This Bob Herbert column makes a number of points that seem, to anyone ever-so slightly to the left of, say, Barack Obama, unexceptionable to the point of banality. That’s not a criticism: as Orwell remarked, “sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” Pointing out that the United States has become an unapologetic plutocracy, in which The Money Party buys whatever legislation it favors and orders a well-compensated hit on any initiative it dislikes, is an example of fulfilling that obligation.
Herbert could have added that our foreign policy has also been almost as completely commandeered by elites that largely overlap those inhabited by our financial and corporate overlords. (Relatedly, Glenn Greenwald notes how elite opinion in America manages to condemn the undemocratic character of Egypt’s oligarchical corruption without a trace of ironic self-consciousness).
One important factor that enables all this is the almost complete exclusion of anything that could be realistically called “the left” from what is considered serious or respectable political debate in America. This isn’t true in regard to various culture war battles: When it comes to abortion, or gay marriage, or affirmative action, or the secularization of public life, or any of a number of other issues that are fraught — at least for cultural conservatives — with great symbolic significance, something that could be meaningfully called “the Left” is a recognized and often successful player in public political debate.
But when we leave the battlefields of the culture wars, and turn to economic and foreign policy, the left becomes either completely invisible or a target for derisive jokes about Michael Moore’s waistline, “crazy” feminists, etc. When it comes to blood and money, the debate in contemporary America takes place between the radical anti-government right (the Tea Party and its enablers), the radical authoritarian right (the Bush-Cheney-neo-con wing of the GOP), and the relatively moderate right (the Democratic party establishment, of which Barack Obama is naturally the leading representative). What, after all, could be characterized as genuinely liberal — let alone actually left-wing — about the Obama administration’s economic or foreign policy? The administration’s economic policy is “left” only in a world in which demands to return to the economic arrangements of the Gilded Age are considered part of serious political debate, while calls for a health care system that looks something like that enjoyed by every other developed country are dismissed as typical pie in the sky utopian socialism.
When it comes to foreign policy, the erasure of anything even vaguely resembling a left wing politics is even more complete. The Obama administration’s foreign policy — which after all merely reflects the position of almost all Democratic national political figures — is almost indistinguishable from that of the Bush administration in all important respects. For a politician to seriously question the imperial pretensions that fuel our current orgy of paranoid nationalism instantly marks that person as Not Serious in the eyes of our opinion-making elites.
On the most important issues of our time — questions of basic economic justice, and war and peace — the Overton window has been moved so far right that we have a political discourse which would have been largely unrecognizable a generation ago. The first step toward changing that situation is recognizing it for what it is.