Friday, May 28, 2004

Kerry, the Albatross, and the Trumpet of Uncertain Sound

Added to the fact that John Kerry is an inept campaigner -- weak in substance, style, and personality -- is the fact that he is in a sea with "water, water all around and not a drop to drink." He inherited this albatross from the Democratic past and may not be able to get rid of it. The problem for Democrats began in the 1960's when they started to take liberal positions on the race issue, and the South began its shift to Republican majorities. To race was added in the next decades an ensemble of other cultural and social issues -- Vietnam, abortion, women's liberation, gun control, gay and lesbian demands for justice, prayer in school, pornography, and the like. The problem was that many of the constituencies that Democrats historically appealed to since FDR are cultural traditionalists and were offended by the shift of Democrats toward the progressive side. Southern whites and working class people everywhere, including many Catholics and union members, especially men -- formerly staunch members of the Democratic coalition -- faced a conflict between their economic interests and their traditional attitudes. This disaffection was skillfully promoted by Nixon, Reagan, and now Bush -- aided and abetted by the Christian right, conservative think tanks, radio, etc. -- with great success. Meanwhile the Democrats were becoming more upscale with pro-business attitudes and moderate to liberal cultural views while the unions grew weaker. Conservatives and reactionaries took over the Republican party and marginalized moderate Republicans. Contrary to standard economic theory, people frequently vote their moral values and not simply their economic class self-interests.

Democrats have won the presidency only with moderate Southerners who managed to finesse the problem by skillful combination of some progressive economic policies and pragmatically bobbing and weaving on the cultural issues of interest to women, blacks, gays, lesbians, and many upscale voters (especially those in the knowledge industries). Increasingly bound to business and wealthy donors, the populist message is hard to sell among Democrats and is discouraged by the Democratic Leadership Council, who were fond of Clinton and later Gore, except when he attacked big business.

So now the Democrats confront a baffling question: Why do the masses of ordinary people of modest and low income not get outraged by huge tax cuts for the wealthy, including the estate tax which only rich people pay? One clue is that people vote on taxes depending on whether they think they are being taxed unfairly, not realizing that the Bush tax policies benefit the very rich and deny ordinary folks needed social services. Why don't the poor vote, since that is the only way they can get their interests met? Many lower middle and middle class people vote Republican because of their military militancy, patriotism, and cultural conservatism, but why don't they pressure Republicans to be more attentive to their economic interests instead of passively going along?

Meanwhile, the established parties, especially Republicans, have managed to create a set of political arrangements driven by the power of wealth and incumbency, along with the rigging of congressional districts, that make it difficult for insurgents to win office. Consequently, incumbents can vote for regressive policies without much fear of defeat, except when massive citizen outrage develops, which is all too rare. So the rich enjoy low taxes and disproportionate political power. The result is a society in which both economic and political inequality dominate.

If they could get outraged and moderate their cultural conservatism for a moment, the masses of ordinary working people with modest and low incomes could elect reformers even with all the power of wealth and incumbency against them. They could appropriately tax the rich, provide better health care, guarantee Medicare and Social Security, and in general improve their lot. But it is not likely to happen.

So Kerry has the albatross created by recent history around his neck with a nearly impossible task. Given his uninspiring, inept campaign, and his entrapment by his own past voting record and wobbly views, it looks grim for progressives. St. Paul asks "if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will get ready for battle?" (I Cor. 14:8). With the albatross around his neck and his trumpet giving a muffled sound, we can only hope that Bush will look so bad that the ABB phenomenon will occur, i. e., anybody but Bush. But given Kerry's own membership in the aristocracy, only modest results will follow even then, especially if the Republicans continue to control Congress. The best progressives can hope for in the near future is a Clinton-type president (preferably with his zipper up). This prospect will not change much apart from major demographic shifts or events that shake things up.

See: Thomas Frank, "Lie Down for America:How the Republican Party Sows Ruin on the Great Plains," Harper's Magazine (April 2004), and Christopher Jencks, "Our Unequal Democracy," The American Prospect (June 2004).

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