04/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Moving Towards Sanity in Crazy Times

Chris Hayes' piece on America's system failure in the Nation on February 3rd is one of the single best posts I've seen in a long time on the long term challenges facing progressive activists in this county. It captures for me that combination of intense discouragement at the problems we've been having getting anything good done in the Obama era so far, with that call for continuing the fight that I think is so important for all of us.

What Chris captured in his diagnosis of the American political system at present was that sense of how broken things are in really fundamental ways. It reminded me of my feelings when old friends from the Clinton administration era read my blog posts and asked if I've moved to the left in the years since I worked in the Clinton White House. My answer is no. I don't think I have, but I do feel that the country is at a much more precarious juncture, and that more fundamental change needs to be pushed right now.

I know that plenty of progressives then and in retrospect don't share this perspective, but my view of the Clinton era was that it was a more comfortable time for a progressive to work inside and/or with the Clinton White House. We lost more than our share of battles, but won quite a few, too. NAFTA was awful, but we got great appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. Clinton signing welfare reform was wrong, but we got big increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit, a minimum wage increase, and S-CHIP. Not enough was done on climate change, but Carol Browner at EPA and Bruce Babbitt at Interior were pretty strong environmental regulators overall. And in an era where 22 million jobs were being created and poverty rates were heading down, the tradeoffs seemed acceptable -- especially compared to the prospect that Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay and their friends might completely take our government.

Behind the scenes, though, the banking oligarchs were tightening their grip on the government. While the toxic stew of the Glass-Steagall repeal was being passed, and Rubin and Summers were helping Wall Street block Brooksley Born's attempt to regulate derivatives, I was battling to save Bill Clinton's butt from his self-created Lewinsky problems, and wasn't paying nearly enough attention. While there was some lonely opposition to the Glass-Steagall repeal and the neutering of Born (a shout-out to Byron Dorgan, who warned us all exactly what would happen), for the most part progressives like myself were too focused on battling the right wingers' most obvious excesses instead of worrying about what our own White House and Treasury Department were unleashing on us.

The Rubin/Summers changes to financial regulation combined with the Bush administration's appointments of the worst set of regulators since the 1920s (at least) created an environment where the big banks became monsters capable of destroying our economy. And they did, creating the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. They quite literally broke our economy, and while things have stabilized some over the panic atmosphere of late 2008/early 2009, it is still broken.

What has also become broken is our ability to govern. Between the absurd filibuster rules and the abuse of them , and the huge and wealthy special interests (the financial behemoths above all), the system has the worst kind of sclerosis built into it. If the minority party and the power house lobbies want to shut things down, they can just do it.

Between the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the emergence of completely unregulated "dark" derivative markets (where no light of day is ever seen), and the laissez-faire regulators of the Bush administration, our country is in the grip of economic powers that have far greater economic and political power than any set of institutions at least since Teddy Roosevelt finally began to tame the robber barons over a century ago. Ponder this fact for a moment: six megabanks control assets amounting to more than 60% of the country's gross domestic product. That is unfathomable. How does our economy ever function under the weight of that kind of concentration of wealth and power? How does our democracy? And with our government so dysfunctional, how do we make the changes we need to make?

So have I moved to the left over the last decade? Not really. I still have the same basic beliefs about politics and government that I did before. I still have all the same stands on issues. But our country in this last decade has moved toward a far, far weaker economy and democracy, and my sense of urgency and anger at not challenging that trend has grown dramatically.

For many of my old colleagues in the Clinton administration, comfortably operating in DC's friendly confines, the system has been pretty good to them and doesn't seem so different from before. For so many Obama administration officials, they know how the wheels of government turn, and they're pretty comfortable with it, even if they get frustrated at times. But we're all in that proverbial pot with the frog on the stove with the water getting warmer and warmer. I believe that the danger of our democracy boiling alive really exists.

This has been a pretty dark post, I will admit. But I want to end on a note that, if not exactly hopeful, at least expresses what Chris was expressing in his system failure piece: that while the system is failing us, we can still gather ourselves together to fight back and win some battles. The hope of getting a decent health care reform package is still not dead, in spite of the power of the insurance industry. The hope of passing a financial reform bill with some good reforms in it is not dead, in spite of the massive power of Wall Street. The progressive movement is still fighting, still battling the forces that be.

My favorite passage in all of literature in is The Plague by Camus (if you are a regular reader of mine, you may remember I've quoted it before). Doctor Rieux' friend, in asking why he keeps on treating all the people dying of the plague, says "But your victories will never be lasting, that's all." And Rieux replies, "Yes, I know that. But it's no reason for giving up the struggle." Hopefully progressives will win more victories than Dr. Rieux won against the plague. But whether we do or not, it's no reason to give up the struggle.