organization-free terms may be even stronger in political commentary than it is in the way we discuss other parts of the social world. Popular accounts of politics focus on the Hillarys (Clinton, not Edmund). We endlessly analyze the great personalities who dot the political landscape, their psychologies and strategic acumen, their personal appeal and personae, their eloquence (even if manufactured for them by a stable of speechwriters) and gaffes (even if substantially trivial).

No sign of this individualistic focus is more telling than the media’s fixation on elections — and, within their treatment of those political contests, their preoccupation with the “horse race” elements. This intense concentration on the most circus-like aspects of political life is now so thoroughly institutionalized that we hardly notice it. But we should.

This is a highly salient point, particularly when it comes to assessing our presidents. Some of my comrades on the left are angry at and completely disgusted with Barack Obama. And hey, sometimes I’ve been one of them. His failures — among them, appointing Geithner and Summers, not cracking down on Wall Street, continuing some of the worst aspects of Bush-era national security policy, not making over-the-counter Plan B contraception available to teenagers, his all-too-apparent willingness to slash already-too-meager entitlements in the name of a “Grand Bargain” — all of this is maddening.

And yet, I think we would all do well to abandon the cult of personality that infuses American politics. We need to stop looking at Barack Obama, and our other leaders, in isolation, and start looking at them in a systemic context. Honestly, is there a politician in America who is significantly to the left of Obama who could have been elected president? Sadly, I don’t believe that there is. I have little doubt that his most serious competitor in the primaries, Hillary Clinton, would have had many of the same advisers Obama has, and would have done pretty much the some things. To run for president you need huge amounts of money, and you don’t get it without being beholden to moneyed interests. You also need some degree of support from political and media elites, and those elites tend to be conservative.

Even a president who was much further to the left than Obama would have problems enacting his agenda. President Bernie Sanders would also have to confront the same issues as Obama, in terms of a reactionary Republican party which is completely intractable and wants him to fail, Blue Dog Democrats who aren’t much better, the necessity for filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, a profoundly hackish and conservative-dominated media, and (now, it appears) a hostile Supreme Court which seriously threatens his signature domestic policy achievement.

Like every politician, Barack Obama responds to incentives. We need to ask ourselves, what are the incentives for him to do the right thing? (By which I mean, of course, “the more progressive thing.”) The only thing that trumps money power in politics is people power, but people need to be organized to make a difference, politically. And unfortunately, in this country, we do not have a powerful left-wing mass movement. The closest thing we do have, the labor movement, is incredibly weak.

Many systemic aspects of our form of government make political change incredibly difficult. The lack of a parliamentary system, our courts and legal system, the bicameral legislature, the committee system in Congress, and the Senate filibuster all provide veto chokepoints for any piece of legislation. On top of that, there are the electoral college and the Senate, which give disproportionate weight to conservative states and tilt the political playing field to the right. To have a significantly more democratic, less sclerotic government, we’d have to change each and every one of these features and institutions. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen any time soon. Or ever.

Given this political landscape, Barack Obama is, as the Victorians used to say about what were then called women of easy virtue, no better than he should be. Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s important for Obama’s critics on the left to protest, and loudly, when he sells out our interests. In fact, that is our job. If Obama, or any leader, can do whatever he or she chooses without a peep from the left, s/he will totally disregard the left. And to the extent it is possible, we can’t allow that to happen.

But it’s high time the American media, and liberals in particular, stop treating politics as if it solely consisted of biography. We need to obsess much less about”character” issues and who’s up and who’s down in a political race — diverting as those soap operas may be — and start focusing on the systemic barriers to change, and how we might abolish them, or at least get around them. And while we’re at it we need to think long and hard about how we might build ourselves a political mass movement.

Venting our frustrations at Barack Obama, or Bill Clinton, or any Democratic president is not going to get us very far. For the most part they are doing what any other Democratic president would have done. Radical changes require attacking root causes, and the root causes of the terrible shape this country is in are not Barack Obama’s character defects. It is a political system which strongly favors the interests of entrenched elites and the rich and powerful and makes changes that would benefit the rest of us very, very difficult.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee