Monday, June 25, 2018

Jack Sullivan on the New Left-Wing America

Jake Sullivan, who was regularly attacked as a "neoliberal" when he was one of Hillary's top campaign advisers, has a new essay arguing that now is the time for aggressive economic leftism in America. He posits a "long wave" model of American politics, with a social democratic wave from the 1930s to the 1970s, and then a conservative or neoliberal wave from Reagan to Obama. But now, he says, "the American electorate as a whole is moving to embrace a more energized form of government" and conditions are ripe for big political changes.
This essay proceeds from the premise that we have reached another turning point. Just as the Great Depression discredited the ideas of the pre-New Deal conservatives who fought for total laissez-faire outcomes in both the political branches and the courts, so the Great Recession once again laid bare the failure of our government to protect its citizens from unchecked market excess. There has been a delayed reaction this time around, but people have begun to see more clearly not only the flaws of our public and private institutions that contributed to the financial crisis, but also the decades of rising inequality and income stagnation that came before—and the uneven recovery that followed. Our politics are in the process of adjusting to this new reality. The tide is running in the other direction, and, with history serving as our guide, it could easily be a decades-long tide.
Congress has yet to embrace any of this new leftism, but
By contrast, the public seems to have taken those lessons to heart. A January NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that 58 percent of registered voters believe the government should do more for the American people, compared with 38 percent who said the government does too much. That is a record high since the question was first asked in 1995. (Back then, the results were inverted: 62 percent said the government was doing too much; only 32 percent said it should do more.) An NBC analysis accompanying the poll noted that the overall results reflected “a widespread desire for a government that’s more involved in addressing the nation’s problems.” Part of this is about Republicans feeling more comfortable with an active federal government because a Republican is in the White House. But it also appears to reflect a real change in underlying attitudes about government and government programs, which is further evidenced by polling on health care and other issues. . . .

What has changed, though—thanks to widening inequality, massive underinvestment in public services, and the lingering effects of the Great Recession—is that the siren song of supply-side economics is losing out to arguments rooted in economic fairness, even among elements of the Republican base. That’s why the failed Republican health-care bill was historically unpopular among independent and even Republican voters (registering support from only 42 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of independents in a June Quinnipiac poll last year)—because it sought to slash Medicaid at a time when more people than ever are dependent on it. It’s why Republican leaders haven’t been able to sell the public on the Trump tax cuts (which clocked in at 27 percent approval in an April NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll)—because people reject its disproportionate benefits for the wealthy. And it’s why we’ve seen such incredible teacher activism in traditional Republican bastions like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—because despite persistent differences on some education reform issues, people across the political spectrum are fed up with starving our public school system.
I think this is right. Millions of Americans have started to feel, as I do, that our 30-year experiment in renewed laissez-faire economics has either not gone very well or has accomplished all it was every going to do. We have had impressive economic growth and all sorts of cool new stuff, and global competition has led to big improvements in certain products like cars. But most of the new wealth has gone to the top 10%, and an unconscionable share to the top 0.001%. We have returned to the era of billionaires and struggling workers – Gilded Age mansions that were turned into museums or schools during the decades when the rich could not afford them are now being turned back into private homes for a class of billionaires whose wealth and power are staggering.

Our health care system is a mess, with the worse aspects of private and public systems; I can't help but think that "medicare for all" would work better than the kluge we have.

But I am doubtful that much will come of this within the next decade. The Democratic Party is rudderless and disorganized. The energy of its activists is focused on race, sexual harassment, and immigration. Most of the good ideas about how to decrease inequality require raising taxes, and I am not sure how much support that really has. Plus, other than a complete health care overhaul nothing on the table would make much difference for most people in the short term. Most importantly, we have come to vote our identities almost exclusively. Party allegiance has probably never been very rational, but now it seems to me almost entirely irrational. People vote for those who seem most like themselves. I just don't know how many voters there are who could be persuaded to change their parties and support a pro-trans, pro-immigrant, anti-alpha male candidate in the hopes of reducing inequality a little.

So I expect that over the next five years at least we will have more of the same: closely divided government, lots of noise about scandals and lots of anger about social issues, but nothing major coming out of Congress. I look forward fondly to being proved wrong, but my sense of America right now is mostly division, anger, and disgust, not momentum for change.

1 comment:

David said...

Right. It's very striking how that Republican small-government movement has simply died, or at least gone into abeyance. For my money, that's one of the biggest changes of the Trump era.

But, even if a majority of Americans want government to do things, it is obviously Sullivan's wishful thinking to suggest that they are united on what they want government to do--or perhaps more important, who they want government to do things for. It would be helpful to find politicians who could turn this spirit into, at least, a cynical-but-pragmatic, division-of-resources kind of compromise.