Why go to Japan to see kabuki?

Besides teaching at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, Eric Alterman writes columns for numerous publications tilting leftward. Recently, he wrote “Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now,” at TheNation.com.

“The piece came from a feeling I had that every time a problem cropped up, the media discourse treated it as a brand-new notion,” Alterman wrote to me, “rather than something that could have been predicted given the way the system was structured. I had this feeling over and over, and decided it would be worthwhile to delineate them.”

Alterman begins by acknowledging liberal disappointment with President Obama’s administration, “significant accomplishments notwithstanding.” Part of the problem is rooted in Lyndon Johnson’s great line about his top achievement as Senate majority leader: persuading liberal Hubert Humphrey to accept half a loaf, which Obama has done. But “America’s most irresponsible, incompetent and ideologically obsessed presidency”—meaning George W. Bush’s—left Obama with dozens of problems requiring attention and new ones that resulted from it, such as the BP spill, “a direct outgrowth of the Bush/Cheney industry-friendly defenestration of the basic functions of the government’s regulatory functions.”

Not that Alterman absolves Obama. He doesn’t, although he is far more critical of Fox News and other right-wing echo chambers, as well as the mainstream media, for distorting reality and so heavily promoting the idea that government is ineffective that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He also has much to say about how Congress works and doesn’t work, how money makes politicians on both sides of the aisle dance to corporate and lobbyist tunes, and how Americans want a free lunch.

Alterman suspects the problems he describes afflict states “at least as much, probably more [than the federal government],” he told me, “because there is far less scrutiny of how state legislators operate, and they can get away with a great deal more than can congressmen and senators, and so they do.”

Around each presidential election, we are reminded that Nevada is a bellwether state, having cast its electoral votes with the winning candidate each time, with one exception, since 1912. As the 2010 election nears, especially for governor, Nevada also may exemplify Alterman’s argument against the possibility of a progressive governorship.

Consider the current administration. Jim Gibbons undoubtedly is the worst governor in Nevada history, but probably not the least successful. He hoped to disembowel Nevada’s already lean government, and the economic collapse that resulted mainly from the policies his party pursued has helped him do it.

Before that, Kenny Guinn served as governor for eight years, and before and after his recent death properly received kudos for the Millennium Scholarship. Those on the right had fewer kind words to say about the tax increase he sought in 2003. Few seemed to recall that, under pressure from the right, he endorsed a plan to rebate $300 per person from driver’s license fees in 2005—a rebate that Nevada’s opponents of government and taxes saw as a way to limit state spending. Better to give back a little of the money, needed or not, than get Nevada all the way to 49th place in nearly every national ranking for education and social services.

The always reliable Las Vegas Review-Journal polls (sarcasm alert!) show voters willing to increase taxes on gaming and mining—two of the most important lobbying forces in Carson City and two of our biggest industries—so they won’t go down (or, in tax payments, up) without a fight. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce remains determined to demonize the government employees who would educate the families of the businesspeople the chamber wants to relocate here, and government workers understandably are leery of trying to make nice with an organization that seems to be out to ream them. Nevada’s largest media outlets show no inclination to dig deeply into who runs what and how it all does and doesn’t work.

But look on the bright side: Nevada can offer another theme. Why go to Japan to see kabuki? Just watch our politics.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.

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