Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The New Gilded Age

I'm watching the balance of power wobble along (Boo, Rand Paul! Yay, Andrew Cuomo!) and have some special interest in local and state initiatives (Boo, Prop D! Yay, Prop 19!), but otherwise don't have much invested in the outcome.

The course for the next generation was set back in 2008, when the Stevensonian elite subverted their own party's electoral process (Be a Democrat for a Day!) so that they could feel morally superior voting for a black man. Obama himself has said quite clearly that no one would bother to vote for him if he was white. This says much of his political calculation, but even more of his supporters. They were truly the Joshua Generation, unwilling to do more than their political predecessors and envious that they could not be cultural heroes like the economic giants of FDR's era or the moral giants of MLK's. And, having aimed so low and compromised so much so they could pretend to stand up to the "racists", they now get to live with that legacy. Unfortunately, so do the rest of us.

That was a world historic moment, one of the "Moments of Madness" in which a political sea change can occur, and it was thrown away on an empty gesture. The electoral season of today was determined by the outcomes of 2008. The sight today of the puerile Tea Party name-calling the infantile Obamacans over an election that, regardless of the winner, will not alter the socio-economic conditions of our new Gilded Age, is, for me, grimly amusing. You would think, given the hysteria and hoohaw, the marches on Washington (all mocking shadows of marches past), that something monumental was being decided today. The contest today is bubbles on the horse piss.

The true contest was decided when Wall Street's horse won in 2008, fully backed by the public intellectuals who allegedly opposed the corrosive economic and political objectives of George Bush's base. As The Incomparable One says today:
DEATH BY ELITE: Today, as Americans go to the polls, our country is sliding into the sea. Bob Herbert’s new column helps describe the ongoing slide as the world of upper-end wealth destroys a middle-class nation. To read it, just click here.

In part, we’re suffering “death by elite”—a type of death Charles Murray semi-described in his recent Washington Post Outlook piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/26/10). As the nation becomes a toy of the upper class, it has increasingly come under the thrall of fatuous, upper-class elites. These empty elites help dumb us all down—sometimes, in “liberal” directions.
It was watching the dumb show of 2008, seeing how none of the lessons of the Reagan era and the subsequent war on Clinton and Gore could penetrate the feeble minds of the so-called liberal cognoscenti when faced with an opportunity in which to exercise their deepest resentments - against a fantasy of Bunkers and Bubbas out to get them for being liberal- and to run away from their deepest secret - that they were inextricably bound to the socio-economic privilege of their race and class. Thus, we saw an election in which the most privileged whites in America demonized and derided the least privileged whites in America, trying to arrogate to themselves some kind of moral excellence by denying and ignoring the economic devastation that continues to serve as the foundation of class anger. That this mode of politics may bring the fantasy closer to reality doesn't appear to bother the cultural Stevensonians.

But, let's be real here. Would Hillary have done differently? Was there any candidate on the Democratic side that would have been able and willing to seize the moment and deliberately change the terms of the debate? To quote the Bob Herbert column linked to above:
The authors [of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class] argue persuasively that the economic struggles of the middle and working classes in the U.S. since the late-1970s were not primarily the result of globalization and technological changes but rather a long series of policy changes in government that overwhelmingly favored the very rich.

Those changes were the result of increasingly sophisticated, well-financed and well-organized efforts by the corporate and financial sectors to tilt government policies in their favor, and thus in favor of the very wealthy. From tax laws to deregulation to corporate governance to safety net issues, government action was deliberately shaped to allow those who were already very wealthy to amass an ever increasing share of the nation’s economic benefits.

“Over the last generation,” the authors write, “more and more of the rewards of growth have gone to the rich and superrich. The rest of America, from the poor through the upper middle class, has fallen further and further behind.” ...

“We’re not arguing that globalization and technological change don’t matter,” said Professor Hacker. “But they aren’t by any means a sufficient explanation for this massive change in the distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. Much more important are the ways in which government has shaped the economy over this period through deregulation, through changes in industrial relations policies affecting labor unions, through corporate governance policies that have allowed C.E.O.’s to basically set their own pay, and so on.”

This hyperconcentration of wealth and income, and the overwhelming political clout it has put into the hands of the monied interests, has drastically eroded the capacity of government to respond to the needs of the middle class and others of modest income.

Nothing better illustrates the enormous power that has accrued to this tiny sliver of the population than its continued ability to thrive and prosper despite the Great Recession that was largely the result of their winner-take-all policies, and that has had such a disastrous effect on so many other Americans.

This is a concentration of wealth that the US hasn't seen since before the Great Depression. The arguments of these authors are similar to the argument put forth by Krugman in The Conscience of a Liberal, where he attributes economic outcomes to political machinations. This political event did not happen only by the acts of Republicans, though it is the Movement Conservatives who orchestrated the roll-back of the New Deal. No matter my admiration for Bill Clinton, the bargains and deals he made to try to get ahead over here by giving ground over there - deals often foisted on him by his own party - ended up leaving holes open through which the monied class merrily drove when all pretense of opposition ended in 2000.

In a word, no. Hillary clearly would not have been able to reverse the 40 year assault on economic justice. I doubt she could have stopped it. My guess is that she would have tossed some good-sized tree trunks across their financial super-highway, but maybe not even that. Given her own personal and political history - both very different than her husband's, which people tend to forget, eliding the two because they are partners in their political endeavors - I expected to see more tenacity on fighting for programs aimed at regular citizens and a greater willingness to tell the power brokers to shove off. I also expected an engaged leader who would try to win over constituencies to get the electoral power (and personalities) to try to change course.

But I could be as wrong about my preferred political champion as Obamacans are about theirs. I have more facts on the ground to justify my faith, but faith is what I have to call it.

What remains is the fact that the US has entered a new Gilded Age, where the have-mores insatiably accrue to themselves the wealth of the nation, converting larger and larger segments of the populace to have-nothings. The moment for this generation to cease being Joshuas and to create a legacy - to bring the people from the wilderness, to strike down Goliaths - I believe has passed. The cultural Stevensonians continue to play Charlie Brown to the Movement Conservative's Lucy, rushing again and again at the football of "racism" and ending up sprawled in the mud when the prize is yanked away. It is a fantasy they must relinquish, that they alone can do battle against this historic evil, refusing to see that it is their single minded obsession with whiteness to the exclusion of coherent economic policy (let alone justice) that keeps it politically viable.

I wonder how Josh Marshall will take watching Obama, with all appropriate cool detachment and gravitas, privatize Social Security, handing over yet another piece of the people's wealth to his backers on Wall Street.


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