The America of nostalgic visions of clean-cut suburban lawns, self-sufficient breadwinners, and homogenous communities heard its death rattle last Tuesday. To be fair, we’ve been hearing the hoofbeats of the Grim Reaper coming for the Silent Majority since Al Gore received the majority of the votes in the 2000 election. An extraordinary Supreme Court suppression of the vote and the hysteria of post-911 politics delayed its reckoning and the filibuster on immigration reform has slowed its demographic political asphyxiation.
But with Bill Kristol now calling for the GOP to abandon its protection of tax cuts for the wealthy, the Right is beginning to reach the stage of desperate bargaining with Thanatos for a few more years of life. The bargain won’t be made and the conservative political majority that Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater helped build, that George Wallace and Ronald Reagan brought into reality, and that Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush built two additional decades of government around — that majority is dead and buried.
Now, that should sound a bit wildly optimistic with 30 Republican Governors in office and the GOP controlling the House of Representatives. However, those political results are built on the quicksand of vote suppression and gerrymandered districts across the country. Those will continue to have political effects but it’s not majority politics but a rearguard defense of what is slipping away.
The GOP is caught in a demographic and political vise. While not the only issue for latino and asian voters, the Republican rejection of immigration reform and its inherent racist appeals has steadily cost the conservative movement support. It’s not just the 70% of latinos voting for Obama but the once-conservative leaning Asian vote shifting to the point of supporting Obama by 73% margins– what the American Conservative calls the GOP’s Asian-American Fiasco where obsessions with “birtherism and with the president’s alleged Muslim faith” just fed the sense of a party too xenophobic to support even by wealthier segments of the asian-American population that would have done so a generation ago.
The Empty Conservative Economic Policy Locker: The problem is that the GOP’s political “success” in liquidating the middle class has destroyed the base of “Reagan Democratic” voters who were once attracted to Reagan’s more optimistic program of a bit more take-home cash with tax cuts, a defense department jobs program and a bit of overseas imperialism to keep oil prices down. Now, with tax rates lowered and tax credits increased for low- and moderate-income working families and many families pushed into those lower-income ranks, we have the stark result that, as Romney infelicitously put into words, 47% of the population is now immune to the politics of income tax cut promises. And the debacles of the Gulf War means that cheap oil via overseas wars doesn’t seem so cheap with lives lost and treasure spent. (Note that Ronald Reagan always had the good sense to talk tough but hightailed out of Lebanon at the first sign of trouble for U.S. soliders.) That plus the debt taken on for Bush’s wars means that defense-driven spending is also now a dead-end for job creation promises.
So that has left the GOP with almost no positive economic program to appeal to their working class base of voters, which has meant the xenophobic elements have had to be even more prominent. Yes, Reagan used racial code words regularly, but that was not the only appeal he made to his white Reagan Democrats. But the lack of any articulated economic program by Romney was not an accident; there is none left that appeals to working families so the only way to hold that base is through xenophobic racial and cultural appeals.
That leaves the conservative movement in a zero-minus vice. Any move they make to soften those racial or cultural appeals means they likely lose as many votes as they gain. And demographics means that, to be blunt, their core voters are dying and more black, latino, asian and culturally liberal young white voters appear in each election. And some form of legalization of the undocumented population is inevitable with these trends, so that demographic rising tide will become a tsunami of changing demographics in coming years.
How Obamacare Will Kill Off the Conservative Coalition: Worse for the conservative movement is the policy terrain is about to be profoundly reshaped by Obamacare. They have depended on a last ditch effort to kill it by demonization of the bill in the abstract, yet their problem is that while the bill overall is not strongly popular, polls show that most of the elements of the law — the individual mandate aside — are extremely popular. So when those provisions come into force, many GOP voters (and some marginal Dem voters) will wake up to a reality of a law that they quite like. As I wrote in a 2009 piece, Why the Health Care Bill Will Destroy the Conservative Movement, once government subsidies for middle class families’ health care kicks in, there is no turning back to the anti-government politics of Reaganism. With tens of millions of additional voters receiving a check from the government to pay for their health care, “the 47%” is going to become the vast majority of the American electorate having a stake in strong welfare state.
That Bill Kristol sees the writing on the wall to jettison tax cuts for the rich follows the analysis he made twenty years ago that successful health care reform meant the death of the Reagan coalition. Back then, writing about the Clinton health plan, Kristol wrote about the effects of its passage (and by implication the effects of implementing Obamacare):
It will relegitimize middle-class dependence for “security” on government spending and regulation. It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.
Even with some states potentially opting out of expanded Medicaid coverage initially, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the law will add 10 million people to Medicaid by 2016 and an additional 23 million people will be receiving direct health care subsidies in the exchanges– with each of those receiving an average of $5490 per year in health care support. Those folks, many of them in the working class base of the GOP, will then hear “restraining government” as an imminent threat to the health care of their families.
So What Should the Left Do? Now, the death of the increasingly insane Right coalition doesn’t mean the triumph of the left. The Republican Party will ideally reconfigure itself more on the lines of a European conservative party, accepting the reasonable parts of the welfare state (as the GOP in practice has had to so with social security and Medicare) and figuring out the strategic appeals to build a majority that don’t involve pure xenophobia and paranoia. Whether that will happen by 2016 is an open question but I look forward to the day people like Andrew Sullivan can reembrace the GOP as a reasonable Tory alternative.
The Democrats will ideally shed their neoliberal wing, which will find a more congenial home in a reconfigured GOP. That will create a greater opening for those who identify with a transformative version of left politics — call it socialist, radical democrat, green or whatever — to argue for a more fundamental program of change by candidates it supports. In the short-term, that will mean mobilizing to block Obama from signing onto any retrograde “grand bargains” that hamstring progressives in the long-term while pushing to extract the strongest progressive outcomes overall from a second Obama term.
The longer-term policy program of that post-Obama Left will no doubt have a range of elements adding to the mix coming from both traditional strands of labor, feminist and racial justice activists mixing with new Occupy and other grassroots activists seeing openings for new policy directions. Without arguing for an endpoint vision for where that politics should go, here are four pillars a left program in the new political environment:
- Single Payer Health Care: That Obamacare will not solve the failings of the U.S. health care system is admitted by everyone, but that just creates an opening for arguing for building on the bill to create a single payer health care system. Which is actually how most of Europe reached universal health care, building on partial fragmented commitments to health coverage to create their universal systems. Luckily, the health care law in a provision sometimes overlooked by its left critics contains an explicit route to single payer care: beginning in 2017, states have the option to pool all Medicaid, individual exchange and employer subsidies flowing into their states via Obamacare into an alternative health care delivery system, which states like Vermont are already planning to be a single payer one. With Californians elected a two-thirds majority for Democrats in both houses there, there is greater likelihood that a single payer bill there could become law.
- Expanded Labor Rights: Ideally, a second Obama term will see some federal labor law reform, more likely via National Labor Relations Board appointments and new rules to speed union elections and restrain employers breaking the law. But labor law reform doesn’t have to be confined to the federal level– states can expand labor rights at the state and local level through a range of policies .
- A New Civil Rights Agenda: Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are still pervasive in the workplace and society– as multiple studies continue to show. One key target will be reversing the Supreme Court’s limits on class action lawsuits and the rise of “mandatory arbitration” which forces those alleging discrimination into employer-controlled private courts. More broadly, we need to reconfigure work to be more family-friendly and to ensure that job creation is directed to every community.
- A Job Creation Program to Stop Climate Change: Since the cleanup after Hurricane Sandy shows that a hell of lot of jobs will have to be created to clean up after the escalating damage of climate change in coming years, the left should be in the forefront of arguing for the investments to avoid that damage in the first place — and employ the millions of the unemployed across the country. We need a multi-trillion dollar program in the coming decades to build smart grids that reduce energy use, reconfigure transportation systems to increase mass transit, and build new high-density housing at transit hubs to further reduce the per capita energy footprint of each American. The great thing is that such investments pay for themselves over the long-term in lower energy costs, lower bills from disaster spending and higher productivity due to a more reliable power grid– so it will actually fit in any long-term discussions of smart budgetting.
Beyond Elections: Still, this is an ambitious but ultimately basic policy program and the progressive left will be faced with even broader organizing challenges that will transcend national politics. At its core, we face a problem of growing economic inequality that adjustments to tax and budget policies will only partially address. As long as corporate raiders like Bain Capital can stripmine firms and outsource jobs at will, employees will have little power to hold on to a decent standard of living. Strengthening labor laws can help give workers more power to stand their ground and progressives need to better support those organizing struggles.
But that broad challenge is part of a global fight for justice and empowerment. Looking back, Bush v. Gore didn’t just short-circuit the rise of progressive domestic politics; combined with post-911 hysteria, it helped short-circuit the then rising global justice movement that from the Seattle trade protests in 1999 had been linking activists around the world in building a joint movement for greater global equity. The recent Occupy movement has echoes of that movement but a deeper institutional linking of global movements will have to go hand-in-hand with domestic politics to ultimately take on the challenge of reversing trends of greater and greater corporate enrichment at the expense of both people and the planet.
On the plus side, the very diversity of the United States population — pulling people and community linkages to countries around the world — gives hope that a new progressive politics in the United States can help build a model of politics that reflects these global needs for justice as well.
But what this means is that the death of the Rightwing Coalition in U.S. domestic politics is not the end of the struggle, but merely the chance to engage the real challenge of taking on global corporate power — and racing the clock in this century against the economic and environmental self-destruction we face if we fail that challenge.