Thursday, December 04, 2008

Pragmatism we can believe in

Politicians are like barometers of how power is distributed at any given moment. Quite apart from being "leaders," they take their lead from whatever group or alliance of groups wields the greatest domestic power. This misconception about where power lies informs a lot of confusion over why politicians "say one thing but do another" when they are supposedly "in charge," free to pursue whatever course they desire. The corollary of this is that people wind up devoting all their time to the individual personalities of the political class -- i.e., what is promoted through party politics, and adopted wholesale by news media -- as if this reveals anything important about policy outcomes. A 14-page feature in The Atlantic or The New Yorker on Barack Obama's "character" may be informative, but that does not make it particularly useful in anticipating his decisions, themselves contingent on the choices which bigger forces will impose.

To illustrate the connection between politics and power, consider that Barack Obama won election to the presidency by campaigning on a progressive platform, none of which can be identified in the political history of anybody he is appointing to his cabinet. So, why the "betrayal," to use the word being thrown around among certain liberals? Well, under one set of circumstances -- electoral process -- power was surrendered temporarily to the general population, which required appealing to them on some level. That was called "change." Now that the process has ended, the public is out of the loop, and power returns to the institutional actors who shape day-to-day policy, which means a quick shift to "pragmatism" -- which is another way of saying that the ownership class must be appeased. Obama has no control over this, except to say that he is smart enough to acknowledge the reality: he does not need the editorial board of every major newspaper in the country to register their "grave concerns" about the direction his administration is headed before it even takes office.

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