In the wake of the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 and the still-lingering effects of the economic crisis, the Right has perversely managed to seize upon the sense of fiscal exploitation more effectively than labor and the Left, argues Thomas Frank, author of Pity the Billionaire: The Unlikely Resurgence of the Right.
Instead of facing a dead heat, “President Obama ought to be mopping the floor with Mitt Romney,” Frank said at a book event last week in Milwaukee. However, he explains, Obama has lost credibility with the vast majority of Americans who are excluded from prosperity, by “always compromising in the direction of Wall Street” on issues from health care to financial reform to the auto bailout to home foreclosures. “The present moment called for a second FDR,” says Frank — but instead, we have gotten “a Clinton II administration” that champions Wall Street and corporate globalization.
According to Frank, Obama’s compromises have deprived him of a sharp-edged economic narrative to compete with that of the Right, which champions society’s supposed “wealth creators” who are being drained by the dependent, the unproductive, the jobless and the uninsured. Besieged by bureaucrats, taxes and unions, these “job creators” are framed as the new victims in a “hard times” culture likened to the Great Depression.
In the Right’s “alternative-universe” version of the 1930’s, says Frank, Wall Street bankers and traders assume the Steinbeckian roles of misery-wracked workers and Dust Bowl farmers: the “noble producers who are unfairly oppressed.” Frank notes that Mitt Romney played to this worldview in his notorious video mocking the dependent and presumably shiftless “47 percent.”
Frank also notes that this mindset has resonated deeply with the richest 1%, who (as some recently expressed to the New Yorker’s Chrystia Freeland) bitterly believe that they have been unfairly vilified and their achievements — which they see as solely the product of their own unique skills and risk-taking — minimized by President Obama and others.
Frank maintains that the present-day Right has largely abandoned its previous strategy of using social issues to camouflage its agenda of expanded corporate power — a strategy he outlined brilliantly in his 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which has also been converted into a documentary.
In recapping that book’s argument last week, Frank nailed the Republican formula of the 1990s and early 2000s: “Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization.“ The Republicans repeatedly ran on “election-season” social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and gun control, and once in power, reverted back to their real agenda of job-destroying “free trade,” deregulation, and tax breaks for corporations and the rich. In 2012, however, the Republicans seem to have uncloaked their true economic goals.
“Businessmen built America and are America’s great victims,” goes the new narrative, according to Frank. “We contributed the most and have suffered the worst” at the hands of those who seek to regulate and redistribute.
Frank maintains that the cultural issues of gay rights, abortion and gun control have now taken a back seat as the Right tries to create a decisive economic divide between those “who pull the wagon to generate wealth and those who passively ride in the wagon and constitute only a burden to hard-working businessmen and taxpayers.
“In hard times, the culture war issues dry up,” Frank said. “The Tea Party Patriots don’t even allow cultural stuff [i.e., abortion, gay rights, religion] on their website.”
However, this is a point I must dispute. The culture war — directly primarily against women and women’s reproductive rights — has been coupled with the class war. As Marilyn Katz points out, “Republicans have introduced more than 1,000 anti-choice and anti-contraception bills in state legislatures in the past two years, many of which passed, especially in the 27 state legislatures under GOP control. “ The party of small, non-intrusive government has proposed — and then reluctantly withdrawn — legislation in Virginia calling for mandatory “trans-vaginal probes” of women seeking abortions.
For the Republicans, these attacks on women — and gays, lesbians, immigrants, and public-sector unionists — are intended to divide the 99% of society that has largely been excluded from the nation’s economic recovery. With fully 93 percent of income gains in 2010 reaped by the richest 1 percent, sowing division has become imperative for Republicans.
But concerned that he had taken the divisive strategy too far and deeply alienated women voters (as reflected in alarming poll numbers), Romney tried to use the final debate with Obama last Tuesday to create confusion about his stance on contraception. Romney had explicitly endorsed the Blunt Amendment that would empower employers to veto contraception coverage in their female employees’ healthcare policies. Pretending to answer a radically different question than the one that was actually asked, Romney brazenly tried to muddy the waters: “I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. And I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.”
The GOP is still pursuing the strategy that Frank pinpointed so well in What’s the Matter with Kansas?: heating up “anger-point” issues that assume far more emotional weight than the relatively vague and tepid economic appeals of the Democrats. Only this time, the GOP’s number-one “anger-point” issue is a strangely inverted class war, in which a shiftless working-class contributes nothing, while beleaguered equity-fund traders fuel the economy (which they somehow manage to do while shutting down productive plants).
While Obama’s plans for job creation via infrastructure building and green technology and raising taxes on the super-rich are light years better than those of Romney and Ryan, the Democrats’ policies for slowing the offshoring of jobs and restoring the manufacturing base are remarkably timid, if not counterproductive. Raising the minimum wage for the working poor would be a very tangible change, but has been curiously ignored by the Democrats despite a desperate need to counter a growing trend — which some call “Caterpillar Capitalism” — for highly profitable corporations to drive down wages mercilessly. Working Americans have already endured a particularly painful “Lost Decade” of declining wages and net worth, coupled with intensified job insecurity, that has witnessed a shrinking middle class.
Further, Obama has dangerously reinforced Republican myths of the dangers of expanded public employment (while failing to defend a vital, unionized public sector), of the alleged menace posed by the deficit, of “high” corporate taxes in the United States, and of the need for a “grand bargain” that would bite into Social Security and Medicare.
As Frank argued in Milwaukee, Romney’s frighteningly formidable challenge to Obama’s reelection has advanced only partly because of the deceptive but emotionally powerful Republican fable of an America trapped between job-creating “makers” and parasitic “takers.” The Romney-Ryan tide has also risen because Obama and the Dems — while offering some useful steps to increase employment — have not proposed bold, credible steps to counter the declining living standards of the vast majority.
In the week that remains before Election Day, President Obama — while facing his weighty responsibilities with Hurricane Sandy — also needs to outline dramatic, powerful steps to assure working Americans he is fully committed to shoring up their wages and standard of living.