Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller

Peter Coyote

Okay, a preface.

Peter Coyote, who first attracted my attention when he signed a “vote Democratic and keep Nader out of it” letter back in 2004, has come up with a sally in Salon against Matt Stoller’s piece, itself titled “The Progressive Case Against Obama.” Coyote’s piece is titled “The Progressive Case For Obama.”

Here I am going to proceed in a point-by-point fashion. The meat of my argument is that Coyote mis-states the economic character of the moment, right now, and that correcting this mis-statement will show the supreme unimportance of a vote for Obama.

Now the meat of my argument.

At the beginning of Coyote’s argument are some meaningful recognitions that much of Stoller’s case is a good one. Then Coyote offers some historical context to the situation of the present day, the one in which we find ourselves:

Like frogs resting comfortably in gradually heating water, we are just now apparently noticing how close to boiling our environment is. While Democrats have concentrated on a plethora of issues, the corporatists have worked unremittingly to gain power over the entire financial sector of the Nation.

Much of this history takes its cue from the Powell memo, in which a “corporate takeover of democracy” is outlined. Myself, I don’t really see why we can’t argue that corporations have dominated American democracy from the beginning. Was there supposedly some point in American history when the people as a whole dominated the Federal government? How are the corporations supposed to “take over” government if they’re already in control of it?

Myself, I don’t think that the Powell memo substitutes for a proper history of neoiliberalism. After World War II and before 1971, the elite consensus on economic policy included a willingness to concede improvements in the living standards of the masses, and specifically of an anointed “middle class” trained to consume, in order to keep the economy invested in robust growth. This was the golden age of capitalism.

After 1973, however, the elites reversed course, and decided that the world of finance could be “gamed” to insure profits and growth for the corporate economy, without any assurance at all that the masses would benefit. The world economy was “financialized” to increase the power of corporations to manipulate the world economy for their own profit.

The upheavals of the 1970s were the background for the turnaround in elite attitudes. The class compromise that formed the basis of 1960s prosperity was replaced by an emergent “neoconservative” elite attitude of class warfare. This was planned out at meetings of the Trilateral Commission (begun in 1973) and instigated by the Reagan administration and successive administrations thereafter. If Matt Stoller is correct, the Obama administration constitutes a new phase in the class warfare strategy, in which government continually subsidizes corporate elites while imposing austerity on the rest of us.

At any rate, Coyote’s breezy history of corporate power offers him a platform through which he can argue that Stoller has singled out Obama as a culprit for the sorry state of world affairs:

By making him single-handedly responsible for having “delivered” all current afflictions to America, Stoller simultaneously demonizes the president and makes him more powerful than virtually any figure in our political history

Here Coyote exaggerates. Stoller’s point is not that Obama is the root of all evil; rather, that a vote for Obama does not improve things, nor does it worsen them less. At any rate, since the situation worsens, Coyote asks us about what sort of President we’d like to have in the current situation:

Would you prefer a cool, slender, brilliant black attorney who looks like he stepped out of a Colors of Benetton ad or a strong-jawed white man who reminds us of the “good old ’50s” when white people could do whatever the hell they wanted?

Here it would be nice if Coyote were to confront the argument made by Glen Ford that Obama is “the more effective evil.” If the role of government in this era (at least at the top — never mind the Post Office or the food stamp program) is to continue class warfare, why would we want effective government?

At any rate, after more of this exaggerated depiction of Stoller’s argument, Coyote switches to a depiction of the current situation:

The real crises upon us are global warming and extreme environmental degradation and the implications are profound and life-threatening. It should be clear to most observers that the conflict between individual self-interest and the commons is leading directly to our mutual destruction.

I cannot agree with Coyote’s depiction of the current state of affairs. What leads to our mutual self-destruction is the continued operation of the capitalist system, and so what we need is a movement willing to challenge that capitalist system. (Obviously supporting the “lesser of two evils” for the past twenty-five years hasn’t worked.) Coyote continues:

education, carbon, global warming, nuclear issues, the rights of women, immigrants, minorities, etc., are immediate and pressing.

Here Coyote forgets again — the general direction in each of these concerns is one of “progressive” retreat, not advance. What is immediate and pressing, in light of that reality, is that we find a way to become politically empowered to do some good for the world rather than getting sucked into a strategy that predicates all efforts upon the election of Democrats. Coyote continues:

In triage terms, an Obama presidency will allow time to work on these issues without sentencing another decade to the negative consequences of panic, despair and chaos.

So why does Coyote want us to imagine that the second-term Obama administration will be less catastrophic than a possible Romney administration? Obama will give us the NDAA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Grand Bargain, and regressive policy on almost every front — never mind the complete absence of global warming policy. Is that not supposed to be catastrophic? What am I missing?

In reflecting upon Stoller’s argument, Coyote moves to conclude with an overall reflection:

I applaud Stoller’s concerns and his passion, but I think he underestimates how long political change actually takes.

Sure, political change actually takes a long time — if you’re moving backwards. We could easily at this point go over the accomplishments of government in this era — the vast inflation of housing prices, the hypertrophy of the military state and of the prison-industrial complex, the destruction of Iraq, Serbia, and Afghanistan, the widening of the class divide, the shredding of the social safety net, the incipient privatization of the public schools, the decline of the unions, and so on. Did “progressives” stop any of these developments?

The time frame might speed up quite rapidly, however, if a situation of intense disaster obliges the “progressives” to rethink their strategy of supporting Democrats and giving to Veal Pen organizations which do little outside of supporting Democrats. At that point we might all start to champion something (not feeble “progressivism”) which was actually in our interests.

A vote for some other Presidential candidate than Barack Obama (preferably Jill Stein) will not accomplish that rethinking on a social level. But it is a start. I suppose we could all vote for Barack Obama now, and start thinking about the future, and the mass-suicidal course our civilization is on with industrial capitalism, at some later point. But when?

(also available at VOTS)