Social liberalism beats economic populism?

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Is he an economic liberal -- or a social liberal? Or neither?

Eric Alterman, who writes on media for The Nation, has a book out on the history of liberalism in America and a fascinating essay in The New York Times on how progessives lost the economic war. It's hard to make a case this complicated in a few hundred words, so he sounds as if he's somewhat downplaying the importance of civil rights. And American history is, of course, complicated and the post-War era one of the most confusing times to understand and analyze. But Alterman seems to come down on the side of those who argue that the fight for what he calls the "rights agenda" undermined the battle for economic equality:

In other words, economic liberalism is on life-support, while cultural liberalism thrives. The obvious question is why. The simple answer is that cultural liberalism comes cheap. Supporting same-sex marriage or a woman’s right to choose does not cost the wealthy anything or restrict their ability to become wealthier.

He also disses incompetence, always an easy target, since the economic crises that post-War liberals addressed -- from inner-city and rural poverty to energy prices and inflation -- defied easy solutions and there were bound to be mistakes. But here's his basic hit:

“The great liberal failing of this time,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed as early as 1968, was “constantly to over-promise and to overstate, and thereby constantly to appear to under-perform.” This not only alienated key constituencies, but it also diminished the trust between the governing and the governed that previous generations of liberals had worked so hard to earn.

Caught in the crosswinds of so many simultaneous crises — I have not even mentioned Vietnam — many liberals chose to focus, rather perversely, on a “rights” agenda and the internecine fights it engendered within their increasingly fractured coalition. They lost sight of the essential element that had made the coalition possible in the first place: the sense that liberalism stood with the common man and woman in their struggle against economic forces too large and powerful to be faced by individuals on their own.

In other words, if we'd just been willing to throw the gays and the women under the bus (or do what so many "liberals" so often suggested, and move more slowly on things like abortion rights, comparable worth and same-sex marriage, which are so easy for the Right to use as wedge issues) we might have held on to the coalition that was able to wage the War on Povery under LBJ.

Okay, that's not fair -- Alterman is a lot more nuanced than that. And I agree with him entirely that it's easy (particularly in a place like San Francisco) to support same-sex marriage, and that cultural issues can give fiscal conservatives cover with a left-leaning electorate. It drives me nuts. And I completely agree that Obama needs to return liberalism to an economic populist agenda.

And a lot of this discussion has been done before, starting with Thomas Frank and What's the Matter with Kansas?

But would we really be better off in the long run if we'd abandoned the "rights" agenda in favor of economic equality? Or is it possible that the Right is losing steam on the Culture War and in the process discrediting its economic ideas? Do women who heard Rush Limbaugh call a law student a "slut" start questioning what he says about taxes?

I dunno. Interesting questions.

Comments

redundant and irrelevant. I believe it is the individualism of Americans that cause them to obsess about "rights" - you certainly don't see that in Europe where they are perfectly happy with less rights in return for more equality.

But there's another issue too. The left are often painted as being "big government" and the right as "small government". But it's a myth. The left is interventionist on economic matters but laissez faire on social issues. The right is interventionist on social issues and hands-off on economic issues.

So the real divide isn't left versus right, but interventionist versus freedom. So Progressives have to make a choice. Do they want a strong central government enforcing equality but also squashing individual rights? Or do you want an "anything goes" world where gays can marry but billionaires can run amuck?

The left/right divide misses the real divide, which is the dichotomy between freedom and control.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

Are you talking about the new 'Jobs Act'?

Because I just switched my registration to Republican. I'll probably be supporting Ed Lee now and making friends with people who want to "attract capital." I'm sick of fighting it. I'm tired of being a loser.

When Republicans want to rob me they do it to my face. I admire that.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/why-obamas-jobs-act-...

Why Obama's JOBS Act Couldn't Suck Worse

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

"...this law actually appears to have been specifically written to encourage fraud in the stock markets."

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

The Facebook IPO is going to explode like an atom bomb. I'm ready to PARTAEEE!!!!

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

Seriously. Listen. We have to check his birth certificate.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

Actually, you know what would REALLY do the trick?

A nice war.....

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

Seems like that the stock market has been propped up by the Fed and this could mean that there will be no more money from the helicopter, inflation - gas, food?

I don't think anybody believes this is good news or that the people in charge know what they are doing, or that the person in the white house is up to the situation.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2012 @ 11:09 pm

“The financial industry has placed itself above the investing public ("muppets") and will take every advantage it can secure,” said Alan Newman, author of the Crosscurrents financial newsletter. “The public's confidence has been shattered, possibly beyond repair.”

http://www.cnbc.com/id/47005811

Where Has All the Trading Gone? Volume Hits 4-Year Low

Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 1:15 pm
Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

"The last 20 years or so have witnessed the evolution of a failed financial system. "

http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/2009/06/03/bailing-out-the-bucket-shops/

Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 10:34 pm

I think the Jobs Acts makes it official that Obama had a failed presidency.

"President Obama’s policy of trying to reinflate the bubble—see TAIF (an effort to revive securitization) and Public Private Investment Group (an effort to make taxpayers finance purchases of rotten assets from banks)—is a bad idea. Remarkably, his administration has not even proposed dealing with the cause of the problem—the “naked” credit default swaps. Today, CDSs are traded as secretly as ever."

http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/2009/06/03/bailing-out-the-bucket-shops/

Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

-- The current system has a bad design. We need to simplify and separate the banks’ utility functions from casino activities that should be carried on elsewhere. In February MIT professor of economics Simon Johnson said, “Are you going in with the bankers or are you being tough with bankers? They [the administration] don’t want to upset the banking industry and that’s the heart of it.” --

Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 10:39 pm

"We need to try to correct the harm done by the infamous Section 17 of The Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. Let the sun shine into this secret market. Let’s disclose all the facts so we can finally figure out who owes what to whom. That would be a beginning."

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 10:41 pm