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Bend It. Shake It. Break It.


This entry was also posted over at The Blogging of the President
Today is the 98th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake as convenient a metaphor as any for the thinking I’ve been doing in response to two provocative posts, pointed out and dissected by Matt Stoller. In separate essays, Peter Levine and Mark Schmitt took hard and not particularly sympatheic looks at American Liberalism and Democratic Party politics. The ground is moving underneath our feet.

I read Levine and Schmitt – carefully and twice, I even printed them out – but I came away dissatisfied. In part, this is the difference between someone who concentrates on the day-to-day of politics and those who can and should take a longer view of policy. I also live and work – and look at politics – in San Francisco, California, a state and a city that’s on a lot of political fault lines. Just to give you a snap-shot: The Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refuses to call himself a politician but does an excellent job of corralling the state’s recalcitrant legislature. He may well be fixing to overhaul the state’s tax structure and he’ll do it hand in hand with Liberal Democrats. Our moderately Liberal mayor Gavin Newsom (the one who issued marriage licenses to gay couples) is fixing to face down the city’s unions and its long-engrained and probably corrupt patronage system, a system that, in our recent election found protection with the city’s so-called Progressives.
It’s probably no coincidence that both Newsom and Schwarzenegger are self-employed, independent businessmen who can claim to be self-made. They bring that sensibility to their politics realizing, consciously or not, that in a Wal-Mart nation, business is more of a driving force, socially and politically, than it has been since the turn of the last century. Both of them articulate the economic changes and challenges facing this country in ways that neither of their political parties do. At least not yet.
Since the end of World War II, the corporation – for better or worse – has been the economic structure that ran the country. When philanthropists created large foundations, when reformers inaugurated government programs, they were addressing corporate malfeasance by building a parallel and reflecting structures. That’s the system that everyone felt worked best. But the large corporation is no longer the model under which most of the nation’s fortunes are made. Newly wealthy entrepreneurs – it’s tech money here and in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, it’s financial and banking cash in New York, in L.A. it’s the entertainment business – made their money their own selves. Whether they did or not – really and truly – can be debated but, for now, they perceive themselves to be self-made. That’s the main reason why the Populist rhetoric of the left – the bedrock of Liberal thinking for the past century – has no appeal for these people. It’s one reason why they view politics as out-dated. It’s monolithic. Their model for success is the small start-up, the fluid entity that successfully adapts to change because it’s smaller size or engrained agility and its ability to let individual action trump organizational habit. As Matt Stoller puts it: “my faith, and the faith of my generation, is in networked systems that operate based on meritocratic and somewhat harsh principles. “
The corporate-friendly rhetoric of the Republican Party isn’t appealing to this new class, which I call Progressive Libertarians (progressive for their good-hearted desire to change and order their world, Libertarian for their cold-eyed faith in the bottom line). Conservative’s reliance on organization and structure and lines of authority make it out-of-touch. The Republican Party’s anti-gay, anti-abortion and anti-immigration rhetoric is also unattractive. But they are equally unimpressed by the high-flying rhetoric of the Left with its conspiracy theories and “us v. them” rich v. poor rhetoric. In a world where the individual works best – and succeeds the most – the class warfare of the Democrats looks backward when taking for large corporations and giving to labor, taking from the wealthy and giving to the poor, worked and worked effectively. The pro-union, patronage politics that has come to characterize the Democratic Party – its version of the corporation, as slow moving as the Republican’s – is also deeply disturbing.
The first group to articulate a philosophy – and political philosophy is always rooted in economics – and move past these out-of-date views is the one that will run national politics in this next generation. This can’t be and shouldn’t be limited to ideas about pushing power to the edge of the network or other sorts of high-flying rhetoric (good politics already pushes power to the end of the network; it’s called voting). What’s called for is nothing less than a muscular Liberalism that reinforces the ideals of the Left – caring for the less fortunate, creating opportunity for everyone, upholding the values of democratic (small ‘d’) society — not by coercion but by incentive. This is going to require serious and creative thinking and, most important, it will not be monolithic even within the party. Results will vary because needs will change. It may be that Democrats set upon a sort of Liberal coalition politics where partners come and go as needs change and circumstances allow. That sounds foreign to most political thinking – it’s as close as I think politics can come to the “open source” model that so many Progressive Libertarians want to use. But given the profound need to change so many institutions – organizations Liberals and Democrats treasure – it may be the only way out to cope with the symptoms Schmitt and Levine have articulated.
Liberals need to find ways to make our tax system fairer, accepting the fact that corporations no longer provide most social or economic benefits. We also need to understand that the financial markets, where more and more people are keeping and making their wealth, are tilted (subtly, but tilted nevertheless) toward insiders and that many people who do not fit traditional definitions of “wealthy” are involved in the stock market. We need to change the ways in which corporate equity is treated – in terms of taxation as well as acquisition – since so many companies are rewarding employees not just in salary but in stock. And, in an increasingly entrepreneurial atmosphere, investment, regardless of scale, needs to be encouraged. At the same time, mechanisms to help the poor, or the recently arrived in this country, save and acquire assets as they work, need to be created (some of this has to do with the tax structure). An economically savvy foreign policy – one that uses the U.S. position as an enormous consumer as well as a military power – needs to be articulated in a way that begins to curb human rights and other societal abuses without shying away from actual fighting when its necessary. In short, Liberals need to create a vision of how a changing world can be a better world that is rooted in a new, more individual but global economic reality.
The very energy and smart thinking that’s needed to think about the future and the changes and problems ahead – the problem solving approach rather than the one-size-fits-all rule-making that has long characterized political solutions to social problems – could serve to bring many of these newly wealthy people to embrace Liberalism. The movement is failing because it’s not looking ahead. The first order of business: take a good look around.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 5:56 PM | Permalink

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