Why is the right calling the shots?
It's not just the right that's the problem, but both wings of the political establishment.
"DEFUND EVERYTHING. Get rid of the socialist aspects of government, not just in health care, but the other entitlement areas that are driving us into insolvency." That was the response of Alaska Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller, when Fox Business News asked him what parts of the federal government he would get rid of first.
Talk like that would have marked Miller as a crackpot on the far fringes of the Republican right not that long ago. But this is what passes for mainstream discourse in U.S. politics today--the Republicans spout inflammatory lies and pander to bigotry, and the Democrats, though still in control of both the White House and Congress, retreat even more and act like there's nothing they can do about it.
A year and a half ago, when Barack Obama was moving into the Oval Office, it seemed like the demoralized Republican Party would face years as an ineffectual minority party in Washington. Even half a year ago, when the Obama administration finally overcame all the GOP obstacles to passing health care legislation, most commentators thought the Republicans would pay a political price for their fanatical right wing.
Not anymore. Now the Republicans are setting the agenda in U.S. politics, and their right-wing attack machine--from Fox News to the crusaders of the Christian Right--is on the warpath, supremely confident that they can get away with anything, from blocking the construction of a religious center in New York City to appropriating the iconic image of Martin Luther King speaking at the Lincoln Memorial for a right-wing circus presided over by Glenn Beck.
Whether from a politician like Miller or a celebrity blowhard like Beck, the right's campaign is mostly exciting the minority of hard-core conservative supporters that the Republicans can always rely on. The Tea Partiers aren't the "populist" insurgency sweeping the country that the mainstream press often makes them out to be.
But when reactionary ideas go unopposed in mainstream politics and the media--and in an economic climate of uncertainty and fear for millions of ordinary people--they can gain a wider hearing.
The right wing claims it represents the majority of Americans. It doesn't--by any number of measures, most people in the U.S. reject the bigoted and pro-corporate policies that the right actually stands for, once its rhetoric is swept aside.
But because of the pitiful performance of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party, the right never faces a real challenge from inside the U.S. political system. That's why the key to reversing the right turn in U.S. politics is to organize and mobilize outside Washington, in struggles that demand justice and democracy.
THE RIGHT isn't just talking fire and brimstone. Its drive to dominate U.S. politics is having a real impact on millions of lives.
Earlier this year, Senate Republicans held up an extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed--with the preposterous claim that the "American people" wanted a balanced budget more than help for workers who desperately need it.
In several states, politicians are following the lead of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in pushing racist legislation designed to victimize undocumented immigrants. In Arizona, SB 1070 had already led to an exodus of immigrants fearing the coming crackdown, even before it went into effect.
The wider political climate is sowing the seeds of vigilante violence. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes against Latinos are up again in the wake of Arizona's SB 1070. Likewise, the anti-Muslim racism spewed by right-wingers against the building of a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan has set the stage for racist attacks, including the stabbing of a New York City cab driver and an arson at a mosque site in a suburb of Nashville.
Of course, Barack Obama and the Democrats have criticized the Republicans for their obstructionism in Congress and catering to bigotry. And with the November congressional elections approaching, we're certain to hear more tough talk. "You want to go forward, what do you do?" Obama told a room of supporters last month. "You put it in 'D.' When you go backward, what do you do? You put it in 'R.'"
But the Democrats also deserve their share of the blame for Washington's rightward shift. They have dashed all the expectations of change placed in them during the 2008 campaign--and they respond to every attack by Republicans with retreat and concessions.
Obama took office in January last year with the Wall Street financial meltdown fresh in everyone's minds and vast popular sentiment in for holding the bankers accountable for the crisis. But the new administration adopted its predecessors' financial bailout almost without change, putting literally trillions of taxpayer dollars at the service of the biggest banks. This allowed--incredibly--the pro-corporate shills of the Republican Party to pose as opponents of the bankers' bailout.
Health care reform seemed a certainty when the Democrats took over in 2009, but during the yearlong battle to get legislation passed, the administration was willing to bargain away even half-measures at the first sign of opposition from the industry. The Republicans' total opposition to any reform proposal was completely out of step with popular opinion, but because the Democrats never took a stand, the "debate" on the issue was disorienting even to people who wanted to see the health care system changed.
This isn't a matter of a bad political strategy reigning in the Obama White House. The Democrats present themselves as the "party of the people" at election time, but their real role is to represent the corporate and political establishment. And so the instinctive attitude of party leaders, unless faced with pressure from below, is to take the moderate and non-threatening path.
This sets up a well-worn dynamic of U.S. politics: With every retreat by the Democrats, the right wing's battle cry becomes louder. No amount of concessions will satisfy the right--they only embolden it to go further.
THE RESULT is a huge gap between what passes for politics in Washington and the attitudes and beliefs of people in the country as a whole--people's anger at the banksters, for example, or their support for government programs to create jobs or increased agreement with demands for LGBT equality.
The right wing's anti-immigrant, anti-gay and pro-business rhetoric doesn't speak for the hopes and dreams of most people in the U.S. But that doesn't mean the right's domination of the national debate has no effect. It has energized the Republican hard core--while among the Democrats' base supporters, there is demoralization and passivity, which makes the right look even stronger by comparison.
And more generally, a basic fact of politics is being proved again: When people hear the same lies and distortions repeated by voices of authority on the right, endorsed with only a few criticisms by the "left" side of the mainstream establishment, and then served up with the latest media technology via a willing press, some people are going to accept those right-wing ideas.
The potential for the right to get a hearing is even greater in an economic crisis that has plunged millions of workers into unemployment and poverty, and left many more struggling to get by, and fearful of what the future holds.
The only way to shift the political debate is for our side to make its voice heard--to build a left-wing alternative as a part of all the struggles and initiatives for change today. Every political activity we organize--whether they are small or big, a demonstration or a public forum--can play a role in challenging the right wing's dominance.
One opportunity to make our case to a big audience will come next month. On October 2, a demonstration initiated by the NAACP and supported by the AFL-CIO and numerous social justice and labor organizations is expected to draw thousands of people to Washington, D.C., to speak out for jobs and justice.
The demonstration's organizers will likely focus all their fire on Republicans, while ignoring the complicity of the Democrats. Nevertheless, this rally represents an opportunity for people who have been looking for a place to raise their voices against the right's crusade and in favor of government efforts to help working people. It's important for socialists and activists to see it as such, whatever its organizers' illusions in Obama.
We have to build a left-wing alternative that recognizes the truth about the Obama era: It's not just the right wing that's the problem, but both wings of a political establishment dedicated to the status quo of unemployment, crisis, poverty and war.