Thursday, June 29, 2006

Entitlement and the Deserving Middle Class

Or, Real Issues vs. Netroots Masturbation

After 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:

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
(emphasis added)
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.

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.



ZeitgeistRover said...

I find Kuttner's criticism both ill-informed and misplaced, intentionally or otherwise I do not know.

First, if he ever heard Edwards' "Two Americas" speech, as it is certain he must have, he knows as well as anyone else that it was Edwards who framed the argument in the language of "the top 2% and everyone else." It was Edwards who specifically said that there are "Two Americas, one for those at the very top and one for everybody else." So, now, for Kuttner to be invoking Edwards to do what Edwards has been doing for years is a bit comical for an informed (informed about Edwards' work, that is) reader to be impressed with.

Second, the speech by John Edwards that Kuttner is referring to was a speech specifically billed as a policy address on solutions to combat poverty. This was not a stump speech, it was an address explaining one particular issue: poverty.

Third, I think Kuttner is being influenced by the conventional wisdom that talking about poverty does not win anyone any votes. There is some truth to that statement. But shouldn't we be applauding a politician who is actually taking this issue up on its own, rather than wrapping it in some big concern for the eroding middle class? The shrinking middle class is a big issue and Edwards talks about it a lot on the stump these days, but poverty (esp. generational poverty) is a big concern too and it deserves to be its own issue (even though the two are closely linked).

For your pleasure, here are some links about the speech Kuttner is talking about:

Read it here -

View it here -

Anonymous said...

The problem I see is that Edwards is all flash and no substance. The fact of the matter is that there is NO WAY anyone can address domestic social programs like poverty or whatnot without first overcoming the foreign policy issues. Where's he going to find the money?

The only way we can move forward to solve poverty and everything else is to first untie the gordian knot that binds our resources in an ill-conceived war in Iraq. That's where the funds are currently diverted. And until we have someone like Clark or Gore who has the gravitas to take on those issues and free up funds, we won't be able to solve any of these domestic social ills.

Only Nixon could go to China. Only Clark can take on the pentagon pork and free up funds to save social programs. If I recall correctly, Wes Clark's tax proposal in 2004 was judged to be the most progressive of all by experts.

We need desperately to fight for the domestic issues and social programs dear to us -- but the road to that lies through the morass of foreign policy. And I just don't see Edwards with any chance of going there. So in the final analysis, Edwards does not have the political ability to deliver what he promises, reducing his efforts to showboating for campaign purposes, though I think his heart is in the right place.

Anglachel said...


Chill out, dude. You're not doing John Edwards any good by getting defensive this way. Start practicing some more persuasive rhetorical moves, like, "Hey, interesting points here. Maybe you didn't see John Edwards' position papers where he *did* address this. Here's the link."

Also, you need to get a better handle on how to put things into the news. What Kuttner has done is lobbed a really easy serve over into Edwards' court, practically begging the senator to return with one of his typically smart, interesting and informative replies. Half of winning over the undecideds is getting exposure for your guy. One of the best ways to do this is through critical, but sympathetic, back and forth.

Don't assume that all criticisms are the same. Some are invitations to expand on the topic.

Anglachel said...


Cut it out. It's bad enough we have to fight off the Rethuglicans trashing our candidates. We don't need to have the left forming up a circular firing squad and doing in our own people.

While you're right that Edwards does not have the strength in international policy and diplomacy that Wes Clark does, he has a solid focus on domestic policy and a great track record of defending citizens against corporate greed. We need leaders like Edwards just as much as we need those like Clark.

It's not either/or. It's and/both. Yeah, they're competitive guys and they both want to be at the top of the ticket. Now, we can have scorched earth campaigns, where everyone trashes everyone else, or we can try to give the nation hope and confidence, and focus on doing right by the country. We need both these men for different reasons.

A valid criticism is always acceptable, but calling someone a flash in the pan or a showboater lowers the quality of the discussion and turns people off. Promote your guy without dissing the other one. Otherwise, you're just doing Karl Rove's work for him.