I have long thought that Watergate backfired on liberals. Pretty much any Republican malfeasance harms liberalism because it harms the idea that government can be a force for good. I’ve become really frustrated with what I see as casual cynicism: the idea that everyone is out for their own gain and no one is any damned good. This is implicit in the “both side do it” argumentation so loved by the mainstream media.
Yesterday, Matt Yglesias pointed out an excellent example from Ron Fournier where he complained that Obamacare was “a one-sided law.” So if Republicans explicitly boycott a law because it will provide political benefit to the president, both sides are equally at fault. Similarly, Dean Baker pointed out, “Robert Samuelson does the old ‘pox on both your houses’ routine, complaining about Republicans who want tax cuts for rich people and Democrats who defend Social Security and Medicare.” All of this pushes the idea that government is corrupt and there are no good politicians. And what that means is that the Republicans win, because that is the idea that they are pushing.
There is no doubt that this has been a major issue since Nixon. But there is another issue that was brought up in a Thomas Frank interview with Rick Perlstein, How ’70s and ’80s Cynicism Poisoned Democrats and America. In it, Perlstein brought up a major change in the kind of Democrats who got elected in 1974. It was kind of the start of the New Democrats. I’ve discussed this in the past to the extent that I refer to Jimmy Carter as the proto-New Democrat. He was, after all, the guy that really started the deregulation frenzy, rolled back Nixon’s policy of detente with the Soviet Union, and pushed forward debt fixation. But I always thought that he was something of a singularity. Not so:
And that means that liberal — Populist! — economic policy was largely dropped. Hart and company didn’t argue against the conservative economic policies of the Republicans. In fact, they largely agreed with them. Later in the interview, Perlstein noted, “And a lot of these post-New Deal Democrats, by the way, come out of the New Left and the New Left had this very problematic relationship with the labor movement, who were seen as sort of the Cold War consensus.” This has long been a problem with our new upper and upper middle class political establishment. They have no real experience with the working class. And this is why Republicans — even while being horrible for workers on a practical level — have managed to paint Democrats as a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.
The big problem with this is not just that Democrats elect nothing but conservative presidents like Carter, Clinton, and Obama. The problem is apparent in the fact that the Republicans claim these conservatives are leftist extremists. And that allows people like Ron Fournier and Robert Samuelson to define a new liberalism that is far to the right of Nixon. By abandoning liberal economic policy, the Democrats have not only directly harmed the American middle class, they have also made any real discussion of change impossible. Now even the most traditional of economic policies are met with cries of, “Socialism!”
This is why I see the primary problem in American politics as being centered around the Democratic Party. If we want a more reasonable conservative movement and Republican Party, the solution is for the Democratic Party to move to the left on economic policy. But the sort of people in the media who are always looking for compromise and occasionally fretting about the extremism of the Republican Party always call for exactly what caused our current problems. Fournier thinks that there is some magic trick whereby if Democrats just move the right amount to the right in the right way, the Republicans will move the left and we will all sing “Kumbaya”! But just the opposite has happened and will continue to happen. When the Democrats move one step toward the Republicans, the Republicans move two steps away. And it is only studied ignorance that allows pundits to not see this.