How Did Democrats Become the Party of Elites?

In order to win back statehouses and Congress, Democrats must rewrite the political narrative that now has them on the side of the establishment and Republicans on the side of sticking it to the man.

“For four decades now, Republicans have succeeded in framing Democrats as the party that uses government to bigfoot rather than aid the American people,” writes Leonard Steinhorn. (Photo by Georgia Democrats/ flickr CC 2.0)

How did it come to pass that of the two political parties, the Democrats — who have long fought for the underdog, civil rights, consumer protections, universal health care, the minimum wage and for unions against powerful interests that try to crush them — have now been branded in large swaths of the country as the party of the establishment and the elites?

And how did it come to pass that Republicans — whose policies, regardless of stated intent, benefit polluters, entrenched interests and the upper brackets of American wealth — are now seen by many as the anti-establishment populist party which delights in flipping off elites on behalf of the Everyman?

For the moment, keep Donald Trump out of this conversation — after all, Democrats have been hemorrhaging seats in statehouses and Congress for decades. Also set aside any talking points about which party’s policies truly benefit forgotten Americans or which short-term trends show up in the polls.

More important for Democrats is whether they can rewrite the political narrative that now has them on the side of the establishment and Republicans on the side of sticking it to the man.

If Democrats want to regain their electoral stride and recapture defiant voters who once saw the party as their advocate and voice — the same voters they need to establish a sustained governing majority throughout the land — they must think less about policies per se than about how those policies translate to messaging and brand.

Just as consumers purchase products not merely for what they do but for what they say about the people who buy them, voters are drawn to narratives, brands and identities as much as the policies that affect their lives. These narratives give voters meaning, define who they are, and become an essential part of their identity and self-image.

What’s most toxic in American politics today — as it has been throughout our history — is to become the party associated with domineering overlords and supercilious elites who seem to enjoy wielding power over the rest of us.

To some extent, the Democrats have only themselves to blame for their elite, establishment image.

Few question the party’s need to build its campaign coffers in what is now an arms race for political dollars. But by cozying up to Wall Street and the privileged — and appearing more at ease hobnobbing among them than among those who work in factories, small businesses and call centers — Democrats have sent a subtle message about the people they prefer to associate with and seek out for advice. To many Americans, it reeks of hypocrisy at best.

Republicans, who unapologetically celebrate wealth as a symbol of American dynamism, face no such messaging dissonance.

But perhaps more important is the jujitsu maneuver that Republicans have used to turn one of the Democratic Party’s strengths — its good faith use of government to level the playing field and help the little people — into a weakness.

From the New Deal through the ’60s, the Democrats were able to show that government was an essential tool to correct market inequities, protect the little people from unchecked power and special interests and ensure that the American birthright included safeguards against crippling poverty and misfortune.

Government, most Americans believed, was their defender and their voice. In 1964, according the the American National Election Studies, more than three-fourths of Americans said they trusted government most of the time or just about always. It was the Democrats that stood for grass-roots change and the Republicans who represented the powerful and resistant establishment.

Democrats then expanded their vision of a righteous government by exercising its power to fight segregation, discrimination, environmental blight, corporate malfeasance and consumer hazards — and to advance health care as a right and not a privilege. All of that seemed to follow the New Deal script of government as a force for good.

But with Richard Nixon channeling George Wallace’s racialized anger at the federal government and Ronald Reagan saying that the only way to christen our shining city on a hill is to free up aggrieved entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens stifled by burdensome red tape and regulations, the Democratic association with government began to turn noxious.

As Reagan put it in his 1981 inaugural address, we should not allow “government by an elite group” to “ride on our back.”

For four decades now, Republicans have succeeded in framing Democrats as the party that uses government to bigfoot rather than aid the American people. Democrats may celebrate public servants for keeping our food safe and our lakes healthy, but Republicans have successfully portrayed them as a humorless bureaucrats who salivate at the urge to exert power and control over taxpaying Americans.

And Republicans have very artfully created a counternarrative, turning the market into a synonym for liberty and defining it as an authentic expression of American grass-roots energy in which small businesses and entrepreneurs simply need freedom from government to shower benefits on us all.

Of course the market’s magic may be more mythical than real — given that powerful corporations and interests dominate and exploit it often at the expense of workers — but that inconvenient fact is immaterial to the brilliant messaging advantages Republicans have derived from it.

Indeed, in the Republican playbook it’s the teachers, unions, environmental groups, professors and civil rights organizations that constitute the establishment whereas Koch and other industry-funded astroturf groups are the real gladiators fighting the status quo.

But it’s not just the Democratic association with government that Republicans have used to brand it as the party of the establishment and elites. Republicans have also turned the table on the liberal values that Democrats embrace.

Beginning in the 1960s, liberals have sought to flush prejudice, bigotry and discriminatory attitudes from society by turning diversity into a moral value and creating a public culture intolerant of misogyny and intolerance. On the surface, that should be a sign of national progress.

But conservatives — with help from an unwitting or overly zealous slice of the left that too often overreaches — took these healthy normative changes and cleverly depicted them as an attempt by condescending and high-handed elites to police our language and impose a politically correct finger-pointing culture.

In effect, conservatives have rather successfully portrayed liberals and Democrats as willing to use cultural and political power against ordinary Americans. They want to take my guns, regulate my business, dictate who I can hire, and tell me what I can buy, which doctors I see, how I live, when I pray and even what I say — so goes the conservative narrative.

That their definition of “ordinary Americans” is quite narrow — meaning whites and particularly men — is beside the point because it’s the political branding that matters, not the fact that liberal economic policies and efforts against bigotry and discrimination have helped millions of ordinary Americans.

Our nation was founded on resistance to power, and it’s part of our political and cultural DNA to resent anyone who exercises or lords that power over others.

Taken together, Republicans have successfully defined Democrats as a party of bureaucrats, power brokers, media elites, special interests and snobs who have created a client state for those they favor, aim to control what everyone else does and look down their noses at the people who pay the taxes to fund the same government that Democrats use to control their lives.

And why is this so damning for Democrats? Because our nation was founded on resistance to power, and it’s part of our political and cultural DNA to resent anyone who exercises or lords that power over others.

Read past the first paragraphs of our Declaration of Independence and it’s all about King George III and his abuses of power. Our Constitution encodes checks and balances and a separation of powers. Our economic system rests on antitrust law, which is designed to keep monopolies from crushing smaller competitors and accumulating too much power.

So if large numbers of Americans see Democrats as the party of entrenched elites who exert power over the little people, then Democrats have lost the messaging battle that ultimately determines who prevails and who doesn’t in our elections.

And let’s be clear: Donald Trump didn’t originate this message in his 2016 campaign; he simply exploited, amplified and exemplified it better than almost any Republican since Ronald Reagan.

The Bernie Sanders answer, of course, is to train the party’s fire at banks, corporations and moneyed interests. After all, they are the ones exerting unchecked power, soaking up the nation’s wealth and distributing it to the investor class and not the rest of us.

And to some extent that has potential and appeal.

But remember, most Americans depend on corporations for their jobs, livelihoods, health care, mortgages and economic security. So it’s much more difficult today to frame big business as the elite and powerful establishment than it was when when workers manned the union ramparts against monopoly power. Working Americans today have a far more ambivalent relationship with corporate America than they did in the New Deal days.

Somehow Democrats have to come up with their own jujitsu maneuver to once again show that theirs is the party that fights entrenched power on behalf of the little people. Liberals have to figure out how to merge their diversity voice with the larger imperative of representing all of America’s underdogs. These are not mutually exclusive messages.

Democrats can preach all they want on health care and Trump and the environment. But if they don’t correct the larger narrative about who holds power in America — and who’s fighting to equalize that power on behalf of us all — then whatever small and intermittent victories they earn may still leave them short in the larger battle for the hearts and souls of American voters.

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and affiliate professor of history at American University, a CBS News political analyst, author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy (2007) and co-author of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race (2000).

http://billmoyers.com/story/how-did-democrats-become-the-party-of-elites/

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Democratic Primaries in the Shadow of Neoliberalism

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(Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters)

There is an understandable tendency, when in the thick of a long set of presidential primaries, to treat all of them simply as exercises in the choice between individual candidates, and to make them as much about character as about policy. There is also an understandable tendency to assume that what is at stake in these primaries is purely an American matter with entirely domestic roots.

It is much more difficult to place the competing candidates and their differing policy packages on a bigger and a longer map that takes in previous candidates and previous policies. It is also very hard to break out of a purely American focus, and to see what is happening in the United States as part of a more general story.

But it is worth the effort: because by going out to the bigger picture, and then back to the detail of the campaigns, the issues that are actually at stake in those campaigns becomes just a little bit clearer.

I

One way of generating that greater clarity is to place the Democratic Party primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the shadow of something normally labeled “neoliberalism“ — place it in the shadow, that is, of the economic policies and general economic philosophy successfully espoused by Ronald Reagan in the United States and by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Neoliberalism is that economic philosophy that prefers markets to governments as allocators of resources, and prefers individual and private — rather than collective and public — solutions to social problems. For the last three decades, it has been the ruling orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic, but when neoliberalism was first advocated — in the second half of the 1970s — it was not. It marked then a revolutionary break with an earlier orthodoxy: one linked to the writings of John Maynard Keynes and to the politics of the New Deal; one that had markets managed by governments, and had social problems solved by public spending and policy.

The Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal revolution kept Democrats out of the White House, and kept the Labour Party out of power in London, for three whole electoral cycles; and by the end of the third of those, leading politicians in both parties had come to the same view. They had decided that their only way back to power was to meet Reagan- and Thatcher-shaped electorates on neoliberal terms. Under Bill Clinton’s leadership in the United States, and that of Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, each center-left party abandoned their earlier and more progressive sets of policies in favor of an explicit acceptance of, and accommodation with, the major tenets of the new conservative orthodox. They gave up their role as “tax and spend” progressives in favor of “new” positions. They pulled back from active industrial policies that regulated business. They “ended welfare as we know it;” and they even began to call themselves “New/Centrist Democrats” and “New Labour” to make that accommodation to neoliberal principles clear to those who would vote for them.

For Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, being a progressive in the 1990s meant being a more civilized and kind-hearted Reaganite/Thatcherite. It meant taking for granted, and never challenging, very central neoliberal principles and practices that included:

LIST A

• Lower corporate and personal taxation to encourage innovation, enterprise and job creation
• A thinning of the welfare net to avoid welfare dependency and increase the incentive to work
• The deregulation of labor markets by the weakening of trade unions
• The parallel deregulation of the business community, and the celebration of income inequality
• The privatization of publicly-owned industries and companies, and the exposure of public bodies to market forces.

That ‘third way’ acceptance of Reaganite/Thatcherite policies worked for a while. There was great job growth in the United States in the 1990s, and New Labour actually grew the UK economy without a recession from 1997-2007. But then the wheels really came off the neoliberal bus. Lightly regulated financial institutions triggered first a major credit crisis, and then the deepest recession either economy had known since the 1930s. In late 2008 and early 2009, no one was a passionate neoliberal anymore. Keynesian demand management, big injections of public spending, and the tight direction of the banking system — all three were briefly back in vogue. But only briefly. For quite quickly, conservatives in both countries found other explanations for the crisis, and told their electorates that it was the government spending that caused the crisis (and not, as in reality was the case, the other way round). Even moderate Democrats like Barack Obama then found themselves unable to govern across the aisle, because the Republican wing of the political class was in full retreat to even more extreme neoliberal positions again.

II

Two things then happened that frame the choices before us now. On the Democratic side of the aisle here in the United States, both a moderate and a more radical challenge to the earlier neoliberal orthodoxy began to crystalize. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may now personify those different challenges, but they are not their sole architects. On the contrary, across the Democratic coalition as a whole, the last seven years have witnessed the increasing presence in the progressive policy debate of two linked but competing lists of policy preferences. The moderate list includes

LIST B

• The maintenance of demand through public spending and the toleration of public debt
• The avoidance of further financial crisis by tighter financial oversight
• The infrastructure route to growth (public spending to modernize roads, bridges, rail & internet)
• Progressive taxation to reduce excessive inequality and to spread the cost of welfare provision to those best able to bear it
• Greater rights for women and minorities at work, more childcare & paid parental leave
• Moves towards a carbon-free energy policy

The more radical list includes the moderate agenda, but adds some/all of the following

LIST C

• Greater rights for trade unions, and a major hike in both the minimum wage & Social Security
• Systemic attack on the sources of poverty, with affirmative action while poverty persists
• The deconstruction of the system of mass incarceration and the ending of the war on drugs
• New trade policy to reverse the outsourcing of well-paying jobs
• The breaking up of banks that are too big to fail
• Less spending on the military & on foreign wars: more nation-building at home, less abroad

Those lists contain very specific American dimensions (not least the ending of mass incarceration and the winding down of foreign wars). But they are not, in all their essentials, American lists alone. Parallel changes in understanding and policy are in debate and dispute in many western European center-left parties right now. They certainly are in the British Labour Party, where leadership has recently switched to Jeremy Corbyn, in many ways the UK’s Bernie Sanders equivalent. For the post-2008 struggle, in all advanced capitalist economies, to return to generalized prosperity and job security is obliging the center-left everywhere to re-examine the wisdom of its earlier enthusiastic accommodation to neoliberalism. It is that re-examination that lies at the heart of the current clash, in the on-going series of Democratic Party presidential primaries, between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

III

The three policy lists now in play are not the same. Their centers of gravity are different because the analyses underpinning them also differ. And because they are different, and because of the history in which they sit, Hillary Clinton in particular has a double problem with her potential electoral base.

Her first problem is this. When she was the politically active first lady to her husband’s presidency, economic policy under that presidency operated on List A. So one question that Hillary Clinton has to answer now is whether economic policy under a second Clinton presidency (namely hers) will be similar, or will it be different? Her Republican opponents will attempt to tar her with the Bill Clinton brush, pointing to sexual infidelity and possibly financial corruption or worse. Her progressive critics should worry more about the extent to which the current global activities of the Clinton Foundation point to her husband’s on-going commitment to neoliberal principles. Because if he hasn’t made the break, and he remains among her counsellors, how much of a break has she really made, or how much of a break will she be able to sustain?

Then there is the second problem, the really big one: if the answer to the first question is that yes, next time policy will be very different, will it be different by operating on List B (which is basically the blocked economic policy of the Obama presidency), or will it stretch out to encompass some dimensions (or the totality, indeed) of List C, as so many radical supporters of Bernie Sanders now believe to be essential? Just how radicalized has Hillary Clinton become? How much is show, and how much is real?

The great fear, on the left of the Democratic coalition, is that the rupture with the original Clinton list (List A) is still paper thin: and that Hillary Clinton will say radical things (from the other two lists, including List C) simply to win office. Then, when in office, she will go back to List A, triangulating with neoliberal Republicans in the manner of the first Clinton presidency. Reassuring her progressive supporters that she will not do any of this is therefore a vital task for her between now and November, because only if that reassurance is forthcoming — only if the depth of her rupture with her own past is unambiguously clear — will the vast majority of those mobilized by Bernie Sanders act as willing foot-soldiers in the electoral battle to save America from a Trump presidency. And she will need those foot-soldiers.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010. 

 

America is becoming more like the illiberal pseudo-democracies and kleptocracies.

Can American Democracy Survive Against Rising Political Corruption and Privatization?

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In 1932, on the eve of FDR’s presidency, Benito Mussolini proclaimed, “The liberal state is destined to perish.” He added, all too accurately, “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.”

The democracies were doomed, Il Duce declared, because they could not solve crucial problems. Unlike the dictatorships, which were willing to forcefully use a strong state, the democracies could not fix their broken economies. Parliamentary systems were hamstrung politically. The democracies were also war-weary, conflict-averse, and ill-prepared to fight. The fascists, unlike the democracies, had solved the problem of who was part of the community.

Mussolini’s ally, Adolf Hitler, was further contemptuous of “mongrelization” in American democracy. Who was an American? How did immigrants fit in? What about Negroes? The fascist states, by contrast, rallied their citizens to a common vision and a common purpose. Hitler was quite confident that he knew who was a German and who was not. To prove it, he fashioned the Nuremberg laws; he annexed German-speaking regions of his neighbors. As Hitler infamously put it, Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer.

Though he was a buffoonish dictator, Il Duce was not such a bad political scientist. In the 1930s, a lot of liberal democrats wondered the same thing, and for the same reasons. As Ira Katznelson wrote in Fear Itself: “Such beliefs and opinions were not limited to dictators and dictatorships. As Roosevelt prepared to speak [in his first inaugural], skepticism was prevalent about whether representative parliamentary democracies could cope within their liberal constitutional bounds with capitalism’s utter collapse, the manifest military ambitions by the dictatorships, or international politics characterized by ultranationalist territorial demands. Hesitation, alarm, and democratic exhaustion were widespread.”

The democracies did survive, of course, and they flourished. The New Deal got us halfway out of the Great Depression, and the war buildup did the rest. Fascism was defeated, militarily and ideologically. The collapse of Soviet communism took another half-century. Thanks to the wisdom of containment, Stalinism fell of its own weight, as both an economic and political failure.

Not only did the democracies endure—by the 1980s, America had broadened the inclusiveness of its polity. Europe had embarked on a bold experiment toward continental democracy. In the final days of communism, there was triumphalism in the West. Francis Fukuyama even proclaimed, incautiously, in his 1989 essay, “The End of History?” that all societies were necessarily gravitating toward capitalism and democracy, two ideals that were supposedly linked.

***

Today, it is Mussolini’s words that resonate. Once again, the democracies are having grave difficulty pulling their economies out of a prolonged economic slump. Once again, they are suffering from parliamentary deadlock and loss of faith in democratic institutions. The American version reflects a radically obstructionist Republican Party taking advantage of constitutional provisions that Madison (and Obama) imagined as promoting compromise; instead, the result is deadlock. The European variant is enfeebled by the multiple veto points of a flawed European Union unable to pursue anything but crippling austerity. Once again, several anti-liberal alternatives are on the march. “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.”

Take a tour of the horizon. Mussolini would not be surprised. The fastest-growing economy, China’s, is nothing if not anti-liberal, and getting steadily more adroit at suppressing liberal aspirations. The Beijing regime, which has learned the virtues of patience since Tiananmen, waited out the Hong Kong protests and efficiently shut them down. The Hong Kong elections of 2017 will be limited to candidates approved by the communist regime on the mainland. Capitalism was supposed to bring with it democracy and rule of law. But the Chinese have been superbly effective at combining dynamic state-led capitalism with one-party rule.

What unites regimes as dissimilar as Iran, Turkey, Hungary, Egypt, Venezuela, and Russia is that they combine some of the outward forms of democracy with illiberal rule. The press is not truly free, but is mostly a tool of the government. Editors and journalists are in personal danger of disappearing. There are elections, but  the opposition somehow doesn’t get to come to power. Minority religion and ethnic groups are repressed, sometimes subtly, sometimes brutally. Dissidents, even if they break no laws, risk life and limb. The regimes in these nations have varying degrees of corruption between the state and economic oligarchs, which helps keep both in power. In Hungary, a member of the E.U., which is a union of liberal democracies, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has expressly invoked the ideal of an illiberal state. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dramatically increased enrollments in state-supported religious schools and automatically assigned some children to them, against the wishes of their secular parents.

Turkey is a stalwart member of NATO. Elsewhere in the Middle East, our closest allies don’t even go through the motions of democracy; they are proud monarchies. Israel, our most intimate friend in the region, is becoming less of a democracy almost daily. Israelis are seriously debating whether to formally sacrifice elements of democracy for Jewish identity. And this tally doesn’t even include the flagrant tyrannies such as the insurgency that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIL. All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.

Ironically, some liberals are pinning great hopes on recent stirrings in a venerable institution of hierarchy, autocracy, secrecy, and privilege that has been the antithesis of liberal for nearly two millennia—the Catholic Church, now under a reformist pope. One has to wish Francis well and hope that his new openness extends to the entire institution, but these reforms are fragile. It has been a few centuries since the Church murdered its rivals, but in my lifetime the Church was very cozy with fascists.

One of the great inventions of liberal democracy was the concept of a loyal opposition. You could oppose the government without being considered treasonous. A leader, conversely, could be tossed out of office by the electorate without fearing imprisonment or execution by successors. In much of the world, this ideal now seems almost quaint, and certainly imprudent. A corrupt or dictatorial regime has much to fear from displacement, including jail and even death at the hands of an opposition in power.

There are a few bright spots. Some of Africa has managed to have roughly free and fair elections. South Africa’s young democracy is fragile, but seems to be holding. Some of the Pacific Rim is moving in the direction of genuine democracy. Many former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe are functioning democracies, even liberal ones. And democratic aspiration is far from dead, as events in Ukraine show. Latin America has more democratically elected governments than it has had in a generation, but it also has several nominal democracies that are illiberal, or prone to coups, or simply corrupt. Mexico, our close NAFTA partner, epitomizes illiberal democracy.

***

But it is the democratic heartland, Europe and North America, that presents the most cause for dismay. Rather than the United States serving as a beacon to inspire repressed peoples seeking true liberal democracy, America is becoming more like the illiberal pseudo-democracies and kleptocracies. A dispassionate review of what is occurring in our own country has to include deliberate suppression of the right to vote; ever more cynical manipulation of voting districts in the nation that invented gerrymandering; the deepening displacement of citizenship with money and rise of plutocracy; the corruption of the regulatory process; a steep decline in public confidence in government and in democracy itself; and a concomitant doubt that democratic participation is worth the trouble. In my piece in this issue’s special report, I address some of these questions in the context of markets versus government, but the challenge goes much deeper.

Obstruction feeds public cynicism about government. Though the mischief and refusal to compromise are mostly one-sided—it is hard to recall a Democratic president more genuinely eager to accommodate the opposition than Barack Obama—the resulting deadlock erodes confidence in democracy and government in general. Why can’t these people just get along and work for the common good? Democrats, as the party that believes in government, take the blame more than Republicans. Government’s failure to address festering, complex problems feeds the dynamic.

This is all the more alarming because the challenges ahead will require strong government and above all legitimate government. At best, global climate change and sea level rise will require public coordination and some personal dislocation. Transition to a sustainable economy demands far more intensive public measures, as well as public trust in the hope that changes in old habits of carbon energy use need not result in reduced living standards. The risk of epidemics such as Ebola will require more effective government to coordinate responses that the private sector can’t manage. The popular frustration with flat or declining earnings for all but the top demands more government intervention. Weak government can’t accomplish any of this. Mussolini’s taunt burns: The liberal democracies are incapable of solving national problems.

A generation ago, political scientists coined a useful phrase—strong democracy. The Prospect published some pieces making this case, by authors like Benjamin Barber. Others, such as Jane Mansbridge and James Fishkin, writing in the same spirit, called for more participatory democracy. The common theme was that democracy needed to be re-energized, with more citizen involvement, more direct deliberation. What has happened is the reverse. The combination of economic stresses, the allure of other entertainments, the rise of the Internet as a venue for more social interchange but less civic renewal, has left democracy weaker when it needs to be stronger.

The other contention of the fascists—that the democracies had trouble with the vexing questions of community and membership—was never more of a challenge. In Europe, the poisonous mix of high unemployment, anxiety about terrorism, and influx of refugees and immigrants is feeding a vicious nationalist backlash and nurturing the far right. At home, the failure to normalize the status of an estimated 12 million immigrants lacking proper documents deprives large numbers of residents of normal rights and stokes nativism. Assaults on voting rights even for citizens, coupled with physical assaults by police, make African Americans less than full members of the democracy, despite the civil rights revolution of half a century ago.

Mussolini’s other taunt was that the liberal democracies were too divided and war-weary to fight. When Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in March 1936, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, the democracies did nothing. They dithered right up until Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. As late as 1940, Roosevelt was more eager to keep America out of another European war than to help the British make a stand against the Nazis.

The military challenge today is more complex. America in this century has vacillated between grandiosity and timidity. It fought the wrong war in Iraq, and then may have pulled out prematurely. The administration has been weak and divided in its policies toward Syria and ISIL. To some extent this is understandable; these are hydra-headed threats, with no easy solutions. If President Obama is ambivalent, the public is even more so. Yet the greatest military threats to American democracy are not the risks of invasion or terrorist assault, but what we are doing to ourselves. The Obama administration, like that of George W. Bush, has been all too willing to subordinate liberty to security, secrecy, and autocracy, even in cases where these objectives are not in direct contention.

The risk is not that American democracy will abruptly “perish,” but that it will be slowly denuded of its vital content. If we are to reverse the appeal of anti-liberal society globally, we have to repair our democracy at home. The challenge is multifaceted, and will take time. It should be the great project of the next president and the ongoing work of the citizenry.

Robert Kuttner is the former co-editor of the American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is “Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/can-american-democracy-survive-against-rising-political-corruption-and?akid=12900.265072.Crh72K&rd=1&src=newsletter1033428&t=11

Democrats vs. the New Deal: The party is now firmly anti-New Deal

Who really runs the party — and why it might surprise you

Democrats vs. the New Deal: Who <em>really</em> runs the party -- and why it might surprise you

In the aftermath of the shellacking they took in the midterm congressional and state elections, many Democrats are calling for their party to return to its New Deal roots.

This is inadvertently comical.  The present-day Democratic Party has next to nothing to do with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  Today’s Democratic Party is a completely different party, which coalesced between 1968 and 1980.  And this half-century-old party has been anti-New Deal from the very beginning.

Now that I have your attention, allow me to explain.

While there have been two parties called “the Democrats” and “the Republicans” since the mid-19th century, these enduring labels mask the fact that party coalitions change every generation or two.  Franklin Roosevelt created a new party under the old name of “the Democrats” by welding ex-Republican Progressives in the North together with the old Jacksonian Farmer-Labor coalition.  The contentious issue of civil rights nearly destroyed the Roosevelt Democrats in 1948 — and finally wrecked it in 1968, when George Wallace’s third party campaign proved to be a way-station for many working-class whites en route from the Democrats to the Republicans.

Today’s Democratic Party, in contrast, took shape between 1968 and 1980.  Although George McGovern lost the 1972 presidential race to Richard Nixon in a landslide, the McGovernites of the “New Politics” movement wrested control of the Democratic Party from the old state politicians and urban bosses of the Roosevelt-to-Johnson New Deal coalition.  Robert Kennedy’s aide Fred Dutton, one of the architects of the disempowerment of the old New Deal elite, called for a new coalition of young people, college-educated suburbanites and minorities in his 1971 book “Changing Sources of Power: Politics in the 1970s.”  Sound familiar?  That’s because, nearly half a century later, the same groups are the core constituents of today’s Democrats.

Jimmy Carter was the first New Politics president (or New Democrat or neoliberal, as they were later called).  He was a center-right Southern governor who ran against big government and touted his credentials as a rich businessman.  He did not get along with organized labor, one of the key constituencies of the Roosevelt Democrats.  His major domestic policy achievement was dismantling New Deal regulation of transportation like trucking and air travel.  He appointed a Federal Reserve chairman from Wall Street, Paul Volcker, who created an artificial recession, the worst between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, to cripple American unions, whose wage demands were blamed for inflation.



Even before Carter’s election, the Democratic “class of ’74” in Congress wrested power from the old largely Southern politicians of the New Deal era. The  northern Irish Catholic-Southern alliance, symbolized by House Speakers Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright, gave way among congressional Democrats to a new Northeastern-West Coast domination, beginning with Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, of the state of Washington.  Many of these younger Democrats were deficit hawks, like Bill Bradley of New York and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.  Democrats like these supported the 1983 Social Security “reform,” which cut Social Security benefits by raising the formal retirement age from 65 to 67.  In his 1984 presidential campaign, Carter’s former vice-president, Fritz Mondale, made deficit reduction his central issue.

Bill Clinton had worked for McGovern’s campaign in 1972.  A center-right Southern governor like Carter, he too combined moderate economic conservatism with social liberalism.  Like Carter, Clinton attacked a major New Deal program, teaming up with the Republicans in Congress to abolish a New Deal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and replacing it with what conservatives wanted: federal grants to state-based programs.  Clinton made deficit reduction rather than public investment central to his presidency. Clinton also supported the dismantling of New Deal regulations of the financial sector, completing the dismantling of the New Deal in the economy that Carter had begun.  In the 1994 midterms, many of the remaining Southern “blue dog” Democrats were replaced by Republicans, shifting the regional base of the party even more to the former liberal Republican states of the Northeast and West Coast.

Barack Obama is the third New Politics Democrat in the White House, following Carter and Clinton.  His base is the Fred Dutton constituency — young people, some college-educated whites, and blacks and Latinos.  Like Carter and Clinton, he went after a major New Deal program — the most iconic of them all, Social Security.  Obama proposed cutting Social Security by means of inflation adjustments or “chained CPI” as part of a “grand  bargain” with Republican conservatives.  He backed off only after a rebellion from what remains of the Democratic left.  Those who call him an “Eisenhower Democrat” recognize that he is closer in outlook to penny-pinching, dovish mid-20th century liberal Republicanism than to “guns and butter” Rooseveltian liberalism.

The New Politics Democrats, in class terms, are an “hourglass party,” uniting the disproportionately nonwhite working poor with affluent whites who are drawn to the Democrats by non-economic issues like environmentalism and feminism and gay rights, not the bread-and-butter issues of the older Rooseveltian New Dealers.  While the New Dealers preferred universal jobs programs and universal social programs like Social Security and Medicare to means-tested “welfare,” all of the social insurance programs pushed by the New Politics Democrats since the 1970s — SCHIP, the earned income tax credit, Obamacare — have been means-tested welfare programs targeted at the working poor, not at the better-paid but still struggling working class or middle class.

The policies of the New Politics Democrats are frequently the exact opposite of those of the old New Deal Democrats.  Here are a few examples:

Foreign policy.  The New Deal Democrats were more hawkish than mid-century Republicans. New Politics Democrats, from McGovern to the present, have been more dovish than post-Reagan Republicans.  Even the hawks in the Democratic Party in the 1980s and 1990s distanced themselves from the greatest New Deal presidents — FDR and his protégé LBJ.  Instead, they tried to rehabilitate Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman.  Because of Vietnam, the erasure of LBJ by embittered antiwar baby boomers is understandable.  But didn’t FDR win World War II, while Truman’s Korean policy was a bloody debacle?  It is bizarre that partisan Democrats created the Truman National Security Project instead of a Roosevelt National Security Project.

Civil rights.  The liberal rather than radical proponents of desegregation in the mid-20th century, like Bayard Rustin and Hubert Humphrey, favored race-neutral remedies, instead of race-based affirmative action (Martin Luther King Jr. was ambiguous).  Today any Democrat who questioned race-based affirmative action — including preferential policies for Latinos who arrived following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — would be ostracized.

Immigration.  To protect the working class from wage-lowering immigrant competition, the New Deal Democrats abolished the Bracero program (a Mexican guest-worker program).  The Hesburgh and Jordan commissions, appointed by President Carter and President Clinton, respectively, reflected this older pro-labor emphasis by calling for reductions in low-wage immigration.  Today’s orthodox Democratic position favors not only an amnesty for undocumented immigrants already here, but also more legal immigration and fewer penalties for “illegal” immigration.  This was, and still is, the position of Republican business elites, who want to use immigration policy to create a buyer’s market in labor.

The white working class.  The loss of the white working class to the Democrats is hardly a new development. It goes back to George Wallace in 1968. Every decade since then there has been a debate in the New Politics party about whether to try to get the white working class back.

You get the point. Today’s Democrats have no more in common with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson than today’s Republicans have in common with Abraham Lincoln or Dwight Eisenhower.  From its origins in the 1970s to the present, the contemporary Democratic Party has had deficit reduction, cutbacks of New Deal-era entitlements and regulations and identity politics in its DNA. This is a party that is not only post-New Deal but in many ways anti-New Deal. It was born that way.

If I am right, the New Politics party, as the most recent party to use the Democratic label, is between 40 and 50 years old.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the steam had pretty much gone out of the New Deal Democrats, many of whose young idealists had aged into corrupt hacks. Today it is the New Politics Democrats who are running on fumes.  The neoliberal combination of center-right economics, deficit reduction at the expense of middle-class entitlements, and means-tested small-bore welfare programs for the working poor is tired and uninspiring.

For their part, the Republicans can’t go on for much longer trying to revive the imagined glories of the Reagan presidency in the 1980s.

Real change may not come in 2016, or even in 2020.  But no party system lasts forever. The Great Recession failed to shake up the New Politics-Movement Conservative dichotomy that has held since the 1980s. But maybe at some point sheer boredom will succeed.

“The Roosevelts”: Ken Burns’ economics lesson for America

The new PBS documentary examines how New Nationalism and the New Deal saved the country from capitalism’s excesses

, Next New Deal

"The Roosevelts": Ken Burns' economics lesson for America
Scene still from “The Roosevelts”(Credit: PBS)
This originally appeared on Next New Deal.

Next New Deal Ken Burns’s superb documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is in many ways a celebration of leadership, of the triumph of personal will over adversity, and of the belief in the age-old American story that each of us – no matter how burdened by life’s tragedies – has the capacity to accomplish great things.

The film also has much to say about the transformative nature of government: the idea, which all three Roosevelts shared, that it was the responsibility of government to serve as the primary guarantor of social and economic justice for all Americans – not just the privileged few at the top. It was this belief that formed the basis of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and this belief that helped inspire Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was ratified by the United Nations just three years after its 1945 founding.

What is often overlooked in this story is the role that all three of these remarkable leaders played in helping to preserve the American free enterprise system, of trying to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism, not only out of a desire to protect the American people from exploitative labor practices or fraudulent financial dealings, but also out of a desire to protect our very way of life during an era when liberal capitalist democracy was under siege in much of the rest of the world. As the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., once remarked, the twentieth century in many respects can be viewed as a struggle of ideologies, a time in which the anti-democratic forces of fascism and totalitarian communism were on the march, so that by January 1942 at the height of the Second World War, there were only a handful of democracies left on the planet.



In the rhetorically charged atmosphere of the mid 1930s, FDR’s critics alleged that the reforms he instigated under the New Deal were designed to take the country down the path to socialism. But nothing could be further from the truth. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and granting labor the right to organize were all inspired by the desire to provide the average American with a basic degree of economic security within the capitalist system. So too were the many financial reforms that brought us the likes of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The same argument could be made about Theodore Roosevelt, whose decision to take on such conglomerates as the Beef Trust or the Northern Securities Rail Company was driven by the desire not to destroy big business but to limit monopoly and restore the cut and thrust of the free market. In short, both men were motivated by the idea that the federal government had a responsibility to make capitalism work for the average American.

Eleanor Roosevelt concurred with these ideas, and in spite of her reputation as a left-leaning reformer, spent much of her considerable energy in the post-1945 world arguing in favor of the World War II monetary and trade reforms that helped launch the globalization of the world’s economy. In her May 21, 1945 “My Day” column, for example, ER spoke out in favor of the 1944 Bretton Woods accords which established the International Monetary Fund and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, later the World Bank. Here, she argued in favor of the stabilization of currencies, because in the past there had been much speculative trading in this area, which resulted in “economic warfare” that in time brings us to “shooting warfare.” And she had this to say about the establishment of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development:

Some foolish people will ask: Why do we have to concern ourselves with the development and reconstruction of the ruined countries? The answer is simple. We are the greatest producing country in the world. We need markets not only at home, but abroad, and we cannot have them unless people can start up their industries and national economy again and buy from us. If Europe or Asia falls apart because of starvation or lack of work for their people, chaos will result and World War III will be in the making. In that event, we know that we will have to be a part of it.

Hence, ER insisted that we needed “both the bank and the fund for our own security, as well as for that of the rest of the world.” She then urged her readers to write to their Senators and Congressmen in support of the treaty, for as she so eloquently put it:

Whether you are a farmer or a merchant, whether your business is big or little, you are personally affected by it. Even if you don’t sell directly to a foreign country, you are indirectly affected – for the prosperity of the[foreign] country means your prosperity, and we cannot prosper without trade with our neighbors in the world of tomorrow.

As is so often the case, when we look back we see that the challenges of the past are not that different from the challenges we face today. Once again we face a world where the free-market system is in desperate need of reform; a world where income inequality has reached levels not seen since the gilded age; a world where the specter of long-term unemployment and limited opportunity has dimmed the hopes of an entire generation; a world where poverty and a lack of opportunity have given rise to anti-democratic extremists that threaten the very lives and well-being of millions. Yet sadly, and unlike the heady days of the first six decades of the twentieth century, our leaders in Washington seem incapable or unwilling to shape a response to these many challenges befitting the legacy of such great political figures as Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

A great deal of this can be attributed to the irresponsible behavior of many members of Congress, particularly among the members of the extreme right, whose obstructionist policies and rigid anti-government ideology have played a significant part in rendering the 113th Congress one of the least effective and least respected in American history.

But we should also never forget – as Ken Burns and his outstanding script writer Geoffrey Ward have reminded us through this outstanding film – that we too must share part of the blame. For as much as we may admire the leadership of the Roosevelts, none of their accomplishments would have been possible without the support of the American people. Leadership, after all, is a dynamic process that requires the cooperation of the both public figures and the public, and if we are living in an age that seems incapable of producing transformative government, we need to recognize that in a democracy it is the people who bear the final responsibility for their fate.

Franklin Roosevelt perhaps put it best when he urged the American people to recognize that “government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and Government officials but the voters of this country.”

 

 http://www.salon.com/2014/09/27/the_roosevelts_ken_burns_economics_lesson_for_america_partner/?source=newsletter

“GRAPES OF WRATH” AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

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In a Labor Day weekend mood, I watched “Grapes of Wrath” again this evening.  Labor Day is, after all, a celebration of the American labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers.  “Grapes of Wrath” portrays familiar themes in the American worker experience:  be it displaced farmers from Oklahoma to baristas and Twitter people with degrees, there is a continual struggle between workers and those with wealth desiring cheap, easily manipulated, labor.

The wealthy pretty much got their way in the States until the Depression (rich people gambling to get richer) fueled the re- balancing of the worker/owner relationship — more in favor of the worker– under FDR, and his New Deal.  This balance, which was great for the overall health of the country, continued through LBJ and the Great Society.  Now things are going the other way, with the wealthy neoliberal controller classes producing a political and economic system that assures their success no matter which of the two political parties wins.  Reagan, Clinton, Bush and now Obama dismantled the Great Society, fought to break the worker unions, and deregulated banking and other entities once deemed “public trusts.”  The resultant series of economic crises and bursting bubbles destroyed the working and middle classes and threatens to remove whats left of the social safety nets.

Tom Joad’s famous final speech (excerpts below) to his Ma in the movie “Grapes of Wrath” powerfully expressed the thoughts and yearnings of the Depression-period worker and resonates with the increasingly disenfranchised workers of today.  The American revolutionary, Tom Joad, espousing collective action that creates change, is a familiar subplot in the American drama.  What distresses me about this speech is Tom’s dream to spread wealth more justly “…if all our folks got together and yelled…”.  In this 21st century people yell for a few months (Occupy) and the illusion and control by the owners returns.  In the age of the “meh generation” and Ayn Rand the notion of a collective soul is anathema.

 

Tom Joad: I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…

Ma Joad: Tommy, you’re not aimin’ to kill nobody.

Tom Joad: No, Ma, not that. That ain’t it. It’s just, well as long as I’m an outlaw anyways… maybe I can do somethin’… maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if they ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear, Ma. I can’t. I don’t know enough.

Ma Joad: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?

Tom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

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The Roots of the Tea Party

 

A Texan farmer on relief in Goodliet, Hardeman County, who was ‘tractored out’ in late 1937. (Photo by Dorothea Lange/ U.S. Library of Congress)

How conservatives came to dominate U.S. politics.

BY Melvyn Dubofsky

This two-sided state, a state characterized by democratic advantages yet marked by antidemocratic pathologies, continues to constitute the world Americans inhabit. This, ultimately, is the legacy of the New Deal’s Southern cage.

Only by understanding the sources of conservative political power can we hope to advance progressive interests. Two recent books by two distinguished scholars seek to illuminate the topic—that is, to explain the failures of the liberal-labor alliance during and after the New Deal, and the persistent power of conservative, even reactionary, forces. For sociologist G. William Domhoff, author of The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy: Corporate Dominance from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, the culprit was, and is, big business. For historian-cumpolitical scientist Ira Katznelson, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, the key factor was, and is, the power wielded in Congress by Southern representatives.

Domhoff sets out to destroy a myth he believes historians have created: that a liberal-labor alliance dominated domestic policy-making for a four-decade stretch, during the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. As Domhoff tells it, while the early New Deal years may have offered brighter prospects for the liberal-labor coalition than subsequent years, even then corporate leaders from such companies as GE, U.S. Steel and Eastman Kodak greatly influenced policy-making. During World War II, they formed the Committee for Economic Development (CED), which Domhoff says dominated economic policy formation until the early 1970s, after which corporate liberals allied with reactionary executives of the later CEO cabal, the Business Roundtable, to promote neoliberalism. He maintains that before the switch to more reactionary policies, the moderate corporate executives shaped Social Security, labor policy, industrial relations, monetary and fiscal policy (forms of conservative Keynesianism), environmental protection (the EPA under Nixon), occupational safety (OSHA) and, of course, economic deregulation to their own advantage— while gaining the consent of those they dominated.

Domhoff may think that he is telling a new story that shreds governing myths, but for two decades historians have been telling the same story—a tale of an America turning increasingly conservative after the “Roosevelt revolution”—without relying upon the hidden hand of the CED. Domhoff hammers on this single note without sufficient recognition of the liberals and labor advocates who shaped the most lasting reforms of the New Deal.

Katznelson’s text covers a shorter span of time, 1933 to 1953, but on a far more sweeping canvas. If he does not uncover a notably different New Deal, his analysis of its guiding forces is more convincing. He uses a wider geographic lens than Domhoff, seeing the United States embedded in a larger world that influenced the making of New Deal policy. His primary organizing principle is the era’s overwhelming sense of dread or fear, precipitated first by the Great Depression, heightened by the butchery of World War II and intensified by the nuclear clouds that hung over humankind in the aftermath of Hiroshima. Though Franklin Roosevelt counseled citizens to stow away their fears in 1933, Katznelson says that such advice was impossible to follow in a world of economic misery, total war and potential thermonuclearannihilation. For him, fear played a greater role than the CED in shaping New Deal America, causing citizens and leaders to seek ever greater security at home and abroad.

Overall, however, Katznelson laudsthe New Deal as a uniquely U.S. response to the collapse of capitalism. He describes how the United States regulated capitalism by creating a more centralized and powerful government, empowering working people through the validation of mass industrial unions, and defending—and even advancing—basic democratic political principles.

In Katznelson’s version of New Deal history, Southern power in Congress regulated the flow of legislation and determined the limits of reform. Southerners formed a vital bloc of Democratic legislators and chaired key committees in both houses of Congress.

Early in the New Deal, the South— which was the nation’s poorest region even before the Depression worsened its misery—embraced New Deal financial largesse, welcoming agricultural subsidies and public works programs as godsends, especially the Tennessee Valley Authority’s promise of cheap power and rural electrification. The region’s New Deal gains were so great that Southern legislators even tolerated federal sanction for unions and collective bargaining, so long as they could ensure that most New Deal programs were administered locally.

Southern support, however, depended on excluding from New Deal protections the African-American agricultural and domestic workers who formed the bulk of the Southern labor force, thus leaving the Southern racial order untouched. The moment that the New Deal threatened to upset the Southern “way of life” and its labor market, as when the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act in 1937 and Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, Southern Congress members rebelled and formed an alliance with Northern Republicans that set firm limits to further national reform. Beginning in 1938, a conservative congressional coalition controlled the legislative process.

The conservative alliance proved imperfect, however, because the South remained poor and rural. Hence, Southern Democrats supported another round of agricultural subsidies under Truman’s Fair Deal, as well as infrastructure expenditures and federal support for housing and public health (unlike their Republican allies, who preferred a parsimonious government based on low taxes and minimal spending). Though eventually Southern legislators shifted from the Democratic to the Republican Party, this vexed dynamic still persists, or in Katznelson’s words:

This two-sided state, a state characterized by democratic advantages yet marked by antidemocratic pathologies, continues to constitute the world Americans inhabit. This, ultimately, is the legacy of the New Deal’s Southern cage.

Today that cage is even tighter, as Southern legislators continue to dominate Congress, and as Republicans, rather than Democrats, prefer limited government, low taxes, parsimonious expenditure, weak or absent unions, and a racially segmented, lowwage labor force. Southern conservatives— not sophisticated corporate executives linked to the CED—have called the tune in national politics,and continue to do so. The Tea Party’s agenda may be partly funded by the antediluvian Koch brothers, the antithesis of corporate liberals, but its mass participants dance to tunes first played by the Southern Democratic lawmakers.

Melvyn Dubofsky is a Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology Emeritus at Binghamton University, SUNY, and the author/editor of numerous books, essays, and reviews in working-class and modern U.S. history. He is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors.