For someone who usually gets more excited to go door-knocking on Election Day than on Halloween, I’ve had a fairly detached view of the national political scene in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.
It’s clear that the Democrats will lose the House and keep the Senate, and that the President will spend the next two years doing small-bore politics frustrated by Congressional investigation a la the last six Clinton years. His re-election will depend on the state of the economy (political constraints suggest to me that it will not turn around very fast, which will cost Obama the 2012 election).
The last two years suggest to me that the next two will not cost progressives huge opportunities that were ever real. The utter failure of two years of a Democratic Presidency and a Congress under lopsided Democratic control to get anything done on climate change suggests that prospects for the future of the earth haven’t been very high and though they’re now dimmer, it’s not by much. The structural reform that could make the biggest difference would be the elimination of the filibuster, but too many Democratic Senators are too fond of their privileges to make that a reality, and even in a majority-rule Senate, I think that regional concerns would defeat effective climate change intervention.
It’s tempting to ask what if? I’m inspired by the round of What if Al Gore had taken power in 2000 over at Unfogged to ask this question: what if, for the past two years, the labor movement had been united?
The Los Angeles Times has given good consideration the prospects of taxing soda to pay for rising healthcare costs. An op-ed in October made the case for such a tax, and a front-page story last Sunday detailed the proposal’s murder by the beverage industry.
A few weeks after hearing testimony that a penny-an-ounce tax on soda could reduce consumption by 23%, Rep. Linda Sanchez proposed the tax to colleagues on the House Ways and Means committee to a favorable reception. Beverage industry lobbyists went to work, raising questions about the science and, significantly, bringing minority groups that they had long supported out in opposition to the tax, saying that it would affect minority consumers disproportionately. (It would cost minority consumers more, but these are people with higher rates of diabetes — Sanchez herself was recently diagnosed with gestational diabetes).
As dog ever bites man, lobbying scares Democrats:
By the time the Democratic caucus held its next closed-door meeting in early summer, the atmosphere had changed, Sanchez said — an assessment shared by Pascrell and some committee staffers.
Democratic Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights pioneer who represents Atlanta, the corporate headquarters of Coca-Cola, argued that the soda tax could lead to taxes on other foods, raising prices for hard-pressed consumers during a severe recession. If you begin taxing one sugar product, where do you draw the line?, he asked.
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who represents a rural district where dairy farming is widespread, said he became concerned about the fairness of targeting one industry. Kind had heard from local Pepsi and Coke distributors, and he and other members also received letters from the National Milk Producers Assn. concerned that the proposed tax could apply to chocolate milk.
“We went from having real interest in this idea to it just falling off the table,” Sanchez said. “It was my perception that opposition increased as members began hearing from local businesses” that were part of the beverage industry coalition.
Michelle Obama debuted today her Healthy Food Campaign. The most regulation proposed inside it would grant principals the ability to ban unhealthy foods in schools, which is good, but altogether too localized. A soda tax would have discouraged consumption of a product and would reigned in the externalization of its costs.
(Be warned: this post rambles and offers no hopeful conclusions or prescriptions.)
It is no special insight to claim that Barack Obama’s candidacy was largely about his brand. Maybe not as much in the general election, when many voters chose Obama simply because they were disgusted with Republicans after the Bush years. But in the primary, people chose him not just because of his personal charisma but because his campaign managed to associate vague, desirable qualities with him. (Hope. Change.)
Of course brands are always a lie, which is why, I think, so many Democrats are disillusioned with Obama now, even though he is more or less exactly the president he promised to be. He has broken some specific promises, sure. But overall, throughout his campaign he promised to govern as a cautious, technocratic centrist, and so far he has. Yet his brand promised inspiration, and cautious technocratic centrism turns out to be totally uninspiring.
Drinking a ton of Captain Morgan does not, in fact, get you laid. It just gets you a really unpleasant hangover.
Even in their disappointment, though, many Democrats are still reacting fundamentally as consumers of politics. That’s it, they say, I’m not donating any more to the Democratic Party. I’m not buying any more of that.
This is no surprise. It’s how we of a certain class and political bent are encouraged to conduct all of our political activism these days. We buy recycled paper towels and wind-powered electricity. We buy Fair Trade-certified coffee. I buy all these things myself. When we get mad at the owner of Whole Foods, we hold personal boycotts.
So who can blame us for trying to buy a president and then getting buyer’s remorse?
I think that in the end, it will never work for us to approach politics this way. That’s because the consumer mindset depends on the highly attractive idea that my individual choices matter. They do when I am consuming consumer goods. In politics, though, collective action is all that counts.
Unfortunately, because this is how we are most comfortable interacting with the world—as consumers who believe, each of us, that our individual choices are of paramount importance—I also think it will be very difficult if not impossible for us to adopt a different paradigm for political action. Small groups may find new ways to exert political pressure, but I’m guessing that the vast majority of Americans will remain political consumers.