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Thursday, June 22, 2017


A fair deal again

by Tom Sullivan

Sunrise in the Texas Hill Country. Photo by Jim Nix via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Misplaced faith an inevitable "demographic wave" to deliver lasting majorities in Congress have cost Democrats control of state legislatures across the country as well as the national one in the District of Columbia. But, Franklin Foer writes at The Atlantic, "the presidency could offset these losses." Or so Democrats believed. Demographics would deliver. And so they might. In the meantime, there's President Donald Trump.

Foer's article examines how Democrats went from ascendance to resistance in a few, short years. The Resistance, while giving the illusion of comity within the party, heightens the tension between the concerns about race and class within the ranks,something pollster Stanley Greenberg studied for years. Foer writes:

The cultural left was on the rise for much of the Obama era (and arguably, with the notable exception of Bill Clinton’s presidency, for much longer). It squares, for the most part, with the worldview of socially liberal whites, and is given wind by the idea that demography is destiny. It has a theory of the electorate that suits its interests: It wants the party to focus its attentions on Texas and Arizona—states that have growing percentages of Latinos and large pockets of suburban professionals. (These states are also said to represent an opportunity because the party has failed to maximize nonwhite turnout there.) It celebrates the openness and interdependence embodied in both globalization and multiculturalism.

While this cultural left has sprung into vogue, the economic left has also been reenergized. It has finally recovered from a long abeyance, a wilderness period brought on by the decay of organized labor and the libertarian turn of the post–Cold War years. As the financial crash of 2008 worked its way through the Democratic Party’s intellectual system, the economic left migrated from the fringe protests of Occupy Wall Street to just outside the mainstream. While the cultural left champions a coalition of the ascendant, the economic left imagines a coalition of the despondent. It seeks to roll back the dominance of finance, to bust monopolies, to curb the predations of the market. It wants to ply back the white working-class voters—clustered in the upper Midwest—whom Greenberg deemed persuadable.

Neither strain of activism has much disagreement with the broad goals of the other. On paper, they can peaceably coexist within the same platform. But political parties can have only one main theory of the electorate at any given time—and the prevailing theory tends to prioritize one ideology. The Republican Party’s pursuit of the South shaped its view of race; the Democratic Party’s wooing of professionals led it to embrace globalization.
Foer's account of — to borrow from Charles Atlas — the dynamic tension between the cultural and economic left suggests it does not represent a real split in the party ranks. They can peacefully coexist, he believes. If there is any disagreement it is over where the party should place its focus. Part of that tension springs from the ascendance of historically marginalized groups — women and racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities — feeling their oats and leery of having the party's attentions diverted from their hopes and the long-overlooked needs. White people, especially white men, have had their turn. For millennia. But for both a generation of millennials and a working class staring at limited opportunities and a declining standard of life, the crumbs metastatic, globalized capitalism offers are as galling as prejudice is strangling to the cultural left.

Their interests are common, not competitive. But progressives and even conservative Democrats speak the language of politics and policies, not the language of values. They will explain in the finest detail how this policy or that program will enhance the lives of this marginalized group or that one. This enhances the nervous perception that for one group in the coalition to get ahead, the interests of another must go to the back of the bus or get thrown under it. Progressive politics is a failure if it is that kind of zero-sum game.

But that is how voters increasingly perceive America. Republicans are more than happy to help drive wedges between members of the Democratic coalition and between Democrats and those who might someday be again. What interests they all share, however, get lost in the endless policy talk. Democrats love to talk about policies and expect voters to infer from these their principles. But voters don't. Principles should be stated up front. Only a few Democrats do.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is one. Foer continues:
... Warren is most focused on the concept of fairness. A course she taught early in her career as a law professor, on contracts, got her thinking about the subject. (Fairness, after all, is a contract’s fundamental purpose.) A raw, moralistic conception of fairness—that people shouldn’t get screwed—would become the basis for her crusading. Although she shares Bernie Sanders’s contempt for Wall Street, she doesn’t share his democratic socialism. “I love markets—I believe in markets!” she told me. What drives her to rage is when bankers conspire with government regulators to subvert markets and rig the game. Over the years, she has claimed that it was a romantic view of capitalism that drew her to the Republican Party—and then the party’s infidelity to market principles drove her from it.


At the core of Warren’s populism is a phobia of concentrated economic power, an anger over how big banks and big businesses exploit Washington to further their own interests at the expense of ordinary people. This fear of gigantism is a storied American tradition, descended from Thomas Jefferson, even if it hasn’t recently gotten much airtime within the Democratic Party. It justifies itself in the language of individualism—rights, liberty, freedom—not communal obligation.
That is wrong. There is no divide between individualism and communal obligation. That is what conservative think tanks would have us believe. It is both-and, not either-or. Gouverneur Morris began his Preamble to the Constitution, "We the People," concluding that among the purposes of this government is to "promote the general Welfare" (mentioned again in Article I, Section 8). It is something conveniently forgotten by those who find no "we" in America, only "I" and "me."

But it is fairness that is lost today and fairness Democrats should champion. Fairness is the language they should speak before skipping ahead to economic and racial inequality and their plethora of policies. "You've got to stand for something if you want to win," Howard Dean shouted. Stand for that. Stand for fairness. Coast to coast, red to blue, urban to rural, Americans believe in it even when they don't practice it. The gnawing failure of fairness drove a lot of Americans last fall to give both major parties their middle fingers.

Foer quotes a speech Warren gave last year:
“When Big Business can shut out competition, entrepreneurs and small businesses are denied their shot at building something new and exciting.” In making a Jeffersonian argument, she has begun to deploy Jeffersonian rhetorical trappings. “As a people, we understood that concentrated power anywhere was a threat to liberty everywhere,” she argued. “Competition in America is essential to liberty in America.”
Policing that threat to basic fairness is a communal obligation, one the Republican Party and far too many Democrats have failed.

The system is rigged, Warren argues, as does Sen. Bernie Sanders. But more fundamentally, the system is unfair. People know it. People feel it. On fairness, Americans from all walks of life and all partners in the Democratic coalition can agree. That people who work hard and the unfortunate among us who cannot should be treated fairly and decently, as well as equitably in the abstract, is something that should be fundamental and explicit in our conversations, especially with Americans outside the Democrats' diverse, multicultural, multiethnic, progressive urban base.

"A decent liberalism, not to mention a savvy party," Foer writes, "shouldn’t struggle to accord dignity and respect to citizens, even if it believes some of them hold abhorrent views."

Democrats once spoke of a "fair deal":
In this society, we are conservative about the values and principles which we cherish; but we are forward-looking in protecting those values and principles and in extending their benefits. We have rejected the discredited theory that the fortunes of the Nation should be in the hands of a privileged few. We have abandoned the "trickledown" concept of national prosperity. Instead, we believe that our economic system should rest on a democratic foundation and that wealth should be created for the benefit of all.
President Harry Truman continued (1949):
The American people have decided that poverty is just as wasteful and just as unnecessary as preventable disease. We have pledged our common resources to help one another in the hazards and struggles of individual life. We believe that no unfair prejudice or artificial distinction should bar any citizen of the United States of America from an education, or from good health, or from a job that he is capable of performing.

The attainment of this kind of society demands the best efforts of every citizen in every walk of life, and it imposes increasing responsibilities on the Government.

The Government must work with industry, labor, and the farmers in keeping our economy running at full speed. The Government must see that every American has a chance to obtain his fair share of our increasing abundance. These responsibilities go hand in hand.

We cannot maintain prosperity unless we have a fair distribution of opportunity and a widespread consumption of the products of our factories and farms.

Our Government has undertaken to meet these responsibilities.
There were challenges, many challenges, to be sure, Truman told Congress, but,
The strength of our Nation must continue to be used in the interest of all our people rather than a privileged few. It must continue to be used unselfishly in the struggle for world peace and the betterment of mankind the world over.

This is the task before us.

It is not an easy one. It has many complications, and there will be strong opposition from selfish interests.

I hope for cooperation from farmers, from labor, and from business. Every segment of our population and every individual has a right to expect from our Government a fair deal.
Democrats lack a message? Try that one.