Inequality is more than a just an ideological cudgel
Mike Konczal is the latest to address Adolph Reed Jr.’s Harper’s postmortem for the left, taking to the pages of The New Republic to demonstrate the naiveté animating Reed’s essay and rebut a number of his claims.
These three claims are summed up in the following three micro-excerpts,
- Reed: “With the two parties converging in policy…”
- Reed: “…what can it mean to be on the political left? The terms ‘left’ and ‘progressive’…now signify a cultural sensibility…The left has no particular place it wants to go.”
- Reed: “….the areas of fundamental disagreements that separate [the two parties] become too arcane and too remote from most people’s experience to inspire any commitment, much less popular action.”
On the first count, Konczal contrasts the ideological visions of both parties. Articulated in party platforms, and sometimes espoused in public, both parties clearly support different resolutions to common problems. Republicans claim to seek the privatization of services like Social Security and Medicare, while Democrats argue they should remain public and actually be expanded.
“These aren’t minor differences” as Konczal correctly notes, but neither are they always, in practice at least, very stark ones. It’s worth pointing out that Konczal decides not to quote specific instances of high profile Democrats robustly pushing for the ideological vision he attributes to them above. Democrats have been dancing around possible compromises on Social Security for years, Elizabeth Warren being the exception that proves the rule.
This highlights the limits of having “ideological differences.” The issue isn’t about whether both parties disagree enough on fundamental issues, but rather how willing Democrats are to push back over those differences. Cuts to SNAP benefits and the struggle to renew unemployment insurance for the terminally unemployed demonstrate both the tough position Congressional democrats are in as well as how little it matters that the average liberal would love to expand SS, Medicare, and funding for public schools. None of those proposals are even on the table, and there is no sign they will be anytime soon, or that either liberal Democrats or movement leftists have a strategy for how to get them there.
Konczal points to initiatives at the local level and the pitched battles between Democrats and Republicans being fought over them as signs that these ideological differences do, ultimately, cash out in important ways that affect everyday citizens enough to have them concerned. But these individual disputes, and whatever victories centrist-left Democrats may eke out of them, do littler to counteract national trends, playing out across decades, in which working class wages stagnate, the wealth created by productivity gains is accumulate by the super-rich, and the middle-class is “hollowed out.”
Which brings us to the second point of contention. Whereas Reed declares the American left “dead,” such that a new one can be formed, Konczal seems to believe this had already happened, and/or that it can successfully thrive in the current political framework.
“Inequality is shaping up to become the new focus of liberals,” he argues, in what I think is the most telling part of his entire response since it admits that eradicating inequality was hitherto not *the* priority. “Inequality can fill the gap,” between what Democrats have so far been willing to fight adamantly for and the next phase of the progressive agenda.
Konczal is basically conceding Reed’s point even while appearing to reject it. Democrats are idling, and the left’s been running on fumes, but the fight against inequality will energize both, despite having not done so in the wake of the “Great Recession,” nor in the decades which preceded it.
Konczal states Reed’s case as, “the idea that liberalism is currently exhausted,” before going on to eventually imply just that, with the only difference that he doesn’t think the naval-gazing, movement-building period Reed alludes to will be necessary cause #Inequality.
Konczal explains that there’s “nothing particularly new” in Reed’s essay, tacitly admitting both that “President Obama is much more conservative” than many thought and that the “Clinton years were nothing to get nostalgic over,” while also granting that “Reed’s other point that liberals focus too much on elections and less on ideology is correct.”
So basically, while Konczal doesn’t think Reed gives establishment liberals enough accolades for local victories, nor Democrats enough credit for ideological differences with Republicans, he does intimate his agreement with Reed’s general thesis: those on the left could stand to stick to more ideologically coherent guns a bit more often, concerning themselves less with political and electoral fights between Democrats and Republicans, and more with particularly galvanizing, first-principle-type issues like #inequality.
In other words, not the rhetorical approach taken in one of Konczal’s other articles that ran at The New Republic titled, “The New GOP Poverty Efforts Are Impractical, Incoherent, and Inhumane.”
The piece mentions Obama’s proposed 2015 budget, but spends more time bemoaning the regressivity of Republicans than it does outlining the actual merits of President’s plan, and whether it goes far enough in addressing poverty and inequality. One paragraph in the beginning is devoted to divining how “financial regulations as well as higher taxes on the rich” will fix “runaway incomes at the top,” “health care reform” will fix the “stagnating incomes in the middle,” and a “minimum wage, expanded Medicaid access, and now an expanded earned income tax credit” will fix those living at and below the poverty line, thus meeting the great “generational challenge of our times,” before spending the rest discussing how Republicans are inhumane.