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.
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.
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?
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?
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.