I would say the media’s argument is overdrawn and stereotypical about America not having a populist left, and thus not having a countervailing discourse to that of the populist right. Things aren’t that bad, though it is true there is essentially no communication and no debate between the populist left and the populist right, so there arises no opportunity for them to get to learn what they do agree on.
Still, the media does get one thing right, when they claim public respect for politics may be at an all time low. The original ideal of American politics, which lasted for a generation or so after the American Revolution but not much longer, was that politics should be less like a job and more like serving on the board of directors of a charity.
The ideal was that the politicians would be the notables of the community, would serve the interests of their neighbors rather than their own (such as to make lots of money for themselves) and at the same time should coordinate these interests with those of the nation at large (the res publica, the common thing, also known as the commonwealth, from which the term republic derives), then get out.
Of course, soon enough politics became not serving on a charity board, but a job, then a career, and constituents were often not so much served as manipulated or at least ignored, unless they served part of a politician’s strategic calculations. Usually this meant ignoring the mass of constituents and playing up to strategic voters, particularly the rich and powerful, or “swing voters,” or both.
So let’s talk about politics in the present, starting with the present administration. Their version of health care reform was to not offer a public option as a counterweight to oligopolistic insurance companies, but to refuse to even offer that option. They did not fight for it and if it was defeated, to make it an issue for the next election. You may have noticed a public option was certainly not an issue in the last presidential election. The end result instead was to give these insurance companies a new captive market. Meanwhile more recently their version of financial industry reform was not to break up the giant banks but to monitor them, which if history is any guide, may mean to protect them from the general population.
After all, all governments claim to protect the mass of people against the rich and powerful who might seek to oppress them, for example the great landed aristocracies of the past. The Roman emperors claimed to do that, so did the emperors of China, so did the kings of medieval Europe who had the power to protect the serfs against their oppressors. Did they? No more than did the Southern state governments in America who claimed that the slaves of the South had good lives, and anyway the Southern aristocrats would be monitored by the state governments to check for abuse. Perhaps reformers ought to have been satisfied by chartering branches of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Slaves. Would that have worked? I don’t think so.
Now it is possible present and future administrations will actually monitor the financial industry in order to protect the average citizen, and not merely to protect them from us. Just like they protect workers from exploitive bosses, for example those, who try to break unions through harassment. The US government doesn’t have a good track record in this, you say? Well, maybe they’ll do better next time.
But if they don’t, maybe the American population shouldn’t put all its eggs in one basket, that of empowering the government, and instead place more emphasis on the government empowering us. Breaking up the huge banks is a start, as opposed to giving them one Great Recession get away free from jail card, and now waiting for them to cause another one before acting. Also, not producing record-keeping requirements so onerous that it locks in the present oligopolistic banking structure in place because in that regulatory environment small banks would be put at a disadvantage.
The Federal government does little to reduce the advantages of big business. Even in their own procurement policies, the Federal government, which talks so much about helping small business, produces so many mindless procedures and requirements that only big business can deal with or wants to deal with them, because of the eventual size of the order. Another similar phenomenon is the way giant corporations like Wal-Mart can steamroller over their competitors because there is no tradition of cooperative buying among their small business competitors, and no ability for the government to facilitate it, something that would produce a more level playing field between the giant corporations and their smaller competitors.
You can also forget about the giant banks to any great degree lending money to small companies as opposed to their behemoth competitors. You can also forget as of now the government encouraging or requiring the formation of worker-management committees to have responsibility over safety in the workplace, so that management short-sightedness and greed will not produce future environmental disasters. Also there is nothing on the horizon regarding increased regulation of the commodities markets, to limit the price spirals which speculator intermediaries, as opposed to users of the commodities, are now producing.
No, such reforms are not on the horizon. Instead we have more monitoring of business, not by empowering workers through co-determination committees, for example for health and safety issues, but through the tried and true method of insufficient government monitors that will be not enough to have much of an impact. Government always claims they are protecting the downtrodden by monitoring the powerful, though nowadays through standards often written by the lobbyists of the powerful, which has a remarkable resemblance to catering to their almost every whim.
The Roman and Chinese emperors would have approved of the way we follow in their wake. It is as if there are no lessons to be learned from the decline and fall of their empires, and many others besides, when the poor became a greater and greater proportion of the population until they no longer cared what happened in politics because they had no stake in it. It is as if the end result of what has occurred too often, eventual economic collapse, had never occurred. For that matter, it is as if our own Great Depression of the 1930’s had never occurred.
If we are not learning from history, what are we learning from? From pundits cum entertainers, as if there were great policy discussions during the last presidential elections? No wait, there weren’t, at least regarding the needs of the working class in America. They get to vote, they just don’t do much to set the agenda. Now that’s something the Romans never had, our 24 hour news cycle. Too bad we don’t have anywhere near as much policy discussion to go with it.