Submitted by Mike Spindell, guest blogger
“Ian Fletcher is Senior Economist of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, nationwide grass-roots organization dedicated to fixing America’s trade policies and comprising representatives from business, agriculture, and labor.” http://www.prosperousamerica.org/2011/02/23/ian_fletcher/
Mr. Fletcher wrote an article in HuffPost this week titled ” Why Is the American Left So Ineffective in Economics?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ian-fletcher/why-is-the-american-left-_b_1142615.html?ref=politics&ir=Politics . On my first reading of this article, I sped through it cursorily, with general agreement and approval, book marking the link for further reference. As the day went on the article remained stuck in the back of my mind, for there was something about it that disturbed me, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. I looked up Mr. Fletcher’s credentials and they seemed good and certainly not one of being a Corporatist economist. The Coalition for a Prosperous America appears a worthwhile middle-of-road organization, whose supporters include labor unions, as well as medium and small businesses. They look askance at current US trade policies and that is a view with which I agree. Mr. Fletcher has a book titled: “Free Trade Doesn’t Work” http://www.freetradedoesntwork.com/ which people I respect like Fritz Hollings and Thom Hartmann have praised. In it he discusses how there is a free-trade hegemony of both Democrats and Republicans representing the Washington establishment and marginalizing all the voices who disagree with free trade policies. This hegemony is what I describe as the Feudalist Corporatocracy. This is a man with who I’m in general agreement, why then my discomfort with his thesis in this article?
This article opens up with the following paragraph: “Anyone who’s still in a state of denial about the thesis implied by the title of this article can stop reading right here. I’ll just assume it’s obvious enough that we can take it as a given.” He’s right, the thesis implied in the title is indisputable. The Left has been ineffective in combatting the economic policies started by Ronald Reagan’s election and has been in constant retreat from the onslaught of right-wing economic policies. This has been true to such an extent that Bill Clinton reaffirmed Alan Greenspan as the head of The Federal Reserve and Barack Obama reaffirmed G.W. Bush’s choice of Ben Bernake. Both of these men are little more than philosophical minions/co-dependents of Wall Street and the Big Banks. Where I take issue with Mr. Fletcher is in why he believes the Left’s economic weakness has come about. To me his view of the origins of this Left Wing retreat is shortsighted and ignores the 800 pound gorilla in the room. If we don’t understand the causes of problems we face, then no matter how prescient the analysis of their nature, we are almost powerless to combat them. Since the article in question is rather brief, I’m going to dispute it point by point.
“I think there are basically four reasons why the American left has, since the late 1970s, lost almost all of its traction on economic issues, despite successfully imposing on the country for the previous 40 years a basically New Deal economic ideology.
The first reason is the gentrification of the left. If you compare who runs the Democratic party on a day-to-day basis with who ran it in 1932, or even 1962, there’s been nearly a clean sweep of old-school ethnics and working-class people and their replacement with yuppies. Even if the bosses who ran the Democratic party in 1932 were of middle-class or above incomes as a personal matter, their social origins usually were not. This fact usually gets ignored, not least because almost everyone with the wherewithal to comment on it (including yours truly) is themselves a yuppie.”
I believe that the “gentrification” of the Left is a myth created by effective use of right-wing memes created in the late 60’s and promoted by Yuppie publications like New York Magazine, a pseudo-liberal publication that practically invented the term “Limousine Liberal”. The dapper, dandy, journalist Tom Wolfe had much to do with it in articles like “Radical Chic and Mau Mau’ing the Flak Catchers” http://www.tomwolfe.com/RadicalChic.html “Radical Chic” was at first coined by Mr. Wolfe in a hilarious description of a chic party given by Leonard Bernstein in his apartment, to hear a presentation by “The Black Panther Party”. Picked up by the Right, this became a meme used to ridicule Left leaning people as mostly effete dilettantes, out of touch with the working classes. Implicit in this formulation was also the idea of the effete intellectual, out of touch with average people, lodged in an “Ivory Tower”. It got a lot of play during the Viet Nam years, with the AFL-CIO supporting the war and many average Americans offended by protests and uprisings connected with Civil Rights and Anti-War activity. It was then and now, an unfortunate bit of mythology promulgated by operatives predating Rove and Norquist, that now do the bidding of the Koch Brothers and their like. The arrival of OWS and the ascendancy of its messages resonating with the Left and Center, shows that the supporters of economic equality are decidedly not Yuppie in nature. OWS is of course all about economics.
As far as the part of the line of reasoning that claims that the leadership of the Democratic Party is now gentrified, compared to its past leadership. That is a bit of common wisdom that seems true, but in fact is false. The leadership of both parties has always ranged from upper middle class to patrician. The social origins of many of the party’s leaders always were diverse, that is true, but the fact is that getting used to being wealthy is quite easy to do and poor origins do not necessarily make a rich liberal, or a person who identifies with their roots. That Mr. Fletcher is himself uncomfortable with this part of his thesis is indicated by his need to include the caveat of social origins. Political America has always been run by Patricians and the upper middle classes. Their leaning right or left determined by their ethics, intellect and ability to empathize. Mr. Fletcher says so himself later on: “A major part of the problem here is that 100 percent of the political power in the United States is monopolized by the top 10 percent of the population.” This is exactly true and always has been. Mr. Fletcher’s first point fails.
“This points to the second problem with the contemporary American left: it has exchanged equality as its primary goal for diversity. Now one can argue this either way, and I don’t do culture-war issues, but the hard fact is that one can’t prefer diversity to equality and expect equality to be the outcome. They are simply not the same thing. One can claim to be in favor of both, but strategic choices have to be made, and either one or the other must come out on top”. The real problem with diversity, from a leftist point of view, is not that it’s a bad thing per se.
The real problem is that diversity intrinsically tends to reduce human solidarity. Solidarity is the emotion people feel towards others that makes them care about the fate of people who would otherwise be strangers. It is thus an essential basis of any political tendency that would impose policies designed to reduce economic inequality.
This author sets up a false dichotomy here. Economic equality and social diversity are not opposing ideas, they are ideas that can rise or fall on their own merits. Those political thinkers that I respect haven’t made the exchange that Mr. Fletcher uses to bolster his thesis. Economic equality and the honoring of ethnic/racial/sexual diversity are simultaneously goals that I and many others seek. People are different. Embracing those differences enriches us as a culture and in fact has been considered an American ideal for almost a century. Those who see the embracing of human diversity as threatening, are the people who believe “different” is bad and who are in need of enlightenment. Is the full acceptance of blacks, Jews, Muslims, Gay people, etc., something that the Left shouldn’t strive for as much as it strives for economic equality. Isn’t what Mr. Fletcher fears really the same thing that made populism ineffective, due to its inherent prejudice against those thought of as not having the right stuff to be “Real Americans”.
“This brings us to the third big problem with the American left. Since the Democrats decided in 1981, under Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Tony Coelho, that they could seek (and get) corporate money on the same scale as the Republicans, there has been a yawning gap between the interests of those who finance the party and its nominal ideological commitments. This gap doesn’t exist for the Republicans, who genuinely believe in the pro-corporate policies they impose, and this is a big part of why that party is more effective. It isn’t condemned to talk out of both sides of its mouth at once.”
Mr. Fletcher blandly asserts something that has never been true. Since the beginning of this country and the beginning of either party, their financing has mainly derived from people of wealth. The two Roosevelt Presidents came from “Old Money” and derived their campaign financing from people of wealth. Each for their own purposes nevertheless opposed corporate power, as did their backers. Does Mr. Fletcher really believe that up until 1981 the Democratic Party was financed mostly by Unions and by common people? Since he apparently does, he is wrong, to paraphrase his own beginning to this article: Anyone in denial that the major financing and influence of both parties has come from the wealthiest Americans can stop reading here.
The fourth reason for the economic ineffectiveness of the left is the simplest: most leftists find economics boring. They tell me this all the time when I try to talk to them about things like the trade deficit. There are very few leftist organizations (the Union for Radical Political Economics and Economic Policy Institute are about the only big exceptions) that really do economics in any technically substantial sense. As a result, there’s very little serious intellectual energy invested in the subject.
Do readers of this blog find economics boring, whatever your political philosophy? I think not, I certainly don’t. For that matter neither does Krugman, Roubini and Baker to name a few with credentials equal to, or surpassing those of Mr. Fletcher and who are politically active. Who is this man reading and who is he talking too? I have no doubt there is much in Mr. Fletcher’s work that I would not only find interesting, but that would also align with my own musings. Why then did I take the time to refute this well-meaning, if wrongly simplistic article?
As I mentioned at the break point there is an 800 hundred pound gorilla in the American room that Mr. Fletcher recognizes but ignores at our peril. That beast is an amalgam of like interests that coalesced after Barry Goldwater’s loss in 1964 and who have literally put billions since then, into gaming our political system and funding an unprecedented Right Wing propaganda blitz that equals that of Goebbels in his prime. We know some of the names like the Koch Brothers, Mellon Family, DuPonts, Waltons and the Murdochs, others like to maintain low profiles. This combination of wealth to back candidates, control mainstream media and produce intensive lobbying has created this weakness, this inability of the Left to influence economic issues. Its’ cause has been that they have been outspent monetarily, out foxed in debate and incapable of compact messaging.
All the well-meaning books and articles by people of Mr. Fletcher’s goodwill, that don’t address the buying of our society and political system by this loose cabal of economic elitism, does us all a disservice. The red herring of having a losing argument assumes a level playing field. It’s not that those favoring economic and social equality haven’t been paying attention, it’s that we are only now metaphorically learning to shoot at people who’ve outdrawn us, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen. There is a lot of catching up to do and articles that superficially discuss real problems, demolishing straw men, rather than explaining that an unprecedented concentration of wealth has unbalanced our political system is not helpful. The article I’ve discussed here is relatively short, so perhaps you can read it and see if my critique is off base. If you feel it is I’d like to know your own thoughts on why the Left Wing seems impotent on matters of economics.
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~Submitted by Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger