How We Went Wrong & How We Get It Right

Today we chronicle the Democratic Party’s slide from being girded by New Deal values to one that is infused with neoliberal compromises, a party willing to negotiate with libertarians & profiteers, while turning their back on unions, the working class & the poor.

How the Left Abandoned Labor & Economic Justice in a Failing Alliance with the GOP & Corporate America

Retake has written several times about the Democratic Party’s retreat from the values of FDR and the New Deal. But Kurt Anderson, author of Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History, has penned an extraordinarily illuminating Atlantic piece, College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots: How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else” that describes the Democratic Party and much of the left’s slippery slide from a commitment to labor, unions, working people, and justice in pursuit of a neoliberal fantasy.

The Impact of Our Retreat from the New Deal

Anderson begins by pointing out the ugly consequence of this retreat.

In 40 years, the share of wealth owned by our richest 1 percent has doubled, the collective net worth of the bottom half has dropped to almost zero, the median weekly pay for a full-time worker has increased by just 0.1 percent a year, only the incomes of the top 10 percent have grown in sync with the economy, and so on. “

“Since the 1980s, the portion of income taken each year by the rich had become as hugely disproportionate as it had been in the 1920s, with CEOs paid several hundred times more than the average worker, whose average income had barely budged for decades. “We’ve not only let economic uncertainty and unfairness grow to grotesque extremes,” I wrote, but “also inured ourselves to the spectacle.

I also thought: Mea culpa. For those past two decades, I’d prospered and thrived in the new political economy. And unharmed by automation or globalization or the new social contract, I’d effectively ignored the fact that the majority of my fellow Americans weren’t prospering or thriving.”

From The Atlantic: “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots: How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else”

A Retreat from Solidarity with Labor

As I read the passage above, I thought of how from the 70s until moving to New Mexico in 2012, I had also largely ignored the brutal realities faced by those less privileged, devoting my time to building a successful consulting business, raising kids, learning to cook, and rooting for the Warriors. What’s worse, I’d read The Nation weekly, so I’d known what was going on and yet almost never hit the streets in protest. I was not alone.

When I started work as a writer at Time in 1981, I joined the union, the Newspaper Guild, but I understood that everything I cared about in that job—good assignments, decent salary increases, titular honorifics—would be entirely at my editors’ discretion, not a function of collectively bargained rules. A union? Sure, fine. But I was talent. I was creative. I was an individual. College graduates tend to think of themselves that way, younger ones all the more, younger Baby Boomers at the time probably the most ever. And the intensified, all-encompassing individualism that blew up during the 1960s—I do my thing, and you do your thing—was not a mindset or temperament that necessarily reinforced feelings of solidarity with fellow workers or romantic feelings about unions.

From The Atlantic: “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots: How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else”

And so while Anderson was aloof to the importance of union solidarity, he failed to notice the creeping advances of neoliberalism. In retrospect, it was far less subtle than it felt back in the day. But as the next passage illustrates, he holds himself and my generation of highly educated, but slumbering liberals, more than a little responsible.

What’s happened since the 1970s and ’80s didn’t just happen. It looks more like arson than a purely accidental fire, more like poisoning than a completely natural illness, more like a cheating of the many by the few—and although I’ve always been predisposed to disbelieve conspiracy theories, this amounts to a long-standing and well-executed conspiracy, not especially secret, by the leaders of the capitalist class, at the expense of everyone else. A Raw Deal replaced the New Deal. And I and my cohort of hippie-to-yuppie liberal Baby Boomers were complicit in that.”

From The Atlantic: “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots: How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else”

The Co-Opting of the Democratic Party: What New Deal?

Anderson points out how as soon as the Viet Nam war ended, the urgency left the room. What’s more, a split began to erupt within the Democratic Party with left leaning Dems and working class unionized Dems disagreeing frequently. He then examines two strikes that hit the liberal darlings’ Washington Post in the 1970’s. The strikes illustrate the schism forming between white collar liberals and working class Democrats.

In 1974, the Post’s unionized journalists (Guild union) went on strike, but without even consulting the several working class unions representing printing press, delivery, and administrative support staff for the Post. Striking without that support proved fruitless and in just two weeks the strikers accepted management’s first offer. One year later, the press workers union struck and immediately the other blue collar union workers at the Post joined them in solidarity. But not only did the white collar unionized reporters refuse to honor the picket lines, they openly disparaged the union, as being beneath them. Two thirds of the reporters never stopped or slowed work and every Guild union vote to support the pressmen strike was defeated.

The split between liberal white collar Democrats and blue collar Democrats also reared its head during the 1972 presidential campaign, with blue collar union members repudiating the liberal nominee, George McGovern.

Just three years later, when Gary Hart (McGovern’s campaign manager) ran for Senate in Colorado, we saw just how far Democrats had strayed from their New Deal values.

[Hart’s]1974 Senate campaign stump speech was actually called “The End of the New Deal.” He disparaged liberals who thought that “if there is a problem, [you] create an agency and throw money at the problem,” who “clung to the Roosevelt model long after it ceased to relate to reality.” In that first post-Watergate election, Hart beat the Republican incumbent by a landslide and became the very model of a modern major Democrat.”

From The Atlantic: “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots: How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else”

Anderson did not shy away from acknowledging his own hubris and rejection of New Deal principles and from the repudiation of solidarity across classes that made it possible.

“I actually, earnestly considered myself, as Hart put it, “a new breed of thinker questioning old premises and disregarding old alliances.” I wanted to be counterintuitive, contrarian, evidence based, ready to look at everything afresh. Like so many in my generation, I learned from the war in Vietnam and the war on drugs to mistrust the government, so maybe in other ways it had gotten bloated and inefficient, maybe nitpicky regulations were making it too hard to do business, maybe the antitrust approach invented in my great-grandparents’ day was outmoded. And weren’t labor unions retrograde and lumbering in lots of ways?”

From The Atlantic: “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots: How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else”

The Slide Into Neoliberalism

This line of thinking was only a small step from the neoliberalist ideology forming in the 70s and 80s, where “liberal” Democrats were more than willing to entertain corporate and conservative ideas (corporate tax cuts, deregulation, welfare “reform”). But while liberals were willing to compromise, the newly energized right had but one objective: make the rich richer and corporations unfettered by regulation.

Starting in the 1970s, the Milton Friedman Doctrine, the righteous pursuit of maximum profit to the exclusion of absolutely everything else, freed and encouraged businesspeople and the rich to be rapacious and amoral without shame. Indeed, the new economic right even encouraged them to wage a class war—explicitly against (traitorous white) liberal professionals and the (black) “underclass,” more discreetly against the (white) working class they were enlisting as political allies.”

From The Atlantic: “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots: How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else”

And so, four decades of unrelenting assault on unions, working families and the poor unfolded.The liberal response was not to take to the streets with the working class, but to try to negotiate the best deal possible with conservatives who were far more principled and less willing to yield. And so “the Rust Belt” became a common term, indicating the demise of manufacturing and along with it the jobs that had supported the working class. But “rust” does not just surface from nowhere, it is a sign of neglect and poor stewardship. The Democrat “response” to the erosion of working class was Bill Clinton and NAFTA, followed by Obama’s totally caving to Wall St and the banking industry. The Party had exchanged practicality for principle and while it was able to make deals with the right, in doing so, it moved further and further from its principles and in so doing lost the support of many blue collar working people.

The faction that was now dominant in the Democratic Party had been pushing for a more centrist economic and social-welfare policy since the 1970s, but the Republican Party after 1980 had no comparable moderating faction—which in a two-party system meant that Democrats kept moving toward a center that kept moving to the right.”

From The Atlantic: “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots: How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else”

This is when Arthur Laffler, the founder of supply side economics was embraced not just by Reagan and the Koch brothers, but by the likes of Democratic presidential candidates Jerry Brown (1992) and Gary Hart (1988). Neoliberalism and market-based solutions were at the heart of the Democratic Leadership Council, founded by Bill Clinton in 1985. Anderson reports that Laffler himself claimed to have voted for Bill Clinton.

The slope from FDR to Bill Clinton was indeed slippery, steep and insidious. Indeed, since JFK it would be hard to find any serious leftist candidate until the rise of Bernie Sanders. What’s more, until Sanders no viable economic justice platform was ever developed to counter the New Democrat socially liberally, fiscally conservative mantra. With the Dow booming, any critic of rapacious capitalism was deemed fringe, if not lunacy.

Democrats as well as Republicans, began using the phrase socially liberal but fiscally conservative to describe their politics, which meant low taxes for higher-net-worth individuals (another new term) in return for tolerance of . . . whatever, as long as it didn’t involve big new social programs that affluent people would have to pay for.”

We had long forgotten MLK, Jr.’s assertion that a budget is a moral document and a fiscally conservative budget can simply not wed a socially progressive agenda… and so that social justice agenda withered for lack of funding, reduced to campaign slogans and neglected platform planks.

And the Logical Conclusion to This Descent: Donald Trump

One of the more interesting analyses Anderson conducts is how all of the above had laid the groundwork for what 2016 delivered: a xenophobic demigod with no allegiance to any values other than corporate greed.

In 2016, as the current generation of Fausts made their darkest bargain yet, surely some of them smelled a whiff of sulfur or heard a demonic cackle as they signed away whatever remained of their souls.

The obeisance of the rich right and their consiglieri to Trump for the past four years has exposed more nakedly than ever their compact—everything about money, anything for money—and the events of 2020 pushed that along to an even more hideous crescendo.

From The Atlantic: “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots: How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else”

And so, the defining principles of the GOP and the Trump regime can all be found in more subtle forms in all that Anderson has described:

  • Government is bad, the emergence of the deep state and government as the problem, not the solution (Reagan)
  • Establishment experts are wrong, science is suspect–leading to a systemic questioning of unequivocal science on the climate crisis and COVID
  • We are entitled to our own facts, not possible without billionaire think tank “research” and the Fox echo chamber
  • Short-term profits are everything and so despite COVID and tens of millions unemployed the Dow soars;
  • Liberty equals selfishness and hence “your health concerns don’t mean I need to put on a damned mask”
  • Inequality’s not so bad, indeed it can be rather pleasant.

A Warning & Signs of Hope

Anderson then warns that today, just as in the 1930s and the 1970s, we are reeling and in crisis. At times like this, abrupt shifts are possible. In the 30’s in Europe that shift was to fascism, but in the US, it was to the New Deal. We have both a great opportunity but also an existential threat and if that doesn’t define August 11, 2020, what does?

Anderson closes with an exhortation to believe, to hope and to dream :

“a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at,” because social progress only comes by navigating toward hopeful visions of perfection. “Our business is not to lay aside the dream,” Lippman explained, “but to make it plausible. Drag dreams out into the light of day, show their sources, compare them with fact, transform them to possibilities … a dream … with a sense of the possible.” 

And as one of the pieces in News In Brief describes, there is evidence of the possibility of meaningful shift to the left. a hint of hope that the next shift may be to the left. The NY Times op-ed describes how the surge of sustained protests around Black Lives Matter is unifying disparate left wing movements. A vision of racial, economic, and environmental justice is beginning to emerge in Europe and in the streets across America. With the complicity of COVID underscoring how the GOP has abandoned any pretense of concern for essential workers, teachers and young children, that movement must include labor. The US response to workers has been to starve them and force them back to work, safe or not. In Europe, the response was to support labor so they could safely stay home without losing their insurance or their paycheck. The contrast in approach and in results is stark. The light appears to be going on in many minds and dots are being connected. Onward.

Click here to read the full article.…and it would be a very good idea to do so. We have much to consider about our future path and it would be best to learn from past mistakes.

Categories: Economic Justice, Community & Economic Development

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3 replies

  1. In any mix of human beings, there have always been and there always will be some who are aggressive, self-aggrandizing – bullies with no feeling for community. The problem we will always have is how to manage the greedy grabbers. Any system that people can create for creating a fair and peaceful community can also be “gamed”. This is a tough problem.

  2. In my 77 years, I have been through all of this. I have to say that every word, on both your parts, is accurate. I lived it. I know. Keep on keeping on!!!!

  3. “the failures of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis can be traced directly to some of the toxic fantasies now dear to the Republican Party … Government is bad. Establishment experts are overrated or just plain wrong. Science is suspect.”

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