September 1, 2006

Rendevous with destiny or oblivion?

You all know my not-so-secret crush on Thomas Frank who hs been as a guest columnist over at the NYT in August (yes my dears, it is now officially September). His column yesterday was fantastic as usual. Taking on the "New Democrats" Franks excoriates their triangulation and embrace of corporate spin. Here it is, from behind the firewall:

Over the last month I have tried to describe conservative power in Washington, but with a small change of emphasis I could just as well have been describing the failure of liberalism: the center-left’s inability to comprehend the current political situation or to draw upon what is most vital in its own history.

What we have watched unfold for a few decades, I have argued, is a broad reversion to 19th-century political form, with free-market economics understood as the state of nature, plutocracy as the default social condition, and, enthroned as the nation’s necessary vice, an institutionalized corruption surpassing anything we have seen for 80 years. All that is missing is a return to the gold standard and a war to Christianize the Philippines.

Historically, liberalism was a fighting response to precisely these conditions. Look through the foundational texts of American liberalism and you can find everything you need to derail the conservative juggernaut. But don’t expect liberal leaders in Washington to use those things. They are “New Democrats” now, enlightened and entrepreneurial and barely able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone muster the strength to deliver some Rooseveltian stemwinder against “economic royalists.”

Mounting a campaign against plutocracy makes as much sense to the typical Washington liberal as would circulating a petition against gravity. What our modernized liberal leaders offer — that is, when they’re not gushing about the glory of it all at Davos — is not confrontation but a kind of therapy for those flattened by the free-market hurricane: they counsel us to accept the inevitability of the situation and to try to understand how we might retrain or re-educate ourselves so we will fit in better next time.

This last point was a priority for the Clinton administration. But in “The Disposable American,” a disturbing history of job security, Louis Uchitelle points out that the New Democrats’ emphasis on retraining (as opposed to broader solutions that Old Democrats used to favor) is merely a kinder version of the 19th-century view of unemployment, in which economic dislocation always boils down to the fitness of the unemployed person himself.

Or take the “inevitability” of recent economic changes, a word that the centrist liberals of the Washington school like to pair with “globalization.” We are told to regard the “free-trade” deals that have hammered the working class almost as acts of nature. As the economist Dean Baker points out, however, we could just as easily have crafted “free-trade” agreements that protected manufacturing while exposing professions like law, journalism and even medicine to ruinous foreign competition, losing nothing in quality but saving consumers far more than Nafta did.

When you view the world from the satisfied environs of Washington — a place where lawyers outnumber machinists 27 to 1 and where five suburban counties rank among the seven wealthiest in the nation — the fantasies of postindustrial liberalism make perfect sense. The reign of the “knowledge workers” seems noble.

Seen from almost anywhere else, however, these are lousy times. The latest data confirms that as the productivity of workers has increased, the ones reaping the benefits are stockholders. Census data tells us that the only reason family income is keeping up with inflation is that more family members are working.

Everything I have written about in this space points to the same conclusion: Democratic leaders must learn to talk about class issues again. But they won’t on their own. So pressure must come from traditional liberal constituencies and the grass roots, like the much-vilified bloggers. Liberalism also needs strong, well-funded institutions fighting the rhetorical battle. Laying out policy objectives is all well and good, but the reason the right has prevailed is its army of journalists and public intellectuals. Moving the economic debate to the right are dozens if not hundreds of well-funded Washington think tanks, lobbying outfits and news media outlets. Pushing the other way are perhaps 10.

The more comfortable option for Democrats is to maintain their present course, gaming out each election with political science and a little triangulation magic, their relevance slowly ebbing as memories of the middle-class republic fade.
I had to click on Franks' "stemwinder"link and it took me to Franklin Roosevelt's address to the 1936 Democratic Convention. Click on the link! Read it! Just a teaser:
For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital-all undreamed of by the fathers-the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.

There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small business men and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.

It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.

The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor-these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small business man, the investments set aside for old age-other people's money-these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in.

Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right. The small measure of their gains was decreed by men in distant cities.

Throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.


myrnatheminx said...

Great posts yesterday and today...I have always loved Franks as well which is ironic because he constantly ridicules my field of study (cultural studies). However, I think he is so right about so much, and unfortunately, because the money in politics has reached astronomical levels, I doubt we will ever seriously discuss class in this nation until the economy completely tanks--I'm talking about depression level here.

We like to pretend that our middle class is still the bedrock of the nation, but all current policies tell us otherwise. With politics these days being predominantly about lipservice with no follow-up, every politician can say they are for a strong middle class and somehow that counts as the truth--even when all evidence points to the opposite.

Being poor is shameful and so its shameful to even acknowledge that we have poor families in this country. Imagine any politician proposing real solutions for poverty today?! One of these days, the veil of the "war on terror" that has been pulled over everyone's eyes has got to come off. I keep thinking we're almost there, but then we're not. I don't know what's its going to take for it to finally happen, but when it does, its going to be ugly. People will all of a sudden realize the dupes they've been and they'll be angry. Perhaps they'll continue taking it out on immigrants, but perhaps, another leader similair to FDR will emerge to channel the rage and usher in a new populist and humanist age. A minx can hope anyway.

tarlos25 said...

The problem with bringing the poor into politics is twofold. First, most poor people don't have the motivation to vote. This apathy is caused by several factors. Most poor people have to work all day. While the polls may be open until well after they get home, most of the time the lines are fairly long at that point, especially in a poor area, because everyone has to vote then, since most employers who only pay minimum wage don't offer much flexibility in terms of time off to vote. A wait of 30 minutes or more can be quite daunting to someone who's already spent 8 hours working a job they probably don't like.

As you stated, politicians cater to the rich. That's because most of their money comes from the rich. Their power is due to rich supporters. They have the money to buy ads, hold events, etc. Money is very powerful. Any politician who goes against what the upper class wants will likely not get the support of the upper class.

Also, some people see their vote as basically irrelevant. For instance, a Democrat in a solidly Republican state. Yes, they can vote for a Democrat, but it's not going to change the end result. To that end, what's the point of voting? Yes, you make it known that one more person supports the Democrat, but it won't change who wins. The candidates don't share power based on how many votes they get. The one with the most wins, period. Unfortunately, this generates an apathetic view. Even worse, if enough people think this, it can actually change the results.

The question is, how do we combat these issues? Campaign finance reform can only do so much. People and organizations will find ways around any laws in place. And without enough individuals donating, there is no way to match the financial power of large corporations. And it isn't fair to say that someone can't donate because their company has donated. It could make sense to say that if a company has donated to a particular candidate, then no employees could donate to that candidate, but then people will go through intermediaries.

A better solution (IMHO) would be to limit the effectiveness of campaign finances. Limit the methods for spending campaign money. For instance, only allow one TV ad a day on each channel. Or no candidate can have more airtime than any other candidate in the same race. Similarly with radio and print ads. It would also be nice for funding sources to be more publicized. Maybe require the candidates to report periodically to the public (not just to the state/federal government, but directly to the public, say in a once-a-month news special) who their top funders are.

As for voter apathy, there are many ways to fight that. Of course some are better than others. I'm personally not fond of the lottery idea (I believe AZ was doing this). That'll just bring out people voting randomly merely to get a free lottery ticket. As I see it, one of the best tools here would be voter education. First, everyone must truly understand that every vote counts. Then, show people how they will be affected by the results of their vote. For many poor people, it is a common belief that it really doesn't matter who's elected, they'll be screwed anyway. Show them how electing someone will affect their life in a meaningful way. When people see their life being threatened, they'll take action to protect themselves. As it is, voting is a very indirect method of protection. It is powerful, but without being direct, many people can't follow the chain back to themselves.