The State May Not Humiliate Anyone

Saving the American Left: The Case for a New Progressive Creed
By Bernard Chazelle / April 7, 2008

The American left is in the throes of an existential crisis. Some say it’s a failure of nerve, others a loss of belief. It is the latter. Neoliberalism has sucked the oxygen out of the left by deflating the political sphere to the economic one. The left must articulate a new creed around three principles: empowerment (the economic is ancillary to the political); social justice (the disadvantaged have an unconditional claim upon the collectivity); and decency (the state may not humiliate anyone). To make its case, the left must redefine that most exalted form of self-interest, patriotism, as pride in a society that grants all of its members the means to belong.

First, the mythology:

* Democrats burst with Big Ideas. Unfortunately, ballots and Big Ideas don’t mix and the timing is never quite right. But you watch. Once the Congress is theirs, once the White House curtains have been picked, the Dems will get crackin’ on ’em Big Ideas—or on the reelection campaign, whichever comes first.

* Big Ideas being what they are, big, squeezing them into words can be a challenge. Luckily, with academia’s brightest bulbs lighting up the pup tent, liberals can articulate better than anyone why it is they can’t articulate anything. So they’ll pen earnest treatises on the need to call taxes “membership fees” and trial lawyers “public protection attorneys.” Like it or not, this has proven quite effective, and Howard Dean, for one, likes to credit Lakoff’s framing theories for his victorious run for the White House.

* Who cares if the Clintonistas and their merry band of DLC hangers-on spoiled the broth with their third-way brand of workfare centrism and smiley-face imperialism? Across the blogosphere, a nascent grassroots movement is afoot, blowing the winds of change against the Repub-lite sellout show. It’s coming. This time, it’s really coming!

Like all myths, these wishful fantasies contain a grain of truth: Democrats are diffident, tactical, and quick to concede the terms of the debate. The netroots channel genuine passion about liberal causes and the blogs are buzzing. There is palpable excitement out there on the left. A pity there is no there there. America has lefties but no left.

The verdict is brutal. By virtually any measure, the United States is the least progressive nation in the developed world.(1) It trails most of Western Europe in poverty rates, life expectancy, health care, child care, infant mortality, maternity leaves, paid vacations, public infrastructure, incarceration rates, and environmental laws. The wealth gap in the US has not been so wide since 1929. The Wal-Mart founders’ family owns as much as the bottom 120 million Americans combined.(2) Contrary to received opinion, there is now less social mobility in the US than in Canada, France, Germany, and most Scandinavian countries.(3,4) The European Union attracts more foreign students than the US, including twice as many from China. Its consensus-driven polity, studies indicate, has replaced the American version as the societal model to which the developing world aspires.(5)

And yet could America be a right-wing nation of closet lefties? A Zogby poll reveals overwhelming support for rehabilitation over incarceration for young offenders. In an NES survey, those who want “government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending” outnumber backers of spending cuts by 2 to 1. A Pew study cites the same ratio of people who consider corporate profits excessive. It also finds that a majority of Americans believe “government should help the needy even if it means greater debt.” (6)

Democratic leaders, bless their souls, believe no such nonsense. They’ll warn you incessantly that any public policy leaning a nano-angstrom to the left is a suicide pact. They’ll brush off any talk of raising the top marginal tax rate of 35% to anything approaching the 70% of the Nixon years.(7) Yes, the progressive Bill Clinton expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit and signed the Family and Medical Leave Act. He also increased extreme poverty despite high economic growth.(8) He extended the death penalty to non-homicides and oversaw the largest increase in incarceration rates in the 20th century (double what it was under Reagan).(9,10) He exacerbated inequalities, gave up on Kyoto, and, by his own Labor secretary’s account, presided over “one of the most pro-business administrations in American history.” (2,11) His signature social policy, welfare reform, dismantled one of the pillars of the New Deal: the federal cash assistance program for 9 million poor children (AFDC).(12)

By contrast, the conservative Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, extended the Clean Air Act, introduced the Supplemental Security Income program (to assist the elderly and the disabled), launched the Minority Business Development Agency, signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and implemented the first federally-mandated affirmative action program.(13) Nixon was a “Southern strategist” and a right-wing crook: he was also to the left of Bill Clinton.

The senior Democratic senator from New York, the “ultra-liberal” Chuck Schumer, recently killed efforts to raise the tax rate of hedge fund managers to that of his cleaning lady: a nice government handout to overpaid bankers that is worth, annually, half of the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.(14,15) “I am not a populist,” said Schumer.(16) (Maybe just an opportunist.) During the 2008 presidential campaign, the New York Times gently mocked John Edwards’s unauthorized concern for the poor as “raw populism.” (17) That word again. The other P-word, poverty, has acquired in the liberal mind the cosmic permanence of gravity. Much like in the Middle Ages, short of killing the poor, the thinking goes, one cannot kill poverty—even in the richest nation on earth. This capitulation to imaginary laws of economics marks the ascendancy of neoliberalism as the dominant dogma of the ruling class. This is a worldwide phenomenon but its origins are uniquely American. One may wonder: if it’s worked against the interests of so many, how then did it happen?

Read all of it here (with notes). Information Clearing House.

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