It was Labor Day, still, as I began to write this. I had felt speechless and dumbfounded for much of the day. It was a day to remember and honor workers who have borne the brunt of economic “adjustments” that have continued since the 1970s. And yet, I was able to go to a coffee shop I enjoy, buy paper for my printer, and do some grocery shopping.
For many workers, this was just another day of labor.
Unions had been in trouble for quite some time when, not quite thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan took the inaugural oath. Associated with corruption and organized crime and cast as yet one more leech in workers’ wallets, the unions had lost a propaganda battle, which enabled Reagan to fire striking air traffic control workers with impunity. And it was a death knell for more than just the labor union movement.
In a missive addressed to Rahm Emanuel, who apparently expressed disdain for the United Auto Workers union, Michael Moore reminds me that once upon a time it was possible to support a family on a single income. E.J. Dionne Jr. agrees:
All but forgotten is the fact that our nation’s extraordinary prosperity from the end of World War II to the 1970s was in significant part the result of union contracts that, in words the right wing hated Barack Obama for saying in 2008, “spread the wealth around.” A broad middle class with spending power to keep the economy moving created a virtuous cycle of low joblessness and high wages.
Between 1966 and 1970, as Gerald Seib pointed out last week in the Wall Street Journal, the United States enjoyed an astonishing 48 straight months in which the unemployment rate was at or below 4 percent. No, the unions didn’t do all this by themselves. But they were important co-authors of a social contract that made our country fairer, richer and more productive.
But near the end of last month, Dionne offered an equally important, if more timely, observation:
There was a revealing moment in early August when Obama told an audience at a Texas fundraiser: “We have spent the last 20 months governing. They spent the last 20 months politicking.” Referring to the impending elections, he added: “Well, we can politick for three months. They’ve forgotten I know how to politick pretty good.”
Obama’s mistake is captured by that disdainful reference to “politicking.” In a democracy, separating governing from “politicking” is impossible. “Politicking” is nothing less than the ongoing effort to convince free citizens of the merits of a set of ideas, policies and decisions. Voters feel better about politicians who put what they are doing in a compelling context. Citizens can endure setbacks as long as they believe the overall direction of the government’s approach is right.
Dionne is rightly pointing to sheer arrogance. Obama and the Democrats have been carrying on as if they rule by divine right rather than as if they are accountable to voters. This is why I found Obama’s declaration in regard to unemployment that “we all know there are limits to what government can and should do even during such difficult times” so offensive and so infuriating, and why, as I wrote the other day,
The Democrats have demonstrated that they do not deserve to govern, and voters now seem set to return the House and, possibly, the Senate to Republicans whose political strategy appeared not so long ago not to be an electoral strategy but a coup strategy.
But of course, it is more than that. The Democratic Party’s indifference to the plight of the unemployed followed a huge bank bailout–and if anyone thought that perhaps banks should face tighter regulation to prevent them from creating yet another financial meltdown, as Robert L. Borasage wrote,
The banks were rescued, but not reformed and no heads rolled. These two alone have been lethal to the economy, to working people, and not surprisingly to the president’s popularity and Democratic prospects.
As Cenk Uygur noted,
The big banks got out of financial reform relatively unscathed. They’re still too big to fail. They’re still doing risky bets with taxpayer backed money. They’re still in charge.
And as Bob Herbert wrote,
The country is a mess. The economy is horrendous, and millions of American families are running out of ammunition in their fight against destitution. Steadily increasing numbers of middle-class families, who never thought they’d be seeking charity, have been showing up at food pantries.
So now we will have a Republican Congress in 2011, as if that would make any real difference in governance. But it will reawaken the “culture wars” that led to so much talk of “red” and “blue” states following the 2004 election, that didn’t go away but exploded on the racist right when Obama was elected, that led me to suggest a divorce for the United States, possibly along these lines:
[image missing]The difference between Republicans and Democrats on policy can be difficult to discern, and yet I foresee cataclysmic consequences. While die-hard Obama backers will undoubtedly blame the stupidity of the U.S. electorate, even they will have to admit that the differences within the country are incorrigible and irreconcilable and they will have to consider whether they are willing to subject themselves to a rising tide of fascism. Meanwhile, as Paul Krugman keeps warning, a persistent attention to deficits, but not the cost of war, rather than to unemployment will deprive government at all levels of revenue, exacerbating rather than reducing budget problems. Ultimately, Krugman’s detractors will be “proven” right, as bondholders decide (but now with justification) that the U.S. is indeed on a death spiral, just like Greece. The federal government will become even more authoritarian as the country begins to disintegrate.
With so many suffering in so many ways and with an increasingly polarized population, it is hard to imagine that the “American” identity can continue to compel. Not only has Obama ushered in a fascist police state, but he has, I believe, assured its destruction.