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I guess it's because if America really can be conceived of as an empire, that is as a transnational, institutionalized polity of some kind, then this means that the most effective arena for policy change is Washington -- it's core.
You assume that if nothing is done, the American empire will remain. It won't. Restoring the American empire to some semblance of sustainability will require active effort.
So in order to believe that the most effective arena for policy change in the periphery is Washington, you have to believe that the effort required to change policy in the periphery is less than the effort required to change policy in Washington plus the effort that must be expended to restore the American empire, plus the opportunity cost of the time lost between core policy propagating through the periphery, compared to changing policy directly in the periphery, minus the probability that the core resumes functioning on its own in time to salvage the empire.
We can quantify the time it takes for policy to propagate from Washington to Bruxelles, almost to the year, by looking at when Washington, resp. Bruxelles forgot how to resolve a systemic bankruptcy. Call it ten years (from the .com bust until today). Give or take a few years. Changing policy in Washington is likely to be harder than changing policy in Bruxelles, if for no other reason then because the American constitution is less amenable to grassroot efforts (and because the American government has far more deeply institutionalised corruption). Which in turn means that the imperial core is unlikely to resume sanity-based policies on its own. Add the effort required to restore the American empire to some semblance of viability, and the whole thing starts looking rather open-and-shut, unless you happen to be an American and therefore have to live with the America that actually unfolds.
the space between neo-liberal policies and progressive-liberal policies is not really all that wide either.
Well, compared to the space between Leninism and neo-liberalism, I suppose you might say that.
In practise, you'd have to purge half the top-tier civil servants, who have been drafted from the school of thought that grants corporations more rights than individuals, views paid-for speech as being equivalent to free speech and subscribes to fantasy-based economics. And then you'd have to destroy the neoliberals' sources of funding, academic support, media cover and intellectual foundations (OK, the last bit is easy enough), to make sure we won't be having this same discussion thirty years down the road. (The last bit was where American Keynesianism failed - it was insufficiently thorough in purging pockets of potential revanchists. It is noteworthy that the neoliberals have done their best to avoid repeating that mistake.)
Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.
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