In an excellent essay entitled Thinking About the Government, Robert Kuttner laments the growing disconnect between the policy consensus of both the Democratic and Republican parties and the views of the American people:
We have almost reached a tipping point where majorities of Americans who want to government to be on their side look in vain for a government that actually serves them. Meanwhile, the national security state is more overweening than ever.Kuttner lays out the case against the current centrist or even center-right incarnation of the Democratic Party:
I remember a time when liberals were the people who used government as a democratic counterweight to the abuses of capitalism, and conservatives were those close to big business who wanted to limit government. ...Lest anyone think this is hyperbole, let's consider the facts. Millions of young Americans enthusiastically supported Barack Obama for president, believing he would bring significant change to the policies of the U.S. government. They volunteered and voted for him in massive numbers because they trusted that he would do everything in his power to overturn the destructive policies of the Bush administration: reining in the militarism, domestic spying, and other abuses of the "War on Terror," the corruption of Wall Street, and the privatization and excessive influence of corporate lobbyists in our government.
But, lately the lines have blurred. The old, stylized picture of what liberals and conservatives want of government doesn't mean much, especially to younger Americans, because they have seldom experienced it.
Instead, as Kuttner points out, this is what has happened under President Obama:
On civil liberties:
An administration currently run by supposed liberals thinks that it's ok for government to secretly seize phone and Internet records of citizens, without the kind of explicit search warrant contemplated by the Fourth Amendment.On private vs. public sector:
More and more of the government is being contracted out and privatized, even the most sensitive state secrets, not to mention basic public services. Even the U.S. armed forces depend increasingly on private mercenaries. ...On financial sector reform:
This is the first recession in a century when government employment and public services were cut rather than expanded to compensate for the weakness of the private sector.
The financial collapse and presidential election of 2008 were a moment for political reformers to dismantle the Wall Street power that caused the financial collapse and did such damage to ordinary people. But the moment passed with only feeble reforms, which are being dismantled daily as lobbyists eat away at the regulations...On health care reform:
A health reform that professes to use government to move us closer to universal insurance coverage is actually a command for people to buy insurance from private industry, which is fatter and less efficient than ever.Kutter goes on and on, and I wish I could quote his whole article, but these final observations will have to suffice:
Take enough resources away from government, and it becomes too enfeebled to do its job for regular people. Citizens then give up on government. Why throw good money after bad? ...As a young, liberal American, I am worried about the future of the Democratic Party and of liberalism in general in this country. I will be blunt: The presidency of Barack Obama has been a major setback to both. It has been a deep disappointment, and a betrayal of trust.
Instead of having a government that delivers practical help while restraining its own excesses, we have one that is doing far too little to keep us economically secure and far too much in the name of keeping us safe. No wonder our politics is a muddled mess.
Most importantly, the Obama presidency -- and the current political agenda of mainstream Democratic Party politicians overall -- risks alienating an entire generation of once enthusiastic Democratic voters and giving new life to a Republican Party that is searching for a replacement for the dying social conservative message.
I see more and more young people giving up on the possibility of good government and turning to libertarianism. In many cases, they don't agree with libertarian economic policies, but after Obama, they simply no longer believe that it is even possible in America today for the federal government to do good, rather than all the bad things it's doing. Once people come to that belief, they naturally decide "screw government!" and they start voting for Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and other exponents of the philosophy that government doesn't work and therefore it should be cut to the bone.
I was a member of the Libertarian Party about 15 years ago, when I was in college. Bush turned me into a liberal, and I remain a liberal. But when I was a libertarian, it was mainly because I believed in the mantra of Harry Browne, the LP candidate at the time, who wrote a book called Government Doesn't Work. Browne's message was simple: The government never does what you want it to do; it always ends up doing the things you don't want it to do. Therefore, it is logical to support a smaller and less powerful government.
I'm sorry to say, but this cynical anti-government message is going to start resonating with more and more people, unless the Democratic Party boldly casts aside the center-right path of Barack Obama and embraces a new progressive revival. People want middle class jobs, not Big Brother listening to your phone calls and reading your emails. They want student loans, not bailouts for an obscenely wealthy investment banking industry. They want increased funding for health care and education, not cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Too many Democrats have a smug assurance that the younger generations will automatically keep voting Democratic; that "demographic change" will condemn the GOP to permanent minority status in just a couple decades. But if the American people elect Democrats and then those Democrats keep cutting government services for the poor, elderly, and disadvantaged, while continuing to expand the military-industrial-security state and serving the Wall Street lobbyists that people were actually voting against, why are they going to bother to vote for Democrats again? "Because they have no other choice," right? I don't think that's going to work much longer.
The GOP is not stupid. There is a rising libertarian wing of that party, led by Sen. Rand Paul, which seeks to appeal to young voters who have given up on the promises of Democrats who talked the talk but didn't walk the walk -- young liberals who would seriously consider voting Republican if only the GOP would cut the military, end the domestic spying, the Wall Street bank bailouts, and the war on marijuana. Do you really think the Democrats have these pissed-off young voters locked in their column for life? Do you really think the Republicans are never going to try to rebrand their party to appeal to young Democrats who saw all their political hopes and dreams slip away under the weak, centrist, corporate-dominated, too-similar-to-Bush administration of Barack Obama? Think again.
It is time for a concerted movement to take back the Democratic Party from the centrist, corporate-driven "Republican lite" party it has become. It is time for the voters of America to have a real choice between conservative and liberal, not ultra-conservative and mildly, sanely conservative. If progressives don't take action to make this happen, then Democrats are at high risk of losing whatever advantage they had gained with a whole generation of frustrated Obama voters, who may be getting very close to throwing in the towel on the whole idea of a powerful U.S. federal government that can do good for ordinary people. The Rand Pauls and Gary Johnsons will be calling their sweet siren song of libertarianism, and a new generation of the GOP will be born from the ashes of a supposedly liberal Obama administration that didn't deliver for liberals but delivered richly for Wall Street and the NSA.
Don't let it happen.