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By Barbara Ehrenreich
The role of the left should not be to uphold or defend a government increasingly at odds with the interests of the people, but to change it, drastically and from the ground up.
So a black man finally wins the presidency, only to discover that it’s about as useful as a 32 cent stamp. According to Eric Alterman, the federal government, avatar of liberal hope for at least a century, has become hopelessly undemocratic, poisoned by corruption and structurally snarled by partisan divisions. Poor Barack Obama, who steps up to the plate and gets handed a foam bat!
The government, as Alterman convincingly describes it, is not only expensive, “bloated” and all the rest. It has become a handmaid to corporate power—a hiring hall from which compliant officials are selected for vastly more lucrative private-sector jobs, as well as an emergency cash reserve for companies that fall on hard times. No wonder so many Americans unthinkingly conflate “big government” and “big corporations.” This is not the kind of government that hires unemployed people to paint murals on post office walls. And, as everyone knows, when the bank decides to repossess your home, it’s a public employee who will kick in the door.
All that should be enough to sour liberals’ trust in government as a tool for progressive social change. But the situation is much worse than Alterman acknowledges. In the years since government—state and local as well as federal—has shed its role as a kindly change agent, it has assumed a new one as über-cop: building more penitentiaries, snapping up stoners, harassing blacks and Latino-looking people on the streets. Nonviolent protests have dwindled, not only because of activists’ lingering deference toward Obama but because the police response to any outdoor gathering so resembles the assault on Falluja.
Even the more helpful government programs have become agents of an increasingly repressive state. Food stamp offices, public housing complexes and homeless shelters are the sites of “warrant searches” used to gather up people who might have missed a court date concerning an unpaid debt. Public housing residents are subjected to drug tests; in many states, the process of applying for what remains of welfare (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) parallels that of being booked by the police, complete with mug shots and fingerprints. Although you won’t find them out campaigning against ICE raids and urban stop-and-frisk programs, some of the Tea Partyers seem to dimly understand this, with one handmade poster at last year’s 9/12 demonstration in Washington saying, for example, Government Health Care = Pee in a Cup.
And what is a liberal to make of the city of Maywood, California, which more or less disbanded itself in June, outsourcing all municipal functions—sounds like a liberal nightmare, right? Until you read that the now-defunct police department was found by the state in 2009 to be “permeated with sexual innuendo, harassment, vulgarity…and a lack of cultural, racial and ethnic sensitivity and respect.”
Alterman acknowledges the problem only tentatively, observing that “one might argue that this [Democratic] faith in government’s ability to improve people’s lives is misplaced.” You betcha. The role of the left should not be to uphold or defend the government, meaning, for now, the corpo-Obama-Geithner-Petraeus state, but to change it, drastically and from the ground up. That may sound overly radical to Alterman, who seems to want “progressives who think of themselves as left of liberal” to abandon even that tiny distinction. But as the Tea Partyers keep reminding us in their nasty and demented ways, these are revolutionary times.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harpers, and the Progressive, she is a contributing writer to Time magazine. She lives in Florida.