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Sunday, May 29, 2005
Kuttner on How the Dems Can Win

(Welcome Slate Today's Blogs readers! Please look around and if you like what you see, consider bookmarking this blog's home page)

It starts out okay; I agree with much of what he says about the Republican party and the conservative movement. Yeah, there are the obligatory snarky digs. But when it comes time to look at his own party and the liberal movement, Kuttner doesn't come off so well.

In one story line, liberal interest groups have disproportionate in?uence, leaving the Democratic Party with a message too left wing for the country on both social issues and national defense. On economics, New Democrats want a modernizing party committed to ?scal responsibility, globalism, and market-like strategies for social problems such as health care and education. This is said to be “pro-growth,” though its detractors view that as a code for pro-business. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), initially cheering Gore-Lieberman as just the ticket, became progressively disillusioned the more populist Gore sounded. In a DLC postmortem, Joe Lieberman declared that Gore’s “economic populism stuff was not the pro-growth approach. It made it more dif?cult for us to gain the support of middle-class independent voters who don’t see America as … us versus them.”

The opposite view -- whose exponents include Tom Frank, Robert Borosage, and David J. Sirota -- holds that by failing to run as progressives, Democrats allow Republicans to use cultural issues as a proxy for class issues. Frank, sifting through the ashes of the Democrats’ 2004 defeat, wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: “Conservatives generally regard class as an unacceptable topic when the subject is economics -- trade, deregulation, shifting the tax burden … . But de?ne class as culture, and class instantly becomes the blood and bone of public discourse … . Workerist in its rhetoric but royalist in its economic effects, this backlash is in no way embarrassed by its contradictions.”

So far so good; that fairly summarizes the two sides in the debate. Guess which side Kuttner endorses?

In theory, either recipe could produce a governing coalition. But a resurgent Democratic Party built on progressivism would be more worth having.

Good lord, where to start? First, notice the assumption that underlies the whole economic populism argument: That Democrats are better for the working class economically. But the jury's quite obviously out on that issue. Look at Europe, which has the kinds of business and labor laws the Democrats would like to see enacted here; are Europeans doing better than we are? No, they are quite a bit behind us economically. France's GDP per capita ($28,700) is almost 30% lower than ours ($40,100), and that gap has widened during the last 20 years.

Economic populism is a bunch of nonsense. We hear all the time about the gap between the wealthy and the middle class, and how it's growing and how awful it is for society. But think about it for a second. The only time the gap between the wealthy and the middle class grows is when the economy is doing well. The rich, because of their ownership of financial assets do very well indeed in a strong economy. But does that mean that the middle class does poorly, or that they do better when the economy is in the tank? Obviously not.

You ever notice that economic populists all pine for the glory days of the Depression? So much so that they are constantly seeing it just around the corner, like Paul Krugman, still holding out hope for his long-awaited double-dip? Is it because those were great times to be a working man in America? Obviously not. But they were great times to be an economic populist.

Anyway, back to Kuttner's piece:

Economic progressives such as the late Paul Wellstone have won working- and middle-class support, often in improbable places. The hugely popular Bernie Sanders, very likely the next senator from Vermont, got elected and re-elected more by rallying the locals than the Birkenstock set.

It worked in Minnesota and Vermont (well-known conservative bastions). And Robert? The Birkenstock set are the locals in Vermont.

It's all downhill from there. Look, when I was a kid I thought communism could work, that it was better for the common man. But the common man disagreed, and over time he was proven right. Economic progressivism is code talk for "Let's try communism again, but this time we won't kill the goose."


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