As we were saying: The collapse of liberalism

Sam Smith – One of the things that makes your editor’s mornings cheerier is to discover an article in a conventional liberal publication supporting a thesis I have been pushing without success for a decade or two. It reaffirms my self-characterization as a moderate of a time that has not yet come.

A case in point is Adolph Reed Jr.’s excellent piece in Harper’s: “Nothing Left: The Long Slow Surrender of American Liberals.” In it, he pins Clinton and Obama to the wall with the sort of accuracy one seldom finds in the liberal media. Here, for example is his view of Clinton:

Most telling . . . is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration as a halcyon time of progressive success. Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice. A recap of some of his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to break through the social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of “ending welfare as we know it”; in office he both presided over the termination of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to provide income support for the poor and effectively ended direct federal provision of low-income housing. In both cases his approach was to transfer federal subsidies — when not simply eliminating them — from impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor, real estate developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime bills that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. He undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

Notwithstanding his administration’s Orwellian folderol about “reinventing government,” his commitment to deficit reduction led to, among other things, extending privatization of the federal meat-inspection program, which shifted responsibility to the meat industry — a reinvention that must have pleased his former Arkansas patron, Tyson Foods, and arguably has left its legacy in the sporadic outbreaks and recalls that suggest deeper, endemic problems of food safety in the United States. His approach to health-care reform, like Barack Obama’s, was built around placating the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and its failure only intensified the blitzkrieg of for-profit medicine.

In foreign policy, he was no less inclined than Reagan or George H. W. Bush to engage in military interventionism. Indeed, counting his portion of the Somali operation, he conducted nearly as many discrete military interventions as his two predecessors combined, and in four fewer years. Moreover, the Clinton Administration initiated the “extraordinary rendition” policy, under which the United States claims the right to apprehend individuals without charges or public accounting so that they can be imprisoned anywhere in the world (and which the Obama Administration has explicitly refused to repudiate). Clinton also increased American use of “privatized military services” — that is, mercenaries.

The nostalgic mist that obscures this record is perfumed by evocations of the Clinton prosperity. Much of that era’s apparent prosperity, however, was hollow — the effects of first the tech bubble and then the housing bubble. His administration was implicated in both, not least by his signing the repeal of the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act, which had established a firewall between commercial and investment banking in response to the speculative excesses that sparked the Great Depression. And, as is the wont of bubbles, first one and then the other burst, ushering in the worst economic crisis since the depression that had led to the passage of Glass–Steagall in the first place. To be sure, the Clinton Administration was not solely or even principally responsible for those speculative bubbles and their collapse. The Republican administrations that preceded and succeeded him were equally inclined to do the bidding of the looters and sneak thieves of the financial sector. Nevertheless, Clinton and the Wall Street cronies who ran his fiscal and economic policy — Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Alan Greenspan — are no less implicated than the Republicans in having brought about the economic crisis that has lingered since 2008.

It is difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda. Indeed, Clinton made his predilections clear from the outset. “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here,” he declared, albeit exasperatedly, shortly after his 1992 victory. “We stand for lower deficits, free trade, and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”

His view of Obama is similarly critical:

Barack Obama has always been no more than an unexceptional neoliberal Democrat with an exceptional knack for self-presentation persuasive to those who want to believe, and with solid connections and considerable good will from the corporate and financial sectors. From his successful wooing of University of Chicago and Hyde Park liberals at the beginning of his political career, his appeal has always been about the persona he projects — the extent to which he encourages people to feel good about their politics, the political future, and themselves through feeling good about him — than about any concrete vision or political program he has advanced. And that persona has always been bound up in and continues to play off complex and contradictory representations of race in American politics.

As it turns out, Reed not only lends support to stuff I’ve written over past few decades but going back as far as 1965 when, in a piece: “Where are the gutbucket liberals?”. I argued:

Perhaps the saddest of the lot is the professional Washington liberal. He is the most vocal in his claim of liberalism and quickest to accede to the whims of the illiberal. The professional Washington liberal attends White House conferences on this and that, writes articles for the press, testifies before congressional committees, and feels proud when he can help tack on fifty million dollars to a piece of constructive-sounding legislation.

Yet give him a legislative placebo to salve his conscience and he will beat his reactionary compatriot to the Chevy Chase Club by a half hour every time. Though his language is rife with intellectual cliches and jargon, he and his brothers throughout the land pride themselves on their intellectual command of the complexities of our society. No mere men of action are they, no scummy populists or red-faced, rasp-voiced demagogues of the rabble, but deep-dish thinkers tackling the intricate philosophical and sociological problems of America. Yet, on those uncomfortable occasions when the liberals are dragged down to reality, they suddenly forget their ideological commitments and rush to support third-rate programs in the interest of – as they say – “gettiing the camel’s nose under the tent?

Then, when the wrong camel’s nose gets under the wrong tent, they return to their seminars to wonder amongst themselves what it is that is wrong with society. Among the things that are wrong with society are that the liberals have accepted the limited goals of a national front government: they suffer from the torpor of excessive intellectualism: and they seem congenitally unwilling to come out swinging for programs our country obviously requires. What we need is more gutbucket liberalism: more down-to-earth struggles in the tradition of the best of the early progressive movements: more liberal politicians willing to say “I’d rather be right than regular;” and more unembarrassedly fighting in the interests of the little people of America

Mind you, there was plenty of precedent for such an approach in the New Deal and, unfairly tough as I was on LBJ in those days, he proved to be much more effective than the liberal establishment as a whole.

In 1995 I cited some figures that showed how effective real liberalism had been:

We’ve come across some comments on the accomplishments of liberalism of the last half century that are worth passing on. They were made by Alien Ferguson, President of AFE Inc, before the National Economist Club last fallFerguson notes that the real gross national product rose 546% from 1933 to 1980. Real per capita disposable income rose 233% during the same period. In 1929, one percent of nonfarm workers took vacations. By 1970, the figure had risen to 80%. The average work week dropped from around 48 hours in 1929 to around 35 hours in 1980

By 1950, 34 million workers were covered by unemployment insurance; by 1980 the figure was almost 93 million

Social security, during the same period expanded from covering 46 million to 128 million people. While the share of income realized by the poorest 20% of the population has not changed much over the years, the percentage held by the wealthiest 5% has dropped from 30% in 1929 to 15.4% in 1981, indicating a redistribution of income to the middle class. Similarly, the percentage of total wealth held by the top one percent was 36% in 1929 and down to 20% by 1969

Between 1959 and 1979, 9% of whites and 25% of blacks moved out of the poverty classification. And a Congressional Research Service study done in 1982 showed that without the various liberal transfer programs, 24% of the country would have been in poverty rather than the 9% that was the case. Said Ferguson: “It is my view that current attacks on programs of the past decades arise, not because liberal policies failed, but rather because they succeeded too well.”

But along came Reagan and scared the shit out of liberals. There were other factors as well. One was that the very success of the liberal New Deal and Great Society moved many beneficiaries into a better social and economic class, where they quietly became more conservative. Thus the concerns of the poorest women or blacks became less important. As Reed notes, “Within the women’s movement, goals have shifted from practical objectives such as comparable worth and universal child care in the 1980s to celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling…The movement for racial justice has shifted its focus from inequality to “disparity,” while neatly evading any critique of the structures that produce inequality.”

And he quotes the historian Russell Jacoby: “Instead of championing a radical idea of a new society, the left ineluctably retreats to smaller ideas, seeking to expand the options within the existing society.”

And now, with the rush to nominate Hillary Clinton, liberals prepare to repeat yearof error once more. In a few decades, however, you can read in some liberal journal why it didn’t work out.

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