Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama
By Eric Alterman. Nation Books, 2011. Paperback: $14.99, 224 pp.
Eric Alterman, like many Americans on the far left, is frustrated. Despite Barack Obama’s bold and inspiring campaign rhetoric, the president, even with supermajorities in both houses, “wasn’t able to deliver on the bulk of his promises,” said Alterman in an interview with the HPR. In fact, Alterman’s Kabuki Democracy is so-named because, he asserts, our political democracy has become a “Kabuki exercise” that “resembles a democratic process…but mocks its genuine intentions in substance.”
Alterman’s arguments center on a depiction of the American political system as vulnerable to a handful of maladaptive influences, including special interest lobbying, right-wing media propaganda, and obstructionist Republicans. These impediments, combined with Obama having “lost his vision…[and] his voice,” have caused the president’s accomplishments to appear far more spectacular on paper than in substance and have left the American people without an inspirational leader.
While Kabuki Democracy captures the frustration of today’s progressives, Alterman falls short in casting a new light on Obama’s struggles in Washington. Alterman, whose expectations of Obama seem unrealistically optimistic, blames too many of the president’s short-comings on staples of the D.C. political system, including lobbyists and invasive media, and not enough on the structural roadblocks to real progress. It is these structural roadblocks that have made modern Washington perpetually hostile to game-changing politicians, the type of politician Alterman wants Obama to be.
Unrealistic Expectations or Unrealistic Orator?
Alterman begins his depiction of Obama’s struggles against “the system” by describing the lousy circumstances he inherited from his predecessor. He offers a series of facts that made yesterday’s headlines. Even President Bush in his memoir, Decision Points, concedes that he did not leave Obama with an economy on “firm footing.” However, Alterman explains the failings of the Bush administration at length, to the degree that the first twenty pages of Kabuki Democracy reads like a rebuke of Bush’s entire presidency.
Moreover, in the process of accrediting blame to the Bush administration for the multitude of “time bombs” inherited by Obama, Alterman fails to appropriately fault Obama for his own actions. For example, Alterman demonizes the Bush presidency on the BP oil spill, which he describes as a crisis “waiting to happen” following Bush’s “malign neglect,” whereas he only mentions twice Obama’s pre-spill decision to allow the expansion of drilling in coastal areas. Already in these early stages of Alterman’s account, he appears to occlude some truth.
Of course, Alterman agrees that Bush’s failings do not render Obama blameless. In fact, it was the president’s failure to transform both his “strategic vision” and “inspiring rhetoric” into action, reversing the political patterns established by Bush, that especially agitated Alterman, as he told the HPR. However, Alterman juxtaposes this disappointment against the system Obama was up against: although Alterman faults Obama for losing his vision, he also admits that “[f ]or genuine change of the kind Obama promised and so many progressives imagined, we need to elect politicians willing to challenge” various institutional flaws. Therefore, Alterman turns his attention to the structural faults of Washington that impede would-be revolutionaries.
The Blame Game
Throughout his book, Alterman focuses on three regressive elements of the D.C. political system in rationalizing Obama’s failure to deliver substantive change: Washington lobbyists, rightwing media, and obstructionist Republicans. Unafraid of expressing his ideological views, which Alterman bluntly asserts early on in the book (he concludes that Republicans are “happy to see government programs fail”), the author overlooks a similar Democratic devotion throughout Bush’s presidency to stalling his progress.
In fact, Middlebury professor of political science Matthew Dickinson notes in his essay “The President and Congress” that the political polarization Obama encountered in his first year was a “mirror image of the political polarization…of the previous eight years” when “Democrats often voted along party lines.” In terms of lobbyists, whose work Alterman is quick to discredit, it is no secret that such powerbrokers work both sides of the government. As Ellen Qualls, a former senior advisor for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, noted in response to Alterman’s assertions about the role special interests played in health care legislation, the Democratic staffs spearheaded the legislation, and they were often open to the prodding of insurance companies.
In this light, Alterman’s critique of Obama’s inability to deliver on the “bulk of his promises” appears true only because the author takes Obama’s wildly transformative campaign views to heart. However, most political strategists would claim that these calls for progress are realizable only in theory and that most issues in Washington are addressed incrementally, not through monumental changes, an idea promoted by the well-known political theorist Charles Lindblom. In this sense, even if every piece of Obama’s legislation wasn’t finetuned, that’s permissible because, as Qualls said in an interview with the HPR, “the amount of things that got done that were of enormous scope and lasting significance in an eighteen-month period of time was amazing.”
Onward to 2012
As would any Democrat supportive of the president’s agenda, Alterman writes his book with the ultimate purpose of altering political discourse to make it more favorable to Obama’s re-election campaign. In doing so, he acutely points out systematic flaws in Washington that are too often ignored. However, his conviction that Obama could singlehandedly change the overall D.C. political system is ultimately unrealistic.
A point Alterman does not address, for instance, is that the partisan structure of American politics is one of the greatest inhibitors to radical change. Although Alterman discusses the Republican obstructionism that has beleaguered Obama’s plans, he does not give similar acknowledgment to the fact that both parties, Democrats and Republicans alike, often act as unified bodies. Before Alterman’s radical change can be realized, he must accept that many Americans hold differing views on how best to solve the country’s problems.
Still, Alterman makes certain valuable points. For instance, he asserts that the “relentless trivialization” of the news and the media’s obsession with such characters as recent senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell must change to allow for a more serious political discussion. Of course, Alterman’s lengthy discussion about such characters as Glenn Beck and Christine O’Donnell seems to contradict his point.
In his interview with the HPR, Alterman spoke of how he envisioned that the best strategy for Obama to win re-election would be for him to “talk about his values” and inspire the people once again. Recognizing the vast accomplishments of the president already and their significance for years to come, Obama already has demonstrated his values in practice. Now it’s just time for him to speak.
Simon Thompson ‘14 is the Interviews Editor
Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama