31 October 2011

Eric Alterman: Who needs third parties? We have Obama!

Writing for The Nation, Eric Alterman deems Thomas Friedman's longing for a third party delusional. He literally suggests that Friedman's campaign is a case of "temporary insanity" before making the possibly more insulting suggestion that right-wing propaganda has warped Friedman's mind. Friedman, of course, has been urging the creation of a "radical center" party to combat both right-wing intransigence and Democratic dysfunction -- but the suggestion that the Democratic party is in any way dysfunctional  or a detriment to national discourse leaves Alterman questioning Friedman's mental state. The way Alterman sees it, the Obama administration has been advocating exactly the sort of "Grand Bargain" Friedman considers necessary for national survival, while Republicans alone are to blame for the failure to consummate such a bargain.

Alterman latches onto a Friedman column that denounces both Obama and Speaker Boehner for "walking away" from negotiations and not taking their respective cases to the people so they can pressure their representatives into bargaining. For Alterman that's a meaningless demand; Friedman may as well try to "make" Republicans compromise. He seems to miss Friedman's point, or his desire, which is to have someone decisively discredit the GOP/Tea Party position, as Obama is failing to do. He also seems to prove Friedman's point about Democrats when he dismisses the idea of placing Medicare and Social Security cuts on the table. Doing so, Alterman protests, would "give away his party's political advantages" and force "a much tougher election fight" on Democrats. How can Alterman say that Obama is already offering the "Grand Bargain" in one paragraph and say that he shouldn't in the next?

The obvious answer is that Alterman doesn't believe in the Grand Bargain or any bargain, but in total victory for the Democratic party. What Alterman objects to is Friedman's existence that the two-party system, rather than the Republican party alone, is responsible for the present political impasse. He accuses Friedman of sharing the President's own fantasy of "bipartisan harmony," while dismissing Friedman's tripartisan (for starters) option as a "magical solution." For Alterman, Friedman's third-party advocacy somehow defeats the his purpose of "calling on voters to elect more candidates who agree with the agenda the columnist espouses." It's obvious enough to Alterman, of course, that the easiest way to that goal is to go all in for the Democratic party. The only thing needful in his mind is to attack and defeat Republicans. Then all will be right with the United States. Tell that to the occupiers who enjoyed the blessings of sensitive, egalitarian Democratic rule in Atlanta and Oakland last week.

Friedman's own view, right or wrong, is that Obama has reacted to Republican intransigence by moving, however slowly, in an irresponsibly leftist direction away from the kind of Grand Bargain that Friedman readily affirms that the President had advocated. Friedman doesn't see politics as the Republican party vs. the Forces of Good. Instead, he suspects that Bipolarchy guarantees that Republican intransigence will be answered by Democratic intransigence. Writing on October 4, Friedman made fairly clear what he hopes a "radical center" challenge to Bipolarchy can accomplish. His wildest hope is that a strong independent campaign would actually pull both major parties toward the center.

[I]nstead of a race between the Democratic left and the Republican right — in which the whole country would lose because the winner would not have had a mandate for the real change we need — we would have ... a race between the Democratic center, independents and the Republican center. Then the whole country would win. Because whoever captured the presidency would have a mandate to actually implement some version of the Grand Bargain needed to get growth going again — and growth is the only sustainable cure for unemployment, the deficit and inequality. 

As long as we assume that Friedman really means "moderation" and not split-the-difference "centrism," this seems like a better option than placing all our chips on the Democrats as Alterman wants. But third-partyism on the "left" would still be a better option than the stand-pat Bipolarchy stance Alterman insists upon. He actually expresses disappointment with Democrats pretty often, but his ultimate attitude is reactionary complacency. His is the world of perpetual enmity between Democrats and Republicans, without even the thought of ultimate victory -- for then what would hold the Democrats together? His world is the one we live in now, and his attitude as a Democratic propagandist against Thomas Friedman is hardly different from the attitude of Democratic hacks across the country toward the Occupy movement, or to anyone who dares suggest that another world is possible.


Calmoderate said...

We do need a radical center party, if what it means is a party with the moral courage to be pragmatic and go with what makes sense for the public interest. True pragmatism requires real moral courage. It can sometimes lead you to see things you don't like and advocate for policies you might be uncomfortable with, i.e., it asks one to set emotion aside in favor of cold, hard logic and unspun reality. That's not very comfy, that's for sure.

One thing I am not seeing from either party is moral courage. The question is whether pragmatism has a chance of success (getting power) in American politics. Many (most?) Americans often don't like hearing reality for what it is or political solutions that cuts against their political and/or religious ideologies. The emotion is deeply entrenched.

I'm just no longer sure it can be done under our system where politics is infotainment. In particular, its mostly 'tainment and not much info. Morphing politics into a serious fact-based, non-ideological endeavor is going to be like asking many people to drink a bottle of castor oil, or something worse. Most folks just won't do it.

When it comes to politics, we are hosed unless something changes in a real and fundamental way.

Samuel Wilson said...

Cal, I think you have a head start as selling radical moderation as a matter of courage. I'd like to add that pragmatism is a more sincere form of patriotism than ideology. A strong emotional appeal should be possible to reach those who regard the nation's survival as a higher priority than on whose dogmatic terms it survives. On that emotional base a logical argument should be viable -- or so I hope.

Calmoderate said...


I am working on that emotion topic. Its a big deal. What requires real courage in politics? Ideologues refusing to compromise as stalwart patriots standing on black and whit principle or squishy pragmatists who see shades of gray and have doubts?

IMHO pragmatism requires real moral courage. Retreat into blind faith in ideology is a cop-out. The real patriots are pragmatists. The ideologues just think they are patriots, but they really aren't. They don't have the courage to face reality except when it fits their ideological beliefs.