Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Debt Ceiling Navel Gazing

Kevin Drum decides that the awful spending bill that Republicans extorted through Congress is liberals' fault. The premise of the article is kind of correct:
I think this is roughly correct. Public opinion is everything. Ronald Reagan was successful because public opinion supported him: he wanted to cut taxes and raise defense spending and so did big chunks of the public. He was leading in a direction that they already wanted to go.

But no matter how many times we try to kid ourselves with one poll result or another, liberals just don't have that advantage. The public is mostly in favor of raising taxes on the rich — though I suspect its support is pretty soft — but on the bigger issues they mostly aren't on our side. They think deficits are bad, they don't trust Keynesian economics, they don't want a higher IRS bill (who does, after all?), and they believe the federal government is spending too much on stuff they don't really understand. Conservatives have just flat out won this debate in recent decades, and until that changes we're not going to be able to make much progress.
When I say partially true, I mean that the things that Washington liberals talk about is not what local liberals talk about. Washington liberals talk about macroecomic Keynsian spending. Local level liberals talk about jobs programs, food bank supply levels, and schools.

Conservatives have a more shallow profile of issues, allowing for broader organizational reach and the ability to mobilize public support efficiently. The Tea party (originally stanidng for Taxed Enough Already), is a relatively simple organization. Despite apparent differences in goals among groups (social versus fiscal, anarchist versus corporatist), organizers have been able to convince them all that they suffer from the same ailment of high taxes.

Democrats, progressives, and liberals have been playing defense since 2010, and it's taken a huge toll on their ability to mobilize support. Labor stands alone as the one force that has been able to out-organize the Republicans this year, despite some decent mobilizations targeting Republican congerssional offices during the debt-ceiling hostage crisis.

Progressives need a broad statement of their current political direction. If Republicans can all unite behind 'taxed enough already,' Democrats can unite behind another raison d'etre. What united grassroots Democrats against Bush was the obvious failures of the administration to govern in an enlightened statesman tradition. From the invasion of Iraq based on poor intelligence and false pretense to the abandonment of New Orleans to the failure to address any real problems like climate change, health care reform, or preventing the Bush recession, the common strand was a feeling that Americans are 'under-served by government.'

Taxed Enough Already has a certain ring of truth to it. Everybody grumbles about their taxes. Everybody also grumbles about the inevitability of bad service at the DMV or opaqueness in dealing with Social Security benefits, or treatment at VA hospitals. Americans are under-served by their government.

This line of argument is uncomfortable for a progressive. Modern liberalism uses political tools to address the problems of inequality of opportunity. Yet this line of argument attacks the efficacy of government to deliver on its promises. This tension is a fiction, however. Just because Republicans attack the legitimacy of government action doesn't mean that progressives must defend government. Liberals are broadly interested in leveling the playing field and removing systemic inequality. Much of that inequality results from market failures, for which government is a solution. Much of that inequality results from the historical (or modern) political process. Government is simply an institutional arrangement of political power.

If that political power was vested with either the intent or incident of creating barriers to equal opportunity, liberals should not be afraid to call out that undemocratic arrangement of power. While democratic, progressive, and liberal activists focus on increasing public goods, they would do well if they were more pragmatic with where they begin. When liberals argue for a single-payer health care system or an adjustment of capital gains taxes, they leave the public behind. The public agrees with the premise that Americans are under-served by government, roughly treated by the market, and ignored by the powerful. Let's start the conversation there.

The public supported Regan's wish to lower taxes and spend on defense, (arguable), but they didn't necessarily agree with his push to lower the top marginal tax rate or his Star Wars boondoggle. Democrats can get the same broad support from the public if they can articulate a common cause that unites their various policy solutions:
We are under-served by government and abused by some bad corporations. Creating a single payer health care system will help government serve us better and prevent that abuse. We are under-served by government. It doesn't have the resources to stremline the VA system to better serve our veterans; we should raise the funds for this by taxing capital gains taxes an extra half percent.
The laundry list appraoch to politics doesn't work. Having 20 agenda points coming into office is a terrible way to hold a coalition together. Progressives need a unifying theme to bring them together if they're going to have any real impact on mass politics.

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