I guess I could write about Meryl Streep’s standing up to Trump and his bullying or the hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell and the hearings, with the inane introduction of Senator Sessions for Attorney General by Susan Collins, but then we are focusing too much on the tactical and not on the strategic. In order for Democrats and dare I say it, social justice, to prevail, we have to step back and wonder what it is Democrats stand for. I have been writing about how Democrats have lost their way, and yet we have never really talked about what the way is. Well, I have, but as a party the Democrats still seem to be wandering in the forest. Again I am going to steal ideas (maybe some words too) from two authors and thinkers, James Kwak and Thomas Frank.
James was writing about we (Democrats (and maybe with a small d too)) lost the election and he pointed out that there were a lot of causal factors but that people who think their financial situation is worse than four years ago voted for Trump by an astounding 78-19 margin. So then he raises the question, what is the Democrat’s economic message, and he gives us this insight:
The Republican Party’s economic vision can be expressed in two words: free markets. Beginning in the 1950s, Milton Friedman and other prominent economists transformed the abstract models of Economics 101—in which competitive markets, driven by supply and demand, produce the best of all possible worlds—into a universal framework for interpreting social reality. This worldview, which I call economism, became the default economic handbook for the conservative movement and the Republican Party. It brilliantly fulfilled the crucial role of any ideology: it made the interests of a class—businesses and the wealthy—appear identical to the interests of society as a whole.
He then goes on to show how Democrats from Clinton on became Republican Lite. That we too bought into the idea that markets solve all problems, but with just some controls to take the edge off:
The rhetoric of economism (Kwak’s term for Republican markets solve everything) is simple and compelling: competitive markets maximize social welfare, so well-meaning government policies—welfare, regulation, even Social Security—only make people worse off. (And, if you don’t agree, you just don’t understand economics.) The solution to any problem is to unleash the forces of free enterprise and innovation. By comparison, the Democrats’ economic vision was an unsatisfying jumble of social insurance, industrial policy, consumer protection, welfare, and fiscal stimulus.
He then describes how Bill Clinton took us on the free market journey by being the “other free market party”, including the reducing budget deficits, ratifying NAFTA, enacting welfare reform, cutting capital gains taxes, repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, and signing off on the non-regulation of derivatives. This has effectively been carried through the Obama years as an ineffective “me too” policy with caveats:
We also love markets, only we want to make them work even better by correcting for “market failures.” One story is simple: freedom and competition create prosperity; government intervention kills jobs. The other is complicated: government programs are necessary to fix market imperfections.
And then he notes where we are today in that this pursuit of free markets has not made the world safe for everyone:
After two decades of promising that markets (properly regulated) will take care of everyone, it is little wonder that Democrats have lost credit with people who feel worse off in the age of globalization and technology.
Now let’s leave Mr. Kwak for a few moments and hear out Mr. Frank (Listen, Liberals). Mr. Frank takes a chapter of his book to look around for where liberals (Democrats) are in control, complete control, and asks the question what is their economic model? He settles on Massachusetts (but he could have used California) which is entirely Blue and then describes how that model has become about innovation:
…that economic justice only comes about through economic growth, and therefore the primary duty of anyone who wants to tackle inequality is “to create a nurturing environment where business leaders and entrepreneurs want to locate and expand…This is the city (Boston) that virtually invented the blue-state economic model, in which prosperity arises from higher education and the knowledge-based industries that surround it.
Then he points out that fifty miles away from this hotbed of innovation and technology lies the town of Fall River that has fallen on hard times:
Fifty miles away, Boston is a roaring success, but the doctrine of prosperity that you see on every corner in Boston also serves to explain away the failure you see on every corner in Fall River. This is a place where affluence never returns—not because affluence for Fall River is impossible or unimaginable, but because our country’s leaders have blandly accepted a social order that constantly bids down the wages of people like these while bidding up the rewards for innovators, creatives, and professionals.
The problem arises when we enshrine innovation as a public philosophy—when we look to it as the solution to our economic ills and understand it as the guide for how economies ought to parcel out rewards. To put it bluntly, it is not clear that cheering for innovation in the bombastic way we see in the blue states actually improves the economic well-being of average citizens. For example, the last fifteen years have been a golden age of financial and software innovation, but they have been feeble in terms of GDP growth. In ideological terms, however, innovation definitely works: as a way of excusing soaring inequality and explaining the exalted status of the rich, it is the best we’ve got.
That is where we are today. That is why Democrats lost. Their message did not resonate with hope for all, and what Democrats have been about is what Mr. Frank described above. Let’s face it, most of us have bought into it and my education and skills have let me profit from it. But it leaves too many behind and justifies it just as the Republicans use being lazy to blame the poor.
Okay, Hillary offered lots of fixes, but not anything in a coherent message about what Democrats were about, just more tinkering at the basic markets solve all problems with just a few restrictions. In other words leaving the innovative entrepreneurs to reinvent the world and create. The financial sector is not the problem but part of the solution. The systems just needs to work better. People need to be better educated. Tell that to the people of Falls River who “like similar places, the town is up to its eyeballs in wrathful bitterness against public workers. As in, Why do they deserve a decent life when the rest of us have no chance at all? It’s every man for himself here in a ‘competition for crumbs’, as a Fall River friend puts it.”
So what is our model? What should the “Party of the People” put forward as what we are about? What’s it all about Alfie? Certainly innovation, technology, and education can produce prosperity for some, but as we have seen, it also creates a justification for inequality and we should be about decreasing inequality. Now I will take you back to Mr. Kwak who turns to our past to answer this question:
Democrats need to reach back to their forefathers, past John Kennedy—who famously said that “a rising tide lifts all boats”—to Franklin Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt, in the “Four Freedoms” speech, who recognized that the strength of our democracy depends on its ability to fulfill citizens’ basic expectations, including: “equality of opportunity for youths and others; jobs for those who can work; security for those who need it; [and] the ending of special privilege for the few.”…The genius of economism is to disguise a political ideology—shrink government, deregulate markets, and let the chips fall where they may—as an abstract, value-neutral description of the world. If Democrats want to reclaim their heritage as the party of working men and women, they need an alternative economic vision, one centered on jobs, security, and fairness—not smoothly humming markets that will magically make everyone better off.
Note that is where the God of education and innovation leads also (let the chips fall where they may). It allows us Democrats to also justify leaving so many behind. It would seem that we need to turn back to FDR to once again find our roots. Bernie is the closest politician we have had to addressing this, but labeled socialist for his policies on “securities for those who need it”.
I believe James has hit upon the answer to where we should be going. As he noted we do not mean the end of free markets and competition, which do produce progress and jobs, but in a context that does not leave people hopelessly behind. Think about it. Equality of opportunity for youths and others is partially about access to education, good education. Jobs for those who can work is about rebuilding our infrastructure and making sure they earn a living wage. Security for those who need it is about Social Security and health insurance for everyone. A real safety net. And ending special privilege for the few could start with the tax code. OMG! That requires an active government, not one that gets out of the way of markets.
I believe James, through FDR has given us the framework for going forward. Economic and social inequality is the issue and we have built a system that justifies it and increases it on both sides of the aisle. That does not mean that going forward we don’t reward those who achieve, it simply means that some of that reward which is now going to the very few has to be used to secure the Four Freedoms of FDR. How we do that best (policies) should be our challenge for the future. That puts everything in context. That’s what it is about Alfie.
*Note Mr. Kwak has written a book about this that I can not wait to get my hands on. The question we have to ask is where besides the blogs and books of some really smart people like Mr. Kwak and Mr. Frank is the organizing focus of the Democratic party to incorporate these ideas into their unifying party message? So far we have Bernie and the establishment tank his drive for President. Democrats have to get more organized than that and move the party as the Republicans have done since Goldwater. I hope in what time is left to me on this earth, I see that movement. We really are all in this together.