In Kabuki Democracy, bestselling author and columnist Eric Alterman asks why President Barack Obama has been unable to deliver on the promise of his 2008 campaign. He argues that while Obama’s compromises have disappointed many of his supporters, his failure is primarily due to a political system that stymies democracy when voters choose progressive change.
Blending political analysis and a clear agenda for change, the book cuts through the clichés of conservative propaganda and lazy Mainstream Media analysis to demonstrate that genuine transformation will come to America only when enough people care enough to challenge the system.
Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation analyses and critiques the American political system of today, explaining clearly and convincingly how any progressive – especially a progressive president – is working with an immediate disadvantage in a system that has been corrupted and twisted to suit corporations and the mad scramble for television and radio ratings. The book’s themes will be familiar to the politically conversant (especially liberals, who will likely benefit most from this slim volume), but Alterman manages to breathe some freshness into the subject, and writes in the accessible and fluid style of a gifted journalist.
“Few liberals or progressives would take issue with the argument that, significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment.”
Alterman lists the accomplishments of the Obama presidency thusfar – healthcare reform, financial reform, economic stimulus, tobacco regulation, student loan reform, credit card reform, and equal pay – but these accomplishment should not be taken at face value, because,
“when one reads the fine print on these bills, it becomes equally undeniable that Obama voters have been asked to accept some awfully prosaic compromises.”
This is not so much a result of President Obama’s failings, Alterman writes, or even mistakes made by administration officials. Rather, and more important for progressives, is the fact that “The system is rigged, and it is rigged against us.” Alterman paints a gloomy picture:
“presidents can pretty easily pass tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful corporations. They can start whatever wars they wish and wiretap whomever they want without warrants. They can order the torture of terrorist suspects, lie about it, and see that their intelligence services destroy the evidence.”
But, while they can do all this, they cannot pass the “transformative progressive legislation” that Obama promised on the campaign trail, even with supermajorities in both Houses of Congress. In Kabuki Democracy, Alterman intends to explain why.
The book is split into three main themes, each dealt with in exceptional detail by Alterman, who offers a wealth of evidence to support his damning portrayal of the conservative media establishment: Congressional Republicans, lobbyists, and the media. (I should confess at this point that the latter is of greatest interest to me, so will receive a little more attention than the others.)
Alterman starts his book with an examination of Republican tactics in government, and offers a full-blown, detailed critique of GOP obstructionism. This section was reminiscent of a calmer Matt Taibbi, only Alterman was less inclined to include Democratic malfeasance or the Democratic Party’s inability to grow a spine and push back against the shrill Republican opposition. Alterman does, however, include a vast amount of empirical evidence to make his case – and the examples he provides are only the tip of an ever-growing iceberg.
“Obama was and is working with a minority party with no strategic stake whatever in sensible governance… the worse things got for the country, the better they looked for Republican candidates. And given that Republicans can plausibly claim to be ideologically in sync with just about any non-military budget cut no matter what the ultimate effect, what possible incentive do the Republicans have to cooperate with the Democratic majority to pass legislation that will actually improve economic conditions?”
One particularly good example is the Republican Party’s “myopic” obsession with tax cuts for the rich, despite a number of prominent conservative economists who came out and denied the benefit of George W Bush’s tax cuts to the overall US economy in both the long and short term (Alterman includes their exact words). This fetishisation of tax cuts that are unaffordable – from a party equally obsessed with the rhetoric of fiscal restraint – is startling, especially in the face of an abundance of evidence that suggests their version of economics is wrong, facts that they wilfully and gleefully ignore. Tax cuts and economics are not like God: belief in them is not enough. Alterman dissects the rhetoric of fiscal restraint, also, and paints a picture of wilful ignorance and misleading statements, and a clear lack of understanding that their proposals are antithetical.
“what the congressional Republicans lack in seriousness, however, they make up in self-discipline, particularly when compared to the constantly divided (and frequently dispirited) Democrats.”
This discipline, when combined with the “increased radicalization and wilful ignorance of the post-election Republican base” provides another roadblock to systemic cooperation that the Obama administration must overcome in order to get anything done, or any legislation passed.
Alterman does not pull his punches, and is clearly incensed by Republican obstructionism and the use of “anti-majoritarian” tactics (Congressional, anonymous ‘holds’ and ‘rolling holds’ in particular), which the 111th Congress was, he writes, particularly fond of. The sheer number of appointments that were held up or indefinitely delayed by these tactics is staggering, and provides more fuel for the quip that Republicans are so sure that government cannot work that, when in office, they do their utmost to prove this. The Senate, Alterman writes, is a “drainpipe that can be blocked by the tiniest speck of obstruction”, and the “shamelessness of Obama’s opposition in exploiting the system’s vulnerability... must be an essential component of any sensible analysis of any progressive president’s ability to honor his campaign promises.”
“Any president who is committed to legislating in a bipartisan manner is naturally going to be forced to make compromises that many of his supporters find painful. But a president who is dealing with an opposition party uninterested in compromise and answerable only to a constituency driven by ignorance, animus, and prejudice cannot hope to achieve these aims without at least a recognition of the nature of his opposition.”
That President Obama hasn’t done more to highlight this problem mystifies the author (and your reviewer); although the argument could be made that Obama would be diminished if he were perceived to be making an argument akin to “The Republicans are meanies”.
“Washington operates on a culture of implied bribery no less than the real thing.”
Alterman describes in this first substantial chapter, the lobbyist culture of Washington, D.C., and its repercussions on the political process. Using considerable empirical evidence, the author outlines how the revolving door between government and industry and/or lobbying firms erodes the ‘popular’ aspect of politics and that, given the vast increase in salary that Washington staffers can expect from the move to private sector, the system becomes rigged to suit the agendas of moneyed lobbyist interests.
“Rather than being perceived as pimps or prostitutes, corporate lobbyists are beloved members of the new political establishment where everybody does everybody else’s jobs and no hard and fast lines can be found anywhere – save those between winning and losing.”
“The relentless trivialization of the news”, Alterman writes, has resulted in “ridiculousness” dominating as a rule in even supposedly-serious news reporting. It is when discussing the role of conservative media that Alterman comes into his own – this is, after all, his specialist subject, and forms the topic of his frequent (not to mention excellent) columns for The Nation. (The book’s thesis formed the basis of a recent feature published in the magazine.)
“A key reason the problems with our system go largely undiscussed in the mainstream media is that they are, to a significant degree, mirrored there.”
As can be expected, the target of much of Alterman’s investigation, analysis and ire, is Fox News, whose considerable lead over CNN and MSNBC with regards to ratings and audience is “a matter of considerable political significance” for any potential progressive success, because the “number one cable news network in American... happens to be dedicated to a program of purposeful misinformation rather than honest accounting of the news,” and has an operating procedure of inviting Republican pundits on air to “lie outright about both people and policies and then build on those lies to tell even larger ones.” A result of this, is that Fox pundits “engage in conspiracy theories so lurid and outlandish that one is tempted to turn on old episodes of The Twilight Zone for a reality check”, and “all but ignore Republican scandals and obsess about Democratic ones” – despite the former being considerably more hypocritical, and also never retracting statements that are subsequently (often easily) proven false.
Or, as Jon Stewart described it during an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show (and repeated by Alterman):
“a cyclonic, perpetual emotion machine that gins up legitimate political disagreements into a full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao.”
The case of Fox News is certainly interesting and unique – it is “something new – something for which we do not yet have a word”, Alterman writes, as it “provides almost no actual journalism” and instead operates as ideological guide and whip for supporters, not to mention attack dog aimed at opponents. In fact, Fox – not to mention much of the rest of the Murdoch media empire – “has more in common with the integrated political/judicial/business/media empire that is making a mockery of Italian democracy under... Silvio Berlusconi than it does with any American media organization.” It is “a 24/7 continuous contribution to the conservative cause.”
When examining Fox’s record, Alterman is acerbic, angry, but also highly detailed – he deals with a number of its pundits (Glen Beck’s odious record gets particular attention), not to mention the fact that Fox employs all of the Republican 2012 hopefuls not currently holding an office (“paying the candidates it pretends to cover, and... protects them [from] having to answer questions from any honest or unbiased journalist”).
There is an air of irate incredulity when Alterman examines the output and records of certain conservative pundits that will simultaneously make the reader despair, grimace, but also laugh in shock at the audacious (though reprehensible) approach some of these people have to ‘journalism’. In this, Alterman also looks at conservative print-journalists – particularly (but not exclusively) those at the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial pages he seems to hold in particularly low regard.
“Given the disappearance of so many once serious outlets and the diminution of others, these ravings have assumed a central place in the nation’s political discourse.”
The author also takes the rest of the Mainstream Media to task for its inability to face up to Fox and talk radio – indeed, he paints a picture of true cowardice and fecklessness in the face of loud, brash and obnoxious conservative criticism. When the MSM wholeheartedly accepts – without verifying or conducting any subsequent investigations – stories concocted by ‘characters’ like Glen Beck... this is a sorry state of affairs, and Alterman does not hold back in his criticism of liberal and serious journalists for swallowing and regurgitating Fox- and talk-radio-produced bile in its entirety (the reporting of apparent voter fraud by ACORN during the 2008 Presidential election is effectively used as a case study).
Obama and the liberal MSM often “conspire in [their] own humiliation” and demise, Alterman writes, offering an excellent observation by E.J. Dionne to support his point, that the Obama administration and mainstream media
“cower[ed] before a right wing that has persistently forced its propaganda to be accepted as news by convincing traditional journalists that ‘fairness’ requires treating extremist rants as ‘one side of the story’.”
This is an example of how ludicrous (and perplexing for apparently everyone but themselves) the conservative media’s incessant complaints about alleged liberal media bias is, as they continue to “enjoy kid-glove treatment” in the media’s most influential forums.
“Sensationalism, not substance, is what drives ratings. True, it has ever been thus, but the intensity of this focus has increased enormously in our age of celebrity obsession and the ongoing blurring of news and gossip.”
Alterman’s impression of the healthcare debate coverage is mixed. He concedes that “some coverage was really quite good”, but quality analysis constituted a “tiny percentage” of the total political news coverage of the period – the rest often “focused on town hall meetings featuring an awful lot of people who forgot to take their meds that day.”
The penultimate chapter of Kabuki Democracy offers Alterman’s prescriptions of how the system needs changing – with plenty of recognition of the obstacles in place. While this is a well-written chapter, it is basically a liberal progressive’s wish-list (campaign finance reform, voting reforms, Senate procedural reforms, and so forth), and because Alterman doesn’t go into too much depth, I can’t see him swaying many people – certainly not existing Republicans. It is not, however, surprising that he has included this chapter – the book is proudly progressive, and a clarion call for fellow progressives to get off their collective asses and do something. Indeed, this chapter bemoans the lack of organisation – grassroots or top-down – in the progressive movement, recognising that this is conservatives’ greatest strength in American politics.
“because our system makes it so much easier to obstruct than to construct, conservatives almost always appear to be in the driver’s seat.”
While Kabuki Democracy is a great book in many aspects, there is one weakness that is impossible not to notice. He succumbs to some of the bias he criticises. Democratic failings aren’t dealt with, and this is a very one-sided attack on the conservative establishment. Fine, he actually makes no attempt to suggest otherwise, but at least some proper criticism of Democrats would have gone some way to helping his argument that the rot in the system is widespread and dangerous. Equally, Alterman fails to address in detail the fact that Obama and top employees of his administration in some ways allow the system to perpetuate. Nothing Alterman writes is wrong – the conservative press is loud, obnoxious, and peddles in falsehood like a sociopath – but the author does not address in enough depth the extent to which Obama and Democratic inaction allows for this system to perpetuate itself. Obama came to power with a Democratic super-majority in both Houses of Congress, yet refused to exert Executive muscle when it became clear that the Republican Party was united as the Party of “Hell No!” against any proposal Obama agreed to (including, one should add, some policy proposals that came from conservative legislators).
Overall, I would say this book is essential for liberal and progressives who are frustrated by the conservative domination of contemporary political discourse, and the left’s fear of standing up for their beliefs.
Kabuki Democracy is an accessible, well-researched and well-argued, if one-sided, analysis of present-day politics in the United States.
Further Reading: Matthew Baum, Soft News Goes to War (2005); Robert G Kaiser, So Damn Much Money (2010 – review pending); Lawrence Davidson, Foreign Policy, Inc. (2009); John Judis, The Paradox of American Democracy (2000); Matt Taibbi, Griftopia (2010); Robert Scheer, The Pornography of Power (2009); Stefan Halper & Jonathan Clarke, The Silence of the Rational Center (2006); Thomas Frank, The Wrecking Crew (2008); Glenn Greenwald, Great American Hypocrites (2008); John Avlon, Wingnuts (2009); Charles Pierce, Idiot America (2010); John Amato & David Neiwert, Over the Cliff (2010); Dana Milbank, Tears of a Clown (2010); Paul Krugman, Conscience of a Liberal (2008)