Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Bigger Picture

Marxist historian Robert Brenner has an interesting and thorough account of the 2006 elections at New Left Review. His piece attempts to fit the Democratic victories in the House and Senate into the bigger picture of the major political, class, and economic trends of post-Roosevelt America. Unsurprisingly (for a leftist) he argues that unionization levels and the power of organized labor have determined much of U.S. policy. In other words, the decline of unions exists in an indirect relationship with the growth of corporate power. In particular, the American South is a paradigm of the New Republican spirit in that it has high economic growth, low unionization, and has reacted "positively" to the Republican strategy of an ideology of rugged individualism, racism, suburban family values, and Christianity. Thanks to the power of this configuration, Democrats have had to respond defensively, shifting to the right while tacitly relying on the support of minorities and the working poor. This rightward shift has allowed Republicans to consider policies they never would have thought possible (and indeed, Eisenhower and Nixon didn't countenance them): the dismantling of the U.S.'s few remaining holdouts from the New Deal/Great Society welfare era, such as Social Security. Brenner sums up thus:
In this sense, today’s Republican right has also represented a break beyond postwar Republicanism, up to and including Reagan, in a double sense—its focus on directly attacking the New Deal–Great Society settlement, and its insistence on pushing for stepped-up military aggression, under conditions in which American geopolitical hegemony was already at a historic peak and the payoff for military interventionism on an extended scale appeared marginal. In terms of its programme and its central social base it has brought the agenda of Barry Goldwater, considered extremist in its time, into the us mainstream.
Note that this is the precise opposite of Andrew Sullivan's argument: That the Republicans lost in 2006 in part because they abandoned the "Goldwater conservative values" of small government and low spending. Brenner insists that we are effectively living in the age of Goldwater. He also claims, contra enthusiastic Democrats, that their victory in 2006 was a de facto one that benefited from opposition to the war, not from support for any Democratic agenda.

There is potentially much to disagree with here. The typical story is that reaction against the welfare state came from its failings, exemplified by the 70s' economic recession, and that people simply realized that progressive policy hurts growth. Brenner does not, however, believe this, says that the 70s were a period of international capital crisis across the board, (which fits in neatly to a Marxist account of the "fits" of capitalism), and claims that many lower income people welcomed Republican tax cuts because the income tax brackets were becoming too regressive, not progressive (i.e. the rich weren't being taxed enough for social programs, and the burden was falling on the poor). Like many leftists, he also sees Clinton, the DLC, Rahm Emanuel, and the Blue Dog Democrats as reactionary forces that continue to dismember what little remains of a real progressive streak in the Democratic Party. I'll leave it to you to read exactly what he says about that and formulate your own thoughts.

This kind of reading was refreshing overall for its detached perspective. After the November elections there was a lot of rhetorical wrangling from both sides over what the results "meant" about conservative or liberal ideology--whether people had given up on the Republicans because they weren't "conservative enough," whether there was a progressive shift on the horizon, etc; as if declaring the matter to be one way or the other would resolve the issue. Brenner believes it's neither, and he presents an historical, clear-sighted view of why. Perhaps you could find a long-term account like this one in the Atlantic or another well-respected magazine, but usually never in blogs, hired columnists, pundits, and newspapers, which seem constantly blinkered by the epiphenomena of the moment. (For example, assaulting Nancy Pelosi's reputation before she even lifts a finger on official House business; the importance of the non-binding anti-surge resolution, etc. Even the idea of the war overall, I would say, is not enough. Democrats are naturally going to focus their policy around criticizing the war [while doing nothing about it, of course] but they shouldn't be fooled into thinking that the war explains everything in American politics.) Not that there aren't important battles to be won over ephemeral issues, but it's nice to take a step back every now and then. I heartily recommend this to everyone.


Blogger Josh the Hippie Killer said...

From day one, I have found it interesting/stupid how big of a deal people (esp. political commentators) have made about the 2006 election results. The winner, in close elections, seems to be decided more by how well-managed each candidate’s respective campaign was, as opposed to anything else.

In Virginia, Webb edged out Allen by 9329 votes. That’s only one-tenth of 1% of Virginia’s population.

In Montana, Tester beat Burns by only 3562 votes. That’s about two-fifths of 1% of Montana’s population. (And let’s not forget that the third candidate in this race, Stan Jones, came away with 3% of the state’s vote, and likely took those votes from the Republican candidate, Burns).

If either one of these election results had been different, the Senate balance would be 50-50, and with Dick Cheney as the tie-breaking vote… I don’t think the Senate would be too different from how it had been for the past 6 (or 12) years.

It’s silly to think that such small margins of victory really signify any tangible mainstream desire for change in America. If either one of these election results were different, a mainstream desire for change and/or progressive policies would seem as far away as they have appeared for the past 6 years.

9:00 AM  

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