Does the 2012 Presidential Election Matter?
Matt Stoller, Naked Capitalism
Friday, April 13, 2012
The 2012 election … is at this point a completely empty enterprise, bereft of substance, or integrity. This is new to our era, reminiscent of the late 19th century electoral landscape which was dominated by policy consensus around corruption and plutocracy while electoral contests were organized around “bloody shirt” smear campaigns. Populism intruded briefly, but there’s a reason that time period was known as the time of the robber barons. It’s increasingly analogous to our time.
In 2003-2004, a large Democratic field and George Bush bitterly debated questions of war and peace. In 2007-2008, both parties saw significant debate between multiple candidates in which they argued about a whole set of questions, from war to civil liberties to the financial crisis. The financial crisis was probably determinative in 2008, with the lead seesawing between the two candidates until John McCain “suspended” his campaign. There was a substantive amount of deceit, of course, in previous contests, and it’s true that many of the promises were not real. But at least the candidates had to debate in a way in which their words had to bear some resemblance to the world in which voters resided. But this time, there is literally no relationship between the reality of the policy questions and the political debate.
For instance, at the same time as the Rosen spat occurred, this week we also saw a report from the Inspector General of TARP that Tim Geithner’s Treasury Department has simply not implemented a $7 billion program intended to help families hardest hit by foreclosures. That could have been a scandal of sorts, with the Republicans attacking the administration for incompetence and the administration making arguments about its economic stewardship. The major problem facing our economic structure is the collapse of the housing finance system, with 96% of mortgages at this point backed explicit by government. Yet, no debate, nothing. It’s millionaire kabuki. There are now murders happening around the foreclosure crisis. Nothing. No pressure from the left, or the right.
Major policy initiatives, such as the JOBS Act eliminating accounting requirements for companies using public equity markets, are now bipartisan, beyond debate. AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka is apparently “personally disgusted” by that bill, but he can’t help but argue how Barack Obama is the President for the middle class. The Democratic campaign will center in at least some part on tax justice and economic fairness, with the Republicans decrying class warfare. Yet, the data on inequality betrays that this narrative is completely disconnected from substance, from reality. Without an debate over the policies that led to this endpoint, it’s hard to figure out whether the 2012 election matters. Since Obama is still taken seriously when he promises to redress inequality immediately after signing the JOBS Act, this debate can’t happen.
This is not to say that politics is the only route to social change, it certainly is not. And this is not a “your vote matters” argument. It doesn’t always matter. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. What is striking is how little pressure is coming from the populace, towards the political elites in both parties. The Republicans have a bitter class divide within their party, but they have quickly clamped down on the populists in their midst. Meanwhile, Barack Obama can give stump-speeches on his support for the middle class with a straight face. Until this dynamic changes, and someone or something forces a real debate that reconnects substance and politics, our American decline will continue. Until then, the debates in DC will happen behind closed doors among powerful interests, and the public will only witness a fierce kabuki performance over Hilary Rosen’s tweets.