Monday, July 12, 2004

Economic Populism And The Future Viability Of The Democratic Party

Journalist and author Rick Perlstein has written a provocative indictment of Democratic leadership over the past 25 years. In laying the groundwork for his critique, Perlstein begins with a parable. He provides a historical account of the corporate trajectory of waning aviation superpower Boeing. Perlstein tells how Boeing, at its inception and throughout most of its history, was willing to take the longview, eschewing short-term profits for long-term goals that required sacrifice, hard work, ingenuity and perserverence. In adopting this approach, however, Boeing was able to build watershed products, such as the 747, and brand name awareness that garnered the one-time start-up a near monopolistic market dominance.

Boeing's approach did not satisfy Wall Street, though, which has always preferred short-term gains to long-term profits. This led to a famous hostile take-over bid in 1987 that was successfully defended, but which transformed Boeing's strategy to one that catered more to Wall Street's demands. Sloughed off were the slow-moving divisions, the research and development groups and the excess capacity. The company was no longer willing to plunge money into time intensive product development that would produce the next generation of commercial aircraft, favoring instead to streamline its current operations in order to boost cost efficiency and maximize shareholder return. Without its forward-looking vision, and engine of innovation driving it, Boeing began to lose its market dominance to plodding pedestrian companies like Airbus, who were willing to utilize Boeing's early successful strategy. Now Airbus is dominating the next phase of the commercial aviation market with its revolutionary super jumbo models. As Perlsein notes, "A company called Boeing will likely hang on for the foreseeable future. But, writes one financial journalist, 'the odds are good that Boeing will be out of the commercial aircraft business in ten years.'"

Perlstein uses the parable of Boeing to admonish the Democratic leadership for what he perceives as an abandonment of the long-term vision of traditional Democratic principles, in favor of poll-sensitive short term quick fixes that may help boost stock prices in the near term (translation: win present day elections), but may in fact endanger the long-term health of the Party. He laments the fact that the Democratic Party has increasingly become a Party with no discernible platform. As he points out, "We are left with a political party whose fixation on shifts in public opinion can be hawk-like, one that concertedly questions core principles in the interests of flexibility."

Conservatives, on the other hand, have taken the long view by adopting their vision of conservativism and suffering losses in the short term, especially in Congress, as their then unpopular theories were being fleshed out. They have, however, benefitted greatly in the long run by presenting a clear message, an alternative and comprehensive world view, that allows voters to identify with the party as a whole. Now they control all three branches of government, and have even succeeded in pushing their economic agenda on to the most recent Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

The primary culprits that Perlstein holds responsible for this paradigm shift are the Democratic Leadership Council, and their recent champion Bill Clinton. For Perlstein, Clinton and the DLC have come perilously close to disavowing cherished Democratic principles in favor of the swing voter issue du jour. Through the much ballyhood strategy of triangulation, or creating a third way compromise between the right and the left, Clinton undercut the ideological base of the party and, although successful in the short term, might erode long-term identification with a party that does not appear to be taking strong principled stands.

Much of this political kow towing, in his estimation, stems from the shock of the Presidential defeats in the 70's and 80's, and the midterm losses in 2002, but according to Perlstein, the DLC has over-reacted to what was a predictable backlash from the 60's counter-culture (which has mostly subsided), poorly run elections in which the Republican opponent has had a more cohesive message (also due to the muddled vision of the Democrats), and in some cases disproportionately high voter turnout for conservatives.

Perlstein acknowledges that Clinton and the DLC have successfully outmaneuvered their Republican counterparts in some recent elections, but the nature of these moves greatly undermine the prospects for long-term success by diminishing the recognizability and appeal of the Democratic brand. But the question could be asked, what is important about Democratic identity if the Democrats are winning elections today? Perlstein responds: "It matters for a bedrock political-science reason: party identification is the most reliable predictor of whether someone will vote for a given candidate." Without large segments of the population that identify themselves as Democrats, the Party will have to spend enormous amounts of money convincing an increasingly skeptical group of swing voters to support the ticket, which in turn would perpetuate the image of the Democrats as lacking a cohesive vision and long term dream.

The solution proposed by Perlstein, is a reinvigorated return to the support for "a larger government effort to reduce the differences between high- and middle-income people," and to do so using innovative methods and means of communication to the electorate (some possibilities mentioned are single payer health care, subsidized college tuition, tax relief for the lower income brackets, closing corporate loopholes, etc.)

In advocating for a new vision of economic populism and equality, Perlstein presents a compelling statistical picture, largely citing from the book The Two Americas by Stanley Greenberg:

"Of the top eight concerns, only one, by the traditional reckoning, helps the Republicans: 'Rogue nations, like Iran and North Korea, armed with weapons of mass destruction and working together with global terrorist organizations.' It's ranked in second place, designated 'extremely serious' or 'very serious' by 72 percent of respondents. But before that, in first place, is the biggest problem: 'the state of healthcare in America,' a major concern for 77 percent. Four through eight read thus: 'two-parent families spending 22 or fewer hours with their children every week in order to work and earn enough'; 'the state of education in America'; 'the middle class being squeezed, because their incomes are stagnant while prices are skyrocketing for housing, college tuition, and health care, with employers contributing less each year'; 'big corporations having too much influence'; and 'the growing inequality of income in America.' (The issue in third place, 'rapidly rising federal deficits,' represents a tactical disadvantage for the Bush administration.)

All these are rated major problems by 52 percent or more. When you get near the bottom of the list, you start getting Republican issues: 'out-of-control government spending and programs'; 'outdated government regulations'; and 'the high taxes on businesses and individuals.'

That would be the crown jewel of the Republican agenda, which only 15 percent rate an 'extremely serious problem' and 15 percent call 'very serious.' All three of the above are worried over by less than 45 percent of respondents.

Greenberg asks a group of voters what they think about 'big corporations': 'They spit out, 'money,' 'greed,' and 'Enron.' They 'try and run the little guy out' and 'have too much control over the little people.' . . . 'They want more and more and more.... 'It really makes me question and just lose faith in everything that we are supposed to believe in.'"

It is a topic, he concludes, that one of his focus-group subsets approaches 'with revulsion formerly reserved for Hollywood.' These people do not come from one of his swing-voter subsets. They are 'Country Folks,' rural men and women without a college education, a demographic that went for Bush over Gore almost two to one.

It's a story you find again and again, buried in his pages. Fifty-two percent of elderly non-college-educated men call themselves Republicans, only 39 percent Democrats - and only 37 percent of them believe that regulation does more harm than good. As for his national sample as a whole, 'a 55 percent majority favors a larger government effort to reduce the differences between high- and middle-income people. The majority reaches 65 percent to aggressively shut down corporate loopholes and shelters. . . More than 60 percent of Americans say CEO wrongdoing is a 'widespread problem' in a system that is failing' - a figure 'well in excess of the percent getting 'very angry' about the federal government spending the social security surplus, as a modest point of comparison.'

From this, Greenberg makes an extraordinary admission: 'The anticorporate reaction is not the strongest among the Democratic loyalists; it is not a 'base strategy' in conventional political terms. The anticorporate appeal reaches into the contested world, and even the Republican loyalist world.' So why aren't these people Democrats?"

In answering that last question, "why aren't these people Democrats," I believe Thomas Frank has provided some answers in his book What's The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. In What's The Matter With Kansas, Frank lays out how the GOP has successfully manipulated the culture wars to elect politicians that have enacted an economic agenda that is actually against the interest of many, if not most, of these politicians' supporters. According to Franks, the GOP has effectively used values issues like abortion, gun rights and homosexuality to motivate and convert a base of supporters that were previously inactive.

What is even more telling, though, is how successful the right wing has been at tapping into class resentment in order to motivate lower income segments of the electorate to support ultra-conservative candidates. There has been an effective characterization by pundits on the right, of liberals as wealthy elitists from big cities and old money enclaves on the east and west coasts. Liberals, according to the narrative, are the driving force behind Hollywood, Television, the media and the entertainment industry in general, forces which have been instrumental in pushing their liberal agenda of moral decay, thought policing and compelled tolerance of all manner of perversion on an unreceptive populace. These are the wealthy, privileged, elitists that have the real power in this society, the Goliath that the Conservative outsiders are trying to take down. Nevermind the fact that the Republican Party has long been the party that represents corporate interests and wealthy individuals, and fact that the entertainment industry and media industry are, well just that: industries, driven by profit, corporate mandate and capitalist principles. The new paradigm is the conservative as disempowered outsider, fighting the power.

Kansas represents a microcosm of this phenomenon in the extreme. In Kansas there is a divide between moderate Republicans, who have historically dominated the state's political machine, and ultra-conservatives, relative new-comers to the scene. The moderates have a more balanced economic program, although one firmly entrenched in conservative principles, and are socially liberal in a relative sense. They tend to support abortion rights, are tolerant of homosexuality and are comfortable with teaching evolution in public schools. The ultra-conservatives have a religious right social agenda, which includes banning abortion, criminalizing homosexuality and banning the teaching of evolution in favor of creationism, and a radical, Grover Norquist, starve-the-beast economic policy, that skews heavily in favor of big agribusiness at the expense of family farmers, de-regulation and anti-union measures which hurt wage earners, slashing to non-existence social programs like head start, unemployment benefits, and Section 8 housing which benefit those on the lower income scale, and supports large scale tax relief for the wealthiest taxpayers.

The ultimate irony is that the ultra-conservative side draws almost all of its support from an extensive grassroots movement populated by those on the lowest economic scale, whereas the moderate Republicans gain their support from the wealthier Kansans. Within the ultra-conservative movement there is hostility to the moderate Republicans because they tend to be wealthier then their fellow citizens and populate the upscale neighborhoods. The moderates are actually described as "liberal elitists" in local newspapers and editorials. There seems to be an open class warfare from the hard liners that breeds resentment against the wealthy moderates, and taps into feelings of powerlessness in the face of wealthier more powerful citizens. This strategy has been met with much success as the moderate candidates have been consistently voted out in favor of ultra-cons who appeal to "everyday folks" (even though most of them are also from the privileged set). As these working-class heroes rail against the wealthy and the privileged, they elect politicians that enact policies that make them wealthier, more elite and more privileged. Even when the ultra-conservatives win, they lose.

Frank calls it a French Revolution in reverse, where the sans culottes take to the streets and storm the Bastille demanding more money and privilege for the aristocracy.

The lesson from Kansas, and from Perlstein's thesis, is that economic populism resonates with the electorate. Even if it is misdirected against the liberals who are actually trying to enact policies that will benefit the lower income brackets, it is a resurgent driving force in politics. The Republican side has realized the potential, and have tapped into the anger, frustration and feelings of disillusionment to achieve its political goals, which in a perverse twist only ensure that the disparity in wealth and the plight of the working class and lower income brackets are exacerbated. The Democrats can seize this issue and wrest it from the Republicans, because with only a minimal effort the Democrats can show how the Republicans are really the party that represents the interests of big corporations and the wealthiest individuals. It is in fact the traditional economic populism of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement which seek to empower the common man, and curtail the excesses of the elites.

The reinvigorated embrace of economic populism would go a long way toward establishing a long term vision that would ensure that Democrats are still flying high in 2018 and beyond, as well as undercut the successes of the recent conservative misinformation campaign.

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