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Structural Stupidity

Monday, September 27, 2010
Okay one more slightly dreary post about politics and then I'm going to change the subject. The recent tax cut debate is an excellent example of what's wrong with the country and with the Democratic Party. From a strict policy perspective, this is an easy call. There's been a massive increase in inequality over the last generation and the only way to balance the books is to tax the upper crust. Middle incomes have been stagnating for decades and the economy is depressed, so I can see the sense in continuing their tax cuts (although tax cuts don't have a great stimulative effect, at least it's something). Politically, this was as easy a case as Josh Marshall has been claiming - Republicans are weakened when they're perceived as the party of the rich and this vote was a great opportunity to do it. But the Democrats can't get it done, and the reasons why tell you everything you need to know about why the U.S. is in very deep doo-doo.

There are four explanations as to why Democrats wouldn't hold this vote - explanations which aren't mutually exclusive. I'll list them in order of worry. The first is that Democrats thought they could take the tax issue off the table - that if they held a vote they'd be attacked for raising taxes. Of course, they'll be attacked for it anyway, so this is a good testament about how politically incompetent a fair proportion of Democratic congressman are. There's at least a possibility that they could learn from their mistakes, but I'm not hopeful.

The second explanation is that Democratic congressman believe that loading goodies onto rich people is a substantively good idea. Which means they're functionally Republicans, suffering from cognitive capture, hopelessly out of touch, or some mix of them. Also not a good thing.

The third explanation is that they're corrupt. They don't want to alienate well-heeled interests because they want cushy job once they're out of office - something which is likely to happen in about 3 months. Corruption is hard to deal with, intractable even, but the country has had bouts of widespread corruption before so although a very bad thing it's not the end of the world.

The fourth is that Democrats don't want to vote against the interests of the wealthy because they're concerned about alienating wealthy interests. This is somewhat distinct from point four because it's a product of fear rather than greed. They are terrified of losing campaign contributions - almost all of which come from the wealthy, who are disproportionately conservative - and of negative attack ads by corporations and right-wing groups. They don't want to get buried in mud the week before the election, so they think they can insulate themselves or at least limit the damage by going along.

Which brings me to my ever-present obsession, campaign finance. I think at least part of this is all tied up in the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. The fact is that given the amount of money that is now going to flow through the political system, it is now a rational (if horrific) decision for Democratic candidates for congress to completely sell themselves to corporate power. If they don't they will be defeated, or at least buy themselves a very, very difficult race. If they do they might get yelled at by their liberal base, but with sufficient money and some clever maneuvering they can probably limit their chance of getting knocked off in a primary. So these Democrats are making the strategic decision to become Republicans on economic issues for all intents and purposes.

Which means that fixing the problem of the wealthy plundering the middle class is probably unsolvable. We now have a system in which corporations and wealthy conservative economic interests now have so many structural advantages that they are nigh-invincible. Combined with the de facto co-option of the media into this congregation of economically conservative interests, we will now be in something very like the situation of the 19th century: the differences between the parties will be cultural rather than economic, and those cultural cleavages will be exacerbated over time as a response to growing economic turmoil.

I'm not saying that this situation can NEVER be fixed. If the economy gets bad enough long enough something will change - there will be sufficient popular outrage that no amount of commercials will stop the political firestorm that will result. But I should emphasize that such a moment wouldn't necessarily result in another liberal bout of reform such as we saw in the early 1900's or the 1930's. There is plenty of historical evidence that such popular anger can be directed into right-wing channels (hence fascism), or that faced with the real possibility or reform the right will resort to dictatorship in order to preserve their privileges (as we've seen in Latin America time and time again).

I'm not saying the republic is doomed. We're not Rome in the 60's B.C. But the patient has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, and if those of us who recognize the illness don't begin to pull ourselves together the prognosis could well prove terminal.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:45 AM
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