Friday, May 29, 2015

Hillary, the Lesser Evil

The champion of everyday people visits Wall Street

If Barack Obama had not been a candidate for president in 2008, Hillary would almost certainly have been the Democratic nominee, and liberals would have been quite happy about it.  Indeed, she enjoyed strong liberal support at first.  And if she had been elected president, liberals would have been jubilant.  But now that she almost certainly will be the nominee – and quite probably the president, too – they’ve become quite unsure about her.  What gives?  Why did she inspire such passion then and such hesitation now?  Who has changed, Hillary or liberals?

For instance, incontrovertibly liberal New York mayor Bill de Blasio created a minor controversy on NBC’s Meet the Press when he hesitated to endorse her candidacy.  He publicly worried that she’s not liberal enough, and he channeled widespread liberal Hillary-ambivalence when he both applauded her resume and challenged her to present a more starkly liberal economic program. 

And now that Hillary has officially declared herself a candidate and is acting the populist and the “champion” of the people, a crowd of critics has arisen to argue that it’s only an act, that Hillary is as populist as a credit default swap.   The indictment is convincing: she’s very cozy with Wall Street; she’s been part of official Washington since she moved into the White House with Bill in 1993; she’s quite comfortable within the modern American ruling regime of capital, connections, and corruption.  She seems more like part of the problem than the solution; that is, if you think a rapacious, semi-hereditary caste exploiting our economy and undermining our democracy is a problem.

But you don’t have to be to Hillary’s left to suspect her populism.  Conservatives – bless their helpful hearts – doubt her sincerity too, though generally for unconvincing and disingenuous reasons.  If she can’t be a genuine liberal because she has money then how do you explain Teddy Kennedy and FDR?  And conservatives are quite indignant at her call for a constitutional amendment to curtail the political power of corporations, all while she rakes in that dirty Wall Street cash.  Their point seems to be Hillary’s hypocrisy, and the way it reinforces the near-universal perception that she’s phony from top to bottom, that she doesn’t do or say anything that hasn’t been focus-grouped and poll-tested and approved by public relations gurus.  Well, duh.  It seems unlikely that conservatives are complaining that Hillary is not battling vigorously enough against the pernicious influence of big money, i.e. that she’s being insufficiently liberal.

And then there’s the case for the defense, made by Hillary-supporters who insist she is a real liberal.  But it’s just unconvincing; they either ignore her intimacy with big money, or they attempt a misdirect by pointing out her reliable cultural liberalism, or they highlight her recent populist rhetoric itself, as if political rhetoric should be taken at face value.  Interestingly there’s a cadre of conservatives on this side of the argument as well, convinced that Hillary is quite left, actually more left than you might imagine: she’s an Alinskyite Stalin-waiting-in-the-wings.  Oh, dear!

Bill Clinton working for George McGovern, 1972
In reality, Bill and Hillary started out as idealistic McGovern supporters, but somewhere between there and here they became a little too eager to work within the system, a little too comfortable playing nice with the powers-that-be.  Hillary has supported Obamacare, the extension of unemployment benefits, etc., so she clearly is some kind of liberal; that is, she’s willing to use government to help working people.  So why all of a sudden does she feel the need to sound like Huey Long?

And there it is.  That’s the way liberals have changed since 2008: they’ve become substantially more economically populist.  The wars over Obamacare, the federal budget, financial regulation, etc. have focused the liberal mind on the issue of economic injustice.  The Tea Party and libertarians have made free market anarchism the centerpiece of conservatism, and in doing so they’ve clarified liberal convictions.  The 2008 election was about unseating the party of George W. Bush and undoing the tremendous damage it had caused, and Hillary seemed a perfectly plausible leader for that charge.   But now liberals are hungry to fight the real fight, the fight to make our economy work for everyone, not just CEO’s and investors and hedge-fund managers.  And Hillary is simply implausible as the champion of that fight.

The Clintons came of political age in the 1980’s, when the country was turning toward Reaganism, toward free-market idolatry and Social Darwinism.  Like many liberals of their day, they made their accommodation with the new reality.   They abandoned the fight for economic justice, and fought a rearguard action against the laissez-faire assault on the welfare state.  This is the real way that Hillary is too old: she’s still part of that liberal timidity.  But liberals today are no longer afraid to be liberals, they want a leader that represents their new fighting spirit, and Hillary sold off that piece of her soul to the highest bidder long, long ago.  In a strange way, the McCarthyite freaks afraid of Hillary’s inner Stalin are half right.  She did submerge her true liberal self long ago; they’re just wrong to think it’s still alive and kicking.

In an era when Republicans have a lock on Congress (or at least on the House) even a thoroughly liberal president wouldn’t be able to advance much of a liberal agenda.  And a moderate president doing little to help or harm America would be enormously preferable to a conservative doing it much harm.  It’s true that a genuine liberal could substantially advance the interests of working people through appointments of cabinet secretaries, agency heads, federal judges, etc., but there are no genuine liberals running this cycle that actually have a chance of winning.  So all that’s left for liberals is to pressure Hillary to be as liberal as she can be pressured to be, and that includes doing pathetic little things like withholding endorsements.  And this is the likely scenario for the next 8 years: an uninspiring and cynical president half-heartedly containing raging conservative havoc.  It seems we just have to accept that that’s the best we can do.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Hollow Populisms

Union members and supporters protest Governor Scott Walker's assault on unions
Madison, Wisconsin, 2012

Conservative populism is inherently unstable; it must constantly struggle to keep cultural populism from bleeding over into economic issues.  That is, white working people are encouraged to resent snobbish, over-educated, cosmopolitan, elitist liberals who look down on them for their unsophisticated tastes, crude manners and backward views.  But they must never resent the rich simply for being rich; they must never consider the injustice of being forced to work for less pay in worse conditions while CEO’s and hedge-fund managers make millions.  Since in conservative mythology, capitalism always rewards the virtuous and punishes the lazy, conservative populism must be about attitudes and humiliation, never about wages and power.  It must remain purely affective, never material.  You’re only allowed to hate someone for their condescension, never for their money.  Thus is real populism neutered.

But that’s what makes the conservative split on immigration so interesting: it sneaks in some genuine economic populism through the back door.  Conservative elites – commentators, writers, the Republican establishment, the Chamber of Commerce, big money – are quite happy to let in lots of unskilled workers from other countries.  It provides cheap labor, and it indulges their stark libertarianism, the view that any interference in the market – even a national boundary – is the work of the devil.  And after Hispanics voted overwhelmingly in 2012 against Mitt Romney and his severely restrictive anti-immigration position, Republican leaders are eager to appear more accommodating toward Hispanics.  And did I mention that immigration provides lots of cheap labor?

The conservative base, of course, is strongly opposed to both allowing in more immigrants and allowing undocumented immigrants to stay.  Their reasons are partly cultural: they’re afraid that too many foreigners will resist assimilation and alter the national character.  And on the farther reaches the reasons become more nativist and racial: they’re convinced America is meant for white Christians.  But their objections also include perfectly defensible and plausible economic concerns: they don’t want to compete against cheap labor.  Of course, that’s the same cheap labor – I may have mentioned – that employers and investors are quite happy to have them compete against.  So the split on immigration between the conservative establishment and the conservative base is an economic split.  It’s a split defined by class.  Not class in the sense of who’s looking down his nose at who, but in the sense of who holds economic power and who is subject to it.

Into that breach has stepped Scott Walker, the conservative Republican governor of Wisconsin and credible presidential candidate.  During an interview with conservative Glenn Beck, Walker staked out what calls a “pro-American-worker” position:

In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying—the next president and the next congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages, because the more I’ve talked to folks, I’ve talked to [Alabama] Senator Sessions and others out there—but it is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today—is what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing to wages, and we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.

Clearly, Walker is siding with the base against the establishment.  But to do so, he’s taken a populist position, an economically populist position: the rich and the powerful are making decisions that hurt everyday people, that hurt them in their pocketbooks.

Now Scott Walker, like most conservatives, is not exactly a friend of policies and institutions that promote the economic interests of working people.  Indeed, he’s loved by conservatives specifically because of the ferocious battles he fought against organized labor in Wisconsin.  And many conservative commentators consider Walker’s newfound suspicion of a completely free labor market to be a real betrayal of conservative principle (there are exceptions).  Consider Philip Klein's delightfully dogmatic reaction:

The idea that policymakers should protect current American workers from competition from immigrants who come here legally and are willing and eager to work hard is a perversion of American ideals and a recipe for decline.

But in addition to Walker’s newfound moderation regarding market purity, there is his newfound immoderation on the immigration issue itself; i.e. he’s gone quite a few steps further than most of his conservative presidential rivals by questioning not only illegal immigration, but legal immigration.  Together these deviations add up to a new, more comprehensive conservative populism.  That is, Walker is positioning himself, consciously or otherwise, to be the genuine voice of working America (white working America, at least) championing both its cultural instincts and its economic interests.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
Or so it would appear.  But will Walker embrace a broader range of policies helping working people?  Will he support raising the minimum wage or progressive taxes or public works?  Will he come out fighting in favor of unions?  If he does none of those things his populism will have been detained at the border’s edge.  If it seems that the immigration controversy might be the herald of a more genuinely populist conservatism, it isn’t happening yet, and it probably won’t happen any time soon.  And that’s because conservatives – even populist ones – believe that American workers merit special consideration only for being American, not for being workers.  American workers should be protected from competition from foreigners but not from the depredations of American capitalism.  This is the full extent of conservative concern for American workers: they must remain American.

But if conservatives have no concern for American workers as workers, liberals have no concern for them as Americans.  Indeed, most liberals seem to have no more consideration for American workers than they do for workers from other countries.  It’s true that the Democratic economic agenda – minimum wage increases, Obamacare, etc. – is directed at helping working people, but when faced with the choice between American workers and immigrants, liberals choose the immigrants.  Have their national feelings attenuated that far? They’re terribly concerned about the injustice suffered by African-Americans, Hispanics, other racial minorities, women, gays, the handicapped, etc., and rightly so.  But do they have no particular consideration for their fellow Americans as Americans?

If not, if liberals have gone that far, then American liberalism is on a short one-way trip to history’s dust bin.  No one will vote for a party that doesn’t put a special priority upon the interests of its own citizens.  Indeed, no one should!  Especially if one supports the social welfare state and hopes for a more egalitarian and just society, since those are practically possible only within the confines of a well-defined polity.  It’s much easier to convince a rich New Yorker to pay taxes for doctors in Texas than for doctors in Bangladesh.  Liberalism without patriotism is liberalism standing upon thin air.

Liberals used to understand this.  Only a few years ago they were much more willing to express worry about the effect of immigration on American wages.  Now they only worry about doing even the tiniest damage to their demographically expanding non-white electoral coalition.  And by spending so much time and energy portraying any conservative resistance to immigration as based entirely upon racism, they’ve made it too politically costly to question immigration themselves.  Their populism is a victim of their own propaganda and their own hypertrophied broad-mindedness.  To love everyone is to be of no use to anyone.

And conservatives, whose national feelings could probably do with a little attenuation, are all too happy to demonstrate how this undermines liberal economic populism.  Here is the Weekly Standard’s Jeffrey H. Anderson explaining how immigration shows that liberals don’t care about workers (in a piece written before Walker staked out his anti-immigration position):

If there is anything that liberals and Big Business can seemingly agree upon, it’s that we don’t need an approach to immigration that benefits Main Street.  It remains to be seen whether anyone running for president will seize this opening and buck the liberal-corporate consensus.

But liberals seem blithely unaware how much they’re playing into that consensus.  Hillary has even come out in favor of more immigration!  And that’s in perfect keeping with her pro-business positions and the general cosmopolitan tilt of liberal elites.  And, of course, it helps Democrats cement their support among Hispanics.  But it drastically undermines liberal credibility among working Americans, the very people that liberalism used to be about.

We’re left with no real populism.  Liberal populism shrivels before our eyes.  And a hollow conservative version tries to steal its place.  But the only American populism worthy of the name is one that actively works for the material good of American workers.  Liberals may call that nativism and conservatives may call it socialism.  But in reality it’s neither, it’s justice made practical.