Many of us have talked for years along the lines first sketched (I think) by Gore Vidal: i.e., that we don’t have a two-party system in the U.S., we have a single party—the Party of Wealth—with two branches. But this talk was heard among the chattering classes only. Officially the Democratic Party and most individual Democrats could still be counted upon to mouth traditional New Deal-ish rhetoric about standing up for working families, keeping corporate malefactors in check, protecting the sick and the elderly, giving kids a shot a better life via good public schools.
Now I think we have a new situation in which Obama and most senior Democrats can’t seriously pretend to align themselves with the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. They will deserve to be laughed off the stage if they try. But that doesn’t mean they won’t attempt it one more time.
A couple of weeks ago, George Packer wrote a piece in which he featured a down-and-out family—the Hartzells of Tampa, FL—who were getting ready to pack up their meager belongings and head off to stay with friends in remote North Georgia in hopes that something better might turn up. There are millions of families like the Hartzells out there—the Joads of this ruthless new economy—but there is no evidence at all that anyone in the political class is prepared to give them a seat at the budget negotiation table.
In order to torture people, in order to cause them certain pain, you must first obliterate their humanity: you must excise from your consciousness the idea that you have anything in common with them, that you are flesh of their flesh (to use religious language). I believe that is what leading Democrats are now doing. This is more than split consciousness; it’s a new kind of consciousness in which all that matters is the flourishing of their social own class: professionals in the middle six figures who now imagine themselves to be part of the struggling middle class. Meanwhile, the people who actually are part of the struggling middle class are being plucked like so many chickens, with their unions under assault, their kids in lousy schools, their shot any kind of retirement security being stripped away with the blessing of the Democrats.
As I write this, I am hearing White House factotums and leading Democratic shills talking about all the “protections” they won in this agreement: no immediate cuts to Social Security and no direct cuts to Medicare beneficiaries—only to the providers (a real piece of chicanery, that). This talk obscures the crushing reality of the deal they are about to vote through: the complete exemption of high-net-worth individuals from any kind of sacrifice, now or in the future, while the sick, the poor, the elderly, and school kids will pay the whole tab for America’s return to fiscal discipline.
I am someone who has resisted the Roger Hodge “mendacity of hope” line on Obama, thinking it too harsh. Until now, that is. My stomach churns to think how this president and the leading members of this party will now attempt to romance, yet again, the millions of America’s non-rich, including the younger voters, many of them people of color, who actually believed that we would turn a corner in 2008.
We turned a corner, all right: we turned a corner toward a complete mockery of democratic aspiration. The one real hope left to us is not that God will now sweep in to deliver the oppressed but that the oppressed will find the godly part in themselves: the self-respecting part that is willing to tell Obama and all the rest: “You betrayed us—we get it—and now you are on your own. We will somehow find the resources among ourselves to make a life. But we are no longer playing your game.”