It's the Only Way To Heal an Alienated and Fractured Society.
One often hears from right-leaning political pundits that most Americans would find repugnant the idea of living in a social order patterned after the West European social democracies. According to this view, typical Americans have instead a deep value-based attachment to opposing free-market principles. These include limited government, low taxes, entrepreneurship, corporate deregulation and growth, capital expansion, and the make-or-break imperatives of unfettered competition in the labor and capital markets, and the consumer marketplace.
In light of the 2010 midterm election results and the current cultural "noise" -- talk radio, cable talk and news, Tea Party gatherings, web postings, polls, etc. -- it would seem that the pundits have at least one thing right. It is clear that a very large body of Americans, whether or not they understand the functioning of free markets, or even believe in their efficacy, opposes any meaningful role for the federal government in shaping their outcomes. They roundly condemn the near-trillion-dollar bank bailouts of 2008, to which the current administration is heir, along with Obama's economic stimulus program, auto-company reclamations, and health-insurance reform. This rejection of government activism is not only widespread throughout the population, but visceral and politically potent. One must ask, however, whether it is also legitimate. How rational are the assumptions on which it is based?
At a time when millions of Americans have lost either their job or their home, or both, due to corporate avarice or malfeasance, it is curious that so many nevertheless oppose a government role in the economy and continue to place their faith, instead, in the workings of a largely unregulated free-enterprise system that has produced the very conditions from which they now suffer. It's as if the Stockholm syndrome had re-emerged as a central dynamic in American politics.
A single question puts the apparent paradox in plain
relief: Would a majority of Americans
really be better off with an economy un-buffered by government and based
totally on unregulated free enterprise?
On the face of it, the very notion is absurd. Given the present state of the economy, how
many of the jobless, or those at risk of joblessness, would actually reject or
oppose extended unemployment benefits, a solvent Medicaid system, or government
help in reshaping home mortgages?
Similarly, how many retirees, vested in 401 Ks and other stock
portfolios now greatly diminished in value, would prefer a life without Social
Security or Medicare? In reality, far
more people in even this land of opportunity would be made better off as
beneficiaries of prudent government social programs than as participants in an
unfettered system of free enterprise.
Why the Antipathy to Government?
Generally, the irrationality shown in supporting actions that oppose one's own self-interest stems from two very destructive emotions: fear and resentment. In assessing their economic status, many Americans continue to be influenced by the dream that, with just a break here and there, they too can join the ranks of those made rich -- and in some cases even famous -- by their success in the competitive enterprise system. Of course, for most Americans, this "dream" is in fact a pipedream. Those who hold to it seldom look to the findings of economic analysis for reasons that might explain their continued inability to make it real. Instead, many seek answers in the metaphysical realm, where there are "principalities and powers" both capable and desirous of destroying dreams.
For Tea Partiers and others who feel left out of the system, the most obvious candidate for inflicting such insidious despotism is the federal government, with its seemingly limitless powers and broadening involvement in matters of what are conceived to be private values and behavior. In the eyes of the alienated, the current "liberal" Washington establishment is not a protector of the personal freedoms they value, but an intrusive miscreant that seeks to expand its own power and dominance by massive spending that enriches the privileged and seduces the electoral loyalty of the poor. In prosecuting these ends through high taxes that lead to a weakened economy, it steals from the people opportunities to earn a decent living or to exercise their own economic initiative in the pursuit of their dreams. Those who hold these views understandably fear losing the freedom to shape their own future, and resent what they see as their exclusion from the good life by a consolidation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
For millions of disaffected Americans who have already suffered the loss of a job and the personal dignity that goes with it, the emotions of fear and resentment are compounded by a profound sense of injustice and powerlessness. Why, they ask themselves, does the federal government do nothing to generate new employment opportunities that could give me a chance to escape the joblessness for which I'm personally blameless? Why did it instead, despite historically massive debt, spend hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out Wall Street and the automotive companies -- which, unlike me, are largely responsible for their own failures?
It is hardly surprising that people suffering the pains of economic insecurity and a loss of personal dignity viewed these government actions not -- as they arguably were -- a needed strategy to maintain a functioning economy, but as an overreaching misuse of their tax dollars, with themselves the powerless victims. They also saw the bailouts as unjust, since they appeared discriminatory against their own interests as ordinary people and blatantly in the interest of fellow members of America's ruling elite. That perception was made especially keen by the many reports of top executives at rescued financial firms making off with huge bonuses and, as the figure has it, "laughing all the way to the bank."
Conditioned by these perceptions, disaffected Americans came also to regard the government's follow-up economic stimulus program, with its manifest benefits limited largely to saving the jobs of state employees, as a further example of a misuse of government power and a waste of tax dollars. The same is true of the health care reform program, whose promised cost savings for the population at large were both deferred and unguaranteed. In all the extraordinarily costly government investments, most Americans saw little that benefited them. Instead, what they perceived was a federal government that had blatantly misused its powers and their own tax dollars to side with the corporate elite and against themselves. It is to this image that I think disaffected Americans really refer when they talk about their determination to "take their country back."
Of course, this sense of alienation has been amplified by the banding together of disaffected citizens in groups like those associated with the Tea Party movement. In such gatherings, where positions are hardened by resentment- and fear-driven "group- think," there is little room for a moderating influence by voices that may question and seek to modify preponderant assumptions. Few within the group would challenge the alleged lack of good faith and venal motives behind government actions, the ineffectualness of programs it puts in place, or the notion of self-correcting dynamics in free markets. Instead, a smothering closed-mindedness leads inevitably to the kind of demonizing of the Other -- whether the government or supporters of its policies -- that is often seen at Tea Party protests. One can only hope that the enmity falls short of violent confrontation.
The Progressive Vision for Transformative Change.
Given the extent and depth of social alienation in America,
it seems politically imperative that steps be taken as soon as possible to
effectively redress the grievances of the disaffected. Regrettably, the daunting national debt, the
current alignment of political forces in Congress, the looming presidential
election year, and the President's own political and personal bias for
compromise over confrontation based on principle make meaningful policy changes
highly unlikely in the short term.
In the longer term, it is only committed progressive
lawmakers who can produce real solutions for the problems that plague the
country. That cannot happen, however,
without the participation, first, of progressive-minded citizens who are
dismayed by the chronic joblessness, underemployment, income inequality, and
social unrest they see around them. It
is they who, in actions ranging from letters to congressmen and the opinion
pages of local newspapers, to marching in the streets, must help shape and gain
popular support for policies that can in reality bring us closer to economic
fairness and a mutually supportive society.
Such policies could in fact gain a serious hearing as soon as next year, if a qualified progressive Democrat could be found and persuaded to challenge President Obama in the 2012 primaries. For now, that eventuality, though desirable, seems unlikely. Even in the absence of a formal campaign, however, it is nevertheless vital that progressive ideas for transformative change begin to resonate both in Congress and in our national political discourse. For that to happen, those ideas need to be consolidated by the progressive community into an overarching moral vision that is communicated to the public through every available channel. If carefully framed around the traditional American values of self-reliance and civic-mindedness, I believe such a vision can evoke a positive response from a wide cross-section of Americans, including Tea Party types. Specifically, I propose that progressives pledge to fight for the one right that working Americans hold most dear and are most afraid of losing: namely, the freedom to control and shape their own economic future.