By Jim Miller
Recently, in “Neoliberalism and Its Discontents: What’s Left Beyond More Impoverished Choices?”, I continued my analysis of the national debate that followed the publication of Adolph Reed’s sharp criticism of what qualifies as the “left” in the contemporary American political landscape.
After that column was posted, Reed wrote yet another piece in American Prospect, this time responding to Harold Meyerson’s dismissal of his call for a left less tethered to a Democratic Party increasingly colonized by Wall Street and other corporate interests.
In it Reed makes a key point about both the current political landscape and the recent history that has produced it:
The core difference between us is that Meyerson has no patience for notions that there can, much less should, be a serious left politics that is not articulated relative to the Democratic Party. I argue the need for building an extra-electoral left that is independent of the Democrats because the party’s dominant political orientation has become less and less responsive to labor and other constituencies concerned with egalitarian economic policies, and more committed to placating the financial interests whose economic priorities intensify inequality and economic insecurity.He does not acknowledge that difference in discussing my article.
Instead, he sidesteps it by allowing that, while my contention about neoliberal dominance may have been plausible at some point in the past, it is no longer. In Meyerson’s view, in addition to being in the stratosphere, my perspective is also “frozen in time” and thus misses the party’s important shifts away from Clintonite neoliberalism.
However, the factoids Meyerson adduces to demonstrate that the Democratic center of gravity has shifted sharply to the left are not as persuasive as he asserts. The “popularity of Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio within the Democratic base” may or may not translate into any significant change in the national party’s orientation down the road.
Paul Wellstone was very popular with the party’s base his entire time in the Senate, most of which was during the Clinton presidency—the years when the Wall Street wing of the party became dominant. We’ll see what sort of modus vivendi de Blasio has to establish with Wall Street interests in New York, and how much and on what issues he has to accommodate it. Pundits have begun already to hype an Elizabeth Warren wing of the party as a progressive alternative to a Hillary Clinton wing. At this point all such talk is empty chatter, and it is a very familiar sort of empty chatter . . .
Again, the fact that it has been possible often enough for progressives to hold off the worst initiatives is hardly a recommendation for subordinating left political strategy entirely to the Democratic Party and its coalitional processes. . . . Beneath it all, though, I suspect that something else animates Meyerson’s response to my take on the left: Meyerson’s vision for an egalitarian American society is limited, in my view counterproductively, by his insistence that progressive political aspirations must be shaped entirely within, if not subordinated to the Democratic Party and its electoral and interest-group processes. That’s fine, of course, but he should just say so.
The giveaway in his response comes near the end, when he associates me with a claim I do not make about the labor movement’s heavy concentration of political action in supporting Democratic candidates. I do not contend that the labor movement should downgrade their electoral work, as he implies.
What I argue is that, in addition to doing what they have to do in the electoral realm, it would be wise to consider putting some resources into the longer-term project of developing and cultivating a broader constituency, in unions and outside, for a clearly working-class based political agenda that is anchored in the labor movement. But are we really to believe that out of the scores of millions of dollars the labor movement spent in the 2012 election, for example, it would have been unthinkable to consider dedicating a small fraction to non-electoral campaigns of political education and mobilization around issues that speak to working people’s concerns—whether or not Democrats support them or find them practical? For Meyerson it apparently is . . . But what I propose is hardly a novel notion; it was arguably the most important element of CIO activism.
To follow up on Reed’s argument that labor needs to revisit the best practices of the CIO, our first principle should not be rooted in what’s good for the Democratic Party, but rather in the unwavering assertion that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” That means expanding what we think of when we talk about politics to long-term movement building.
Betty Yee Speaks the Truth to Power
Interestingly, the same week, Betty Yee gave a memorable speech at the California Democratic Party convention where she criticized Democrats for the very sins that Reed did. As noted in the LA Progressive:
Betty Yee, who has developed a reputation as an honest and effective numbers-cruncher at the state tax board, delivered a stinging rebuke of her party Sunday, saying that California Democrats have become disconnected from their core values.
“Democrats, we are just as guilty of getting sucked into the influence of money and power about which we criticize Republicans,” Yee, a member of State Board of Equalization, said in the most honest and memorable speech of this weekend’s annual state party convention. ”It is time we have politics shaped by our values, rather than our values shaped by politics. If not, I believe Democrats will continue to lose ground with respect to the electorate.”
The blunt criticism of some in her party came less than twelve hours after she successfully blocked the party from endorsing in a closely-contested race for state Controller. The “no endorsement” vote was considered a major blow to her Democratic rival, Speaker of the Assembly John Perez, who wields substantial power and influence over delegate appointments.
Three cheers for Betty Yee.
The Empire Strikes Back
And just to provide a little more evidence that Reed is on to something, Ben White and Maggie Haberman in “The Rich Strike Back” in Politico observe that:
Just a few months ago, it looked like 2014 would be the year of the populist, with Democrats running on economic inequality, tea party Republicans bashing banks and newly minted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledging to soak the rich with higher taxes.
That was so January. The terrain is now shifting fast as the 1 percent fights back hard and the effectiveness of the populist approach comes into question.
Fresh off a bruising loss in Florida, the Democratic playbook for the midterms appears in need of a major rewrite — and the pro-business wing of the party is ready to draw up new plans. President Barack Obama in his budget once again floated a plan to raise taxes on Wall Street, but no one took it seriously. And just days later, the president was raising money at the home of one of the wealthiest private equity executives in New York. Mayor de Blasio’s hopes to increase taxes on the wealthiest got blown out by Wall Street’s newest hero, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And de Blasio is facing major heat from the rich over his opposition to charter schools.
So, before the greatly anticipated populist comeback could even happen, the neoliberal forces inside the Democratic Party are doing what they can to kill it in the crib. In New York, this means that Governor Cuomo has gone so far as to align himself with folks like Ken Longone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot who claimed that “liberals are just like Hitler” for decrying our historic level of income inequality.
Longone is currently the chair of “Republicans for Cuomo,” a group of business interests who are drawn to Cuomo’s call for spending and tax cuts. It goes without saying that Cuomo’s early pushback against De Blasio’s efforts to tax the rich is a big plus for his GOP friends.
The Politico piece goes on to note that the Wall Street Democrats want to move away from openly criticizing economic inequality and “the politics of envy” toward the politics of “economic growth.” At the same time, in the Republican Party, the Tea Party is on its heels and this signals a “shift back toward the establishment.” The take away: if the business wing of the Democratic Party succeeds, look forward to more of the same old “centrism” where two neoliberal parties fight for the favor of the 1%.
This is all aided of course by our friend Vladamir Putin:
[T]he shift away from a focus on income inequality and reining in Wall Street stems both from the economy, which is slowly improving, and the dominant issue of the day, which is now the crisis in Ukraine.
The aggressive actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin have eased the anxieties of Wall Streeters sick of being portrayed as the enemy. “We obviously see other things driving the news cycle,” a top industry executive said. “Ukraine keeps the focus off the evil 1 percent, so I guess we have Putin to thank for that. The improving economy helps as well.”
The Old Switcheroo: From “Inequality” to “Opportunity”
Over at Salon, the always savvy Thomas Frank hits the nail on the head when he writes how Obama himself signaled the shift away from ever actually doing something about economic inequality when he stopped talking about how the “defining challenge of our time” was inequality and started talking about how “the defining challenge of our time” was “opportunity.”
The problem with this, according to Frank, is that:
When people talk about opportunity nowadays, they’re often not trying to refine the debate over inequality, they’re trying to negate it. The social function of mobility-talk is usually to excuse inequality, not to change it; to persuade us that the system we have now is fair and even natural—or that it can be made so with a few more charter schools or student loans or something. Because everyone has a chance at making it into the One Percent, this version of “opportunity” tells us, there’s nothing wrong with letting the One Percent hog every dish at the banquet.
The well-known libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, for example, writes in his new book “Average is Over” that we increasingly inhabit a “hyper-meritocracy” in which “top earners” take home more than ever before because, duh, they’ve got the right skills and hence they deserve to take home more than top earners ever have before. The future might look bleak for less-than-top people like you, but if you fall off the ladder of opportunity there’s only one answer: Get used to it.
Thus the man who many of us, including Frank, thought would take advantage of the economic crisis he inherited to change the game, has now abandoned addressing the challenge in any real way. As Frank urges us to remember, Obama was elected on a wave of populist anger and hope for a better deal:
Public revulsion against this incredible state of affairs is what delivered Barack Obama to the presidency, and we rightfully expected him to address the problem. His resounding failure to do so outweighs all his noble statements about studying hard and climbing ladders of opportunity.
The distressing fact is that Obama had perhaps the greatest chance of any president in recent years to smash the barriers that keep the talented from climbing the ladder, and he chose to do nothing. The sledgehammer was in the president’s hands, the nation was cheering for him to start pounding—and he walked away from the job.
Thus we are left with a President who failed to take Wall Street to task but who is happy to help Wall Street “disrupt” our public education system. Not that any of that is working, but, as Frank notes, in our time “the game is rigged” and we have “accountability for thee but not for me.”
That’s why many clear-eyed observers like Bill Fletcher have called on folks in labor and allied social movements to realize the stark truth that, “The era of neo-liberal globalization has unsettled the labor/capital relationship in the capitalist world, particularly in the advanced capitalist world. It has brought to an end the period of the Welfare State and has replaced it with an all-out war of capital against labor. To put it another way, it has introduced into the global North much of what has been transpiring in the global South since the days of colonialism.”
And there isn’t a “ladder” tall enough to help us climb out of this one. We need an entirely different set of tools.