Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Capitalist Populism Revisited

TIA reader, colleague, prior poster and fellow NYU alum Craig Lanza thinks I gave capitalism a bad name in my previous post. He offers an interesting take on the true nature of "unbridled capitalism" as I termed it. Here is Lanza in his own words:

I completely agree with your description of
Capitalist Populism. There is one minor point I take issue with however. You compare Capitalist Populism to "unbridled capitalism" or what would be called laissez-fare capitalism.

I disagree with the idea that the latter is really an "unbridled capitalism" in that you say:

Capitalism left unchecked, as in the days before the Roosevelts, and increasingly under the new Republican leadership, can be a brutish and inefficient economic structure - with little regard for fairness, decency, the ubiquity of opportunity, and the potential for human suffering.
But is that really capitalism? Thinkers like Adam Smith, who perhaps would say yes, overlook a significant fact: that capitalism is a creature of law. Capitalism is essentially predicated on contract law, without the contract there is no exchange, without the exchange no capitalism. Indeed, capitalism grew out of a previous form of economic organization namely mercantilism where the State's interests predominated the individual. When compared to mercantilism, capitalism appeared to be less regulated.

However, the idea that capitalism - particularly monopoly oriented capitalism - is a natural unregulated state like Hobbes' state of nature is absurd. Capitalism is a creature of law and as such is predicated on a notion of fairness. Thus, calling unfair capitalism "unbridled capitalism" is a misnomer. The granting of tax breaks for small business would get closer to "unbridled capitalism" than a system which allows for the creation of corporate monstrosities hell-bent on eliminating their competition.

[Elsewhere: Praktike provides some interesting links that update the progression of Capitalist Populism, and the ongoing battle for defining the progressive economic agenda currently simmering between David Sirota and Ed Kilgore (the latter writing for the DLC sponsored site New Donkey).

In one post, Kilgore criticizes the Sirota article which I referenced in composing my doctrine of Capitalist Populism. Much of Kilgore's piece is aimed at defending the DLC from Sirota's criticisms and claiming that the DLC endorses many of the positions Sirota advocates.

And he usefully explains how Schweitzer blasted Montana Republicans for corporate subsidies, government inefficiency, and poor public lands management to win--without, of course, realizing that these are strategies the DLC has strongly and repeatedly endorsed....

Sirota goes on to list a lot of other red-state Democrats who have succeeded by defying the "corporate/DLC argument," and most of them are actually politicians with long-standing close connections with the DLC: Ken and John Salazar of CO, Janet Napolitano of AZ, John Spratt of SC, Eliot Spitzer of NY, and Stephanie Herseth of SD.
Since I have no axe to grind with the DLC, and don't see their repudiation as a prerequisite to the adoption of Capitalist Populism, I will leave it to those two to fight it out over who has truer populist bona fides. Other aspects of Kilgore's critique require further attention. Kilgore claims that Sirota puts too much stock in the efficacy of populism to win elections.

I hate to sound like a pointy-head here, but the argument Sirota's making--that economic 'populism' of the most atavistic sort trumps cultural conservatism--has been around for a long time, dating back at least to the early '70s. Yet Sirota seems to think he's the first to discover it; hence the "Da Vinci Code" title, and article's breathless claim, repeated often with the tone of revelation, that beating back the Cultural Right is real easy if you just keep appealing to the ol' pocketbook.
Kilgore might have a point (if not a pointy-head), but in some ways it is irrelevant. Even if Sirota's version of economic populism, or the slightly modified Capitalist Populism that I expounded on, are not magic bullets that "trump cultural conservatism" it does not mean that such directives are not useful in any way. This type of argument demands too much of a given economic policy. Capitalist Populism will help Democrats to define a coherent economic strategy based on values that everyday Americans can relate to. It might not make beating cultural conservatives in red states "real easy" but even if it improves our stakes along the margins, and in swing states, that's good enough for me. And of course, the reason it is a wise strategy is not because it promises instant or sweeping electoral gains. It is good policy because it is what our values demand. Simply put, it is the right thing to do for hard working Americans. The beauty is, the adoption of values-based policies such as these are often a precursor to garnering loyalty and support at the polls. If you build it, they will come.

While Kilgore is right to point out other factors that helped the electoral fortunes of the candidates that Sirota used as examples, he also engages in some shoddy criticism in this area, particularly in relation to the Bernie Sanders reference.

But the bizarre nature of Sirota's definition of a "progressive populist" is illustrated by his constant references to two House Members: the Socialist independent from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, and the Blue Dog from Mississippi, Gene Taylor.

You don't have to be a political whiz to know that Sanders is the at-large Congressman from Vermont, a state that gave John Kerry a 20-point win over George Bush. That state's relevance to a discussion of "red-state and red region" Democrats is mystifying, to say the least.
The problem is, Sirota did acknowledge that Sanders is from true-blue Vermont and that his election had everything to do with that. But Sirota's point was that Sanders also received overwhelming support from conservative regions of Vermont, particularly the Northeast Kingdom. Sirota's argument being, the election of Sanders in a state like Vermont is expected, but the support he receives from conservative districts within that state might warrant closer examination. In this sense, Kilgore ignores Sirota's point to score cheap points as if this were a televised debate.

Despite these somewhat territorial bickerings, Paul Glastris is building bridges of commonality between the two. Which seems a strange exercise to engage in anyway since Kilgore argued essentially that the DLC had been there, done that, in relation to Sirota's arguments in the first place. If the DLC already endorses these policies, a bridge would be redundant. The Democrats' penchant for internecine fighting never ceases to amaze me.]

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