Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Republican Pincer Machine

William E. Connolly

Johns Hopkins University

The basic situation is clear. Despite campaigning during a period when the opposing Party was saddled with an unfunded, irrational war and soaring inequality, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign did not climb over the hump until a week after the September 15th meltdown. At that point McCain faltered, and many voters took another look around. Obama was cool and competent during this crisis. And the consummate campaigner soon became the front runner, if not by the margin you would expect under such dire circumstances.

Coming into office, Obama faced a huge debt assembled over the Bush years, amplified by the bail outs of banks. Unemployment soared and the economy was frozen. He concluded that it was necessary to stimulate the economy in the Keynesian tradition. Homeowners, consumers, banks and corporations were no longer active, so the government had to provide a stimulus of last resort.

Left Keynesians, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, insisted from the start that the Obama stimulus was neither big enough nor focused properly. It contained too many tax cuts for upper income people and insufficient job creation through projects to rebuild the economic infrastructure: fast rail, new electrical conveyor systems, green energy projects, highway construction, urban housing, and school construction. Obama argued that his modest program was needed to avoid a Republican filibuster. Many others thought--I was among this group--that this was precisely the time to incite such a filibuster from the radical right. If Republicans enacted one at this stage they could be seen, accurately, as an obstacle to recovery from the meltdown they had created; if they caved, the economy would be stimulated along tracks that were favorable to the future of everyday people and America in the world.

This is when the Republican Party set its trap. Meeting in closed sessions at the beginning of the Obama regime, the party of tax cuts for the rich, unfunded wars, and the largest deficit in the history of the country redefined itself. It suddenly became the party of deficit reduction through lean government joined to supreme confidence in unregulated financial and corporate markets. It even opposed the bail out of General Motors and Chrysler, though these actions stopped unemployment from reaching a dangerous tipping point, allowed the two companies time to reconstruct themselves, and enabled them to pay back the loans within two years–-creating one of the most successful bailouts in the history of Euro-American economic life.

Now the pincers machine was in full motion. The first pincer was systematic refusal to support programs that would pull the economy out of the dangerous recession within a year or two. That refusal would create failure for which the President and Keynesianism could be blamed. The second, one that surprised many with its quick success, was to redefine the issues until the problem with the economy became the stimulus itself rather than too small a stimulus.

Obama aided both strategies by presenting his small, unbalanced stimulus as sufficient to the task. But, still, the Republicans had to construct a deft strategy. They had to convince a large section of the electorate that the party of profligate military spending, economic meltdown, and tax cuts for the rich when in power was actually, now that it was out of power, the guardian of a self-sustaining market economy that only needed the state to get out of the way. This vision was attached to a simple idea of entrepreneurial, consumer and worker freedom in an unfettered market economy, a vision that deflects attention from the draconian disciplines they are actually willing to impose on regular people in the name of a small state. If you want a sense of what the latter measures are check out the policies of recently elected Republican governors and legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. If you need more check out the repressive worker policies of Walmart, recently vindicated by the gang of five Republicans on the Supreme Court.

So the trap sucked Obama into a small stimulus in an attempt to gain Republican support; then Republicans voted against it; then they treated the stimulus as THE source of the problem; then they insisted that a return to unregulated markets and tax reductions for the rich would cure all evils. Why did such a strategy work as well as it has?

The answer is that some sections of the populace were already primed to accept such a simple conception of freedom and vision of market self-sufficiency, even if acceptance required it to forget how the Bush regime of unfunded wars, low taxes, and deregulation had created the crisis and even if it was often against their economic interest to support such a story line. But, again, why accept such fantasies so quickly?

The reasons vary from constituency to constituency. First, many young people of relative affluence were pushed in this direction by the pressure to believe in the stability of the system in which they seek to forge professional and entrepreneural careers. Second, there is a distinctive sense of special entitlement among the rich and super-rich in America, a sense that encourages them to support the myth of a self-sustaining market economy whose main problem is large state expenditures and regulation of banks, derivatives, Wall Street and corporations. Call it American exceptionalism. Moreover, their wariness of “entitlement programs”–-those self funded programs of Social Security and medicare upon which so many Americans depend---provide ideological cover for the more fundamental sense of class entitlement they feel. They feel entitled to a corporate economy that allows them to wrangle an ever increasing share of the income and wealth from it, even while other classes tread water, or worse.

That covers two constituencies. But what about others? I have contended in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style that many anxious white males in the working and middle classes seek alpha models of masculinity with which to identify in a world of declining manufacturing jobs, perceived pressure from multiple minorities, and growing economic uncertainty. Given such a preliminary disposition, many are drawn to corporate elites, sports heroes, financial wizards and military leaders who project alpha images of freedom as independence, mastery and virility. That sense of freedom can then be nudged toward idealizing unregulated markets within which virile masters work their miracles.

On the other hand state welfare programs, market regulations, state retirement schemes, and state protected health care, while essential to life, remind too many of the very fragilities, vulnerabilities, susceptibilities and dependencies they strive to forget. So they are tempted by the idea of freedom as mastery. Many, certainly, resist succumbing to such pressures, out of concern for their children and the future. But others succumb, simplifying the experience of freedom until it is dissociated from the quality of work life, social interdependency, collective action, union organization, local associational life, and the like.

So the Right becomes the bearer of “freedom”, while the Left becomes the bearer of “welfare” disconnected from it. A dangerous combination.

There is a double bind at work here. First, masculinization of the market and feminization of state welfare draws many in the white working class toward the myth of unregulated markets. Second, attempts to draw attention to how the first bind works intensifies resentment among these very constituencies against the Democratic Party, the welfare state, and state regulation. The account seems to challenge the image of freedom they express. Obama found that out in 2008 when, in a fundraising speech leaked to the media, he noted the resentment felt by many members of the white working class. To point to the bind and the pressures to stifle enunciation of it is to risk deepening the bind. That is the second bind in the double bind.

The political formula of the radical right is thus effective while dangerous to the country. On the other hand, to ignore the double bind is to forget the suffering of the working class, to court the loss of an urgently needed constituency, and to risk allowing the rightward drive of the country to continue.

Neoliberal heroes, Fox Talking Heads, and evangelical publicists help to incite the vulnerabilities in question; they then feed upon the struggle of many white males to conceal them from their families. This pincers movement helps to explain the Tea Party, which, by the way, is not “new” but merely the latest incarnation of an “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine” that has helped to define the public philosophy of America since 1980. Clinton and Obama swim in these waters, even if they sometimes make faint efforts to climb out of them.

Yes, the Republican pincers movement works in part because a Fox News/think tank/ publicist machine reiterates its assumptions every day. But it also works because many anxious male members of the white middle and working classes are predisposed to its message.

The probability, then, is that the next election will be close. It could also be fateful. Not because it is apt to enable the kind of electoral transformation the country urgently needs. But the Republican Party already has a majority on the Supreme Court, which increasingly attacks the rights of workers and consumers. If it captures the White House and both houses of Congress it will pass Draconian measures and deploy repressive tactics to stifle public dissent. All in the name of freedom. What to do?

Of course new and surprising events could shuffle things again, as they have at times in the past. The politics of the event does periodically erupt. But it is not wise to count in advance on those events breaking the best way. To me, the first thing to do is to explain in sympathetic ways what kind of pressures the white working class faces today, without caving in to tendencies within a segment of this class to demonize minorities.

The second is to remind people forcefully how many times tax cuts for the rich and market deregulation have generated economic crises, starting with the Great Depression.

The third, and most fundamental, is to challenge head on Republican definitions of freedom through anti-labor and anti-consumer policies of the state joined to a vision of market self-sufficiency, elaborating a richer story of how freedom works and how deregulated markets demean it.

The fourth, which can only work if the third is under way, is to propose an ambitious jobs program that, if passed, would simultaneously rebuild the infrastructure to meet the needs of the twenty-first century, provide meaningful jobs for high school graduates, stimulate the economy, and promote real freedom for families, workers and consumers.

The fifth is to insist, against the grain of the Republican story, that tax increases for the rich and a regulated economy are desperately needed to avoid a new version of the most recent meltdown.

To me, the third element provides the lynch pin.

Such a counter formula is insufficient to our troubled time. But it may provide a needed start. It might create sufficient momentum to attract a larger minority of white working class voters to join a vibrant assemblage of the young, gays, Hispanics, African Americans, many women and a growing constellation of Jews, Muslims and Christians who are ashamed of the way their faiths have been represented by the religious right.


  1. This is excellent. I especially like the way Bill emphasizes the predisposition to accept Fox et al's concept of freedom and markets. Too many on the Left suggest the Tea Party and their like are merely a creation of the corporate media and such wealthy scions as the Koch brothers.

    I would take partial exception to the glowing praise of the GM/Chrysler bailout. Obama was surely correct in pushing the bailout without which the Midwest would have experienced Depression- like conditions. Nonetheless, here as with the stimulus Obama missed an opportunity at the least to do some political education. The terms of the bailout, just like in the case of Greece, required the UAW to make huge concessions, most especially a whole different wage scale for new hires, sure to fragment the working class. (Of course the UAW itself has a history of premature concessions on issues like this.)

    Do a thought experiment here. (This one is shamelessly indebted to Michael Best and William Connolly discussion of the late seventies Chrysler rescue.) What if Obama had proposed a bailout contingent on a new corporate model, one which would stress worker representation on the board, a greater role in planning for production line workers, emphasis on more ecologically suitable transportation? Could he have carried the day on this? Probably not, but once again this would put in play issues that might well appeal to some of the concerns and insecurities that underlay the retreat of some white working class to market fundamentalism.

    From a larger historical perspective, I would suggest that Keynesian liberalism's relative lack of attention to the "blue collar blues" along with the racism and sexism with which they interacted played a big role in the breakdown of the New Deal consensus.

  2. Thanks, Bill, I join John Buell above in thinking you've hit on many key points here, especially the emotional investment in alpha male freedom as independence and mastery. I would point out that one especially intense point of anxiety is employment-based health care, and with it the idea that losing your job will expose your kids to life without insurance. So there's a lot of free-floating anxiety which can be focused on right-wing scapegoats.