Promoting Middle Class Populism, Downplaying Military Issues

greenber carville

Stanley Greenberg and James Carville (Photo: CS Monitor)

Top Democratic consultants James Carville and Stanley Greenberg have issued a must-read, well researched, and entertaining manifesto, It’s The Middle Class, Stupid!, summarizing their oft-stated argument that the Democratic Party must embrace middle class populism to win. Another major Democratic advisor, George Lakoff, with co-author Elisabeth Wehling, make a similar case in terms of message framing in The Little Blue Book.

Preserving the shrinking of the middle class, while enhancing its prospects and guaranteeing access for the next generation, is their mantra. This entails letting the Bush tax cuts expire, investing in health care, education and infrastructure, and a litany of progressive reforms, along with a serious emphasis on checkmating the corporate domination of campaign financing. Their central proposals are an infrastructure bank, long championed by Greenberg’s wife Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and a progressive budget alternative proposed by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who happens to be married to another longtime Democratic consultant, Bob Creamer. The Democrats are nothing if not a family, feuds and all.

Carville and Greenberg differ from many liberal Democratic advocates, however, in arguing that deficits are a real problem, not ones invented by Republican skinflints and gold bugs. And they caution, based on polling results, against appearing to advocate solutions carried out by big government spending, which voters believe to be corrupt and wasteful (which they say is why campaign finance and lobbying reforms are so important). Carville and Greenberg’s point is that it is mistaken to lead with an argument for a larger stimulus when voters have no confidence in the state. However, how they plan to deliver for the middle class without big government is unclear. Many of the government initiatives they favor will be accomplished, it appears, by targeted tax breaks. If it does not entirely add up, that is because their first task is to craft a message that routes Tea Party Republicans, breaks the stranglehold of Wall Street, sends some powerful officials to jail, and then begin anew with a re-elected Barack Obama.

Thus, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! is meant as an update from Carville’s “it’s the economy, stupid!” which is credited with helping elect Bill Clinton twenty years ago. Whether the magic works twice is anyone’s guess.

By their count, 58 percent of the voters who are trapped on the treadmill of this Recession describe themselves as middle class, essentially a category of identity. Twenty-five percent are working class, while about seven percent are at poverty levels, for a total of 90 percent sinking or already underwater. Greenberg labeled a key bloc of these voters as “Reagan Democrats” based on his surveys in places like Macomb, Michigan (where I grew up). For his discoveries in white Middle America, Greenberg remembers being scorned by the national Democratic Party in Washington, then under greater influence from its Jesse Jackson wing. From the viewpoint of Jackson supporters like Maxine Waters, a clique of “white boys” were redirecting the party away from its core base on a search for white moderate voters and white corporate contributions. It was a big ugly in the family.

The quest for re-positioning, as it was called, led Greenberg to Bill Clinton and the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a pro-business, corporate-subsidized element that enjoyed considerable political success while denouncing “extreme” liberals, peace advocates, and militant blacks. Greenberg, Carville, and other party leaders like John Podesta, were seeking to prevent the erosion of white working class voters from the party by restoring a reformist version of the populist tradition (while avoiding its legacy of racism). Carville proudly identifies himself with Louisiana governor Huey Long. Podesta, former Clinton chief of staff, has written an entire book embracing the populist legacy.

The Carville-Greenberg book serves its purpose as a date-filled guide to perplexed citizens who wonder why so many white working class and middle class voters have drifted away from the Democrats to the independents, Republicans, Tea Party militants and Greens. Lakoff’s little book represents much the same message, with an emphasis on preserving real democracy against a corporate-controlled political system, and adding an interesting segue on how the human brain is wired into nature as a whole, and is not a realm apart from the environment, thus making pollution an assault on human well-being.

lakoff

George Lakoff

None of the authors emphasizes the key role racism plays among defecting white Democrats. Clinton carried massive black majorities all through his presidency, and counted on African-Americans to come to his aid during the impeachment crisis, so they can hardly be accused of catering to racism. Under President Obama black loyalty to the party has only solidified, which leads them to the emphasis on stopping the white male hemorrhaging. Proposals like the infrastructure are thought to be especially appealing to those white males, and to the building trades as well.

With a focus on winning elections, however, there comes a narrowing of focus to the concerns of the swing voters, to the exclusion of issues not on voters’ minds, either because they are not asked in focus groups or surveys, or because they are “inconvenient truths,” in the pharse of Al Gore. Another danger in this approach is the tendency to ignore exciting and expanding the base as opposed to the undecided center. A complex blend is necessary, but in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania the clear emphasis is on winning white voters to the laser-focus on the middle class.

The Lack of the Long War

Mostly omitted from this frame are Afghanistan, the Long War, and the military budget. Carville and Greenberg devote approximately 18 lines to Afghanistan in their 300 page long book out of and approximate 7,800 lines; a fraction of one percent. There is no mention of Afghanistan at all in Lakoff’s work, only a complaint that private contractors have taken over too much of the public military and intelligence worlds, which he describes as part of “the moral mission of government.”

Carville and Greenberg’s 18 lines are good ones, flatly stating that there should be zero American ground troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year—ahead of the Obama administration’s timetable—that there should be no more “Iraqi-style adventurism,” unspecified reductions in defense spending, and a continuing need to “address” the Cold War holdover of 1,800 nuclear warheads. These are fine sentiments, separating the authors from the hawkish wing of the party establishment, but they are written as brief add-ons to their overall message, without any of the charts, graphs, data and lively pro-and-con discussion that animates the offerings on domestic issues. As noted elsewhere by the Peace and Justice Resource Center, political consultants do not consider the Peace Bloc as a discernible interest group, even though the authors acknowledge that this was the number-one complaint of disgruntled voters during the Bush era.

But what if the Iraq-Afghanistan spending has undermined the American economy? What if the wasteful trillions spent on Iraq and Afghanistan are greater than the sum of the Wall Street bailout? What if the amounts are greater in annual savings than the total that will be retrieved when the upper-tier Bush tax cuts expire?

Iraq and Afghanistan combined have directly cost taxpayers $1.36 trillion, not counting the exponentially larger long-term costs such as veterans’ care. These trillions have a direct impact on the deficit, do they not? Are these not middle class issues, too? Are the veterans of these wars and their families not middle class as defined by Carville and Greenberg? How can resources be allocated to domestic priorities without a fundamental reckoning over relentless spending on war? No answers are provided.

One can speculate that the Democratic Party leadership is still haunted by the Vietnam syndrome and the ghosts of the 1972 McGovern campaign. The fear of being caught “soft on defense” is greater than the fear of any consequences from past wars or the future prospect of sliding into another. Carville and Greenberg offer no thoughts on alternatives to the current policies on counterterrorism, Guantanamo, the CIA, what to do about Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and the regeneration of Al Qaeda. There is little mention of Israel or of how to achieve a Palestinian state. Their consulting comfort zone is around domestic issues that directly and narrowly impacts the middle class.

Another example of how foreign policy is disregarded in their analysis of middle class woes is the subject of NAFTA and neo-liberalism. Under Clinton, Carville and Greenberg were ardent supporters of leveling any barriers to trade that impeded North American corporate access to Mexico and Latin American markets. They were paid political consultants to several Latin American presidents and candidates who favored US investment with fig leafs of protection for wages, health and environmental impacts, or national sovereignty. The list includes Mexico, Bolivia, and Argentina, to name a few sites of their neo-liberal project. The evidence is that American middle class livelihoods suffered greatly as corporations gravitated to low-wage opportunities and markets in the South. Carville and Greenberg write—proudly, it appears—that they “supported NAFTA when not many in our party or the [Clinton] war room agreed with us.” In retrospect, all they admit is that the critics “might have been right on NAFTA.” (Pages 249–250)

Not to disparage their current analysis, but pollsters and researchers seem to stumble when they shape their analysis to the interests of winning elections or satisfying key interest groups in their coalition. In this case, following the Carville-Greenberg guidebook leads to an ignoring of key issues like Afghanistan spending or key constituencies like peace voters. If what’s the winning formula is the question, the actual truth or moral beliefs are not always among the answers sought.

peter edelman

Peter Edelman

An excellent example of an alternative approach is Peter Edelman’s So Rich, So Poor, Why It’s So Hard To End Poverty in America. It is impossible not to compare the Edelman volume with that of Carville and Greenberg, if only because Edelman resigned from the Clinton administration over the president’s decision to “end welfare as we know it,” a policy advocated strongly by Carville and Greenberg.

Back when Carville was serving in Vietnam and Greenberg was a Harvard anti-war activist, Edelman was a close aide to Robert F. Kennedy as he journeyed through the hunger-ridden communities of Mississippi and Appalachia. That is where Edelman met his future wife, Marion Wright, who became the founder and long-time director of the Children’s Defense Fund. She, too, resigned her support for the Clinton government over the welfare cuts in the 1990s.

Carville and Greenberg do not say whether they believe the Clinton welfare cuts were a necessary expedient in his 1996 re-election, nor whether it was somehow a good policy for growing the middle class. Edelman, with a lifetime in electoral politics as long as either of theirs, has no doubts about his decision to resign, nor any doubts about his allegiance to the Democratic Party. Using government statistics, he simply points out that there are 49 million Americans in poverty according to the official Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPN) and another 103 million with less than livable incomes (as measured by what it takes for a family to survive at below twice the poverty line). The current official poverty line is $18,000 for a family of three and $22,000 for a family of four; living below twice the poverty line means a family income of between $36-44,000. That translates to nearly 150 million Americans living on incomes providing for less than their minimal daily needs.

Edelman (and Marion Wright Edelman) would agree with many specifics in the Carville-Greenberg book, and, like Carville and Greenberg, he also passes over an analysis of the domestic impacts of spending from Vietnam forward through Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Long War. In this way, he, too, reinforces the sharp divisions in analysis and politics between domestic reformers and those who argue that spending on the Global War on Terrorism inevitably diverts from the domestic agenda, just as all of them once opposed LBJ’s notion that “guns and butter” could both be afforded.

But there is an important moral clarity and frankness in Edelman’s analysis compared to the polemics of Carville and Greenberg. Edelman has chosen to be independent of power, principled in his stance, and effective in advancing many programs that have reduced poverty and opened access to middle class lives. While relentlessly lobbying from within, he believes in movements outside of electoral politics, and says that the thousands of young people who choose to teach in inner-city schools today remind him of those who flooded Mississippi during 1964, when there was great hope. Every year for the past twenty, the Children’s Defense Fund has honored five high school students from seven inner cities with college scholarships. He does not ignore the millions being pulled into the “cradle to prison pipeline” who cannot vote, cannot contribute campaign contributions, because he has a moral empathy for their plight as scapegoats and understands the devastating political toll of the “war on gangs.”

Who is right in this difference of approach? The Carville-Greenberg duo will do whatever it takes politically to preserve the legacy of Huey Long as they see it. Edelman is an advocate for principle who refuses to accept a trade-off between protecting welfare for the poor and preserving the middle class who are only steps above them on the ladder? We know historically that the gains of populism in past decades often have come at the expense of the poor and people of color, at home and abroad. Will history repeat, or can populism become a more inclusive frame?

Together, in any event, these books present a substantive basis for challenging the One Percent.

In the longer run, the need will only grow to integrate domestic, economic, and political analysis into a larger framework concerning spending on military interventions, wars over resources, and the reign of banks and corporations over politics abroad as well as at home.

tom hayden

For the Democratic Party it is a matter of more than shaking off the Vietnam-era fear of appearing soft on defense. It is the lingering ideological belief that protecting the American middle class depends on preserving global military and economic dominance, when the truth may be the reverse, that the American quest for empire means a permanent neglect of our needs at home.

Tom Hayden
The Peace Exchange

Posted: Wednesday, 1 August 2012

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