Thursday, January 02, 2014


E.J. Dionne has a prediction today:
The reemergence of a Democratic left will be one of the major stories of 2014.
And this reemergence is taking what form exactly?
... the new militancy on the Democratic left is a consequence of a slowly building backlash against the skewed nature of our politics. A dramatic manifestation of this sentiment was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's unabashed attack on inequality in his inaugural address Wednesday....

Discussions about entitlements have revolved almost exclusively around the question of how much to cut them. By contrast, progressives such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) say we must begin dealing with a coming retirement crisis fostered by the near disappearance of traditional private pensions....

More generally, the Democratic left is animated by the battle against growing inequality and declining social mobility -- the idea, as Warren has said repeatedly, that "the system is rigged for powerful interests and against working families." ...
I know that E.J. Dionne is not the last word on this sort of thing, but it worries me that when we talk about a resurgent progressive movement, we're talking about (mostly) rhetoric -- even if it's very good rhetoric -- from a handful of marquee politicians. Let's contrast this with the tea party four years ago: before 2010, we weren't talking about celebrity pols on the resurgent angry right -- we were talking about angry crowds of seemingly ordinary citizens (however well funded by the Kochs or well publicized by Fox). The movement seemed like a movement. Whether it was Astroturf or a genuine popular groundswell, the focus was on crowds of citizens.

In Dionne's column, the focus is on pols. Last fall's lefty superstar pol, Elizabeth Warren, gets two mentions, and the new star is Bill de Blasio. Did I use the word "celebrity" above? It wasn't chosen idly:

I feel as if I'm living through the optimism -- and personality cult-ism -- of the early days of the Obama presidency, up to and including the transformation of family members into boldface names outside the realm of politics. (Chiara is de Blasio's daughter.) Yes, I know that the celebrification of the Obamas helped them maintain the public's goodwill, and thus helped keep the GOP out of the White House. But it also meant that progressives let their guard down and waited for the superstar pol in the White House to make everything all better. (He didn't, and couldn't have.)

I understand, of course, why the foot soldiers of the new progressivism aren't the new stars: they include non-white fast-food workers and undocumented Hispanic teenagers and the long-term unemployed. Unlike the teabaggers, they're not middle class (or aren't middle class anymore). They're not considered relatable.

The have-nots need to be front and center -- and it would be nice if someone, somehow, could figure out a way to communicate the message to heartland whites that black minimum-wage McDonald's workers and long-term-unemployed fiftysomethings and mortgage-crisis victims and young people without jobs facing crushing student-loan debt have enemies in common. A couple of years ago, Occupy Wall Street had the potential to get this message across, but Occupy became more interested in the process of protest than in the issues being protested, and an opportunity was squandered.

That shouldn't happen again. But I fear it might.


Dionne discusses the new progressivism as if it's a scary-seeming thing. Above, I quoted his first sentence. Here's the entire first paragraph:
The reemergence of a Democratic left will be one of the major stories of 2014. Moderates, don't be alarmed. The return of a viable, vocal left will actually be good news for the political center.
And his conclusion:
And here's why moderates should be cheering [the new progressives] on: When politicians can ignore the questions posed by the left and are pushed to focus almost exclusively on the right's concerns about "big government" and its unquestioning faith in deregulated markets, the result is immoderate and ultimately impractical policy. To create a real center, you need a real left.
I see what Dionne is getting at, but I think it's preemptive surrender to say that the whole point of a new progressivism is to restore the center. I agree with BooMan:
... the status quo, or anything closely resembling the status quo, is not working right now. Undergraduates are emerging from college with record-setting personal debt (now at an average of $29,000) with poor employment opportunities. People who don't have college degrees have never been in such a hopeless position before. We're living in an age every bit as gilded at the roaring 20's, and we're getting set up for the same kind of fall. And we're still not getting remotely serious about doing what we need to be doing to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The way things have been set up over the last thirty-three years, since the Reagan Revolution began, the vast majority of people simply work for a bank. We are entering the work force as peon labor, or bankcroppers, who pay for the privilege of working, and whose labor serves mainly to finance our debt.

... With regard to educational attainment and health outcomes, our country is slipping to the back of the pack among advanced economies.

... on any subject you might choose to consider, the right wing in this country is wrong, and they have enough power to keep us paddling in place at best, and, more often, moving in the wrong direction.

That a portion of the left is waking up to the problem is a good thing. But, nothing will come of it if it does nothing more than reinvigorate the center.

After reading Dionne on the new progressivism, I found myself wondering what his right-wing colleague Charles Krauthammer was saying in the early tea party days -- was he also reassuring centrists that they shouldn't be scared? Here's Krauthammer in 2009, just after Republican governors were elected in New Jersey and Virginia:
... the same conventional wisdom that proclaimed the dawning of a new age last November dismissed the inevitable popular reaction to Obama's hubristic expansion of government, taxation, spending and debt -- the tea party demonstrators, the town hall protesters -- as a raging rabble of resentful reactionaries, AstroTurf-phony and Fox News-deranged.

Some rump. Just last month Gallup found that conservatives outnumber liberals by 2 to 1 (40 percent to 20 percent) and even outnumber moderates (at 36 percent). So on Tuesday, the "rump" rebelled. It's the natural reaction of a center-right country to a governing party seeking to rush through a left-wing agenda using temporary majorities created by the one-shot election of 2008. The misreading of that election -- and of the mandate it allegedly bestowed -- is the fundamental cause of the Democratic debacle of 2009.
On the surface, it seems as if Krauthammer in '09 was saying what Dionne is saying now -- that the point of anger at the extremes is to reestablish the center.

But notice the difference. Krauthammer is saying that the teabaggers aren't radical. He's saying their protests were the "reaction of a center-right country." The only radicalism Krauthammer saw in 2009 was in the Obama White House and (then-)Democratic-controlled Congress.

That's how we should be talking about the new progressives. It should be seen as mainstream to want a minimum wage that approaches in real dollars what the minimum wage was in the recent past. It should be seen as mainstream to reduce the power imbalance between bankers and ordinary citizens, as it was reduced in the broadly prosperous period following World War II. It should be seen as mainstream to use Keynesianism as a way of reducing chronic high unemployment. And so on.

This isn't a matter of one set of radicals counterbalancing another. There's only one set of radicals with political power in America -- and they're on the right.


Victor said...

Dionne's usually pretty good.

But he's been steeped in the DC teacup for so long with all of the other blends of MSM Villagers, that of course, to him, as to all of them, anything to the left of Obama seems radical.

That Obama's a leftie is commonly accepted as a fact to everyone in the DC Village, and everyone who's not actually "of the left."

To us, he's a well-intentioned centrist, who didn't, and still doesn't, want to rock the boat too hard.

And it's a shame that something as simple as a more fair and accessible national health care system, was painted as something that came out of the minds of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and/or Che - something that every advanced nation has.

And many 3rd World Nations have, and have had for a while, a better health care system than what just fully started yesterdat in America.

Luigi said...

EJ Dionne stinks, in my humble opinion. I often want to tear my ears off as he half-assedly answers David Brook's crazy pronouncements in their NPR weekly "debate." This guy needs a mirror held up in front of him to continually see if he's alive.

That said, good points in your post and welcome back, Steve. We really do have a danger around the corner: No one has put the breaks on the next bubble. No one (namely, the Feds) are watching the cookie jar. And, I fear it is being stolen once again by the financial snakes in the grass.

I was at a Christmas party and a young man I know told me that he just bought a house for A QUARTER OF A MILLION DOLLARS in a part of town that's been attempted at being gentrified more times that I can remember. This is a part of town where you can't leave anything out because someone will steal it. It's not far away from the neighborhood where the guy kept 3 kidnapped women as sex slaves.

My point is, IT AIN'T WORTH A QUARTER OF A MILLION. But, some financial wizard gave him a mortgage. I thought the next real estate bubble was happening only on the coasts, but you can tell that it's happening here in Cleveland, Ohio. This house will never re-sell for over a quarter of a million. In that neighborhood, a pristinely re-built old house would be worth maybe half that amount.

I guess here we go again because the center left can't put in any controls to stop it.

Mike Lumish said...

Do you want to know why we can't have anything nice?

Because every time we make some progress in rolling back the damage the Republicans have inflicted on this country, the pretend radicals start to squeal that it's not good enough and it's fast enough and it's not exactly what they imagined. Then they give up in disgust and start working to throw elections to the Republicans on the theory that - this time for sure - the People will recoil from the horrors of Republican rule and clamor for the radicals to take over and save them from themselves.

By all that is holy I am tired of seeing this game play out, but I keep on plugging away for progress because - when you get down to it - the Republicans really are worse.