Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Remember Who You Represent, Democrats

THOMAS FRANK, AUTHOR OF THE LANDMARK 2004 BOOK, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” has said that, for a purportedly rightist party, Republicans talk an awful lot about class resentment — but in a strangely inverted way, defining elites in terms of cultural preferences: “Volvo-driving, Latte-sipping, liberal snobs in their big cities, looking down their noses at the humble, hard-working common folk out in ‘flyover country.’” Frank rightly points out that one thing never mentioned by Republicans is the role of economics in the class structure.

The reason Republicans get away with this is because Democrats moved away from grounding their policies in economic fairness. As Republicans started defining themselves as champions of working people — a definition that, if you look at their economic policies, is ludicrous — Democrats went along with defining themselves more along cultural lines.

One of the most disheartening things about the Democratic Party’s haplessness is that it has allowed Republicans to incrementally weaken the New Deal, their longstanding goal. Why? Because the New Deal cost the plutocrats power — and plutocrats are whose interests they represent.

Plutocrats hated New Deal-style policies when they were first enacted, and have hated them ever since, because what they desire is a frightened, submissive and, most of all, low-wage workforce that will allow them to make more money and thus have more power.

This is why single-payer health care represents such a threat to Republicans’ real constituency, the oligarchy, and why it was demagogued to death. Fear of losing medical benefits was very effective in keeping people from stepping out of line and demanding better wages or working conditions.

This is why Our Reptilian Corporate Masters absolutely love crippling student loan debt: it is a potent tool to hold over folks to keep them from threatening the system. They want a population that is “educated” along the lines of vocational training (the knowledge that one is incurring a large debt tends to focus one’s mind on the income potential of one’s major) rather than what used to be considered an “education” before the rise of corporate capitalism in the late 19th century.

And that is why raising taxes, and especially making our tax system more progressive (i.e., raising the tax rates as one goes up the income scale) is That Which Must Not Be Done according to Republican rhetoric.

The thing is, Democrats, too, deserve a share of the blame for failing to restrain the oligarchy.
If you’re a Democrat and you really want your heart broken some time, read FDR’s first or second inaugural addresses or virtually any utterance of Harry S Truman (the ones about economics, anyway), and then compare and contrast with the current Thing That Used To Be Liberalism.

“Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.”
I suspect a lot of the haplessness of the current Democratic Party can be traced to the way the left split in the late 1960s over Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, the civil rights movement — blue collar and union guys versus “New Left” college radicals. That split has consistently and only served one particular group of folks: the rich.

But the consensus American left position, the set of beliefs that really distinguished you as “left,” used to be very simple, and widely shared across that end of the spectrum, and went like this:

It is legitimate and necessary to use the power of the central government — through progressive taxation, modest income redistribution and support for labor — to restrain the tendency of big business to concentrate wealth in the hands of an elite few, and thus provide social and economic stability.

See? Simple.

Everything else needs to flow from that crucial, central, distinctive-to-the-left premise — and when it does, suddenly the national conversation starts to change.

When the Republican Party says we need tax cuts to stimulate the economy, I’d love it if Democrats countered by pointing out that Republicans have been trying that for years with no discernible effect on the economic health of the country, and really just want to give more money to their rich friends and weaken the government’s ability to stick up for working folks. They might also say that we Democrats want to pass a big jobs bill to give our constituency, ordinary Joes and Janes, a chance to practice their legendary work ethic and provide a future for their children.

The last sentence of that FDR quote — “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men” — is a more or less perfect description of the disdain with which Wall Street and the banking industry was held by a large fraction of the country in early 2009.

In short, I and many others on the populist left have been calling for the Democratic Party to take the golden opportunity of the current crisis to break out the economic populist rhetoric in order to sell economic populist policies.

This would seem to be an obvious and winning strategy that could plausibly lead to a couple generations of electoral and ideological dominance — which is precisely what happened the last time Democrats went all-in for the American worker.

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