From Occupy Wall Street protests two years ago in lower Manhattan to recent angst bubbling up against tech-industry gentrification in San Francisco, economic inequality is becoming the animating issue from coast to coast. Not surprisingly, then, inequality is concurrently becoming a deeply political story that exposes the two parties’ internal dynamics and their contrasting attitudes toward change.
In this polarized era, understanding those dynamics and those attitudes can help make sense of a seemingly inexplicable political process. More specifically, it can help spotlight how the disputes that determine political outcomes are as much about economic ideology and public policy as they are about more basic differences between intransigence and disruption.
GOP brand loyalty
In the new politics of inequality, the Republican tale is the less interesting part of the story. Quite predictably, GOP partisans bill their fealty to austerity and their spirited defense of rising economic inequality as laudably uncompromising brand loyalty. Critics of the Republicans predictably cast it as a raw example of both GOP fealty to the oligarchs and the famous aphorism that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Either way, the GOP posture is a classic tale of intransigence in the face of an inequality narrative that conservatives have worked for decades to suppress.
Now that the narrative can’t be suppressed, conservatives are, to put it mildly, freaking out. On talk radio, Republicans’ most famous leaders are berating none other than Pope — the Pope! — for daring to echo the words of Jesus by speaking up for the poor. Similarly, in Rupert Murdoch’s lair, the New York Post is openly deriding those who dare speak out about rampant childhood poverty and homelessness in the richest country on earth. And, like obedient children, congressional Republicans are following their ideological masters by championing a Scrooge Agenda of food stamp cuts, pension reductions, and opposition to jobless benefits.
None of that represents a change from GOP orthodoxy. It’s just that old conservative orthodoxy getting more extreme — most likely because as polls show, GOP voters value refusal to compromise far more than they value willingness to compromise. In other words, in a gerrymandered country that increasingly permits Republican politicians to only answer to Republican voters, the GOP incentive system is one that now preferences intransigence over change. In that, the Tea Party phenomenon hasn’t been a disruption — it has been a return-to-basics backlash to the very prospect of disruption.
The result is that for all the talk of a Republican “rebranding” initiative, the GOP trying to revitalize its old brand. Channeling the retro trend in corporate advertising, the party is deliberately telling voters that this very much is your father’s Republican Party.
A disrupted democratic party
The GOP’s story is fairly well known and well covered. The Democrats’ story — not so much. Theirs is a more nuanced — and more complex — story that I outlined earlier this week on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes.” It is a tale of disruption and change that can be most succinctly summarized by comparing microcosmic spats — one from eight years ago, one from last week.
The former, which we discussed on MSNBC, happened during debate over the notorious 2005 bankruptcy bill. Written by the credit card companies, the legislation was an epically destructive measure that at once makes it more difficult for individuals and small businesses to get out of debt, but makes it easier for the wealthy to protect their property (vacation homes, rental units, etc.) from seizure. Additionally, as the New York Federal Reserve Bank documented, because the legislation prioritized paying back credit card debt instead of mortgage debt, it ended up exacerbating the foreclosure crisis.
During the fevered congressional fight over the hideous measure, I happened to be working for the Center for American Progress. This being a few years before that think tank started overtly liberalwashing Gordon Gekkos like Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein, I assumed it would be perfectly fine to use my CAP position to pressure Democrats to oppose the bankruptcy legislation.
Yet, when I issued a straightforward report showing how much financial-industry money was going into buying Democratic votes for the bill, I and my boss, former White House chief of staff John Podesta, were publicly attacked by Democratic Party leaders for supposedly committing an act of apostasy.
Back then, this was still the Democratic Party of Podesta’s first (but not last) White House boss, Bill Clinton — that is, it was still a primarily pro-deregulation, anti-New Deal Democratic party that operated as a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street. Additionally, while there was some nascent anti-war organizing, there was very little well-developed political infrastructure outside the Democratic Party that was able to independently organize voters and activists around progressive economic positions. Hence, my sending an email documenting the most brazen corruption was largely portrayed in professional Democratic politics not as necessary truth-telling, but as an act of unacceptable heresy.
Fast forward eight years and, as MSNBC’s Hayes said this week, my little bankruptcy story seems hard to believe. Indeed, as bank bailouts and corporate subsidies have coincided with both a huge rise in poverty and a right-wing crusade to gut the social safety net, Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party has become Elizabeth Warren’s Democratic Party to the point where even the bailout-loving, Wall Street-coddling, tax cut-endorsing President Obama suddenly feels compelled to pretend to care about inequality.
This is no small shift — in fact, as a spat over Social Security last week proved, the whole notion of Democratic apostasy has changed.
That spat started when the Clinton-era Democratic group Third Way published a Wall Street Journal op-ed slamming New York mayor-elect Bill de Blasio (D) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) for respectively promoting high-income tax increases and an expansion of Social Security. Third Way has a vested financial interest in opposing de Blasio and Warren’s ideas. Simply put, the group’s wealthy Wall Street funders don’t want to pay slightly higher taxes — they’d much rather see new tax cuts for themselves, and they’d prefer those tax cuts be paid for by slashing Social Security.
If this had been 2005, Third Way’s op-ed would no doubt have been applauded by other Democratic groups in Washington, and Democratic politicians eager to rake in Wall Street campaign contributions would have piled on. But that didn’t happen. Instead, traditionally progressive Democratic legislators like Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) went on the attack. More revealing, Third Way was also denounced by the very corporate Democratic politicians who formally affiliated with the group. One of them, Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D), not only criticized the group but also rushed to make a public spectacle of belatedly signing onto the Warren bill to expand Social Security.
Clearly something changed in Democratic politics between 2005 and 2013. The question is, what? Answer: Two disruptions.
First and foremost, Democratic voters — and, really, voters in general — are naturally more prone to make economic justice positions litmus test issues at the polls. With the nation’s macroeconomic and political indicators looking more and more banana republic-ish, this is hardly surprising. Pulverized by debt and joblessness, voters — and particularly rank-and-file Democratic voters — are predictably questioning the most basic assumptions about the efficacy of American capitalism.
At the same time, there is now some modicum of political infrastructure to support Democratic candidates who position themselves against corporate power and for redistributive economic justice.
This latter disruption is, in part, a product of technological empowerment. Whereas in the past a candidate could only hope to generate reelection resources from Big Money sources, independent progressive groups are now able to cheaply organize petitions and fundraising drives. A few years ago, such power was primarily marshaled in the Democratic Party for Democratic candidates irrespective of ideology, issues or accountability (the Obama campaign’s deft use of technology being the best example of that). But with the president’s term beginning its end, that power is being deployed on a progressive ideological basis to back politicians like Warren, de Blasio and others who challenge Big Money.
The Social Security spat last week is exemplary: In that fight, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee activated its huge membership against Third Way-affiliated Democrats and in defense of Warren. It was backed up by Howard Dean’s Democracy for America and Russ Feingold’s Progressives United. The collective push simultaneously cowed the corporate Democrats and prompted Warren herself to go on the offensive with a formal demand for groups like Third Way to better disclose their funders.
In short, as inequality has intensified and as politically empowering technology has proliferated, disruptions have changed the Democratic Party-aligned outrage machine. Whereas in 2005 that machine was aimed at critics of Big Money politics and corrupt bills like the bankruptcy legislation, in 2013 the new outrage machine is aimed at the Big Money and the corruption. That shift has changed the basic incentives in the Democratic Party — and now legislative behavior is starting to change as well.
Polarization doesn’t automatically mean less progress
Of course, “starting to change” is different from actual change in the same way legislative proposals are different from enacted legislation, and in the same way an Obama speech about inequality is different from a president using his power to actually do something about inequality. Politicians (and particularly Democrats) bank on voters not paying attention to the difference between those things — that is, they bank on voters only fleetingly paying attention to headlines, and not paying attention to whether promises of action end up resulting in actual action. Financially, most of them also still rely far more on a handful of big donors who benefit from inequality than on a wide base of small donors who are harmed by inequality. And, of course, politicians of both parties also bank on the well-documented proclivity of voters to wholly switch their allegedly principled positions on major issues once their party’s candidate is in the White House.
That said, the intensifying dynamics inside both parties suggest the old formulas are being gradually short circuited. With a retrograde Tea Party defending economic inequality as a supposedly necessary product of liberty, it will be much more difficult for Republican politicians to moderate the GOP brand and pretend to care about reducing economic inequality. Likewise, with a technologically empowered progressive architecture disrupting Clinton-era Democratic political formulas and forcing more and more Democratic politicians to begrudgingly support initiatives to reduce inequality, it will be more difficult for those politicians to safely return to the anti-populist free-market triumphalism of the Third Way.
That will almost certainly mean more polarization between Republicans and Democrats — but depending on the results of the two parties’ competition between intransigence and disruption, it does not have to mean less progress.
Illustration by Brad Jonas