Sunday, December 25, 2011

No War But the Class War: Is Political Realignment Possible? (Repost)

Have you ever suddenly realized that several ideas that have been rolling through your mind are connected? People who regularly write and think about ideas live for such aha moments. In fact, I think Aldous Huxley had such experiences in mind when he cleverly described “[a]n intellectual” as “a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex.” Although I certainly won’t claim to be in that rarefied ether, I did recently have a minor moment of clarity with respect to three ideas about OWS that have been preoccupying me (ha, preoccupying).

The first comes from a recent interview with Larry Mishel of EPI - who is brilliant and charming and very deserving of all of the praise he’s been getting lately. Anyway, during the interview, Larry (we’re on a first name basis) said something that I immediately knew was correct, but that I hadn’t heard articulated: He said that he used to think of our system as broken, but it’s not; it’s functioning exactly how it is supposed to function. The 1% haven’t broken our government; they’ve captured it. And having captured it, they’ve designed it to work for their benefit and against the interests of the 99%.*

As soon as I heard this, I knew it was correct and that it has all kinds of implications (which I’m just starting to think through). But before I get to what I think the primary implication is, there’s a second idea, which is based on something Digby said. But because she said it in the context of a larger debate, it requires a bit of set up.

OWS and the Left-Right Paradigm: Taibbi vs. Digby

This particular blog volley started when Andrew Breitbart (or maybe his lackeys) stole several personal emails between Matt Taibbi and a few prominent left-wing pundits about OWS and whether the movement should have specific demands (a topic everyone interested in OWS has been on about). Anyway, Breitbart kicked up a bunch of dust claiming these liberal pundits were the true masterminds behind OWS and were plotting OWS’s next move - a ridiculous claim, which Taibbi appropriately dismissed out of hand. But more interestingly, Taibbi argued that Breitbart’s conspiracy theory was really an attempt to pigeonhole OWS into familiar right versus left categories, a characterization Taibbi rejects:

The Rush Limbaughs of the world are very comfortable with a narrative that has Noam Chomsky, MoveOn and Barack Obama on one side, and the Tea Party and Republican leaders on the other. The rest of the traditional media won't mind that narrative either, if it can get enough "facts" to back it up. They know how to do that story and most of our political media is based upon that Crossfire paradigm of left-vs-right commentary shows and NFL Today-style team-vs-team campaign reporting.

What nobody is comfortable with is a movement in which virtually the entire spectrum of middle class and poor Americans is on the same page, railing against incestuous political and financial corruption on Wall Street and in Washington. The reality is that Occupy Wall Street and the millions of middle Americans who make up the Tea Party are natural allies and should be on the same page about most of the key issues, and that's a story our media won't want to or know how to handle.

Good points (and everything Taibbi writes is convincing), but Digby wasn’t quite buying it. And she frames her skepticism as déjà vu, reminding us this isn’t the first time we’ve heard lofty claims about transformative moments and post-partisan politics:

This is a beautiful moment full of promise. And we should do everything we can to maximize the numbers and create solidarity while the reaction is gathering its forces. But the idea that it is so transformative that the laws of politics, power and human nature don't apply is a familiar form of self-delusion that's frankly reminiscent of the Obama campaign.

A few days after writing this blog post, Digby appeared on Sam Seder’s Majority Report and tellingly made the point in terms of the What’s-the-Matter-With-Kansas thesis:

The fact is, there’s still something the matter with Kansas. None of that has actually changed. My personal theory and my working theory for many years has been that in America we basically have divided ourselves along a certain cultural-identity fault line that goes beyond economics. And, by the way, always has. There’s really very little historical evidence to suggest that you’re going to find a clean class divide. Now that’s not to say that there cannot be a majority class divide of the average people against the elites. Certainly Roosevelt built a coalition around that. But in order to do that, he had to do something very unpleasant and that was that he had to give up on any form of civil rights during the Great Depression because there was no way that he could keep a coalition together of white Southern rural folk and promote the idea of racial equality at the same time.

In general terms, I agree with Digby. The historical analysis is on the mark and undoubtedly there is a certain faction of the populace that is so committed to right-wing tribalism, there is no hope they will be convinced to see common cause with the 99%. And, in fact, it turns out this particular faction is the core of the Tea Party movement (a movement Chris Hedges has rightly, I think, characterized as America’s fascist party). I have consistently rejected - and continue to reject - the fairy-tale narrative that claims the Tea Party originally was expressing the same frustrations as OWS, but was subsequently co-opted by corporatist interests and the Republican Party. From its inception, the Tea Party was an astroturfed movement that channeled its energy into vicious scapegoating and into anti-government rhetoric intended to inure to the benefit of the 1%.

But while I reject the notion that the Tea Party and OWS are similar at their core, the more I think about it, the more I think there may be cause to think OWS could create a class-based majority that does not have to make the Faustian bargain Roosevelt was required to make.

Post-Partisaniship: Obama vs. OWS

Digby’s argument is that Obama’s post-partisan project failed because our country is deeply divided - when all is said and done, “there’s still something the matter with Kansas.” However, it could be that Obama’s project failed not because of an insurmountable cultural-identity fault line, but because the project was flawed. And if the project was flawed in ways OWS is not, class-based realignment is not necessarily doomed. This is where this debate dovetails with Larry Mishel’s insight that our system isn’t broken, it’s been captured by the 1%.

As we’ve come to see through a series of tragic miscalculations, Obama is deeply committed to the centrist narrative. And as a centrist, he reflexively sees both sides as valid and prizes, above all else, bi-partisan compromise. Thus, while Digby is correct that Obama’s campaign was filled with post-partisan rhetoric, Obama viewed the problem as bitter partisanship, which he believed could be remedied by being the “adult in the room” and reasoning with the warring factions. Obama erroneously assumed that both sides - though representing different interests - were ultimately acting in good faith and in the best interests of the American people. If these assumptions ever had any credibility, that credibility was shredded during the shameful debt-ceiling debacle.

OWS, on the other hand, doesn’t see both sides as acting in good faith. Irrespective of party affiliation, anyone who wants to gut Social Security or raise the Medicare eligibility age while wealth disparities are at an all-time high are acting in the interests of the 1%. To put it plainly, OWS recognizes that a corporate coup d’etat has occurred - our government has been captured by the 1% and, as Larry Mishel points out, it is operating as it’s designed to operate. Given this diagnosis, the solution isn’t to rise above the fray and forge a West Wing-inspired “grand bargain.”** The only solution is to wrest control of our political system from the 1% and to restore our democracy.

While Digby is correct that both Obama and OWS have talked of transformation and political realignment, OWS and Obama are world’s apart in their diagnosis and accordingly, in their prescriptions. Therefore, where Obama failed, OWS at least has the potential to succeed.

Of course, debunking the comparison of OWS and Obama doesn’t get at Digby’s argument that “there’s still something the matter with Kansas.” And in this regard, I should again emphasize: I do not think, even for a moment, that the hard-core right wing will be convinced of anything. But I do think a sincere class-based politics has the potential to reverberate across party lines, particularly with independents and the politically disaffected. Moreover, I think historically we’re in a position to actually have a class-based politics that doesn’t have to turn its back on civil rights.

And this brings me to a third set of ideas - namely, a re-examination of the What’s-the-Matter-With-Kansas thesis.

Maybe We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

The question driving the What’s-the-Matter-With-Kansas thesis is as follows: Why do some of the poor and middle class vote against their economic interests (i.e. vote Republican)? The answer given - an answer Chris Hayes astutely refers to as a liberal catechism - is that they’re manipulated into voting against their economic interests on the basis of cultural wedge issues (race, abortion, gay marriage and so on).

However, we now know that the question itself is deeply flawed. Political scientists tell us that for some time, neither Republicans nor Democrats have legislated on behalf of the poor or middle class. Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum summarizes the scholarship and its implications as follows:

American politicians don't care much about voters with moderate incomes. Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting behavior of US senators in the early '90s and discovered that they respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else. By itself, that's not a surprise. He also found that Republicans don't respond at all to the desires of voters with modest incomes. Maybe that's not a surprise, either. But this should be: Bartels found that Democratic senators don't respond to the desires of these voters, either. At all.

As Chris Hedges puts it, there’s no longer any way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs. No matter how many people want to raise taxes on the wealthy, no matter how many want single-payer health care, no matter how many know we need to break up too-big-to-fail banks, no matter how many know we have to save our ecosystem, it’s common knowledge that these and many other matters are politically impossible because they run counter to the desires of the 1%. Here, for example, is Jared Bernstein who is progressive, but undeniably mainstream:

The financial crash of the 2000s revealed a confluence of many powerful and socially disruptive forces: levels of income inequality not seen since the dawn of the Great Depression, stagnant middle-class living standards amidst strong productivity growth, solid evidence that deregulated markets were driving a damaging bubble and bust cycle, deep repudiation of supply-side economics, and most importantly, even deeper repudiation of the dominant, Greenspanian paradigm that markets will self-correct.

We may not, in my lifetime, witness another historical moment where these destructive forces are so clearly revealed. What’s more, there were economic thinkers arguing for a new paradigm....

And yet, at least from where I sit today, we let the moment pass....

Why did we squander the opportunity? Not because there’s so much information on the web. It is, at least in part, because the concentration of wealth and power blocked the new ideas from a fair hearing.

Deregulated markets, “rational market” theories, eroded labor standards, the retreat of unions, regressive taxation, financial engineering, global arbitrage, low rates of job growth, growth that eluded the middle-class and the poor…all have contributed to almost unprecedented levels of wealth concentration.

Such dynamics are self-reinforcing. The narrow slice of winners, enriched beyond imagination by these forces, use their wealth to insulate themselves from new ideas that threaten their position by purchasing not just political power but even “ideas,” through bogus think tanks and media operations.

Given the political reality, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have questioned the What’s-the-Matter-With-Kansas construct. People are not manipulated into voting against their economic interests; if you’re a member of the poor or middle class, there’s no meaningful way to vote for your economic interests. Given that it’s not possible to vote one’s economic interests, some vote on the basis of cultural issues, some vote in protest against incumbents (creating so-called wave elections) and many do not vote at all.

If Hacker and Pierson are correct, there are many voters - probably not those voting on the basis of cultural issues, but very possibly protest voters and the disaffected - who can be swayed by a full-throated, sincere economic populism. And, of course, the recent success of movements rooted in economic populism - from Wisconsin to OWS - evidence that this is the case. These movements have palpably tapped into something that is both genuine and widespread.

The Culture Wars Were Not for Nothing

The final point Digby makes is that historically a class-based majority can be created, but only if its adherents disavow civil rights.

Here, an article by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones is relevant. The Hacker & Pierson-inspired story Drum tells is that in the late 60s, the Left turned away from labor unions and bread-and-butter economic issues and towards various post-materialist issues (civil rights, environmentalism, etc.). This post-materialist turn ultimately allowed the 1% to capture both parties on economic and labor issues. The result, of course, is that labor unions have been decimated and income inequality is at historic highs. But - and this is a significant but - the country really has progressed on civil rights.

Over the past 40 years, the American left has built an enormous institutional infrastructure dedicated to mobilizing money, votes, and public opinion on social issues, and this has paid off with huge strides in civil rights, feminism, gay rights, environmental policy, and more. But the past two years have demonstrated that that isn't enough. If the left ever wants to regain the vigor that powered earlier eras of liberal reform, it needs to rebuild the infrastructure of economic populism that we've ignored for too long. Figuring out how to do that is the central task of the new decade.

I’m still working through these ideas, but I’m starting to see in the move towards economic populism - exhibited by the successes of both Wisconsin and OWS - the potential to finally heal the rift between post-materialists and labor documented by Kevin Drum. Our country - and the younger generation in particular - is less racist, less homophobic and more tolerant than ever before. Blue-collar union members are no longer as prone to being swayed by race baiting and gay bashing. And because of the progress that has been made, I think Digby’s reference to Roosevelt’s infamous deal with the devil on civil rights is misplaced. Decades of work on social issues came at a high price, but it has not been for nothing - it has created the possibility for a class-based majority not bought by complicity with racism, sexism and homophobia. And if that is the case, truly great things are possible, including class-based, political realignment that crosses the existing partisan divide.

* Larry Mishel reminded me that this idea - that the system isn't broken, but rather is functioning as it's designed to function - is from Failure by Design, a book by his EPI colleague, L. Josh Bivens (who I'm scheduled to interview next week).

** The idea of Obama's deep commitment to a West Wing-style centrist narrative was suggested, in a slightly different context, by John Quiggin during my recent interview with him.


  1. i read this when you first wrote it, and i was that i've read it again, my only comment is that you absolutely must write more...

  2. Aww, thanks. Hopefully I will get the time to write more.

  3. Hey Taryn, nice piece. Got me thinking about a few things.

    The first is that while the promise of the Obama admin has failed, it is obvious that more than just a misplaced desire for post-partisanship was at fault. When he made the statement early on to Wall Street that "I'm standing between the pitchforks and you", that he had already taken the wrong side in any attempts to let an economic populist movement heal partisan rifts. And of course, later that stance would have to continue when OWS became the voice of economic populism (if in fact it is becoming that, which I believe to be the case).

    And while an appeal to a class-based political realignment sounds possible, while overcoming racism is becoming easier due to generational shift, there are other problems, particularly with a union/OWS solidarity. For instance, the Keystone XL project pits the AFL-CIO against many in OWS. Many sorts of economic stimulus pits environmental issues against economic justice ones. Trade issues pit global justice advocates against economic expansionists. There are many more that become apparent as folks work through the issues in new-found friendships and alliances within the OWS movement.

    Economic populism as a unifying force needs to be about more than just continuing on with neoclassical and keynsian ideas of an ever-expanding economy. While that could delay the inevitable economic day of reckoning, a populist movement to be truly transformative needs to challenge the structure of our economic system, and begin to restructure it to one that is more sustainable--a system of steady state economics that the likes of Herman Daly has espoused for almost 40 years.

    To build a post-partisan political movement based on economic populism must challenge the basic premises our current economic system is built on. While Mishel was right in saying that our political system has rigged our economic system to the benefit of the 1%, merely changing the politics will not rectify the basic problem: the roots of our economic maladies are far deeper than just the current political crisis reveal. They go to the very structure of the system, and it needs more than cosmetic surgery to forge a lasting political renaissance.