The Problem with Liberals

by on April 16, 2012 · 11 comments

in American Empire, Culture, Economy, Under the Perfect Sun

Last week in the New York Times Eric Alterman cheered the advances made by proponents of same sex marriage and other cultural and civil rights issues while bemoaning the sad state of affairs on the economic front. Specifically, he noted that:

“economic liberalism is on life-support, while cultural liberalism thrives. The obvious question is why. The simple answer is that cultural liberalism comes cheap. Supporting same-sex marriage or a woman’s right to choose does not cost the wealthy anything or restrict their ability to become wealthier.”

Alterman then goes on to give a brief history of how “the United States has undoubtedly become a fairer, more open and less oppressive society” thanks to the struggles of liberals in favor of civil rights for all. The problem, he notes, is that liberals’ faith in an ever-expanding economic pie was undercut when “the economy chose not to cooperate” from the time of the oil crisis in 1973 to the current economic downturn. Their penchant for “overpromising” and “underperforming” led to the alienation of many key constituencies and steadily eroded their base as working folks engaged in “a bitter, resentful scramble for the remaining scraps” of the pie that didn’t expand.

Instead of groking this failure, Alterman continues, “many liberals chose to focus, rather perversely, on a ‘rights’ agenda and the internecine fights it engendered within their increasingly fractured coalition. They lost sight of the essential element that had made the coalition possible in the first place: the sense that liberalism stood with the common man and woman in their struggle against economic forces too large and powerful to be faced by individuals on their own.”

Alterman goes on to call for liberals to “unambiguously and unequivocally” embrace a new economic populism and hopes that Obama will reverse the trend of his first term of being bold on cultural issues while caving in on economics. If he did so, it would be historic:

“Were the president to embrace a genuinely populist economic agenda and mean it this time – just as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in his second term – he might go a long way toward solving the problem that has dogged liberalism now for nearly half a century.”

Alterman clearly hits the nail on the head with his observations about the replacement of economic liberalism with cultural liberalism in the Democratic Party, but his insightful analysis doesn’t go far enough to note how thorough and deep the transformation has become since the nineties when the Clinton presidency moved the whole party away from the old Labor-Democratic coalition that had prevailed since the thirties. Indeed the great success of the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was to move the Democrats to the “center” in a myriad of ways—the complete embrace of NAFTA, welfare reform, and a nearly total adoption of neoliberal economic policies.

At the time, critics like Jesse Jackson called the DLC “the Democratic Leisure Class” but this largely fell on deaf ears. Even the landslide congressional election defeat that Clinton suffered in ‘94 did little to chasten him as he continued to out-maneuver the Republicans who fumed with evermore venom about the extreme liberals in the White House even as the Clinton team was doing all it could to transform the Democratic Party into a culturally liberal, economically neoliberal party that differed little from the Republicans on economic matters.

Hence the truth of the current economic crisis is that it was brought to us by policies hatched in both the Clinton and Bush administrations and some of the same advisors who had their hands on the wheel in the nineties were hired by Obama to head his economic team. Hence it was neoliberal cheerleaders like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, rather than critics of the economic excesses of the past several decades, that Obama brought in to help fix the mess (that they were partially responsible for creating).

While Matt Taibbi has done a great job of exposing this in Griftopia and elsewhere, Thomas Frank really nails it in the closing pages of his most recent book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right. After, thoroughly excoriating the muddled “Marxism of the Master Class” practiced by the Ayn Rand-toting right (who he observes have perversely appropriated populist economic outrage and used it in the service of the 1%), Frank zeroes in on what he aptly calls the “silence of the technocrats.” Citing the appointing of the aforementioned Summers and Geithner, the bungled health care debate, and the general failure of the Democrats to channel their inner FDR in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Frank notes, “it was the failure of the entire Democratic Party. From its silver-tongued leader on down. Democrats simply could not tell us why our system had run aground and why we had a stake in doing things differently. They could not summon an ideology of their own.”

Indeed, because they could not offend the interests who increasingly fund their campaigns, we got Clinton II rather than the reincarnation of FDR. And who better to exemplify this “new breed of Democrat” than Barack Obama himself who writes in the second edition of The Audacity of Hope that, “I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met.” What were they like? Obama duly tells us that:

 They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy; they found it hard to imagine that there might be any social problem that could not be solved with a high SAT score. They had little patience for protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital. Most were adamantly pro-choice and anti-gun and were vaguely suspicious of deep religious sentiment.

 Sounds just like the folks that Alterman is talking about—culturally liberal elites with no sympathy for working people or taste for economic liberalism. It’s easier to bust the teachers unions than to think too hard about poverty, right? The problem, though, is that other than the rhetorical head fake and occasional populist bone toss (see the Buffet rule), there is little inclination for a thoroughgoing economic populism in the contemporary Democratic Party.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any good economic populist Democrats out there. Indeed, we have one running for mayor of San Diego. What it does mean is that until the Democratic base starts insisting on a more robust economic populism, don’t expect many Democrats to come up with a populist program all by their lonesome. That will require pressure (and lots of it) from the outside. In the absence of a viable progressive third party, the short-term solution is to vote and work strategically, rewarding populist Democrats and abandoning Business Dems.

Taking the long view, moving from symbolic protest to credible threat to a two party system dominated by big money is a daunting task. Historically third parties have not fared well in the United States and are those who call for them willing or able to do the brutally hard work that follows the fiery speech? Will American labor ever develop some death row courage? Will progressive Dems insist on more than cultural liberalism? Will amorphous social movements like Occupy avoid factionalism and sectarian squabbles long enough to build real lasting coalitions? May is coming soon enough, but history awaits the big answer.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar RB April 16, 2012 at 9:34 am

Historically, Democrats have never been required to be economically progressive, economically irresponsible, or closet socialist. The failure of Socialist governments over many decades, most recently in Greece and Spain, has merely forced its believers in the U.S. into the Democratic party. One should not think that the crazy and failed policies generated in California, Sacramento, or Berkeley are in tune with Democrats that live in Illinois, Florida or West Virginia.

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avatar stacksaphone April 16, 2012 at 9:42 am

Cultural liberalism might be easy now, but it comes because the old-school economic populists (i.e. the New Deal coalition) weren’t cultural enough. Southern Democrats were perfectly willing to horse-trade if it kept black Americans down; urban Democrats weren’t overly concerned about women, the non-traditionally sexual, or ethnic minorities. Consequently, when the heirs of FDR – “economic populists” like Johnson had to address the “cultural” failures of New Deal liberalism, the coalition fell apart. The aftermath of the ’60s has been a history of overcorrection.

Conversely, New Deal liberalism was, as Howard Zinn discusses, experimentation in response to a crisis – not merely the Depression, but pressure from the left. The Communist and Socialist Parties and thousands of fellow-travellers and non-Red left-liberals challenged pre-’33 Democratic (Bourbon, Dixiecrat, or Tammany/Daley-style urban immigrant machine) hegemony to make the New Deal and war Keynesianism happen. The (Democrat-abetted) purge of the American left in the ’30s left few people with an articulate, populist economic critique to the left of Democratic orthodoxy (which had been shaped by eruptions of popular outrage.)

We HAD an aggressive movement that wedded cultural and economic left populism to electoral politics. If Johnson had admitted the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, if the Panthers hadn’t been eradicated, but admitted to the mainstream, if RFK hadn’t died in Los Angeles, and the upswing in student protest hadn’t been quashed and driven to extremes, we might have more principled, populist, progressive alumni of the ’60s than Bill Clinton and the DLC. Can you imagine if, say, a Huey Newton stood for election rather than a Tom Hayden? If Julian Bond and John Lewis were more present in political life than Marion Berry?

The liberalism of the ’30s hardened into orthodoxy and rejected its most imaginative, energetic elements. The explosion of the ’60s did the same. In both cases, those trusted with preserving and expanding the accomplishments (Truman, LBJ, and their contemporaries from the New Deal generation; the Clintons and their contemporaries from the ’60s) silenced their more populist angels.

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avatar John Rippo April 16, 2012 at 9:46 am

Well done. The Democrats have walked away from the common man in this country and that was a grave mistake. Common men built this country and supplied the pool of talent for centuries here and to abandon them and look down on them for their shortcomings as too many recently educated intellectuals did was a crime against the people. I doubt the Democrats will survive this mistake; they can’t seem to correct it and perhaps don’t understand how bad their failing is. But if they don’t correct it they will fragment as a party and drive those common folk somewhere else. I just hope it won’t be toward some party that teaches goose stepping as a first step toward membership.

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avatar Shane Finneran April 16, 2012 at 9:50 am

Coincidentally, I’m in Wisconsin for a week, and Wis Public Radio had Alterman on this morning, talking about his book “The Fight for American Liberalism.” I called in to ask a question and within five minutes I was on the air.

I described Obama as a neoliberal, which Alterman agreed with. But when I said I think the only true liberal to run for president in at least two decades was Ralph Nader and that his campaign seemed undermined by the Democratic party, Alterman shocked me by calling Nader “a terrible person” who wanted Bush to win in 2000 to teach America a lesson.

As I see it, Nader is not just a hero of public service but an early voice warning that neolib Clinton/Gore/Kerry/Obama types will deliver largely the same economic policies as Republicans — a warning that Alterman now seems to agree with. So to hear Alterman call Nader “a terrible person” (repeatedly) threw me for a loop.

But there are lots of Democrats who agree about Nader with Alterman, whose current outlook seems to be “let’s just hope Obama and the other neoliberals start acting more like true liberals.” Good luck with that…

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avatar Andy Cohen April 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Shane: Change does not happen overnight, particularly when you have a devoutly obstructionist GOP in control in the House and in de-facto control in the Senate. When the entire legislative branch of the U.S. government is completely ground to a halt, there isn’t much change that’s going to be possible, no matter who occupies the White House.

Remember, the way the Senate works these days you need a supermajority of 60 votes to pass ANYTHING, and Obama only had those 60 votes in the first two years of his first time for a grand total of 14 days (Al Franken was involved in a prolonged recount-to-the-death in his Minnesota Senate race, and Ted Kennedy was on his death bed). And when a minority can function as the majority, we have big problems.

Lots of folks love to blame Obama for lots of things, but the fact of the matter is that the blame lies on the other side of the aisle.

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avatar RB April 16, 2012 at 3:23 pm

“and to the republic for which it stands”

We live in a Republic. The Senate was not intended to be a democratic body. The Senate has two members from each state and is not intended to represent the majority population. A Republic and the Senate was designed to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. The Senate and their rules are a great method of protecting our individual rights and liberties.

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avatar shane finneran April 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Well somehow GWB got a heck of a lot of his agenda passed with fewer han 60 GOP senators. And when the dems occassionally threatened filibuster the repubs would threaten to use the nuclear option… remember?

So you argument is that dems can’t do what repubs did under bush. That doesn’t explain it for me. I think the fact that both parties are funded by wealthy interests (many overlapping) is a perfect explanation of why no matter who is in office we get similar results. As always, follow the money…

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avatar Andy Cohen April 16, 2012 at 5:35 pm

No, my argument is that the Dems are not quite so brazen as as the Repubs when they have the majority. I remember the “nuclear option.” It was a pretty vicious threat used to mitigate what the minority could do. The Dems have refused to go that route, which can be considered either a good thing or a bad thing. I’m honestly torn as to which.

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avatar Midge April 16, 2012 at 6:10 pm

I would like to know who the populist Dems are that we should be supporting. I’ll send the money.

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avatar Les Birdsall April 17, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Reference – The Problem with Liberals: Economic democracy (distributing the national wealth in a fair way) has always been a problematic pursuit. For many years the rich natural bounty of this nation (expanding agriculture and manufacturing) and territorial expansion sustained economic progress within the context of the exploitation of slaves, African Americans, immigrants, women, the under-educated, etc. The battle for worker’s rights has been long, hard and tenuous. Reversals continuously occurred alongside hard won progress.

The Liberal Democrat Party’s embrace of civil rights for immigrants, Jews, African Americans, women, the disabled, gays, etc., has been politically costly. Since 1968 more than one presidential election has been lost to Democrats as a result of the political realignment that followed the Democrat’s embrace of the civil rights movement and the resulting movement of prejudiced worker voters to the Republicans. The Republican Southern Strategy remains operational today.

The property tax rebellion in California (Proposition 13, the Jarvis/Gann Amendment) introduced another political element into this struggle. Republicans are anti-tax, now to an absolute degree; anti-government; and anti-civil rights for workers, women; Hispanics; immigrants; etc. They still oppose minimum wage laws.

The Reagan, Greenspan, Bush economic policies of excessive federal, corporate and consumer borrowing combined with tax policies (reductions for the wealthiest) caused a dramatic shift in national income from the middle class to the wealthy and a bubble and resulting economic crash (a long term recession) which has destroyed the lives of many working class families and bankrupted local, state and federal governments. This is where we are at.

Burdened by their prejudices and the desire to pay less in taxes (while still receiving a full complement of government services) too many workers may continue to act against their own interests through a willingness to embrace the Republican Party. The problem that vexes liberals is the allure of the free ride and their pursuit of the moral high ground, human and civil rights.

Cultural liberalism has not come cheap. Politically, its been very expensive.

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