If the working hypothesis that bound this unwieldy coalition together--independents, most liberals and the Washington establishment--was that the nation's troubles were chiefly caused by the occupants of the White House, then this past year has served as a kind of natural experiment. We changed the independent variable (the party and people in power) and can observe the results. It is hard, I think, to come to any conclusion but that the former hypothesis was insufficient.
Yes, I thought. He is hot on the trail.
But then he seemed to get distracted. I agree with his diagnosis, that America suffers from a gross imbalance of power, but between whom? He would put “the people” on one side, I suppose, but this vague label always conceals as much as it explains—which people? On the other side we have total darkness: he doesn’t say who the other side is, other than it’s the force that makes us bargain over crumbs in policy arenas like health care.
Power is indeed a big part of the story. I would emphasize two specifics: (1) America has virtually lost the voice of organized labor. Show me any industrialized country that gives progressive politics even a remote shot and doesn’t have substantial union representation of the workforce. (2) We face the political consequence of almost two generations of exploding income inequality. The ones who have prospered in this ruthless world are relatively numerous (perhaps 20% of the population, even more of the electorate), conscious of their class interest, and willing and able to pony up for the cause. Yes, I know the lion’s share of growth has gone to the sliver at the very top, but the broad upper-middle is more interested in protecting what it’s got than pining after the super-rich.
But there are other elements that belong in the picture.
A big one is the devolution of the Republic Party. It is difficult to find words to express this. I have never, not even when I was a young kid, had any affection for this outfit, but in retrospect I have to admit that, once upon a time, they were conscientious in support of the values of their constituency. In office, they would hire experts (more conservative ones, but not always) to provide reasonably informative reports and forecasts. They often found themselves on the yea-side of important, progressive legislation, such as the wave of environmental and consumer initiatives of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. They were worth arguing with.
I can’t remember how many years it’s been since I paid any attention to the intellectual content (if that’s the right term) of Republican discourse. At least since Gingrich, it's been fools-or-knaves all the way. But our political system is set up to lock in place a two-party governance structure, and if one party goes bonkers, the machinery simply breaks down.
An overarching problem has been the rise of the finance view of the world as the ruling perspective in the US and those regions under its influence. This is partly about the power of individual people and institutions, essentially the massive private funds that dominate the resources of government in speculative markets—at least during profitable times. In that sense, it helps nail down the specific identity of “them” in Hayes’ us-against-them power imbalance story.
More broadly, however, there are ideological and social dimensions to financialism that have to be taken into account. In the realm of ideas, this perspective sees the financial “moment”, the decision to invest or trade, as the crucial link in the chain of wealth creation, denigrating such mundane activities as doing physical work or managing the day-to-day complexity of production systems. It justifies a system of corporate governance and personal rewards that would otherwise be indefensible. The ideology has a mass base because (and here we see again the consequences of inflated inequality) that same 20% or so has acquired a consequential financial stake and has come to see itself in those terms. That’s what the ticker at the bottom of your TV or computer screen is telling you when you tune into the news.
As I’ve written elsewhere, this elevation of financial interests—the claim that all of us are best off if investors are able to reap the highest return possible—is the deep force behind both global imbalances and the financial crisis. That must be worth something.
And then there is simply the never-ending sequence of historical moments, the context that makes our situation unique and not just a deduction from some generic model. Throw in the fallout from the debt crisis of 1982, the collapse of Communism in 1989, the continuing standoff between Israelis and Palestinians and its impact on the Islamic world, the about-face in Chinese (and to a lesser extent Indian) economic policy, the information and communications revolution, and we can begin to fill in the details.
If this list is even remotely correct, the vague, we-are-the-world democratic euphoria provoked by the Obama campaign and recalled, nostalgically by Hayes, was impotent from the outset. (The ideology of bipartisanship also missed the point.)
But Hayes is right in the end: Bush, for all his horrors, was not the root problem, and the election of Obama is hardly the solution. If we want to try to turn this thing around by design and not just depend on dumb luck, we need to identify the deeper issues and focus our energies on them.