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Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama Paperback – January 11, 2011
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Alterman's taken it beyond lowering your expectations due to slow reactions. He looks at the numerous constraints which surround change - - structural, political, and cultural. He also looks at the personalities of the players. Short term, there's plenty of reason to lower your expectations from what Obama can deliver in one term, back half of a mid-term, or a second term.
This is a call for patience and diligence, to moderate your expectations. I first read this over the summer, when portions were published on The Nation's web site. It's not an easy message. But truth doesn't always come easy.
Despite this, we owe him a serious debt of gratitude, and must be grateful for such a clean and detailed analysis of the "low theater" that the American legislative process represents. However, arguably, rather than the "shadow boxing," or "Kabuki dance" that goes on, on the congressional floor, what we really needed was a synthesis -- a connecting of the dots between "high" and "low" theater; i.e., between the way the money and influence is deployed and flows from the top to the bottom to set the parameters for rule-making and constraining the procedural issues -- where the steps of the Kabuki dance are designed and used to gum-up the works of the American political process.
In Mr. Alterman's hands, the dance of our democracy is more about "low theater" -- the "tools and mechanics" used to manipulate the asymmetric levers of the Corporate instigated ideological culture -- things like secret holds, ear marks, controlling the message of the press, suppressing the vote, lobbyists rewriting legislation, etc. rather than about "high theater," -- the implicit money that causes Congressmen to consistently jump out of their skins to vote against the people's interests, and thus is corrupting the process -- which, operating at a much higher level (not at a lower level as the author contends), constitutes the only real structural constraint on the American political process.
It is thus this often vulgar, poisonous, take-no-prisoners, often racist ideology that corporate money buys and promotes, that acts as the controlling lever for the procedures as well as the rule-making mechanics that go on on the congressional floor. It is this "high theater" of American politics that matters most, not the "staged burlesque show" going on down on the congressional floor with which the author seems most preoccupied. Arguably, the author not only has smoothly conflated the two here, but also has given sole priority to the mechanics rather than to the procedural and structural issues where it should be. Thus, in my estimation, he has unwittingly used a very clean and careful analysis of "congressional mechanics" as little more than a mask for the only real structural constraint the American political process has: the illicit money being spread around like so much cow manure to manipulate the procedural and rule-making aspects of the system at all levels.
Describing these "mechanics" as "structural constraints" is not just a misdirection of effort, but more importantly, is also maximally misleading. I get the fact that it is difficult for "we the people" to fight battles about how to reform procedures, which are never sexy, but that this is the reality does not change the character of the battle that needs to be fought!
I agree with the author that there are two areas of concern responsible for gumming up the works of the dysfunctional American political process. On the one hand (and at the highest level, not at the lowest level), are the structural constraints driven mostly by a large "emotional red meat driven vote against the people's interests" ideology. And even though the Republican Party acts as a wholly-owned subsidiary of this ideology, the corporate money that shapes and underwrites it, is by no means restricted just to the Republican Party. Even the most liberal democrats are also guilty of taking tainted money from big pharma, the insurance companies, Wall Street bankers, the oil cartels, as well as from their heavy-handed ideologically driven pacts, their strategically placed K-street lobbyists, and their "plants" across the media.
For those interested in "low theater," i.e., for those who just want to become familiar with the pure unadulterated mechanics of how the hydra-headed monster, collectively called "corporate influence" has gotten a strangle-hold over, and has rigged our democracy against itself, then you can do no better than this book. I highly recommend it in this regard.
But for those more interested in "high theater," i.e., in understanding the "whys" and "wherefores" of why people posing as being loyal to our shared democratic ideals and principles are in fact, rigging and willfully destroying our system of democracy, while turning it against us, and robbing it blind in the process, this is not the book for you.
True enough, as Mr. Alterman suggests, it is a dance with many complex steps. But is it really only the confusing complexity of the steps that should matter to us? Should we not be equally concerned with the fact that "we the people" are no longer even invited to the dance? We are no longer allowed to get involved in making up the rules of the game. Nor, that when we do manage to squeeze through the door, uninvited, there no longer is a seat at the table for us?
Oh yes, it is true that every two to four years, we get our "pro forma invite." We are sold a "wolf ticket," as the price of admission, a "wooden nickel" as it were, called the ballot, "the neutered right to vote." But each time we go to the polls to "cash it in," it has already been declared a dead letter: counterfeit, bogus, not even worth the rigged voting machine image it is displayed on. And when people get too disgusted to even show up for the "false invite," we get an admonishment from party chairman, Mr. Obama, saying if you don't show up at the polls, you can't have a say in the process. (Say whaat? Since when did a vote give us a stake in reforming the process? These whorish congressmen think they are all gods, and we are not their masters, but their serfs?)
I say back to Mr. Obama, that that would be true only if voting carried the same power that it once had back in the days before the system was rigged against us. We are not fools all of the time, just some of the time. It seems to me that in order to avoid the obvious -- that robbing a nation's political system of its vote, so that "we the people" are left holding only an empty shell of democracy filled with dust -- is not at all a random innocent throw of the political dice; it is not just a normal act of everyone with interests scrambling equally to get a seat at the table; or just a question of who can best dance the Watusi at the four-year Congressional Ball, as this book would have us believe.
To the extent he is conscious of it at all, I believe the author is being just a tad disingenuous in not explaining and then emphasizing what actually lies beneath the complex dance steps going on on the congressional floor -- in not telling us just how the whole affair is put together and being orchestrated from above (not from below!) by those working 24/7 and furiously against our interests.
Why is it that the author is not giving us the whole story, not telling us the whole truth, that being skillful on the congressional dance floor (which is just for show in any case), involves a lot more than just strategically deploying huge sums of money in the right whoring Congressmen's hands, but also requires a great deal of deadly serious Machiavellian behind-the-scenes planning and maneuvering that goes on both before and after the money is deployed -- the kind of strategic backroom planning designed specifically to undermine the power of the American people, and thus to undermine our democracy itself, purposefully rendering it impotent and dysfunctional. Even the congressmen themselves admit that they spend two-thirds of their time not legislating, but "raising money," , which is a euphemism for "whoring themselves out to the highest bidding "Corporate John."
Consciously destroying our democracy with premeditated willful mal-intent, is not only immoral and treasonous, but if our increasingly weakened and wobbly democracy is to continue to survive, doing so must eventually be recognized for what it is: a colossal crime against the American people. In which case, just maybe the first remedial step is not, as the author has suggested, to get the congress to reform itself, but to bring before the bar of justice, all those deploying money, as well as those who use it to weaken "people-based sovereignty." (Now wouldn't that be a novel way to stem the tide of American political corruption and thus correct the only real structural defect in our political system?)
But this only gets us back to the crux of the missing argument the author attempts to hoodwink us with, about how to fix the structural problem , which he confuses with the mechanics or steps to the Kabuki dance. The author gives us his list, and a "long song-and-dance" about how to bring secret holds out into the light of day, stop the scheduled filibusters, etc. Surely the author knows that doing this is still all "low," not "high," theater. Its like fixing the barn door after the horses have already bolted. What good is that going to do if the rules about how money is deployed remain unchanged?
How do we know that the author knows that this is the case? Because in his conclusions he belatedly realizes that all his own suggestions make no sense in a body that writes its own rules in exactly the way that its political paymasters intended for it to do. And despite having slowly and belatedly come to this realization, and then at least in principle, finally accepted the fact that there is no clean or easy way out our dilemma -- that is, that there is really no way to reform a system that benefits from the rules it makes to further enrich itself, he still would not pull the trigger and say so out loud.
In summary then, the difference between "low" and "high" theater, is the difference between describing the "mechanics," and describing how money, and "back room wheeling and dealing," that is fashioned into a "low grade insidious ideology," together, are rapidly causing all of our democracy to seep out through the cracks of the very congressional dance floor where the Kabuki dance is taking place.
The author was correct in noting that Mr. Obama was far from being transformative, or a game changer -- as at least one other set of authors have claimed him to be. Yet, the reader cannot fail to note too that the author, apparently with tainted liberal affectations himself, spends a lot of time making Mr. Obama appear to be a victim of a Republican drive-by shooting -- an innocent bystander who has been politically carjacked: (that he just plays the cards he is dealt, p9; or that he shows up at a knife fight carrying a library book, p19, or instead of going for the whole hog, Mr. Obama is perfectly content to settle for a ham sandwich, p3, etc.). But these facts would all suggest that these are all just the colorful characterizations of wounds that Mr. Obama has inflicted upon himself, by trying to play chess on the wrong side of the board? We know that when a politician's agenda is being set by the other side, he has already lost the battle, as clearly Mr. Obama had done coming out of the starting blocks in 2008.
Indeed, they suggest perhaps that what Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says gets us a bit closer to the truth when Krugman implies that Mr. Obama may not be a part of the solution after all, but may indeed be a part of the problem. Is it not the case that Mr. Obama is just another member in good standing of the "good Ol boys and girls club" of corporate influenced political hacks and whores?
Remember that when he was in Chicago, is it not true that he and Michelle were both card carrying members of a club of those who would degrade effective government through the same kind of antidemocratic maneuverings the Republicans are now using in DC? Yet, now that this power couple has moved on up to the White House, they are pretending to have been carjacked by the reptilian-brained Republicans? That old "blame the other party card," whether played nationally or sectionally, is just another tried and true Kabuki dance step too, just more "low theater," and incidentally, as the Obamas well know, has long been played out.
I think Krugman may have hit on to something valuable that this author missed when he also suggested that no one in Washington, including our faux progressive president, seems to have a strategic stake in returning this country's political system back to sensible governance.
It seems to me that all of this author's preoccupation with how devilishly complex the American political system is, at some point crosses over into a gray area of being just a convenient dodge, an overly detailed mask for covering up the obvious question being begged by the whole book: Why are those who have criminally rigged the system against us, doing so? And why are they being allowed to get away with it? Even rewarded for it?
The only uncontested unalloyed truth seems to be that they are suicidally greedy, having undying fealty and loyalty only to their own personal God of profits and their own bottom lines. Improving or even saving American democracy does not even register on their agenda.
In China, would they not all be lined up against the wall and shot? Yet, in America, at least if you are on the "right" end of the political spectrum, you cannot be arrested for undermining our form of government, or working to gum-up the works, or forming a militia unit to overthrow and take it over, or, for undermining the national agenda, or for consistently throwing a monkey wrench into the gears of our political system. Undermining our democracy, spitting in the president's face, rigging the system so that it robs sovereignty from the people, handing it over to those with the most money, is now considered just a normal part of the ugly process of making democratic sausage, a normal part of the American political process: just another tool to be deployed in the democratic Kabuki dance taking place on the congressional floor? Would that it were so?
Since this book reaches the same conclusion that most Americans have already reached: that since it is impossible for the congress to reform a structure of rules invented precisely to allow them to serve their corporate paymasters, and thus get away with murder, as in literarily killing our democracy, then maybe it is getting high time that the American people begin to consider using its own last resort nuclear option. The only redress that the U.S. Constitution has provided "we the people" to use against all forms of tyranny, including blatant runaway rule-making tyranny, is another American Revolution. Four stars
If you enjoy discussions such as Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Hayes (whether you agree with them or not), then you likely will enjoy this book. It presents a laundry list of problems (from a liberal point of view) that engulf Washington: corporate influence, the domination of PACs, the complicity of the media, democracy-blocking rules in the Senate, etc. And it faults President Obama for naivete at how the system really works.
All of that is fine as far as it goes. However, that's also the problem: that is ONLY as far as it goes. I was hoping the book would have a grand thesis, as is hinted in the title: "oh, yes, we are like kabuki and here's how and why." But it doesn't. It calls for reform of this, change of that, alteration of rules over there, better behavior, more transparency, and so forth and so on. In other words, a bunch of little to medium changes that might, somehow, add up to systematic reform.
There is no grand vision here -- which is OK, as long as you know what to expect. FWIW, I'm not sure anyone has such a grand vision, and analyses like the ones here may be helpful to get there.
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