Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with a gaggle of bored reporters and some boldfaced names in the progressive movement, unveiled a “Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality.” Much like the media event that accompanied its unveiling, the agenda is supposed to be understood as a kind of 21st-century, liberal version of the storied “Contract with America,” the PR stunt that, as legend (erroneously) has it, rocketed Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party to power after the 1994 midterm elections. As my colleague Joan Walsh reported on Thursday, this backward-looking attempt to lay out a forward-looking platform for the Democratic Party did not go entirely according to plan.
Which is not to say it was a failure. In fact, for a photo-op held during a non-election year in May and headlined by a relatively unknown local politician, the unveiling of the agenda probably got more attention than it deserved. Even so, as Joan relayed from the scene, there was some tension at the event — and not only because President Obama’s hard sell of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is driving some liberals to distraction while making others defensive. Sure, the agenda does call on lawmakers to “[o]ppose trade deals that hand more power to corporations at the expense of American jobs, workers’ rights, and the environment,” which is basically how the TPP is described by its foes. But that discord was for the most part kept under the surface.
The real reason de Blasio’s stab at playing the role of Progressive Moses was a bit awkward (despite going much better for him than it did for Ed Miliband) is knottier and harder to ignore. And it didn’t only trip up Hizzoner, but also marred a same-day Roosevelt Institute event on “rewriting the rules” of the economy, which was keynoted by no less a figure than Sen. Elizabeth Warren. It’s an issue that’s long dogged the American left, and the United States more generally, and it’s one that will not go away, no matter how fervently everyone may wish. It is, of course, the issue of race; and as these D.C. left-wing confabs showed, it will dash any hope of a liberal future unless the “professional left” gets deathly serious about it — and quick.
If you haven’t read Joan’s piece (which you really should), here’s a quick summary of how race wound up exposing the fault lines of the left at two events that were supposed to be about unity of purpose. Despite American politics becoming increasingly concentrated over the past two years on issues of mass incarceration and police brutality — which both have much to do with the legacy of white supremacy and the politics of race — neither de Blasio’s agenda nor the Roosevelt Institute’s report spend much time on reforming criminal justice. To their credit, folks from both camps have agreed that this was a mistake and have promised to redress it in the future. Still, it was quite an oversight — and a shame, too, because it justifiably distracted from an agenda and a report that were both chock-full of good ideas.
I wasn’t in the room when de Blasio’s agenda or the Roosevelt Institute’s report were created, but I feel quite confident in saying that the mistake here was not a result of prejudice or thoughtlessness or even conscious timidity. I suspect instead that ingrained habits and knee-jerk reflexes — born from coming of age, at least politically, in the Reagan era — are more likely to blame. Because while the radical left has been talking about and organizing around racial injustices for decades, mainstream American liberalism, the kind of liberalism that is comfortably within the Democratic Party mainstream, is much less familiar with explicitly integrating race into its broader vision.
Let me try to put some meat on those bones with a concrete example also taken from earlier in the week. On Tuesday, President Obama joined the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne, the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, and Harvard’s Robert Putnam at Georgetown University for a public conversation about poverty. And while you’d expect race to come up — what with the African-American poverty rate being nearly three times that of whites, the African-American unemployment rate being more than two times that of whites, and the African-American median household income being barely more than half that of whites — you would be incorrect. As the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in response to this strange conversation, “the word ‘racism’ does not appear in the transcript once.”
Again, it strikes me as unlikely that simple bigotry is the reason. A more probable explanation is that mainstream American liberals like Obama and Dionne (Brooks is a conservative and Putnam is not explicitly political) have become so used to tiptoeing around white Americans’ racial anxieties that they cannot stop without a conscious effort. For the past 30-plus years, mainstream liberalism has tried to address racial injustice by focusing on the related but distinct phenomenon of economic injustice. The strategy, as Coates puts it, has been to “talk about class and hope no one notices” the elephant in the room, which is race. And for much of that time, one could at least make a case that the strategy worked.
But as I’ve been hammering on lately in pieces about Hillary Clinton, the ’90s are over. What made political sense in 1996 doesn’t make nearly as much sense today. Like the Democratic Party coalition, the country is not as white as it used to be. And the young Americans whose backing liberals will need to push the Democrats and the country to the left are the primary reason. If it was always true that the progressive movement could not afford to take the support of non-white Americans for granted, it’s exponentially more true now, when the energy and vitality of the progressive movement is so overwhelmingly the product of social movements — like the Fight for $15 or #BlackLivesMatter — driven by people of color.
As Hillary Clinton seems to understand, a key component of smart politics is to meet your voters and your activists where they are, rather than where history or the conventional wisdom tells you they should be. For the broader progressive movement, that means shaking off the learned habits of the recent past — and, more specifically, overcoming the fear that talking forthrightly about unavoidably racial problems, like mass incarceration, will scare away too many white voters to win. Economic and racial injustice have always been seamlessly interconnected in America; but as leading progressives learned this week, the time when liberals could talk about class but whisper about race is coming to an end.
By: Elias Isquith, Salon, May 16, 2015
I argued last week that left-of-center pundits who are demanding someone in the Democratic Party pose a challenge to Hillary Clinton are not offering arguments. Instead, they are expressing anxiety. Fears, not reasons. They worry that Clinton won’t earn the party’s nomination, but instead seize it as a birthright, which runs afoul of liberal commitments to merit, competition, and fair play.
Because the Republicans have no such concern (despite Jeb Bush’s urging to the contrary), I argued that the stakes are too high for restarting debate over first principles. Unlike 2008, Hillary Clinton now stands alone with no significant opposition in sight. That may change, of course, but for now, she is the best choice for maintaining Barack Obama’s broad voting coalition and for protecting the hard-won progressive gains of the president’s administration.
It was a cold-blooded analysis, perhaps made colder by the fact that I wasn’t writing from the heart. I was instead writing as a voter, and voters must, I contend, try to pierce, as much as possible, through the “hologram” of American politics, as the late great populist Joe Bageant put it. So I’m getting in line behind the Democratic frontrunner even though I personally prefer a dialectic over values, issues, and ideals; even though I personally believe that ideological duels among like-minded partisans is healthy and good; and even though I personally dislike Hillary Clinton.
I realized this dislike in 1991 when I was 17 years old. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was running for the nomination against Jerry Brown (who had been, and is once again, governor of California). Brown had accused Clinton of “funneling money to his wife’s law firm for state business.” Pressed to respond, his wife said: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.”
This comment is usually seen as an artifact of the “culture wars” and the “debate” over the legacy of second-wave feminism. But there’s more to it than that. At the heart of Clinton’s “cookies-and-tea” comment was a kind of rank classism that drove a wedge between voters who would otherwise find common ground in advancing mutually beneficial agendas. Labor is labor, whether done in public or in private, but the Ivy League-educated wife of a presidential up-and-comer was too elitist to see the truth of the matter. The result was stay-at-home mothers — like my own housekeeping mom — splitting from the Democrats and running into the waiting arms of GOP conservatives.
Even so, I believe Hillary Clinton would make a decent president, maybe even a good one, despite her elitism leaving a memorably bad taste in my mouth. People are usually surprised to hear that. They are surprised, I suspect, because the parties and the media, consciously and unconsciously, encourage voters to view candidates as if they were products — as a brand whose image embodies a vast web of psychological phenomena. This despite the fact that familiar candidates like Hillary Clinton are mere mortals whose views and policy positions have long been known. Even so, if you buy a product, the assumption is that you like it. And indeed, candidates have been “sold” to voters for decades. In The Selling of the President, a classic of the 1968 presidential election, the late journalist Joe McGinnis wrote that once politicians and ad men “recognized that the citizen does not so much vote for a candidate as make a psychological purchase of him, [it wasn’t] surprising that they began to work together.”
Since 1968, that profitable alliance has grown in size and sophistication. Anyone can see that. What we can’t see is our political blindness. As Joe Bageant put it, we don’t see the candidates; we see their “hologram.” “All things are purchasable, and indeed, access to anything of value is through purchase. Even mood and consciousness, through psychopharmacology, to suppress our anxiety or enhance sexual performance, or cyberspace linkups to porn, palaver, and purchasing opportunities. But most of all, the hologram generates and guides us to purchasing opportunities.”
The hologram draws much of its power from the fantastical desire for the perfect candidate. Case in point: Barack Obama. He was going to bring change to Washington. How wonderful! Though he did try, the president soon learned he could not transform politics as usual. No way. Indeed, the man who promised to overcome partisanship became, thanks to total Republican obstruction, a pure partisan.
Democratic voters must try to pierce through the Hillary Clinton Hologram, as much as they can, to see the person. The mere mortal. The flawed, maybe tragic, human being. The woman who once thought herself too good to bake cookies at home. She has baggage and can be found ideologically wanting. But none of that matters. What matters is that she’s a Democrat who will protect social-insurance programs, defend higher taxes on the wealthy, and continue peace talks with Cuba and Iran. And what matters is that her campaign has become a juggernaut that has the potential to roll over her Republican opponent.
In comparison, the fact that I don’t like her is irrelevant.
By: John Stoehr, The National Memo, April 29, 2015
“The Dangers Of Democratic Complacency”: The Last Thing Democrats Need Is To Be Lulled Into Complacency
It’s only mid-April, but with “Why Hillary Clinton Is Probably Going to Win the 2016 Election,” New York‘s Jonathan Chait has zoomed into the lead in the race to win this year’s chutzpah-in-punditry award.
Don’t get me wrong. Even with the general election still 19 interminable months away (that’s 571 days, but who’s counting?), Chait makes a strong case for a Clinton victory. But I still wish he hadn’t written the column. The last thing Democrats need is to be lulled into complacency. Yes, they have a number of demographic advantages going into the next election cycle. But that doesn’t mean Clinton will coast to victory.
Chait relies heavily on a new Pew poll, and much of his analysis is sound. Democrats are indeed likely to benefit from two demographic trends: the “emerging Democratic majority” (which is a product of liberal-leaning segments of the population growing at a faster rate than conservative-leaning ones) and the replacement of more conservative older voters by more liberal younger voters.
But Chait fails to note a finding in the Pew poll that should give him pause — namely, that 39 percent of the public now identifies as independent. That’s the highest level in over 75 years of polling.
It’s true that many of these independents are “closet partisans” — functionally Republicans or Democrats in their ideological leanings. But not all of them are, and even some of those who lean one way or the other are persuadable by the other side under the right circumstances and by the right candidate.
This appears not to trouble Chait because, as he notes at the conclusion of his column, he has faith that the Democrats are the only “non-crazy” party in the U.S. at the moment, and thus the only party that will appeal to non-crazy voters.
I submit that this might make a decisive difference if the GOP ends up nominating Ben Carson — which it won’t. It may also prove important if they go for Ted Cruz — which is highly unlikely. And it may even have some effect if they put up Scott Walker or Rand Paul.
But bland-and-boring Jeb Bush? Or Cuban-American pretty boy Marco Rubio? I don’t think so.
Sure, Chait — a loyal Obama supporter and merciless scourge of the right — thinks the GOP nominee doesn’t matter, because the party (as displayed most vividly by its congressional brinksmanship since 2011) is fundamentally nuts. Even a temperamentally moderate Republican president would have to ride the Tea Party tiger while in office.
I largely agree. I just doubt most voters will. If Republicans can manage to nominate a candidate who sounds halfway reasonable, Hillary Clinton will have a real fight on her hands.
Democrats are going to have to work hard to prevail in 2016. The left’s sharpest minds would be well advised not to encourage Democrats to deny this fact.
By: Damon Linker, The Week, April 16, 2015
“The Bane Of Political Life In America”: For Conservatives, Government Coercion Is Bad — Except When It’s Not
For conservatives, government coercion is the bane of political life in America. As members of the self-styled anti-government party, they very much are interested in making the case that coercion is inherently illegitimate, whether it is a law requiring you to purchase health care or a law requiring businesses to serve LGBT customers. The problem with this logic is that all laws are coercive — even the ones conservatives like.
Last week, I wrote about the intrinsic coerciveness of all laws in the context of protecting LGBT people from discrimination, which prompted a hilarious yet telling reaction from Sean Davis at The Federalist.
Davis, possibly because he quite obviously did not even read past the first couple paragraphs of my post, is not just wrong, but has missed the entire axis of debate. However, he does inadvertently provide a great example of just why conservatives are ill-advised to admit that all laws are coercive. Because if this is true, then conservatives will have to give up one of their favorite rhetorical tropes — being against coercion in the name of individual liberty — or resort to outright hypocrisy.
The argument was not about LGBT laws in themselves, something Davis failed to grasp. Instead it was about the justification of such laws. My position is that being against government coercion is not legitimate grounds on which to oppose any policy. This applies to liberals, too, though as members of the pro-government faction they generally don’t worry about it much.
But conservatives do. Most of what is referred to as “government” in popular media is liberal stuff like Social Security, Medicare, or food stamps. Labeling those programs as coercion gives conservatives a convenient pro-liberty sheen when they’re talking about slashing poor people’s incomes.
That changes when you bring up things like property. Though ordinary people rarely talk about it in this way, property is underpinned by exactly the same kind of coercion that bolsters civil rights or tax laws, as is the entire superstructure of what we refer to as the free market system — that is, by government coercion.
Therefore, conservatives can’t be principled anti-coercion advocates unless they are willing to throw out private property, which they obviously aren’t. Coercion can’t be bad when it supports things you don’t like and good when it supports things you do — no matter what some conservatives maintain.
Let me emphasize that this line of reasoning doesn’t mean you can’t oppose some civil rights law, just that you can’t oppose it on the grounds of being against coercion in general.
Of course, framing the discussion in this way powerfully strengthens left-wing arguments. If being anti-coercion is utter nonsense, then the debate moves to which kinds of coercion are best as judged by some other moral framework. Whether that’s utilitarianism, contract theory, or Christian ethics, under such conditions it’s a lot harder to oppose transferring income from rich to poor or social insurance programs.
Thus, when presented with left-wing slogans like “property is violence,” your average conservative, perceiving a trap, will resist. In reality there is no escape.
But what makes Davis such a great example is he genuinely doesn’t seem to understand what the problem is here. He argues in one breath that, duh, of course all laws protecting property depend on coercive violence. Then in the very next paragraph, he writes this:
At their core, however, Kohn and Cooper appear to desperately want to avoid the real question at the heart of the religious freedom debate: should the government force individuals to participate in religious ceremonies against their will? [The Federalist]
Government coercion is good, except when it’s not. That’s the kind of stark hypocrisy conservatives would do well to disguise better.
By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, April 14, 2015