Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Divide and Rule

There was a time, one I can remember from when I was growing up (the 1950s and 60s), when being a liberal meant you wanted certain rights and benefits for everyone, at least ostensibly.  We had Social Security because everyone should have a basic pension when they retire, and all disabled people need to be cared for.  Freedom of speech was for everyone, even those horrible Nazis in Skokie.  Liberals wanted national health insurance so everyone could afford medical care, but settled for Medicare, a universal program for seniors.  Protestors like me were not against the rhetoric of universalism but the hypocritical practice, where blacks, Mexican and Filipino farmworkers and poor single moms were denied their share.  That was then.

Now, liberals are concerned about minorities and the poor.  They are against privilege, which is defined as not being a minority or poor.  Public programs are designed to give assistance to the most oppressed and not waste their resources on those who have the privilege to fend for themselves.  A poster child for the new politics is higher education.  Liberals want bigger subsidies, like more Pell Grants, for the poorest students and those who self-select by enrolling in community college.  They were distraught at Bernie Sanders’ call for free public higher ed for all, since that would siphon off scarce resources for the benefit of privileged, nonpoor families.  From their perspective, this was proof that Bernie and his ilk were unwoke: unaware of the scourge of privilege, they even wanted public support for it.

In fact, nothing is more important for the future of progressive politics than a return to universalism.  If you doubt this, read this powerful reportage in the New York Times on the divisions opened up by Obamacare.  It describes two women, one working part-time and living below the poverty line who gets ample, free health coverage, the other working full-time in a middle class job who is stuck with monthly $1000 premiums and a big deductible.  That’s not a bug but a feature: the program was set up to focus its support on those at the bottom and charge full freight for everyone else.

The effect is to divide the working class into two groups, poor winners and nonpoor losers.  The politics are toxic, as you might expect.  (Yes, the reporter found a Democrat to represent women below the poverty line and a Republican for women above it, which gives it an unfortunate air of exaggeration, but the logic of the comparison remains compelling.)  It is also bad social policy, since at the margin households making $80,000 a year (the middle class example) can also skimp on care if the financial pinch is too much.

There is an interesting analysis of this phenomenon in “When Exclusion Replaces Exploitation: The Condition of the Surplus-Population under Neoliberalism” by Daniel Zamora.  He points out that modern politics has become a contest between a Right that demonizes poor people, minorities and immigrants as living off the hard work of decent folk (the role formerly assigned to the capitalist class by socialists) and a Left that valorizes these same oppressed groups and regards everyone else as privileged.  They differ over which side they take, but they both see the cleavage between the bottom and the middle as the essential point of departure.  I’m not on board with his solution (explained here), but he is spot on about the problem.

I wish it were enough to just espouse a universalist progressive agenda, but we are so deep in the muck today that we have to go beyond this.  We should be as clear and outspoken as possible about the moral and political dead-end to which “targeted” liberalism has taken us.


Sandwichman said...

The targeting and needs testing of programs was always a conservative ideal that got co-opted by the third-way "new" Democrats as a way to appeal to the center, which kept moving to the right as the conservatives gamed the Overton window.

None of this was news to the much maligned "left."

Thornton Hall said...

The single biggest obstacle is that the Democratic coalition includes university professors and university professors (like all humans) do not want their job to change.

If there was a word for “the entire range of post high school education” Democrats would say it should be universal, public, and free.

There is zero reason for our separate but equal system. Zero. There is nothing magical about economics that causes it to perish if taught at the same institution that teaches plumbing.

“Not everyone needs a 4 year education!!!”

True. Now why can’t Ohio State offer 4, 2, and 1 year programs?

You personally are the problem. said...

I don't think it was University professors who blocked universal college education. In fact the 2016 Democratic Platform was the best at this ideal since at least the 1972 platform. The highwater mark of "means-testing benefits" was the 1980s & 90s of Charles Peters & DLC "New Liberal" liberalism. This was a time when a lot of social moderate to liberal Republicans began to vote Democratic, as long as their taxes did not get raised. As s Presidential race strategy not completely stupid as Democrats have had the highest plurality in every election since 1992 but for 2004. But not the soundest electoral or Senate strategy to write off 24 states.

Bruce Wilder said...

Now, liberals are concerned about minorities and the poor.

Maybe. And, maybe not.

The righteous self is at the core of 21st century progressive politics. It is an intellectual construction, this wokefulness, grounded in narcissism and socially atomistic. The universalism of mid-20th century liberalism was grounded in a political culture of social affiliation and belonging. An Italian-American in Boston in 1950 was that, because she grew up in a community. I suppose one could argue that the business elite and the WASP Ascendancy had used a divide-and-conquer strategy of marginalization and balkanization to maintain political domination; segregation was not just Jim Crow in the Deep South, it was everywhere. But, it eventually backfired in the 1930s and 1940s as Democratic Party coalition achieved a persistent majority, grounded on deep foundations of community and leaders loyal to their communities.

An Asian-American college student circa 2018 is living a socially constructed identity. There's no such thing as an organic (and generic) Asian or Asian-American culture or community anymore than there is an Hispanic community. These are deliberate social constructions and intellectual constructions. A whole litany of grievance has been built up to define what it means to take on, say, an Asian-American identity or to let Asian-American intersect with class, gender and sexual identity. That litany of grievance in the obverse of the critique of privilege and the othering of the generic white male. But, it is not real, at least not real in the sense of grounded in an organic community and culture and sense of belonging.

The low ebb of social affiliation (the bowling alone phenomenon) in American life combines with this new way of constructing a personal, political identity to create a political culture that very conveniently lets elites off the hook for policy performance and accountability.

The deep schism in Democratic Party politics between the Party establishment that wants to thread the needle between electoral success in Presidential politics and raising lots of corporate and billionaire money to fund careers and a politics of mass advertising and mass media, campaign consultants and interest-group think tanks on the one hand, and grass-roots idealists who, maybe, would like to end the proliferation of losing wars and enact universal health care, exemplifies the problem. The establishment can feed narratives thru cable news or social media that excite people and feed these synthetic personal political identities that have been constructed.

Helping the poor is only valuable here to the extent that it confirms and builds the self-image, a self-image that requires counter-point and is fed by broadcast narrative not community participation. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say something to the effect that there is a politics of organic community that is being constantly pre-empted and overwhelmed by the narratives and machinations of an elite that could scarcely care less about anything even vaguely 'liberal' save its own self-regard.

Thornton Hall said...

Bruce: look up the background of Ben Ray Lujan, Chair of the DCCC.

Bruce Wilder said...

Thanks Thornton. Seems like one of the idealists. I will try to pay attention to what he does. Or, how he gets eaten alive, as the case may be.

Peter Dorman said...

Bruce, that's an interesting thought, about constructed identities taking over the space that used to be occupied by lived-in ethnic communities, therapy against anomie. I wonder how we could test that. For instance, we could do a survey of college students on identity affiliation and ask about home zip code, then merge with data about the composition of those locations (if available). This could be worth looking into.

Peter T said...

Australia has a heavily means-tested social security system. It does not attract the same animus. So maybe this is an American thing?

Couple of intersecting thoughts on the wider issue:

Up to the development of social security in the late C19, around 10 per cent of the population was chronically malnourished, to the point that they were incapable of actual work. These were the people who lived by scrounging, begging or charity, who died on doorsteps in hard winters, supplied dissecting rooms and lived under bridges.

In terms of classical economic theory they should not exist. Yet there they were. They were the price of hierarchy - the population that could not be adequately supported if resources were distributed as they were. It was political redistribution - driven by fear of revolution and fear of national competitors - that alleviated their plight.

The proportion was less in places like Australia or parts of the US, where access to essential resources was easier. What does the return to denial of access tell us? That essential resources are getting scarcer? That fear of revolution or of military competition had decreased? Maybe all.

A related observation on Bruce's point is that identities like "Italian-American" are constructed. Often deliberately, in response to elite pressure. There is nothing that stops an Asian-American identity developing a communal outlook, although it may take time. There are effective political groups that are relatively new (gays), and there will be more. The issue is how inclusive they will be socially.