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.