As I Please

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Reflections on the Democratic Victory

This past 8 November was a great day, and 10 November was even better, for that latter day meant that after twelve years of Republican control of both houses of Congress the Democrats had regained both, gaining thirty seats to achieve a total of 232 seats in the 435 seat House of Representatives and gaining six to attain an unfortunately razor-thin majority of 51 seats in the 100 seat Senate. Not only this, the Democrats also now control, again for the first time since 1994, a majority of governorships in the country, gaining six so that now 28 U.S. states have Democratic governors.

So what now with the Democrats back in power? While we may see the end of the Military Commissions Act before Bush leaves office should we expect a renaissance of U.S. liberalism in the U.S? Hardly. Even though the Senate has its first openly socialist member ever (independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, before the election the first openly socialist member ever of the U.S. House of Representatives), that is really an anomaly in what will likely be only a slightly progressive Democratic Congress for two main reasons. First, the Democrats are not a liberal party but in fact one that straddles the left and the right of centre; it is in other words a centre rather than a centre-left party in competition with one that embraces the centre-right and radical/reactionary right, the latter making up the party leadership since 1994. This means not only that the Democrats are not necessarily united around progressive goals but that with the makeup of the two parties the bias of U.S. national politics has been to the right. With Democratic victory therefore policy overall will move leftwards but only to the centre-right. Second, the Democrats are well aware that the vote that secured its victory was more based on opposition to Republican policies than on support for Democratic ones. Still, a mandate is a mandate, and one of the few virtues of a two-party system is that the winning party, in this case the Democrats, can truly claim to have one. And what of the Republicans?
What is interesting about the GOP (not so grand nowadays) is not so much their defeat as the reasons they and their many media apologists have come up with for that defeat. They amount to four:
1) they lost because of the debacles in the Bush administration's occupation of Iraq;
2) they lost because of the many scandals, culminating with Florida congressman Mark Foley; 3) they lost not because they were too hardline but rather weren't hardline enough; and
4) they lost because they didn't emphasize the success of Republican economic policy enough.
All four show how truly clueless the radical right in the U.S. (now unfortunately the mainstream right) has become after twelve years of power that beginning in 2001 included all three branches of the federal government. The first two are correct but are only part of the answer, while the other two demonstrate how truly blinded they are as ideologues of the most arrogant kind to the electoral consequences of what they have done to their society. Likely many were aware and hoped that they could tip the balance with another combination of dirty campaigning and voter fraud, as in 2004. What they have done, in a process ongoing since Reagan first entered the White House in 1981, is transform the United States into a plutocracy of a kind not seen since the 1920s, another time of Republican dominance, and the majority of voters have finally expressed their outrage through the ballot box, or voter machine as the case may be.
A plutocracy is generally not kind to the poorer members of society, and the U.S. has certainly demonstrated this whether under the neoconservative presidency of Bush or the neoliberal one of Clinton (what Clinton would have done had the Democrats retained control of Congress will likely become one of the great what-ifs of late 20th century U.S. history). But it has not been any kinder to the majority of U.S. citizens, what we can refer to collectively as the wage-earning class, who have seen their wages stagnate for more than ten years while in 2005 the average CEO earned 262 times the pay of the average worker . Consider that in 1965 the ratio was 24 times, in 1978 35 times, and in 1989 the ratio had grown to 71. But the ratio really expanded in the 1990s, reaching 300 after the recovery from the dotcom crash in 2000. What explains this? Surely in part tax-cuts that overwhelmingly favoured high-income earners, so that for greedy CEOs the sky was the limit since any massive increases in pay would now not simply be taken away by taxation. And what of average Americans?
What I think distinguishes average Americans, in terms of income (though not necessarily occupation) the middle class, from their counterparts in other industrialized countries such as my own is that for the last quarter-century or so they have identified their pecuniary interests with those of millionaires and billionaires, as earners of employment income they have identified with those whose income is primarily if not entirely from investments. Perhaps if they considered the following graphic metaphor by the Dutch economist Jan Pen in his 1980 book Wealth, Income and Equality they may have thought twice. I quote Prof. Richard Gilbert's recounting of it at a 2004 conference at Cornell University:
He asks the reader to imagine a parade of people where everyone's height is proportional to his or her individual wealth. A person of average wealth is represented by a person of average height. The parade begins with the smallest (the poorest) at the front with the rich bringing up the rear in a one-hour parade. The first marchers are actually buried several feet beneath the ground since they have negative net worth - they owe more wealth than they own. For approximately 20 minutes there are invisible marchers, for they own no wealth. After half an hour there are dwarfs - people about six inches tall, whose wealth is household furniture, a car and perhaps a small savings account. "But a surprise awaits us," writes Pen. "We keep on seeing dwarfs. Of course they gradually become a little taller, but it's a slow process." Only at about twelve minutes before the hour do we begin seeing people of average height, for more than three quarters of the world's population have fewer assets than average. In the last few minutes ?giants loom up . . . a lawyer, not exceptionally successful, eighteen feet tall." In the last few seconds, there are people so tall we cannot even see their heads, the corporate managing directors a hundred yards tall. "The rear of the parade is brought up by a few participants who are measured in miles . . . their heads disappear into the clouds. . . . The last man, whose back we can see long after the parade has passed by, is John Paul Getty (this was before Bill Gates) . . . . His height is inconceivable: at least ten miles; perhaps twice as much.?"
So drawing from this metaphor average Americans were identifying themselves with people as tall as skyscrapers. Why? One reason surely is that they believe that they might, just might, become as lofty themselves, despite the clear evidence that only a small minority of them ever will. This self-deception is perhaps most strikingly shown in the recent support by about a third of Americans polled for a repeal of the estate tax, support for the repeal of a tax that would not affect the vast majority of them, though the effects of such a repeal likely would. To identify one's interests with the wealthy is therefore a strange kind of selfishness, strange because it is based on the notion that one might become one of them, so that something going against the interests of the wealthy, like a tax increase, could one day affect them as well. There is of course the usual kind of selfishness, and the level exhibited by average Americans is to be expected perhaps in a society in which power and status depend so much on the size of one's bank account, and in which a population is hammered relentlessly by the message to buy, buy, buy, that consumption is self-validation, a sentiment which of course appeals to self-love. So it is hardly surprising that much of the middle class in most but not all U.S. states opposes along with the rich tax increases that would diminish their power to accumulate, even if (or in some cases because) the resulting funds would increase the power of the poor to make something better of their lives, let alone receive a decent minimal standard of living i.e. in which their basic needs are met for a physically and mentally healthy life. The philosopher Ted Honderich in his book Conservatism concludes that not only are conservatives (in the socio-economic or political sense) selfish, but that "they are nothing else". Selfishness is the main bedrock of support for conservative economic policy among the middle class. There is no doubt that the Republicans have been dishonest in the expression of their policy aims; they have conned the middle class (which has been made easier by the abysmal level of civic literacy among even educated Americans), but as we know a successful con is based on exploiting the greed of the mark. When the Republicans proposed to privatize Social Security however they went too far as they attacked an entitlement that clearly benefitted all Americans. The middle class were not bothered enough by the plight of the poor to be willing to support with their taxes the most effective ways of relieving their plight. They did not wake up, begin to support more progressive policies, until they began to be victims of the corporations. And what of the poor?
Rather more surprising than the support of the middle class for the Republicans has been the support of much of the poor. In this case the reasons are rather different. While the middle class support the GOP for pecuniary reasons the poor who do do so so for moral and religious reasons (this is not to say that the poor are not selfish, but to quote the U.S. historian Clinton Rossiter their interests are pursued rather than as with the middle and upper class vested). There is however a vicious trade-off. There are no Christian Democrats in the U.S., that is no party that is socially conservative but economically progressive (here in Canada we call them 'red tories', admittedly a diminishing breed) that the devout poor could support, though there are plenty of the reverse in the Democratic Party, the kind they would be least likely to support. So as Thomas Frank in his superb book What's the Matter with Kansas has shown they vote for politicians who claim to (and in some cases no doubt actually do) share their beliefs, and therefore their opposition to abortion, gay rights etc. but who also represent the corporate interests that have put them and their fellow believers out of work. I admit to having little sympathy for someone who thinks that stopping an abortion or a gay marriage from taking place is more important than being able to support their families. The irony is that such people are living on welfare benefits largely provided by the tax dollars of the inhabitants of the so-called 'blue states' that they loath, a fact that first came to my notice in a bitter but understandable diatribe against these 'value voters' by Janeane Garofalo and Sam Seder on their radio show the day after Bush's re-election. The most effective way for the Democrats to gain their support is to admit a strain of Christian Democracy into the party but only for their candidates in the 'red states' and this past election they did it in a few constituencies with some success, but in most socially conservative districts the Democrats showed their (and the U.S. political system's) lack of imagination and simply ran candidates that more or less shared the social and economic views of their Republican opponents, the so-called 'Blue Dog' Democrats. But how long can this strategy be successful if the leadership in Washington moves ahead with socially progressive policies as they, with most of their support elsewhere, eventually will? The most effective force for mobilizing the poor politically has been religion. Until their economic concerns supersede their religious concerns the poor will not the important voting bloc for economically progressive policies they once were in the U.S. political system. And what of that system?
That the United States is at the national level and in many (but not all) states a plutocracy is due primarily to the dependence of its politicians on great amounts of money, made all the more necessary by the relatively huge size of congressional districts let alone the states, and the ever increasing use of media. While a two-party system clearly gives a mandate to the winning party, it also makes politics a zero-sum, winner take all activity, and therefore winning can mean at any cost, and not only financial as the Republicans have repeatedly shown. A multi-party system would be healthier but the two parties have conspired to arrange campaigning rules to keep out others, so nothing short of a massive public groundswell (such as would be required for a change to proportional representation) would change the situation. Changes in campaign finance laws to reduce the presence of big money in U.S. politics is certainly desirable, but with a Supreme Court that has declared money is a form of free speech reform is unlikely in the near future. Two areas where changes can be made are the administration of elections and the way the boundaries of congressional districts are drawn. The only United States is the only country in the industrialized world in which election and electoral district boundary readjustment commissions are controlled by political party members and not by independent officials. What is worse is that only one party, the party with the majority of seats in a state, controls these commissions and so gerrymandering is rife in the U.S. (so to quote one critic, politicians choose their voters rather than the reverse) along with incidences of voter fraud and other abuses. I say changes can be made but the questions are whether the Democrats have the integrity to make them and whether the Supreme Court will prevent them. That once august body appears to have become the guardian of the condition of the U.S. body politic, sclerosis.
What these reflections all lead to is the question whether or not the Democratic victory marks the beginning of the return to a more progressive, more liberal America that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. predicted so terribly prematurely near the end of the Reagan administration in his The Cycles of American History (1986). It did not happen in large part because the material resources of liberalism had been used up by both Democratic and Republican regimes, Reagan's being the worst. There were not enough of the resources needed to restore much less further welfare state policies, and even what had survived under Reagan and Bush Sr. was reduced even more in Pres. Clinton's neoliberal collusion (the first example of what it was first called then, 'triangulation'), forced or done willingly (probably a combination) with the neoconservative Republican-dominated Congress. We saw an example of what these policies have achieved when Hurricane Katrina ripped away the genteel mask of New Orleans to reveal a Third World city (like many American cities), along with the malign neglect and incompetence of the Bush administration in dealing with disaster that befalls the poor. The surplus those painful (mainly to the poor) cuts achieved has been frittered away by Bush Jr.'s unprecedented combination of war spending with substantial tax cuts, the latter primarily for the rich. So there is, barring tax increases, no supply of funds the Democrats cannot draw upon without increasing the deficit and debt further. The Republicans have said that the deficit they created is not a serious problem, but of course they will say otherwise if the Democrats expand it further to begin to reduce the level of social injustice in the U.S. So will the Democrats bite the bullet and reverse the tax cuts or not? That more than anything else will tell us whether the Democrats are truly serious about their stated goals, which can be summed up as making America more a democracy again and less a plutocracy. As a social democrat I remain doubtful.


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