Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bad Conscience

I have been reading Paul Krugman's new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, over the last week. It is a deceptively simple book. Krugman has written a precise, distilled, eminently readable manifesto on what the left needs to do to beat back the anti-democrats on the right. While other academics and pundits have covered this same ground in many books and articles over the last eight years, Krugman's book has the great virtue of jargon-free clarity.

His core argument is very, very simple. In the New Deal, Democrats cemented the modern welfare state through dedication to economic and social equality. It was a political act of creation. Since then, the small fraction of the population that did not benefit from this political reorganization has attempted to overturn it. Since their objectives are not in the interests of the majority of the population, yet they need 50% + fraction at the polls to do their work, they need to exploit anti-democratic feelings and opinions to distract people from their true political goals. The general approach they have chosen is fear, and the specific tool is racism.

I think this is even more right than Krugman claims. Race-based chattel slavery is the original sin of this nation, and resentful racism is the poison stream running through our politics ever since. Krugman asserts that our natoin is becoming less racist with every generation, and I think he is right, but I think he misses one of the reasons for the persistence of racist practices and voting patterns, which is the self-interested acquiesence of people who have no particular racist feelings.

To be blunt, people who are clinging to middle-class status but are afraid of sliding down into poverty will very deliberately not do anything that will increase the competitive edge of people below them in the socio-economic order. I may not hate blacks but if I look at demographics and I see that bad education and crappy neighborhoods keep blacks at a competitive disadvantage, then why help them? Likewise with gender. Why do women any favors if they may beat you out for the next promotion?

It's an ugly feeling for those who have a conscience they can't can't entirely push away - feeling a mix of relief and guilt when reading over some news article about the disadvantages that the very poor suffer, of knowing that the mere color of your skin adds a few thousand to your earning power, of understanding that you personally needn't do anything discriminatory to reap the benefits of a brutally unfair system.

It's going to take a combination of two things to shake up this silent support for such a system. First, the "protections" of race (class and gender) need to be eroded to the point where the racial free-riders can no longer count on an advantage. FDR had the Great Depression and then WWII to help him in that regard. Second, there needs to be leadership willing to challenge our better angels and channel the energy wasted on hatred into something demonstrably better. It has to be a purely political appeal, and by that it has to be an argument about needs, interests and opportunities.

It's not enough to have good ideas or to be hopeful. Anger won't work because that is the Republicans' baliwick. It has to be some pretty up front operations that make very explicit that there is something in it for me. It's less sophisticated than policy wonking (though there will also need to be a lot of detailed policy work done), because it is results, not consistency, that is needed.

Social Security. National health insurance. A living wage. These are the three things Democrats have to deliver in the next two presidential terms.


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