Tuesday, September 06, 2016

"Identity" politics, economics, populism and the complicated relationships among them

Here are two very recent essays dealing with neoliberalism and its political manifestations: Joan Walsh, Can the Democrats Win Back White Working-Class Voters? The Nation 09/05/2016; and, Frances Coppola, Austerity and the rise of populism Coppola Comment 069/05/2016.

Joan's piece deals with a perennial dilemma of left politics, center-left and otherwise: the conflict between "identity" politics (feminism, anti-racism, gay rights) and politics focused on economic issues of particular benefits to the working class. She's also the author of the informative and perceptive book What's the Matter with White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America (2012). She's done a lot of work and put a lot of thought into these issues.

In this piece, she argues against the position that Thomas Frank has been arguing for years, which she characterizes this way: "Frank has repeatedly argued that Democrats alienated their former base through their support for neoliberalism, NAFTA, and Wall Street deregulation."

Leaving aside whether that adequately characterizes Franks' position, Joan starts off seeming to argue that "identity" politics, particularly white racism, was decisive in moving so many white working-class voters into the Republican column. But she winds up suggesting that the dilemma, or contradiction if you prefer, is misleading. She sympatherically quotes  Karen Nussbaum of the AFL-CIO's Working America project:

“We try to fill the void with information,” Nussbaum explains. She avoids chicken-and-egg arguments about which came first: white working-class economic suffering or a misplaced resentment of racial minorities. She also believes that choosing between the Obama coalition and the white working class is a false dichotomy. “I believe in a multiracial progressive movement that includes white working-class people,” Nussbaum says. “We can’t govern nationally without them. We make either/or choices at our peril. It would be wrong to concede the white working class to an ever bigger, consolidating hard right. We can’t just defeat Trump—we have to defeat Trumpism, or else Democrats are not going to be able to govern.” [my emphasis]
Joan also provides some reality-check information that reminds us that the appeal of the Republican Party and Donald Trump to white "working class" isn't such a clear-cut thing as superficial punditry often suggests.

One frustrating complication in these analyses is the lack of a common understanding of who the working class is. My own operating definition is something like, anybody who would be eligible to join a union (or who should be eligible). Largely because of the kinds of background information pollsters collect on their samples, people without four-year college degrees are often taken as the functional equivalent of working class, which Joan also does in this essay. I strongly suspect that its a seriously inadequate definition.

Her arguments don't lead to any decisive results. But her cautious optimism on the following is justified: " The resurgent populist, pro-opportunity, and anti-oligarchy left wing of the Democratic Party has pushed politicians, including Clinton, to embrace many policies—on trade, union rights, Social Security, and education — that many hope will win back this cohort [white working class voters]." That's true. And it's an encouraging development.

Frances Coppola is looking at this set of issues from a different perspective. I plan to return to her long piece in a later blog post. Her focus is on how the economic policy dogma of austerity as a solution to the Great Recession set the stage for a populist reaction, especially in Europe. That dogma is also known as Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economics. As she explains:

But the prescription turned out to be voodoo. Seven years on, prosperity has not returned: many countries in Europe are still mired in austerity, some are deeply depressed, government debt is higher than ever and unemployment is still painfully high. Failure of austerity measures to deliver the promised prosperity is toxic: popular anger and fear fuel the rise of populist politicians. Rudi Dornbusch, in a wonderful paper about debt crises and populism in Latin America, observed that the roots of populism lie in austerity, often imposed by an external agent such as the IMF. Chancellor Brüning's austerity measures in the German Great Depression, designed to end Germany's debt crisis and restore foreign confidence, led to the rise of Hitler.
And here is how she frames the broad relationship between the effects of neoliberal policies and voter receptiveness to populist political appeals:

Thatcher's generation of populist politicians discarded the big state, "Keynesian" model that had dominated since WWII. They replaced it initially with austerity (to break unions power and defeat inflation). But in any democracy, austerity is short-lived unless you can find a way of convincing your supporters either that they are not really suffering (so you protect people who will vote for you) or that the good times will return "any day now". Thatcher's generation - or perhaps more correctly, Reagan's generation, since this comes from economic thinking in the USA - promised that globalisation would bring prosperity for all. We could say that they replaced a "big state" model with a "big world" one. Free trade, free movement of people, free movement of capital: these were the pillars on which the new golden age would be built. ...

But the Western middle classes saw no benefit. For them, globalisation brought stagnation and decline, as their jobs were offshored and their wages fell to the global mean. Their prosperity turned out to be an illusion, built on an insubstantial debt bubble. The promise made to them in the Reagan years has been exposed as a lie. And they are angry. Globalisation has failed - now it is time to "take back control". [my emphasis]
Voters and political activists are motivated by variety of issues and operate with sometimes conflicting beliefs. There is no simple and easy link between bad economic conditions and attraction to rightwing populism. But there are links. As I've mentioned before, people who have a well-founded confidence in their economic prospects are at the very least less likely to be looking for scapegoats for overall frustration that they feel about society and the government.

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