Reprinted from Campaign For America's Future
Washington's upcoming budget battle could become the next front in the war against austerity. That's the bank-friendly economic ideology whose forces now span the globe: Europe has the Germans, and we have the Republicans.
But who in this country will take the role of Syriza and Podemos, Europe's new anti-austerity political movements?
The Sins of the Bankers
The German government has become the economic bane of greater Europe. It has used its dominance of the European community to force its harsh and counterproductive austerity economics on the "lesser" members of the Eurozone -- to punish them for the sins of their bankers. (The bankers themselves appear to be above earthly chastisement.)
Now Greece's newly elected Syriza government is challenging the German-led economic order's paradoxical prescription for growth -- one which might be described as "starve them until they prosper." Greece's new leaders insist on having a say in their own economic future -- a reasonable enough position, especially in the birthplace of democracy -- and they reject the failed austerity policies of the global financial elite.
It's a war of nerves, a contest to see who blinks first. For their part, Greece's leaders know that its economy hangs in the balance. But the German-led European community is walking a tightrope -- between a hardline position that could shatter the European community and concessions that might encourage other countries to elect their own Syriza-like leaders.
Waiting for Lefty
Syriza-like political movements in other economically battered countries, like Spain's Podemos and Ireland's Anti-Austerity Alliance, are watching this confrontation closely. But the United States has so far failed to produce its own anti-austerity electoral movement, despite the problems caused by our home-grown GOP "Germans."
In fact, the Republican Party's economic agenda is harsher than anything even Germany's been willing to propose. So why hasn't there been a successful U.S. electoral countermovement along Syriza's lines? There are a number of reasons, including:
Mixed messages. President Obama spent much of his presidency embracing austerity with one hand while rejecting it with the other. Upon taking office he acknowledged the need for immediate stimulus spending, but also created a "deficit commission" and overstated the need for spending cuts. This mixed messaging emboldened the austerity crowd and undercut the pro-growth, anti-austerity message.
Partial solutions. The economic measures put in place by the president and his party prevented a full-scale depression, created millions of jobs, and mitigated our recessionary crisis. But they weren't enough to rescue the middle class, boost wages, reduce inequality, or attack some corners of the unemployment problem. Instead of explaining what else was needed, the White House acceded to "sequester" cuts that hobbled the recovery. That left us with uneven gains which benefited the rich while allowing the middle class and impoverished to fall even further behind.
A glass half-empty. Democrats, led by the president, largely failed to explain what had been accomplished. Instead of seeing an economic "glass half full" -- the result of half-measures for economic growth -- many voters understandably saw one that was half empty. Democratic boasts about job creation, while true, often seemed out of touch with what millions of people were experiencing.
The two-party system. Most other democracies have a parliamentary system that allows multiple parties to participate in the governance process. Ours makes it difficult for third parties to win office. And the corrupting influence of Big Money has seduced many politicians into ignoring popular (and populist) ideas in favor of wealth-friendly "compromises" that leave voters cold.
A sense of alienation. The end result appears to have been a widespread sense of alienation among middle- and lower-income Americans. The 2014 election turned into a Republican wave. Democratic losses were greater than anticipated, with record-low turnout (the lowest participation rate since 1942, when many Americans were serving overseas in World War II) that suggested deep disaffection with the political process.
That shouldn't be surprising, given how few incumbent Democrats were offering a clear explanation for the public's economic woes -- much less a clear solution for them. They'll certainly do better in 2016 -- but how much better? That remains to be seen.