Or, Real Issues vs. Netroots MasturbationAfter a depressing evening of reading "netroots" "passion" (i.e., litmus-test hysteria, ad hominem smears, deliberate misrepresentation of a speech, and gratuitous condescension to African American voters) over whether Sen. Barack Obama is simply Karl Rove lite (no, really!), I was about ready to go play a round of Age of Empires when I decided to go check out The American Prospect, and had my faith in progressivism restored.
Robert Kuttner has a concise, interesting and nuanced article up on John Edwards' favorite theme, the Two Americas. I wasn't much impressed by Edwards during the '04 campaign. I don't watch TV and he came across badly on the radio, all cornpone and canned sound bites. Since then, however, my opinion has been rising because of his dedicated work on behalf of alleviating poverty in America. He is now, along with Al Gore and Wes Clark, one of my favorites for the presidential race precisely because he has a central driving issue which sets the terms for his overall view.
Kuttner has approving things to say about Edwards, but he has careful and solid criticism, too. First the praise:
Former senator John Edwards gave a terrific speech to the National Press Club Thursday, one that felt like eloquence from another age. His theme: America should end poverty in three decades, mainly by rewarding work and promoting opportunity.
"Poverty is the great moral issue of our time," Edwards declared. This speech was his de facto kickoff for a run at the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Unlike most of the undeclared Democratic field, Edwards is not putting his finger to the prevailing wind. He's trying to change it. After his 2004 vice-presidential run, Edwards admirably went home to the University of North Carolina to head its Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity.
The War on Terror has served to camouflage the typical "more of the same" war on ordinary American's that the neocons have been waging since FDR - assiduously transferring wealth upwards. It slowed under Bill Clinton, but has raged as fiercely as Iraqi gun battles since Jaunuary 2001. The various congressional scandals documented by the invaluable TPM Muckraker is an account of the amateurs in this game, the poor saps left to hoover up the leavings and the congress critters stupid enough to get caught with payola. The real action is in things like repealing the estate tax (check out Robert Reich's post The Super-Rich Estate Tax (Don't Call it a Death Tax) from earlier this month) and in getting policies in place that favor entrenched wealth over social justice. Here is where Kuttner offers criticism of Edwards:
This is mild criticism, and is more in the shape of advice, but it carries a punch. America equates poverty with personal failure or perhaps unavoidable misfortune, and not with government policies. The right has a built in prejudice with which to batter the left - you want to coddle lazy poor non-white ( let's never forget the race card) welfare bums and give them our hard-earned money! Kuttner points out the obvious, the basic lesson drilled into every Poli Sci student's head for the last 50 years on why there is no Socialist party in America, namely, the social contract since FDR has been to offer not riches but economic security and demonstrable socio-economic gains from one generation to the next. Not for everyone and not guaranteed, but enough to secure the foundations of the American Way of Life.
The right has managed to savage the institutions that produced increasing opportunity and a broader middle class in the decades after World War II -- minimum wages, trade unionism, job-security, decent health and retirement plans, affordable college and housing, Social Security that rose with inflation, and economic regulation to keep Wall Street from grabbing most of the winnings.
The middle class hasn't been so insecure since the depression. But today, unlike 1937, this epic reversal is off the political radar screen. The insecurity is experienced privately rather than as a national issue.
It's courageous of Edwards to tackle poverty. But if he wants to become a presidential contender by re-introducing unspoken realities of class to American political discourse, there is a far larger class of people taking an economic bath. It's four Americans out of five. The real "Two Americas" are not the poor and everyone else, but the mega-rich and everyone else.
If we want to help the poor, prevent giveaways to the elite, and anchor a secure middle -- let's get the working middle class and the working poor back in the same broad coalition. I look forward to Edwards' next speech on that.Survival of the Richest
That contract is being unravelled by the neocons who mobilize tribalism - most notably race, region, and religion - to make politics about personality and prejudice. Kinda like the "netroots" are doing now. As I've said before (Heros and Demons, Avatar Politics), the boogey men of the left do not have the visceral power of those on the right (Daddy Warbucks vs. Willie Horton), and we will lose in a game of avatar politics, much in the way computer game avatars can be out monstered. Electoral gains are cemented by redistricting to ensure safe seats and by entrenching aggressive redistibutive policies to snatch wealth and strangle middle class advancement programs. The game is won, in neocon eyes, if the crown jewel of the post-war settlement, Social Security, can be destroyed.
Thus, I agree with Kuttner that Edwards, indeed any Democratic candidate, needs to expand the argument and reframe the economic split - not the impoverished and the rest of us, but the ordinary American and the economic opportunists. It can't simply be an attack on "the rich" as the American Dream is to become part of that class. It must be upon interests who are trying to scam the people working hard to become rich.
Bill Clinton's famous invocation of "Those who work hard and play by the rules" is the argument that will resonate. Think about how many ways that simple phrase engages the American imagination - hard work, self-sufficiency, law abiding, moderate, self-controlled, and (most of all) deserving. Do not underestimate how much motivation comes from that sense of entitlement. This is how any reconstruction and expansion of the peculiarly American social contract must be presented.
There is a need for the left in this country to get more aggressive in returning fire from the bloviators of the right, going back and bitchslapping them when they try to play slime and defend politics. The "anger" of the "netroots", however, is reaching the point of diminishing returns. The faux arguments about who counts as a "real" progressive pale next to the horrific damage the neocons are inflicting on the body politic and on the bodies of our citizens. There needs to be an argument for the middle class that will move them from the middle of the road position.
Beating back the erosion of middle class entitlements is a winning proposition.