Monday, May 28, 2012

The Democrats abandon progressive economics

Reader someofparts sent me this link in response to a post containing a video of Paul Krugman claiming that Mitt Romney's career at Bain Capital is fair game for criticism.  It addresses the question I have been struggling with for most of my adult life, "Why did the Democratic Party abandon its economic roots and become a party of cultural identity?"   

Understand, some of the cultural issues that have so consumed the Democratic Party since 1973 have been perfectly valid.  I am NOT saying that gays shouldn't be supported in their struggle to live a normal life or that women shouldn't have legal guarantees for reproductive choice.  But whether unintended or not, these issues have crowded out the economic issues that affect everyone.  Gay adoption affects 3% of the population at most.  The current economic calamity affects (as #OWS reminds us) 99%.

For those who believe the move of the "left" from street battles over pay and working conditions to conferences on political correctness was anything but an accident, here is a thumbnail of how it looked to me as it happened.

I graduated from high school in 1967.  I had been very sheltered from the outside world—no television until I was a sophomore, no movies before I was a senior, and no pop culture on the radio (although I had built a five-tube radio in seventh grade that pulled in all the clear-channel stations between the Rockies and the Appalachians from dusk until dawn so that prohibition wasn't air-tight.) So when I got to University of Minnesota in the Fall of 1967, everyone was more clued-in than I was.  As a result, my university days were an ongoing low-grade cultural anthropology investigation.  Because, even though I had been sheltered from the currents of big USA pop culture, I HAD been given an alternative culture that was interesting and complex from which to form a basis of comparison.

For example, even though my father was a real Bible-thumper when it came to the theological tenants of the Lutheran Church in North America, he was also an thorough-going FDR Democrat.  He was such a believer in cooperatives that he would say "Jesus was the first cooperator" given the appropriate provocation.  Most of this was pragmatic.  Small-town preachers in those days were also small-scale social-welfare agencies.  After all, someone had to look after the interests of the widows and orphans and so my dad drove them to doctor's appointments etc.  We had a steady stream of the orphans over to eat and to spend other occasions like Christmas.  But we were barely making it ourselves—small-town preachers are NOT overpaid!  So no matter our family's commitment to the unfortunate, we could not support them.  So my father was a New Deal Democrat because of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) as much as anything.  I am glad he died before he could see Bill Clinton end the program in 1996—because that treachery would have killed him anyway.

If this experience had not been unique or impressive enough, my father in a fit of ecumenicism sent us kids to a Mennonite-run Christian Day School in town.  Try to imagine growing up during the insane militarism of the Cold War while being educated by people who had been pacifists since 1534.  I lived on a street with a church formed by Mennonite young men who went off to World War II and were NOT welcomed back to their home churches when it was over.  Mennonites believed you put your energy into assisting the victims of war so my neighborhood housed several displaced persons—including two amazingly damaged German women who had survived multiple rapes when the Red Army came through on their way to Berlin.  One of them had a daughter by that rape who would occasionally wake the neighborhood with her nightmare-induced screams.

So I may have been a hick who had never heard of Elvis, but I went to college "knowing" three things—the Democratic Party existed to better the economic circumstances of the poor, war was a terrible, hideous, unbelievably ghastly thing that all moral and sane people opposed, and that the only completely honest occupation was farming—for farmers, honestly isn't a moral option but rather a survival mechanism.  Imagine my surprise to discover Cold War "liberal" professors who took money to help design the Phoenix Program or taught that farmers were the bad guys.  But nothing shocked me as much as discovering as early as 1970 that "my" Democratic Farmer Labor Party was in the process of abandoning its commitment to economic justice in favor of cultural issues.  This one snuck up on me because stopping the war in Vietnam seemed more important than Medicare or the minimum wage.  But I thought that we would first stop the war and THEN go back to economics.  Well if Bain Capital-defending Cory Booker is any indication, the Democratic Party still has no intention of going back to defending the economic interests of the HUGE majority of the citizens of the country.  Our party got lost on THE big issue and even though the country is desperately hoping we can find our way again, being lost seems now to be the default position.

The question is, HOW could this happen?  How did the so-called American left just walk away from victories that had cost so much time and blood?

Explanation #1.  The Theory of the Leisure Class.  One of the most universal human phenomena is the cultural degeneracy that comes with becoming rich.  Suddenly, work itself becomes disreputable.  This does not usually happen to the person who actually does something useful to get rich—but it almost always happens to his children.  Anyone who reads the story of the Ford fortune is struck by the amazing gulf between Henry, who glorified practical work as he perfected transportation for his practical farmer customers, and Edsel his son who was thoroughly embarrassed by his dad's cars and wanted to build something more stylish for his friends from college.  Henry finally bought Lincoln so Edsel wouldn't have to mumble when his useless friends asked him what he did.  One of the things that happened to USA society post WW II was that blue-collar workers could send their children to college where they learned the arts of snobbery.  USA became a nation of kids who were rich by ANY historical definition of the term—except for having servants.  They might not have been able to command a team of strong men to carry them around in sedan chairs, but a Boss 302 Mustang was a FAR more interesting alternative in any case.  And the guy who installed air conditioners could afford one.  Everyone got rich so everyone started acting like the most ridiculous examples in Veblen's classic.  The culture had "industrialized" status emulation.

Explanation #2.  The Frankfurt School.  Economic Marxism barely made a dent in the USA Zeitgeist for a wide assortment of reasons.  But one of the lessons the Marxists learned in the failed revolutions (Germany, Hungary, etc) that followed the successful one in Russia (1917) was that even though they claimed to represent the interests of worker and peasants, most of the workers and peasants wanted nothing to do with them.  So in 1923 a group of banker's-kid Marxists, who formed a particularly noxious Leisure Class subset of the movement, founded the Institute of Social Research (later known as the Frankfurt School) which wanted to solve the "problem" of worker disinterest in Marxist teaching.  They had come to the conclusion that religion and other cultural artifacts prevented worker enlightenment so needed to be destroyed.  One of its founders, George Lukacs, stated its purpose as answering the question, “Who shall save us from Western Civilisation?” The Frankfurt School gained influence in American universities after many of it founders fled the Nazis in the 1930s.  I am pretty certain that no Frankfurt School refugees made it to the University of Minnesota but I still felt their influence.  I got to know about Marcuse because he was a self-appointed advisor to the anti-Vietnam War movement and I was assigned to read Charles Reich's The Greening of America for a political science class.  Ideas are important, so even though it is relatively easy to dismiss the Frankfurt School refugees as an unimportant fringe element, they certainly DID influence the cultural debate.  Their most important idea was called Critical Theory which contained the main elements of "political correctness" including “authority theory,” “matriarchal theory,” “androgyny theory,” “personality theory,” “family theory,” “sexuality theory,” “racial theory,” “legal theory,” and “literary theory.” The influence of these can now be seen all over the place.  I once had a neighbor who believed in androgyny theory so completely that she told me that if women were given equal training and opportunity, they could do any job a man did—INCLUDING playing middle linebacker in professional football (I asked).  So even people who never heard of the Frankfurt School probably wound up believing some of their ideas.

Explanation #3.  The "hard hat riot."  On May 8, 1970, 200 construction workers under the direction of the AFL-CIO beat up on a bunch of kids protesting the Vietnam War / Kent State / Invasion of Cambodia.  I remember being personally horrified by this turn of events.  As someone who had earned much of the money necessary for college by working construction, I could easily see both sides of this conflict and I knew it would get VERY ugly.  And it did.  By the time I left UM in 1974, I must have heard "construction workers" used as a synonym for ignorant fools a hundred times and by 1980, blue-collar Producing Class Democrats put Ronald Reagan into the White House.

Explanation #4.  The Arab Oil embargo.  Cheap oil powered the Producing Class prosperity of post-war USA and in 1973, that lovely era came to an abrupt end when OPEC stopped shipping oil to the West.  All the prosperity that came from having hundreds of mechanical slaves and horses just lost its main reason for existence.  Check any chart out there and you will see that general living standards stopped rising that autumn.  And when the cheap oil ended, so did a lot of other things including the influence of the counter-culture.  Music, that had become so socially aware that a TV rock band called the Monkees sang about status emulation (Another Pleasant Valley Sunday), began its long slide into cultural irrelevance.  Soon, we were supposed to like disco.

I wrote about the actual events of the great decline that happened after the Democrats quit defending the Producing Classes.  You can find it here.

Liberalism without labor unions?

Hey Democrats: Can liberal interest groups and social elites really form the basis of a successful political party?

Can there be liberalism without labor? Can a progressive movement exist in a country in which organized labor has lost its political influence? My friend Mark Schmitt, the executive editor of the American Prospect, asks that question:
The new progressive coalition follows the lines of the “emerging Democratic majority” that Ruy Teixeira and John Judis predicted in their 2002 book of that name: minority, professional, and younger voters, with help from a large gender gap. This is a coalition that can win without a majority of white working-class voters, whether union members or not … But it’s also dangerous. A political coalition that doesn’t need Joe the – fake – Plumber (John McCain’s mascot of the white working class) can also afford to ignore the real Joes, Josés, and Josephines of the working middle class, the ones who earn $16 an hour, not $250,000 a year. It can afford to be unconcerned about the collapse of manufacturing jobs, casually reassuring us that more education is the answer to all economic woes. A party of professionals and young voters risks becoming a party that overlooks the core economic crisis – not the recession but the 40-year crisis – that is wiping out the American dream for millions of workers and communities that are never going to become meccas for foodies and Web designers.
Looking back, we can see that the history of American liberalism since the Depression falls into two periods: the New Deal up until the 1970s, when industrial labor provided the muscle of the reform coalition, and the neoliberal period, when unions have been eclipsed in the alliance by the black civil rights movement and other social movements: consumerism, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights. Necessary and important as they are, there are two problems with these liberal social movements as the base of a progressive party.

First, unlike unions, they are not membership organizations funded by dues from their members. They are mostly AstroTurf movements that depend on their funding and strategic direction on a handful of progressive foundations, and their leaders are appointed by donors and board members, not elected by followers. The work they do is valuable, but they cannot be substitutes for genuinely popular organizations.

Second, the members of most of these nonprofit movements are drawn disproportionately from the white college-educated professional class; their self-assignment to one or another single-issue movement does not disguise the fact that they tend to belong to the same social elite. Like the progressivism of the 1900s, but unlike the labor movement and agrarian populism, the progressivism of the 2000s is a movement of haves motivated by pity for the have-littles and have-nots, rather than a movement of have-littles and have-nots motivated by self-interest. And because they are, or believe themselves to be, motivated by philanthropy, the progressive haves are less interested in the economic struggles of the have-littles of the broad working class than in rescuing a far smaller number of have-nots from dire poverty. And even those elite progressives who are concerned about the working class are motivated by noblesse oblige: “We’re from Washington, and we’re here to help!”

Is the future of American liberalism a politics of charity rather than a politics of solidarity? In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder whether the relatively brief influence of labor unions in the Democratic Party in the mid-20th century was not an exception to the rule of elitism in American politics. You can write a narrative of American history in which, first, agrarian populism and 19th-century labor movements are crushed by repression and bloodshed by the 1900s. Then organized labor, after a brief, unforeseen period of influence from the 1930s to the 1960s, is crushed a second time by neoliberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, leaving an America in which the only significant conflicts are those within the economic elite. In such a political order, the only left that counts will be the left based on money rather than votes or members. Progressivism becomes a movement of the privileged and charitable who are interested in doing good to other Americans rather than with other Americans.

In such a system, it is hard to speak of a politics of the left at all, inasmuch as politics is a matter of popular participation. To be sure, before elections various non-elite groups must be mobilized to vote for the reformist party. But between elections, there is no need to consult the majority, although pollsters may take its temperature now and then. There is no need to for consultation because public policy is something that should be devised by experts, many of them in interest-group organizations, who study issues, come to their conclusions and propose plans. Why involve the public in devising the plans? Why even explain the plans? It’s easier for the experts simply to work with the elected representatives, who can then hire other experts – consultants – to learn how to sell the policies to voters. And if the elected representatives fail in their task of winning a legislative majority and passing legislation – well, since the 1970s liberals have shown that they are willing to rely on unelected federal judges and federal agencies to push unpopular progressive reforms through, when they can’t get the votes.

But an oligarchic system in which politics is a debate among graduates of the same elite schools in the same elite neighborhoods is not likely to be stable, particularly in a country like the U.S., where most of the gains of economic growth for a generation have gone to the top. If the game of politics is a game that effectively is limited to the rich and the professional class, then the rest will find tribunes – usually affluent and well-educated themselves – who will propose to turn over the gaming tables and open the doors to the casino. Would the absurd distortions of the current healthcare-reform backlash resonate so strongly if the white working-class felt more invested in the modern version of liberalism? Unlike the Progressive era that preceded it and the neoliberal era that followed, the New Deal era was remarkably free of anti-system protest figures like Eugene Debs, Huey Long, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Patrick Buchanan and Lou Dobbs. Not only labor unions but also genuine grassroots membership parties represented the values and interests of non-elite Americans and checked the disproportionate power of the investors, the corporate managers and the professionals.

Can parties or partylike organizations play the role once played in part by labor unions? During the New Deal era, the political parties still represented popular interests and values, even in areas of the country like the South and much of the West where unions had been defeated. The old kind of party machine is dead forever, but while the conservative movement had some success with direct mail campaigns, neither national party has seriously tried to mobilize ordinary Americans according to a partisan public philosophy, as distinct from manipulating particular groups of voters on the basis of single issues. A few years ago there was talk of the “netroots” as a new constituency, but Internet campaigns in practice seem to have mobilized liberals rather than to have converted voters to liberalism.

In the 47 years of my life I have received only one piece of mail from the Democratic Party – a letter inviting me to pay $1,500 to buy a seat at a table at a fundraiser. I don’t receive any e-mails from the Democrats at all. At the same time, I am battered by direct mail from various single-issue liberal constituencies, seeking not my vote but my money. Because I am neither a big donor nor a reliable foot soldier for this or that single-issue movement, but merely a citizen, the Democratic Party as an organization evidently has no interest in me.

The labor movement, as a basis for a liberal politics, is unlikely to revive. But surely the Democrats – or better yet, a liberal movement distinct from the Democrats – could try to use modern communications techniques to try to mobilize voters in places outside affluent neighborhoods and college towns. The objective is not to sell Americans on poll-tested talking points, but to inspire them with a coherent vision of the past, present and future of the country. The effort would be difficult and divisive, and it might fail. But the alternative is more of what we see in the politics of healthcare and energy reform: a politics motivated by a mixture of philanthropy and profit and carried out by means of incremental insider corporatist negotiations, a politics that most Americans watch in frustration from a distance. more


  1. Agree with points one, two and four.

    Not sure about the Frankfurt School. To my knowledge, Reich (Greening of America) and Lukacs were not part of the school.

    Beyond that, I never thought of the school as having any responsibility for our trend toward identity politics. I'm surprised to learn they were widely influential at all. Will be giving this more thought.

    I think this point - "The culture had "industrialized" status emulation." - is right on target. I was one of those kids, I'm sorry to say.

  2. Also, if you can stand it (I had to take lots of breaks when I read it), the last chapters of Nixonland give a good blow by blow account of the political move away from labor and into identity issues.

  3. Actually, I am not absolutely sure about the Frankfurt School's influence either. My professor who assigned "Greening" was a big admirer of Frankfurt School and may have wrongly swept Lukacs and Reich into the School in his enthusiasm. It was 1971 so my memory may have failed me but I THINK I got it right. I thought "Greening" was sub-moronic so that judgment may have clouded my memory.

    I could have written about the SDS and their "Port Huron Statement" that essentially said that because the basic problems of poverty had been solved (at least for the folks who attended Port Huron in 1962), we could move on to ideas like "Youth is a Class." By the time I first read it, it was 1968 so it had lost some of its impact but I knew for a fact that a LOT of people I knew had not solved the problems of poverty and they certainly had not solved it in 1962. But whether you blame SDS or the Frankfurt boys, or someone else, there obviously WAS an organized intellectual shift in some lefty quarters away from pure economic considerations and to a more cultural-anthropological approach towards social change that has confused me over the years. I like to blame the Frankfurt School because some members enjoyed beating up on my favorite author Thorstein Veblen.

    Thanks again for the link. This piece took me four freaking days to write so obviously I took your suggestion seriously. This morning I feel like I have been run over by a truck!