Democrats, Plutocrats and Our Nation’s Public Policy Course

            David Brooks of the New York Times has recently argued that voters most want employment and a living wage, and he has offered what he takes to be a consensus policy agenda to obtain it. He professed astonishment that our “political elite,” which he left undefined, has not pursued such steps. Instead, he suggested, our infrastructure continues to decay, unnecessary entitlements to the “affluent” elderly continue apace, the labor force participation rate is at its lowest level in decades, too many people are trapped in low-wage positions with few or no benefits, the middle class is hollowing out and “the median annual earnings of workers with bachelor’s degrees has not risen in three decades” (Brooks, 2014, A27).

            Brooks argued that none of this needs to obtain since both parties support many of the steps necessary to address it. Ultimately—assuming such is true—he does not explain the leadership malaise to which he points. I suspect that is not accidental since it might be difficult to defend the agenda of his own party’s leaders in recent years in light of his expressed concerns and “obvious next steps,” including the GOP’s singular focus on limiting the use of federal programs to address the deep recession of 2008, its implacable opposition to Obama administration initiatives on virtually any topic and its professed concern that the nation’s deficit and debt were going to drive the nation to bankruptcy and beyond. That fervor has persisted unabated, even as the budget deficit continues to drop rapidly and the nation’s debt has settled at historically acceptable levels.

            Apart from his party’s opposition to many of the options Brooks suggests, he does not explain that it was the GOP that has sought to redistribute incomes and wealth upward for decades, and whose leaders today continue to decry large shares of the American citizenry confronting the conditions to which he points as “takers.” It is the Republican Party, too, that has shrilly blamed the administration generally, and President Barack Obama more particularly, for every challenge the country now confronts in its improving economy and in a riven Iraq and Afghanistan, even though GOP leaders were responsible for the United States’ interventions in those nations and for the decisions that have exacerbated the current conditions within them.

            Brooks also fails to acknowledge that a substantial share of his party’s members are now running in elections with the support of tens of millions of dollars of unregulated campaign donations from libertarian and anti-governance business owners, who are pressing their claims as much to save themselves regulatory and tax costs that might reduce their profits, as out of an ideological hatred of government. These firms have been only too pleased to send jobs offshore and to press hard to maintain or reduce employee wages to maintain profits, even as the salaries of executives within these businesses have soared. Brooks likewise ignores the fact that his party has actively supported efforts to reduce the reach and clout of unions—an important counterweight to capitalist power—in the United States. Their efforts have succeeded beyond all expectation, reducing a vital voice in the political dialogue to a ghost of its former self. There is now too little ballast to the role of capital in the political dialogue that those pressing its interests need fear.

            In short, one might agree with Brooks’ suggestions (I personally agree with some of them) and still be bemused at his inability to discuss the source of many of the concerns to which he points, partisans in his own political party. And together, the Republican Party’s efforts to attack governance and to play blame-casting games concerning virtually any issue that confronts the nation is difficult to understand. One might ascribe it to the flood of un-transparent campaign money permitted in recent years by a Supreme Court led by a Republican nominee. One might attribute it to the rise of a demagogic and misplaced hate- and fear-filled backlash by many voters (led largely by GOP partisans) to blame government for their economic pass, rather than to acknowledge that their stagnant wages and the upward redistribution of income and wealth have resulted, in good part, from decades of Party-sponsored policies. Curiously, Brooks assails the consequences of his party’s policy program as having both exacerbated and vilified the plight of the citizens he claims to wish to assist, but he does not acknowledge it as the perpetrator of the scenario he laments.

            These facts have led many progressives to loathe Brooks and to attack his every effort. I do not believe that stance judicious or fair, but it is clear that he is blinded by his intellectual and ideological assumptions. Paul Krugman, his fellow New York Times columnist, has highlighted the big picture Brooks either misses or sets aside, depending on how you interpret his writing. In a recent commentary, the Nobel Prize winning New York University professor suggested that the nation now hangs between control by its people or by plutocrats. This situation has arisen because conservatives have long feared democratic control as likely to take away their status and “ruin” the economy. To address these fears, Krugman contended business conservatives and their GOP allies employ

… propaganda: tell voters, often and loudly, that taxing the rich and helping the poor will cause economic disaster, while cutting taxes on “job creators” will create prosperity for all. There’s a reason conservative faith in the magic of tax cuts persists no matter how many times such prophecies fail (as is happening right now in Kansas): There’s a lavishly funded industry of think tanks and media organizations dedicated to promoting and preserving that faith. Another answer, with a long tradition in the United States, is to make the most of racial and ethnic divisions — government aid just goes to Those People, don’t you know. And besides, liberals are snooty elitists who hate America (Krugman, 2014, A27).

             Put differently, one can exploit the population and keep wages stagnant while serving firms’ short-term interests by telling the public that it is the government’s fault that such is occurring and that still more upward redistribution of income is necessary to address citizens’ economic woes. For Krugman, current GOP efforts to ensure continued unfettered and un-transparent campaign contributions, in addition to vigorous initiatives to control who can vote, represent fundamental assaults on democratic governance. Far from being inexplicably asleep at the switch, as Brooks seems to contend, in this view, these Republican political leaders are instead actively undermining democracy with the strong support, if not at the behest, of leaders of a share of the market institutions they revere. One may debate whether they know what they are doing, but there is no doubt as to its ultimate import.

            It seems to me that Brooks has offered an interesting set of policy prescriptions while setting aside completely the policy choices and ideological and economic forces that have created the conditions the nation now confronts. For his part, Krugman has pointed compellingly to the larger canvas. If Krugman is correct, and I think his focus is the appropriate one, it is that larger set of concerns that will determine the nation’s future course. In democratic terms, only the people can set an alternate path. Nonetheless, that population is daily assaulted by a well-conceived, well-funded and carefully orchestrated campaign by conservative partisan elites who now may spend without restraint to press their aims.

            And this condition no longer obtains alone during national campaigns, but continues furiously in state and local elections too and is institutionalized in so called think tanks and policy shops across the nation. A share of conservative business leaders and ideologues alike believe they are in a battle for the nation’s soul, and that stance can justify just about any political claim in its name. One may mislead, one may spend millions without accountability and one may misinform tens of thousands systematically and intentionally in the name of one’s supposed “righteous” aims. Only the people can stop this engine, but many are ill situated and poorly informed to do so. It is therefore not simply a question of demanding that our nation’s leaders act on prudent policies on which they already supposedly agree, as Brooks suggests, but of acknowledging that something much larger is afoot. Indeed, it is difficult not to agree with Krugman:

The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy. And it’s by no means clear which side will win (Krugman, 2014, A27).

References

Brooks, David (2014, October 24) “The Working Nation,” in the New York Times, A27. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/24/opinion/david-brooks-the-working-nation.html

Krugman, Paul (2014, October 24) “Plutocrats against democracy,” in the New York Times, A27. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/24/opinion/paul-krugman-plutocrats-against-democracy.html