The Crash of Democratic Values

In People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizeness Democracy, two of our favorite commentators come together, again, to explain what we would not grasp, not nearly so easily grasp, about the crash of democratic values in the new century and, no less important, why we can expect sharp struggles ahead.

This is a book written quickly (I would not say hastily) and for today.  John Nichols, a frequent talking head on MSNBC (at least until the cable channel became a one-message mobilization machine for Hillary Clinton) and Robert McChesney, the foremost media critic-scholar of our time, have organized the details. The authors admit, in recent interviews, that they treated the prospects of a growing movement as years away; young people’s enthusiasm for Bernie has obviously accelerated the pace, with unpredictable results. The causes, precipitating effects now or later, remain the same.

The first section of the book, judging by past works of both authors, offers more about the changing infrastructure of the country, that is to say, more “McChesney.” The numerous charts on the changing economy, workforce and levels of poverty during the last half-century tell us in great detail how staggering the changes have been. Upward mobility, the materialistic side of the American dream, is effectively gone for the generations under, say, forty, and the industrial jobs that provided “middle class wages” are not coming back. The sharpness of the decline is hidden, in its widening effects, because of the generational experience itself: Americans advancing toward retirement age and beyond had the jobs with union wages (or wages determined by the competition of unions for the same workers) and benefits, low tuition for those who got to college, and medical services and basic drugs inexpensive compared to the prices to follow.

The late twentieth century economy was already becoming “jobless” because trade deals sending work abroad by the millions. The twenty-first century sees the full blossoming of technological reduction of jobs in practically all quarters, elimination in many of them. Lives of badly-paid, temporary employment, returning to live at home with mom and dad, grinding poverty for the unfortunate and self-sustaining employment  unattainable for the children of yesterday’s middle class.

The implications are staggering in almost every way imaginable.  “Jobless Prosperity,” arriving amidst the claims of the prosperous classes and their media that country is doing just fine, is the reality behind the grossly misleading statistics that fail to segregate the ten percent or even the one percent from the rest of us. The lifetimes of temporary jobs offer another, presumably softer form of perpetual joblessness. But the weight of this joblessness falls not mainly upon the would-be rock musician who, at thirty, is still living in his (or her) parents’ basement, as frequent as this seems to be, judging by anecdotal evidence. Rather, it is the economic hopelessness of former industrial zones, such as Milwaukee, where steady African American industrial employment has been virtually eradicated, leaving a community economically and also physically isolated.

But perhaps the most staggering is the degree to which Democrats, from city and state officials up to POTUS, Clinton (arguably Carter) to Obama, have been in charge during this gloomy transition. Offering industries state tax bribes not to leave (they did anyway) and more bribes to new low-peoplegetreadyemployment high-tech firms, may be the least of sins, compared to the takeover of the Democratic Party by a sinister combination of financial interests, Big Pharma, oil frackers and all the others who drain off the wealth with tax breaks and offer nothing in return….except to the investors and their agents. This is about as far from the New Deal Democratic Party imaginable, and it has happened despite the gush of endless rhetoric about fairness, equality and so on. What was never fair to minorities in particular has become scarcely more fair, all in all, bad jobs to no jobs, reduced social benefits and expanded incarceration. That the voting minorities   Hillary Clinton is counting on have, most ironically, benefitted precious little from the era of Clinton can only be destined to increase cynicism and apathy.

The emphasis of the book shifts in the direction of political historian John Nichols, in the civics counterpart to the graph-heavy saga: the authors call it “Citizenless Democracy.” That is, an organized apathy, with politicians so wedded to supply-side economics that their appeals make no real sense to potential voters, especially the young. Alternatives, hinting at anything like a redivision of wealth, are treated as dangerous fantasy by leading Republicans and Democrats alike.  Had the book been written six months later, the authors might have reflected on the New York Times columnists like David Brooks cursing Sanders and Trump for describing the economy and the state of politics as ruinous. No, No, is the centrist message: the economy is in good shape, America is moving forward, albeit with a need for more security (military efforts abroad, tighter controls at home). Anyone who says otherwise is endangering public good.

Bad news continues for the Obama Faithful of 2008 (the reviewer counts himself as one of these) in particular. We came, we saw, and we were bitterly disillusioned. Inequality further accelerates, in no small measure because our leading Democrats, the President among them, now accept the idea that Full Employment is an obsolete idea, trade deals favoring wealthy classes are actually beneficial to the public. Rhetoric aside, they also accept that elections have become a process of amassing vast sums of money to convince a rather small potential electorate, leaving the majority out in the cold. Are Republicans more aggressive urging the actual redivision of wealth and power? Certainly. But the basic drift is uncontested in practice.

The authors (one suspects Nichols in particular) make the case that the creators of the Constitution, with all their flaw and limitations, never accepting a militarized state or anything less than (white) majority rule as compulsory for democracy. The saga of the subsidized press in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, the role of the Post Office as grand public institution, the rise of the social welfare state through the struggles of generations of reform and radical movements all lead….to FDR’s famed Four Freedoms speech in 1942. Freedom of Speech, Freedom to worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear. These still sound pretty good. Roosevelt and his loyal second-term vice president, Henry Wallace, sought to move the government toward a sort of new Magna Carta of democracy, guaranteeing universal health care, remunerative employment for all, free education, adequate food, clothing and the opportunity to buy a home. Too bad Harry Truman seized the opportunity to introduce the Security State and the peacetime military-industrial complex.

The FDR/Wallace version wasn’t socialism. But it would have gone a long way towards creating a different kind of society and one much more like the European societies of Bernie Sanders’ dreams. Postwar Germany and Japan, conquered and guided from outside, were compelled to adopt the programs for themselves. European social democracies on the winning side aimed at similar ends.  George McGovern’s planks for his doomed 1972 run for president encompassed these and in some respects, especially racial, went even further. And then, once again, the door to a better future slammed shut.

If there is a limitation to this book, it might be that the occasional twinning of Cold War politics domestic and foreign, not only in the US but also in America’s allies, is confusing. If the authors rightly note the Church Committee of the 1970s as the high point of Congress actually investigating the dirty tricks practiced by the CIA,  they are not so keen on the longstanding enthusiasm of domestic liberals like Hubert Humphrey for the Company’s operations. Not that they forgive The Hump for such, but seem to imply that grand reforms could be realized at home while the full-press Cold War continued. The British Labour Party’s semi-socialist welfare state, to take another example, always stopped short of challenging American capitalism atop the global economy, and the same would be true of even the most social democratic allies.  Empire, our own Empire, called the shots and at least the from the time of Woodrow Wilson’s war for global control, realization of a fuller egalitarian economy was never really in the liberal cards, here or elsewhere.

Such criticisms should not daunt the reader. As they drive toward a conclusion, they look backward in time to the 1830s Chartist movement in England, and forward to our own time.  The struggle to make the best of technological advances, to turn them to public benefit rather than private profit, has been ongoing for a long time and, as the ecological setting of the planet falls into utmost danger, the question of democracy seems to be now or never. The specific suggestions for democratization at the end of the book are too detailed for this review and will seem too little for some readers, but they offer constructive proposals to advance the conversation. These days, even New York Times business reporters ponder the possibilities of guaranteed “basic income,” something never destined to be granted by Republican or Democrat. Meanwhile, the tens and hundreds of thousands of mostly young folks who have flocked to the banners of Bernie Sanders are obviously waiting and hoping for some sense or how to mobilize the ongoing movement to lead them toward a better society.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.