The Many Faces of David Brooks
Saturday, July 31, 2004
I have officially had it with Mr. David Brooks, esteemed commentator for the New York Times and Lehrer's News Hour, the purportedly open-minded conservative, the man a liberal can talk to. Why? Well, check out his latest editorial
and you'll get the idea.
In it, Brooks claims that upon a second look, he discovered how vacuous and cowardly the Kerry acceptance speech was. While at first he believed that the Democrats had embraced foreign policy realism, upon closer examination it turns out that Kerry is just speaking in hazy generalities in order to paper over the differences in his coalition. This should not be surprising, Brooks argues, because Kerry is after all just a flip-flopper who will say all things to all people. Just look at his Senate record, particulary the infamous vote on the 87 billion for Iraq. Once again, Kerry has demonstated that he has only ambition and no core convictions.
When I first read these words, I got furious. Then I was just amused, because it turns out that Brooks is himself guilty of what he accuses Kerry of. Brooks tries to create the impression he is an honest, reasonable guy. In reality he is an intellectually dishonest party hack who is manipulating the language and using debater's tricks to create a false image of himself. If youlook in detail at Brooks's arguments you'll see what I mean.
Brooks begins with his usual strategy, saying nice things about the opposition so he can lure his audience into a false sense of security and win credibilty as an even-handed person. He then shifts abruptly to vicious and misleading partisan attacks, which after his opening allows him to pose as critizing more in sorrow than in anger (This is a VERY old device- "And Brutus is an honorable man.....").
Specifically, Brooks claims Kerry "skirts almost every tough issue and comes out on both sides of every major concern." Now a lot of people have argued that Kerry wasn't specific enough in his speech, but you must remember that it was a 40 minute statement of who he was as a person and a leader, not a policy speech to a think tank. Kerry says that he doesn't have time to get into details, but please go to his website (he even made a joke about it). Perhaps Kerry could have focused more on specifics if Brooks and his buddies weren't launching ad hominem attacks in an effort to get away from the issues, but unfortunately we don't live in that alternate reality.
You would expect that Brooks would then point to a series of evasions, but he actually only points to one. This could be because he could only come up with one example, but I want to be reasonable so I'll assume that this was the only one Brooks had time for.
As for specifics, let me just quote Brooks directly:
The Iraq section is shamefully evasive. He can't even bring himself to use the word "democratic" or to contemplate any future for Iraq, democratic or otherwise. He can't bring himself to say whether the war was a mistake or to lay out even the most meager plan for moving forward. For every gesture in the direction of greater defense spending, there are opposing hints about reducing our commitments and bringing the troops home.
He proves in the speech that he can pronounce the word "alliances," and alliances are important, but alliances for what? You can't base an entire foreign policy on process.
Brooks' critique is just bizarre. Kerry does not use the word democratic because he isn't sure a democratic iraq is feasible, rather than just a stable one. He doesn't argue that war is a mistake? How about all the "I won't mislead us into war" stuff? As for plans, he argues quite specifically that we need to internationalize the conflict. Doing so will reduce the burden to the U.S., undermine the insurgency (since the occupation will no longer look like American Imperialism), and act as a means
to ending U.S. involvement. This is why alliances are important= they provide security, lessen the burden to the U.S., provide legitimacy to U.S. actions, and enhance our operational flexibility. The argument over means is the major distinction between the Bush and Kerry foreign policy- they are both focused on ending terrorism. Kerry thinks Bush just has the wrong strategy, or can't implement it.
All of this should be quite obvious, but Brooks has either a) not read the speech or b) is just shilling for Republicans again. I would suspect the latter, given how he mischaracterizes Kerry's record in the Senate. He even trots out the canard that Kerry is a flip-flopper because he voted for one version of funding the war (which actually PAID for it), rather than another (which let our grandkids pay for it). Really, David, that is just shameful- you know better.
As for the other attacks on Kerry's record, here they are:
...he was wrong about just about every major foreign policy judgment of the last two decades. He voted against the first gulf war, against many major weapons systems. He fought to reduce the defense budget. He opposed the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980's. He supported the nuclear freeze.
Brooks is being very clever, because he makes a sweeping statement (Kerry was wrong on everything) and then picks out a few examples in order to uphold that impression. But these fall apart on closer examination. Kerry voted against the first gulf war, which was a mistake and Kerry has said so. But the other examples are faulty. He voted against weapon systems that Cheney, as Secretary of Defense, proposed to be cut with the end of the Cold War. Reasonable people still disagree on whether the intermediate range nukes or nuclear freeze were a good idea- as a conservative, Brooks just assumes that his side was right.
Now what is so amusing about Brooks' piece is that his candidate, GW Bush, is far more vulnerable to these attacks than Kerry is. Bush's record when he ran for President was laughable (until 40 he was a wastrel, and his accomplishments in Texas have not stood up the light of day). Bush is certainly not running on the record he has now, and has yet to enunciate a single specific plan for his second term. Bush has also been far more egregious in flip-flopping whenever he gets into trouble (such as UN involvement on Iraq), not to mention his efforts to appear to be one thing while really being another (remember the humble foreign policy and rejection of nation building?) And don't get me started on compassionate conservatism.
This is all very disappointing to me, because I had hoped that Brooks would finally be that intellectually honest conservative that liberals could debate with in a serious way. But there is no such person, which should tell you something about today's conservatives.
On To November
Friday, July 30, 2004
I thought Kerry's speech was great. Not Obama-great, but just as good as Edwards' the night before. And I love the themes from previous speeches that Kerry worked into his- it made the convention a whole, rather than a scattershot of ideas. He was forceful, sincere, and even a little angry. I was impressed by his aggressive rhetoric, which I think solidified Democrats while dispelling the idea of Kerry as indecisive. It was brilliant to limit negative attacks until Kerry did it- the reverse of CW, and very clever.
I think we really are going to win this one.
Thursday, July 29, 2004
John Edwards proved once again why he has come so far, so fast. He gave an excellent speech, arguing that Kerry has both the character and policies to be a great President, and incorporating those elements with his sunny populist message. He did rush his speech a little- I don't know whether that's because of Sharpton (who went WAY over), or because he was a little nervous. He's never had to give such a high profile speech in front of such a large audience.
Now the media of course has argued that Edwards' populist message is a dud. Just look at Al Gore's failure! they cry. There isn't any class resentment in America! We live in a classless society!
Poppycock. There is enormous class resentment in this country, it is just that the antagonisms have been directed not at corporate executives but big government and cultural liberalism. Edwards' message is tailored to change target of their animosity. As Kevin Phillips
has argued, economic populism should be the key Democratic message if they are going to create a political majority. And it is also, quite handily, and thoroughly liberal message.
So ignore the pundits, John! Just keep doing what you're doing, and eventually they might figure it out.
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
Like every person who watched the keynote address last night, I was stunned. It was clearly the best political speech since Cuomo's in 1984. And that sets a pretty high bar. It looks like we have the next liberal superstar on our hands now. And ANOTHER good orator for our team. Yeah-rah.
But rather than join the chorus of hyperbole, I believe it behooves us to analyze why Obama's speech was so inspiring and effective. The more we learn from it(and even improve on it), the better off we'll be.
First was Barack's presentational style. Calm, dignified, with sincerity- he had the perfect pitch. He used changes in stance, tone, and gesture for emphasis, which is actually quite difficult to do well. He has mastered the art of delivery.
The speech itself was brilliantly structured. It began in a conversational manner, and with a focus on the personal, introducing this little known figure to his audience. I think this is actually a much better way to establish rapport than humor, because the latter is so rarely done well.
Obama then slowly increased the force of his speech, incrementally reaching a crescendo of passion. This slow change in tempo was reflected not only in presentation, but also in content, as Obama moved towards his conclusion. He tied his biography to his message, grounded in a liberal conception of patriotism. He then extended his own story to the story of the country, of how patriotism consists in fulfilling our common dreams, not just lauding them.
He did do that thing I hate, telling stories of people he's met, and how their experiences reflect his message. Frankly it's too maudlin and hackneyed.
Obama made a concession to anti-government rhetoric, which was understandable, but I thought a bit timid. Like a lot on the left, I don't think we can make real traction until we rebut the charges against public action. I think it is quite possible to re-frame the issue by reminding people that they are the government.
But Obama then linked the faith in America's possibility, and the necessity of action to fulfill that possibility, to Kerry's candidacy. Which after all was the whole point. It also gives Kerry a good set-up for giving his own message, in more specific terms. I also thought Obama brilliantly re-framed the Iraq issue, as Andrew Sullivan has noted.
But my favorite part of the speech had real content, if only symbolic content (sorry Kevin Drum). It was where he contrasted individualism with the value of community, which remains the left's strongest rhetorical device. He even transformed that into an indictment of the media and the republicans with the "United States" section. So there is a call not just for party unity, but national unity in the face of abstract and superficial divisions.
And that is a message to build on.
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Sorry I didn't write earlier. Was busy.
I thought the Convention yesterday was quite successful. Gore was funny (which should be no surprise for those who know him), Carter was dignified, and Clinton was persuasive. Each laid out a set of reasons to reject George Bush, but I think they were not trying to convince people that Bush needs to be rejected (independents already don't like him), but to connect voters' reservations about Bush to reasons they should support Kerry. Carter enunciated a soft-spoken but devastating critique of the Bush Administration's foreign policy, and he has tremendous prestige due to his post-presidency.
And Clinton? I think in some ways it was one of his best speeches. He looked great, and dazzled the crowd. He explained (exhaustively) why conservative policies are flawed, and how Democratic policies are what people really want. And Kerry can capitalize on Clinton's legacy in a way Gore wasn't.
I do have one criticism thought. Clinton has never been good at self-discipline, and it showed again last night. He gave what I thought were 3 speeches- there was the speech about Kerry's character ("send me"), the one about Kerry's vision ("a more perfect union"), and the speech enunciating Kerry's policies, where he laid out the choices that Bush has made, leading up to the choices that Kerry would make, and that we in turn should choose Kerry.
All the elements of a truly great speech were there (like Cuomo in 1984, Kennedy in 1980), but it was thematically a bit confused.
But that's okay. Clinton in still the man.
Wither the Democratic Party?
Monday, July 26, 2004
There's a really interesting article in the New York Times Magazine by Matt Bai
about the increasing activity of big investors in developing a liberal infrastructure outside of the traditional party organization. I think this is a welcome development- the lack of left-wing institutions has crippled liberalism over the last several decades. But I think Bai's point about the risks are very well taken. Do we really want a party dominated by rich corporate philanthropists? Don't we already have one of those? This seems to be a phenomenon that is the precise reverse of the democratization of fundraising and organization we have seen because of the blogs and the Dean campaign. But I am actually quite hopeful- I think the two groups will compliment eachother. And I even think that the danger of the party being captured by ideological extremists is quite minimal. First, because that hasn't seemed to have hurt the Republicans, and second because electoral defeat is a great teacher of pragmatism. You learn by doing.
But what concerns me more is the reaction to this piece by kos
. I love Kos, but he's dead wrong here. His message that the Democratic party is inreasing irrelevant betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what a party is, and what liberalism's long term interests are. A lot of people think of the party as just the formal superstructure (DNC, state and county committees, and maybe the elected officials). The reality is that parties are complex networks of social groups and institutions who have brokered a strategic alliance, and are united by an overarching ideology. These new groups like ACT or Podesta's think tank are part and parcel of the party. It doesn't matter if they don't appoint the DNC chairman, because if they win sufficient influence, one day they will. And then they will BE the party establishment.
Like it or not, the Democratic Party is the vehicle for the left in America. It has been since at least Woodrow Wilson. The Federalists and Whigs collapsed when they represented a tiny minority or failed to reflect a major ideological cleavage. And that is clearly not happening now. The problem that the left has with Democrats is 1) perceived incompetence, and 2) timidity. NOT a difference in issue positions.
These are eminently solvable problems, and the shake-up is already well under way. But I have one big concern- that the left's commitment to ideological purity will drive out valuable coalition partners. Like them or not (and I do), the DLC are our allies, as are labor unions, civil rights activists, etcetera. Addition by subtraction doesn't work on sports teams, and it certainly doesn't work in politics. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who will support liberal candidates and back us on issues of vital concern is welcome to join. I don't care if they're black nationalists, corporate executives, or pro-life gun-toting economic populists. The point is to win, and we can't do that when we're telling people not to apply.
Sunday, July 25, 2004
There were two major news events under discussion on the Sunday talk shows. The first is the release of the 9/11 Report. I'll leave discussion of that to the likes of the inestimable John Marshall.
The other topic of discussion was, of course, the Democratic National Convention. There was a pretty good Ted Kennedy interview on the Brinkley show (yes I still call it that), but old Ted seemed a little defensive on Kerry's position on Iraq. This might still be a real problem. Edwards was his usual sparkling self. And can I just say that Cokie Roberts has become truly annoying? She used Republican spin relentlessly: partial birth abortion, liberalism, Kerry's boring, blah blah blah. Of course, we have George Will to balance her, making his usualy profound remarks like "George Bush is a champion of the welfare state" and "I can't put a napkin between Bush and Kerry."
Russert was pretty interesting. Now I see what all the fuss about Barack Obama is about. He is as cool as the other side of the pillow. He smoothly deflected any jabs by Russert while staying on message. Of course, like Edwards, he ducks the liberal label, which I continue to think is a mistake. But I think making him the keynote speaker was a good move. If he performs as well is formal speechmaking as he does in interviews, then he is going to be a superstar.
Okay, I have to go grocery shopping. Have a nice Sunday.
Should blacks vote for Republicans?
Saturday, July 24, 2004
In his speech to the Urban League, George Bush posed a series of questions about the loyalty of African-American voters to the Democratic party. (I copied and pasted them from Instapundit) I think these are questions worth responding to.
1) Does the Democratic party take African American voters for granted?
I think this position is frankly ridiculous. There is NO constituency that the Democrats have catered to more than the black community. I defy you to come up with a single example in which the Democrats have not championed a cause that was clearly in the interests of the whole black community (things like reparations are matters of dispute). The death penalty, affirmative action, aid to cities, aid to education, etc.
2) Is it a good thing for the African American community to be represented mainly by one political party?
Theoretically, of course, the answer is no. It would be nice if every demographic group was evenly split between the parties, because it means our society would be very unified. But this is simply unrealistic. There have always been groups which have been solidly behind one party of the other. If blacks should start voting for Republicans to gain more influence in that party, then the christian right should start voting for Democrats. See how silly that sounds?
Blacks vote for Democrats because of the question to answer one: they defend their interests. Of course, the other reasons blacks are monolithically in favor of the Democrats is because the Republican party still uses them as a wedge issue in the South. No one is going to vote for a party that buddies up to people that hate them. This is why gays are defecting to the Dems too.
3) How is it possible to gain political leverage if the party is never forced to compete?
see the answer to question two.
4) Have the traditional solutions of the Democrat party truly served the African American community?
I'm not entirely sure what Bush is getting at. If he's talking about the Great Society, War on Poverty, attempts to get health care, and the like, then the answer is clearly yes. Between 1960 and 1980, when liberals controlled social policy in this country, 2/3 of black americans entered the middle class. In the 1990's, you saw real economic advances. When the Republicans have controlled the agenda, the condition of blacks has been stable or declined. So you do the math.
5) Does blocking the faith-based initiative help neighborhoods where the only social service provider could be a church?
This ignores the fact that Democrats want to increase the number of service providers, so that a church is not the only solution. This is a good example of the fallacy of binary opposition. You say: You can either have A or B. B is no good, so you must take A. Which ignores the possibilities of C, D, Q and Z.
6) Does the status quo in education really, really help the children of this country?
This argument assumes that Democrats in favor of the status quo in education. Which is patently false. Democrats have come out in favor of smaller class sizes, school construction, more teacher pay, and public school choice. The Republicans have opposed all those things in favor of the panacea of the school choice.
7) Does class warfare -- has class warfare or higher taxes ever created decent jobs in the inner city?
By class warfare, do you mean redistributing income from upper income earners and guaranteeing opportunities for the middle and working class? Or do you mean regulating corporate america and defending labor unions? And by high taxes, do you mean not blowing a hole in the deficit or arguing for progressive taxation? Because if you do, then the black community, which is disproportionately poor and middle class, clearly benefits from Democratic policies.
Are you satisfied with the same answers on crime, excuses for drugs and blindness to the problem of the family?
Crime: the Democratic strategy on crime works (witness the fall in crime rates in the 1990's) and the Republicans' doesn't (longer and more sentences, higher crime rates).
Drugs: Republicans' approach of just throwing people in prison for life and denying treatment is both inhuman and ineffective. And Bush's neglect of Afghanistan has led to an increase in poppy production, which will lower the price of heroin.
Family: Democrats supported welfare reform, if that's what he's getting at. Or is Bush just bashing gays here? Because I don't think discrimination against unpopular minorities is going to sell very well among AFRICAN-AMERICANS.
What's fun about all this is that most of the black community already knows it, which is why Bush has an 85% disapproval rating among African-American.
Go fish, George.
Friday, July 23, 2004
There's an idea I've been kicking around for a while: decentralizing more power to the state and local level. Now most liberals will look at this suggestion with horror. Republicans have been suggesting this for years aa a back door way to kill federal social programs, and liberals have typically pointed to the "race to the bottom" as an insuperable obstacle. States usually compete with each other to minimize social spending in order to attract more businesses.
So why, despite these criticisms, do I like the idea of decentralizing power? I have three reasons: as political strategy, as good policy, and as achieving the aims of democratic theory.
To the first point: the Republicans have had two arguments against political popular liberal social program. They can either straightforwardly oppose the program on its merits, which can result in galling political defeats for them ("No money for education!" is not the world's greatest campaign slogan). The other is to mask this position by claiming that the program should be handled by the states. The states will then ignore the program, and it will never amount to anything.
So my suggestion is to take this smokescreen away from them. We can do so by arguing that we use the states to pursue liberal objectives. The national government's job is to identify national problems, articulate general solutions, and provide resources. The states can then tailor the funding to their own specific needs and culture. Basically I'm suggesting that we use something slightly more specific than block grants (here's a bunch of money to hire teachers- have fun). We can also include the states in the policy-making process. And since the governors, no matter what their party, are more likely to embrace social spending, it can put pressure on the Congress. Either the Republican Congressmen will have to fight with their own governors and revealed as against popular programs; or the Republican governors will have to alienate their own constituency by appearing to be as radical as the national party. This approach also has the advantage of removing the "big government" label that has been such a burden to liberalism in the last few decades.
So that's the politics. I also think that policy-wise this can work. Liberals might object that the states will just use the new money to displace old money. But this is a problem that can be gotten around. If the state of Georgia can figure out a way make sure the lottery money is used on education, then surely we can do so on other policies. Another benefit would be to force liberals to organize advocacy groups at the state level. Right now the left is far too concentrated on washington, and such a strategy might provide a real impulse towards liberal mobilization.
Which brings me to my final argument: that this a good policy from a theoretical point of view as well. New Deal Liberalism has been far too attached to centralized bureaucratic solutions, which has fed anti-government alienation and passivity that has only aided the right. What we should do is follow a path we turned away from in the late 1960's- community-based democratic participation. We need to draw people into the policy-making process, and help them see that personal involvement has real consequences. There is a real sense out there that our democratic institutions are in a state of decay, that there is a declining vigor in our civic life. We need to speak to these concerns.
What I want to make very clear is that "liberal federalism" as I call it is not just about shifting powers to the states, but combining the flexibility and democratic character of state and local government with the power and energy of the national government. In short, we need to end this sterile debate between the heirs of Hamilton and Jefferson by synthesizing the insights of both. That's the only way we can defeat the modern-day heirs of Calhoun who have conquered the Republican party.
Clinton and Liberalism
Thursday, July 22, 2004
has raised an intriguing issue on his blog, namely, was Clinton sufficiently liberal? He argues that while Clinton's means were different from traditional liberals, his ends were the same: greater opportunity and social justice. Neoliberalism and incrementalism are just another way to get there.
Clinton's critics, on the other hand, have accused him of being "Republican Lite", citing the examples of deregulation, corporate fundraising, NAFTA, welfare reform, and other policies.
Still others argue that it is hard to tell how liberal Clinton really was, since he had Democratic majorities in Congress for two years, and they weren't so cooperative when he did have them.
I think O'Toole basic argument is essentially correct. Liberals have been far too inflexible as to means, which has compromised their ends. The Left tends to have a knee-jerk response that any social problem requires the intervention of the federal bureaucracy. This has had extremely damaging political consequences, inviting an anti-government backlash.
We should certainly be flexible as to how we pursue liberal social ends. Of course, this leaves as an open question whether neoliberalism is effective at pursuing those ends. I would argue that they are not. In policy terms, neoliberalism tends to advantage social elites and reinforce existing social inequities. Politically, neoliberalism actually underscores the dominant conservative paradigm, which is why it is ultimately a dead end. All it does is continue to shift the needle to the right.
But I don't think Clinton was a thoroughgoing DLC Democrat. Yes, he was chairman, but so was Dick Gephardt, and he isn't a neoliberal. And I don't think it's fair to criticize him for policies he supported after the Republicans captured the Congress- he was on the defensive from then on. So if you look at his first two years, you have some neoliberal policies (free trade, deficit reduction), some liberal ones (health care, gay rights), and some that don't fit in either category (national service, for example).
E.J. Dionee in "They Only Look Dead" lays out what the Clinton strategy was: to establish credibility where Democrats had been traditionally been weak (crime, welfare), in order to puruse their overarching goals, particularly health care. The Republicans were terrified that Clinton's health care plan would succeed, because it would restore faith in government. It was a close run thing, but the right managed to stop the plan, with disastrous consequences for the rest of us.
Clinton's success was only partial for a number of reasons. He never got the chance to deliver on the really liberal stuff, and his gains were reversed on at least blocked by Republicans later on. I believe Clinton's limited success was due in large part to his chief failing as a politician: his inability to argue in thematics. He was spectacularly good at defending a particular policy on its own terms, but he was never able to explain how all his policies fit together in a coherent whole. There was no overarching vision, which enabled people to pick and choose which ideas to support, causing the whole edifice to collapse. It is THIS problem which has bedeviled Democrats for decades. You can't persuade people to support your ideology if they don't know what that ideology is. We have allowed our beliefs to be defined in the public mind by conservatives, and so we lose. And until we learn how to craft a compelling narrative, we will continue to do so.
Why Democrats lost the Middle Class
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
From Wilson through Johnson, the Democrat party was the champion of middle class opportunity. The list of accomplishments is impressive: anti-monopoly regulations, Medicare, unemployment insurance, the GI Bill, aid to schools, progressive taxation, etc. But at some point in the 1970's, Democrats lost that image. Instead, they were perceived as defending the position of the underprivileged (women, blacks, Hispanics, the poor, gays-- wow, there certainly are a lot of them). The middle class decided that the Democrats had abandoned them- that big government now meant not security for the middle class but help for marginal elements in society. So they left.
How did this happen? I think it has a lot to do with the success of the Democrats in the postwar period. In part, the middle class now felt secure enough in the late sixties to vote based on non-economic issues. But I think the more important reason is that Democrats decided that the problem of creating and maintaining a middle class was essentially solved. They then moved on to other issues. This made them vulnerable to a Republican counter-attack, a vulnerability that was exploited because of the counter-culture and Vietnam by Nixon.
And we now know that precisely the same moment that Democrats took the middle class for granted, that same middle class was coming under renewed economic pressure from the forces of globalization. Since the Democrats had no obvious solution (or even interest) in their problems, and Reagan claimed to have a magic wand to fix them (while actually making things worse), the middle class started voting Republican.
The sad truth is that a middle class is NEVER secure. The free hand of the market always pushes towards concentration and monopoly, a lesson we have had to learn time and again. All the successful middle classes in history have evaporated when the government which supported them (the Roman and Byzantine yeoman farmers, Italian merchants, the Dutch burghers) began to either ignore them or implement policies that undermined them.
The great task of liberalism, then, is to preserve the middle class. Even leftists who don't like the middle class, who are focused on other issues, need to realize that they will never be able to assemble a political majority without those voters. Any policy the left embraces, even when not explicitly targeted towards the middle class, at least need to offer them something, some reason to support the policy.
This is actually not all that hard to do. Liberalism traditionally couched its policies in univeralist terms. For example, if everyone gets national health insurance, that takes some of the burden off of the middle class, while providing a disproportional benefit to the poor. Look at it mathematically- if we provide 100 dollars in services to every citizen, that is trivial to the upper class, a decent amount to the middle class, and a positive boon to the poor. Yes there is a price in terms of economic efficiency, but the only alternative is to not have the policy at all.
So what Democrats have to do is frame every issue, and I mean EVERY issue, in terms of middle class quality of life. Want to help the poor? Propose univeral programs for health, safety, housing, etc. Want to improve the environment? Emphasize not only clean water, but to preserve nature so it's there for you later. Want to aid ethnic minorities? Base policies on class, which will help the disproportionately poor minorities but not invite a racial backlash.
What's so hard about that?
More on the Middle Class
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Given what I've talked about the last couple of days, it should be clear that I have some serious worries about the future. The modern, unionized middle class was deliberately fostered by the national government in order to replace the declining small farmer as the base of the democracy. But now we have abandoned that effort- we have left the employees of large corporations to fend for themselves, and further have placed them in competition with 3rd world labor. As Ruy Texiera has pointed out, even high-skill professionals are becoming "proletarianized." And the small proprietors who the Republicans once represented, and who could also serve as the foundation of a popular government, are now similarly under siege by large multinational corporations.
Which means that we are facing a future in which there might be no middle class, something that certainly looks possible given the increasing concentration of wealth in the U.S. And without that middle class, we simply won't have a democracy. Instead we would have a disguised oligarchy or a populist dictator.
Championing the middle class has always been good politics. But it is also good policy. We have known this for years with regards to macroeconomics - the way to boost the economy is to increase consumer spending, which means you need to increase middle incomes so that they can stimulate aggregate demand. Supporting small proprietors, professionals, and blue collar workers is about a lot more than just keeping growth going, however. It is also about keeping democracy going.
My favorite story about Ben Franklin takes place just as the Constitutional Convention was wrapping up. Someone asked Franklin what sort of government had been established. Franklin replied: "A Republic, if you can keep it."
Unions, or Small Businesses, or Nothing
Monday, July 19, 2004
Monday, July 19, 2004
"The oldest and most fatal ailment of republics is the gap between rich and poor." - Plutarch
Since Aristotle, it has been a truism in political theory that a large and prosperous middle class is essential to a stable democratic regime. This is because they balance out the conflicts between rich and poor and generally have moderate attitudes, lacking the arrogance of the former and the envy of the latter. Without them, politics degenerates into class wars (with guns, not insults), and you end up with either a tyranny or an oligarchy.
But what do we really mean by middle class? Classical and early modern theorists assumed that a middle class would be composed of yeoman farmers. These freeholders would have the leisure time to participate in public life, and would not be materially dependent on wealthy elites. There were also purported to have special democratic virtues because of their lifestyle.
The definition of middle class is now obviously quite different. It has been reformulated as a measure of income (are you above the poverty line?) or prestige of your profession (although this division is usually split between working and middle class). The argument that you need a nation of small farmers has been dead since the industrial revolution. The new middle class is composed of white-collar professionals and blue-collar skilled labor.
This change in meaning has important consequences, however. What is different is the economic dependence of this new middle class on big corporate institutions. To get back some of independence have formed professional associations and unions. I would argue that this middle class also includes independent proprietors (mom and pop shops and the self-employed) who resemble the old yeomanry in most important respects.
So the equation goes as follows: to have a stable democracy, you need a prosperous middle class. Which means that you need either a lot of independent small businesses (NOT franchises), or strong unions.
Liberalism and Small Proprietors
Sunday, July 18, 2004
A conservative acquaintance of mine has said in response to my arguments on behalf of liberalism that "one day you'll realize that small business is important." Now at the time, I wasn't sure how to respond to anything but the patronizing attitude. But now I think I might have something to say.
First it's important to sketch out what we mean exactly by small businesses. Most people divide the economy up into only 3 groups : business, labor, and consumers. The right represents the first, the left the second, and they fight over the third. Predictably this formulation conceals as much as it reveals. Each can be divided into high, middle, and low status groups. Labor is divided between professionals, high skill laborers, and low skill laborers. Consumers vary dramatically in wealth, and lumping IBM with your neighborhood grocery store is a little silly.
The right loves to pose as the champion of small business against the liberal threats of big government regulation, high taxes, and unionization, each of which poses real problems for small proprietors, whether they be farmers, independent retailers, or small producers. The liberal response has usually been... well, we never have really responded to this charge.
This situation really hurts. It hands over a major (and influential) constituency to the Republicans without a fight, a group that has major political, symbolic and theoretical importance. Small proprietors are one of the intellectual bedrocks of popular government, going all the way back to the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent small farmer (and before). This vision of a nation of shopkeepers and yeoman has tremendous symbolic resonance, as well as theoretical validity- small proprietors are the original middle class, the prerequisite for successful republics.
So we know that small proprietors should be preserved. So how do we square that desire with our interest in protecting consumers (through regulations) and labor (minumum wage, safety)? It's difficult, but let me take a stab at it. Small businesses are a fundamentally different enterprise than big corporations, and therefore government should have a different relationship. Whereas we should have an adversarial relationships with IBM, the mom and pop store should be actively supported. Our policies should make it easier for them to exist, and we should do so in a way that achieves our goals but places more of the burden for doing so on the state, rather than the business. And we should emphasize the importance of government intervention in creating an environment amenable to small businesses.
Which is where the political bite comes in. Republicans champion small business rhetorically, but only rhetorically. Their real alliegiance are to the the megacorps, who have a fundamentally different interest from small proprietors. Just look at what Wal-Mart has done to the Main streets of Middle America. These are two groups very hostile to one another, who are in a very uneasy coalition at the moment.
A coalition we should be able to explode. By crusading against big companies and their abuses, we can not only project a persuasive populist message to working class people. We can also win over a substantial segment of the small business class. Defending the small farm and the small business against the depredations of the big company was, after all, the original impetus behind populism and its latter-day descendent, liberalism. It allows us to champion small town and middle class america against wealthy elites who live in palaces, removed from the lives of ordinary americans. If this isn't a winning political message, I don't know what is.
So what would I say to my right-wing friend now? "I am for small business, which is why I'm a Democrat."
And then chuckle at the look on his face.
P.S. There is a problem with blogger right now, so the comments function isn't working.
That darned NLRB
Saturday, July 17, 2004
Do you remember your TA in college? The exhausted looking one who explained everything that the teacher left obscure? The one that joked about his poverty? The one that you or one of your friends may have had a crush on? They were only a few years older than you, after all.
Well in case you didn't know, I'm here to tell you that their lives are a misery. They do nearly all the work that full time faculty does, in addition to trying to write their dissertation, and are paid almost nothing. They are virtually slave labor. A lot of students can't really tell the difference between regular professors and senior level graduate students, except perhaps the lack of burnout or grey hair (although sometimes they have that too).
Universities today are utterly reliant on these low-wage indentured servants. Graduate students can't get any other source of employment, so schools can pay them nothing and give them no benefits. They are paid so little that many have to take out student loans not just to pay their tuition but their rent. Think of the modern college as an academic sweatshop.
Why don't we ever hear about this situation? Because there are not a large number of graduate students in america in absolute terms, and many don't want to get into a fight for fear of losing their chance at a PhD. Which is why it is so brave that there is a movement to unionize graduate students at universities. Predictably, the colleges have fought it tooth and nail, using every underhanded weapon that big companies like Wal-Mart do. But with patience and courage, a lot of schools have been unionized.
Until, that is, the National Labor Relations Board cut the ground out from under them yesterday by classifying graduate students who teach not as employees, but as students. "Teaching students is part of the educational process" they say, except many elite graduate students don't have to teach because they are on fellowships or have research assistantships, and the colleges fail to mention that they profit enormously from this cheap labor. Pretty disgusting, isn't it?
Now the NLRB decision only applies to private universities. Public university graduate students are governed by state law, which is of course usually pretty restrictive. Some states have aborted any graduate student movement by creating one union for both faculty and graduate students. I'm sure you can imagine the difference in interests the two groups have, and which one usually wins out in any confrontation. So a lot of public university graduate students looked with hope to the organizing efforts at places like NYU. And now those hopes have been dashed.
As you might expect, the NLRB reversed a previous ruling supporting the unionization efforts. The change came because of a Republican takeover of the commission. Big surprise.
So the next time you remember how mean your TA was, try to recall that her life was not an easy one. After all, no one expects a slave to be cheerful.
What's Right With Kansas
Thursday, July 15, 2004
There is one thing about the christian right than I admire very much: their activism. They possess all the energy, commitment, and organization that a successful democratic movement requires. These are not affluent or high-status persons- they are just plain folks who are fed up with the state of the country and want to do something to change it. It is a hopeful sign that, properly inspired, Americans are still capable of mass democratic participation. Which makes their wrong-headedness so sad.
So as we criticize the religious right for its counterproductive and intolerant politics, we can also learn from them. After all, they are only doing what the left used to do. And had better do again.
Good book. Better title.
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Thomas Frank's book "What's Wrong with Kansas" is the most stimulating work of its kind since E.J. Dionne's "Why Americans Hate Politics." In some senses it is even a sequel. Where Dionne charts the collapse of the Vital Center at the hands of the New Left, the New Right, Neoconservatives, and history, Frank explains what has happened since. His message is actually quite simple: Democrats abandoned the class war, so the Republicans were able to divert working class antagonism away from corporations and against liberalism. The DLC's neoliberal strategy just made it worse.
I won't get into the whole DLC thing here, but otherwise I think Frank is probably on target. You see, I grew up in the reddest part of a very red state- a small military town in the South. And I can tell you that the hostility to liberalism always baffled me. There is nothing so frustrating as a man who seems determined to slit his own throat.
So we are still in the midst of a class war, a war the upper crust is winning with the help of the peasantry it is destroying. The saddest part is that there really is nothing new about this problem. Marx called religion the "opiate of the masses." Bismarck backed universal suffrage because he knew rural Germans would vote against the Socialists and Liberals. And W.E.B. DuBois described how democratic socialism in America was thwarted by racial conflict. Once again, the legacy of slavery has proven to be an almost inescapable curse, with the South made poor, devout, and divided.
It's the oldest and grandest trick of the right. Find something, anything, to change the subject. Take your pick- liberals, blacks, athiests, foreigners, communists, jews, gays, the list is endless. Divert the anger of the working classes against each other or their own allies, and your victory is won. It is no accident that the rise of multiculturalism has paralleled the rise of conservatism. It gives the plutocrats someone else to pit us against.
All of this was pointed out by Weber, who argued that class was not, as Marx suggested, strictly economic. It was cultural and educational as well. And those cultural divisons can cut across the neat economic lines, complicating the class picture. And making more difficult any working class alliance. It is reverse Madisonianism with a vengeance: minority factions managing to oppress the majority by splintering it.
Of course, identifying the disease is only the beginning of finding a cure. Now we need a prescription for the patient.
It's not your GOP
Monday, July 12, 2004
In the latest issue of the American Prospect, James Pinkerton complains about the grip of the religious right on the GOP. He argues persuasively that the alliance between the pro-corporate, libertarian, neoconservative, and christian fundamentalists is inherently unstable, and that the latter is undermining the position of the Republican party. Pinkerton looks towards future GOP characterized by fiscal conservativism, social tolerance, neoliberalism, and a cautious foreign policy.
Funny- that sounds a lot like the Clinton Democrats. Which is of course Pinkerton's problem. He is part of that lost generation of right-wing thinkers who thought that the Reagan era was the beginning of a new ideological realignment in American politics. He figured that the virulent anti-government stuff was just the initial phase of over-enthusiasm, to be replaced in the long term by a new consensus. There was another group on the center-left working on the same stuff, mostly at the DLC. The "third way" and "neoliberal" brand of politics was laying around for either of the parties to pick up. Pinkerton wanted it to be the GOP, but the religious right took over the party and Clinton, Blair and others grabbed the ideas for the left instead. Which leaves Pinkerton writing articles in liberal magazines- a very strange place for a Dan Quayle assistant.
Pinkerton's center-right ideology was stillborn, and probably never had much chance of making it to term. He correctly identifies the source of the problem: the social intolerance and wacky paranoia of the christian right. But what he fails to realize is that the Reagan majority would never have been possible without those voters. Without the social conservatism, what is to attract working class voters to neoliberalism? The erosion of the safety net in favor of entrepreneurial risk? The economic privilege granted to corporations? Or maybe the atomized character of a social and economic life dominated by commercialism? I don't buy it either.
As Thomas Frank in "What's the Matter with Kansas" lays out so brilliantly, the GOP has only emerged as an electoral contender because its alliance with the christian right enabled it to peel off working class rural voters. Without the Culture War, the right would never have been able to break up the New Deal Coalition, and we would all be reflecting on the accomplishments of President Mondale. And if Pinkerton is right and the culture war is fading as a political issue, then Karl Rove has something to keep him up at nights.
The Latest Terror Warning
Friday, July 09, 2004
So, what he have is a non-specific terror warning with no supporting evidence and no increase in the alert level or security. But we do have to "maintain our resolve" and not let the terrorists "disrupt our electoral process." By that we mean the Republican National Convention, of course. Disrupting the Democratic Convention (by capturing Osama) and stifling dissent (by blocking protests at the RNC) is official government policy.
And these are the people who claim they are advancing the cause of democracy?
The Experience Issue
Thursday, July 08, 2004
The Republicans have probably already figured out that bashing John Edwards as a trial lawyer isn't going to work. I mean seriously- this guy is something out of a John Grisham novel. No, the right has another arrow in its quiver in Edwards' inexperience. Poor Republicans. That attack isn't going to work either. There are of course the easy comeback lines available to Kerry & Co. "Edwards has more real experience than George Bush did when he was elected." "The only experience these guys have is in wrecking the country." Etc., etc., etc. And there is the simple fact that Edwards is just a running mate. Kerry is positively stuffed with experience.
But none of this really makes any difference. Why? Because experience just doesn't matter. How many times has the inexperienced candidate beaten the experienced one? Here's a list:
Jefferson over Adams (1800)
Jackson over Adams (1824)
Harrison over Van Buren (1840)
Polk over Clay (1844)
Taylor over Cass (1848)
Lincoln over Douglas (1860)
Cleveland over Blaine (1884)
Harrison over Cleveland (1888)
Wilson over Taft (1912)
Hoover over Smith (1928)
Roosevelt over Hoover (1932)
Eisenhower over Stevenson (1952)
Kennedy over Nixon (1960)
Carter over Ford (1976)
Reagan over Carter (1980)
Clinton over Bush (1992)
Bush over Gore (2000)
And as you can see, national crises don't seem to matter (1860, 1932). And in fact, those two election produced two of our 3 greatest Presidents.
There are two basic facts at work here. First, voters don't care that much about the experience of candidates. Elections with incumbents are refrenda on incumbents, and all the challenger has to do is cross the threshold of acceptability. And if there is no incumbent, voters just pick the more attractive candidate, no matter their resume. And second, the voters seem to be on to something. There is no real relationship between being an effective President and having a lot of experience. You just never can tell.
So if the experience issue is the best the Republicans can do, then Edwards need to start packing his bags for the move to Blair House.
The Press & Free Trade
Wednesday, July 07, 2004
Both the New York Times and Washington Post editorial comments spoke approvingly of Edwards this morning, but they also noted something they didn't like about him: his position on trade. During the primary campaign, Edwards spoke eloquently to the anxieties and real suffering of the working class during the era of globalization. This was an important component of his appeal, yet they called it "demagogic." This is what they call a position they dislike but is very popular.
Over the last decades, mainstream journalists have essentially marginalized the anti-free trade position. All criticism of the global economy is labelled as "protectionist" and then promptly ignored. There is an elite consensus on trade issues, while the bulk of the population is unsure of trade's benefits but clear as to its costs. You can see something similar at work on immigration, which I'll talk about some other time.
As I understand it, the argument in favor of free trade is Adam Smith's Law of Comparative Advantage- a country benefits when it concentrates on what it produces efficiently, leaving the making of other goods to some other group. This way net efficiency is maximized. Stated in more concrete terms, if the world adopts free trade, then the creation of a middle class in the third world will both be an act of great humanitarian import (lifting millions out of poverty), establish the preconditions for stable popular government, and help us by creating new consumers who will buy our products. If you raise tariff protections, on the other hand, it increases the price of goods in the U.S., leads to efficiency losses, and reduces competitiveness in the protected industries.
You get all of these arguments in various forms in the mainstream media. What you do not hear is the equally plausible critique of free trade. First of all, the Law of Comparative Advantage ignores the fact that some goods are of higher value- countries the export raw materials are going to be poorer than those that create value-added goods. Second, the creation of a middle class requires that there be a link between productivity gains and wages, a link which has been cut in the third world AND the first world. You can see this phenomenon at work in the present recovery, in which GDP is rising, but the majority of income gains are being distributed in the form of corporate profits. So there is no prospect for the creation of a 3rd world middle class anytime soon. And how much does it help us if the U.S. middle class is undermined as a consequence? Third, the historical evidence on free trade is mixed: most countries that have industrialized have done so with protectionism, so they can protect their infant industries. Totally open trade has usually crippled underdeveloped economies.
But there are bigger problems with the so-called "Washington Consensus" in favor of unadulterated free trade. Labor has now been fully commodified, and with the large pool of skilled, low-wage labor in the 3rd world, we now face an international fire sale- this is the famous race to the bottom, where each country reduces its living standards in an effort to attract business. The South used to do this too- it was called "smokestack chasing" and after fifty years has yet to produce results. Without labor standards, living wages, and environmental policies, globalization does little to contribute to people at the bottom of the economic ladder, either in America or abroad.
So are the anti-globalizers right? I'm really not sure- this is an issue in which I am still persuadable. I see nothing wrong with embracing free trade with similarly constituted economies, ones that have large middle classes like Western Europe, Japan, and Canada. But developing economies? I'm just not sure. Obviously we should include labor and environmental standards in our trade agreements. But this will not solve the fundamental forces driving the race the bottom: the commodification of labor. We need to find some way guarantee a living wage for everyone in the global economy, or nobody is going to have one.
The proper position on this issue is probably a mixed one, in which we try to achieve the gains of free trade while minimizing its costs. We used to do this all the time- it was called the "mixed economy." But in an era of laissez-faire capitalism, this sensible and absurdly sensible policy has been abandoned in favor of proto-libertarian dreams.
Al Franken has suggested that the media doesn't give any credence to the anti-free trade position because their jobs are not at risk. I think there is something to this. And I think that the media will continue to be surprised at the success of populist economic appeals like that of Edwards. The American people are not fools- they know that there is something seriously wrong with our economy. And they're worried, not about today, but tomorrow. And candidates who speak to that concern are going to win elections, whatever the media thinks. You're not a demagogue if you're right.
Tuesday, July 06, 2004
John Edwards will be a fine running mate. While he was not my first choice (I liked Bill Richardson), Edwards will be more than adequate. He is the first Democrat since Mario Cuomo who really knows how to give a speech. I don't just mean he can deliver a speech, which he certainly can. I mean that he has proved adept at crafting a coherent message and packaging ideas in a persuasive way. One of the biggest liabiliites in the party is out inability to communicate in thematics. We tend to get bogged down in details, and to argue tactically. I think Edwards has the art of persuasion, and we are going to need it. Maybe some of it will even rub off on Edwards.
There are other advantages, as well. It will put North Carolina in play, perhaps- the Republicans will at least have to spend time and money there, which they wouldn't have otherwise. I'm not sure how much Edwards really helps in terms of competing in the South generally, however. We'll just have to see. Edwards also provides a little more youth, energy, and outsider appeal.
This was also a wise choice because it sends a message to Democrats. The vast majority of the party's voters wanted a Kerry-Edwards ticket, and that's what we have. The Democrats don't need uniting- Bush has done that for us. But it does send a message that Kerry is listening to us. I think that provides a real intangible benefit to the party's confidence in Kerry and will improve morale.
I think perhaps Kerry's greatest contribution here is preserving an important asset for the Democratic party. If Edwards had not been chosen as the VP, I think that probably would have been the end of his political career. Edwards has too much political talent to squander it so quickly.
So good job John. I'll be waiting for my sign.
Thank God! Or at least the New York Times
Thursday, July 01, 2004
Barbara Ehrenreich is replacing Tom Friedman at the NYT editorial page for the next several months. I consider this a major upgrade. By the way, anyone who hasn't read her book Nickled and Dimed needs to. It's a classic depiction of the impossible situation facing the U.S. working class.