Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Is America Really Moving Left?

As anyone who regularly reads my blog will know, I've on more than one occasion found an article that I thought was wrong enough that it merited a rebuttal (in fact, my last blog post was devoted to one such article). While I'm used to finding articles like that from people I don't like, that doesn't mean it can't happen with people I do generally like and respect. Case in point: I generally appreciate the journalist Peter Beinart's commentary and think he offers a useful critique of the actions of Israel, for instance. I don't read his articles too regularly, but I've generally been in agreement, often strong agreement, with the ones I do read. That was why I found myself a bit dismayed with some of the arguments in his recent article, "Why America is Moving Left." I won't be responding to the article bit by bit as I often do, because there's plenty here I have no issue with, and it's a fairly long article. Instead, I'll focus on the major points that I disagree with.

Interestingly, Beinart says that he started with the opposite thesis: that a conservative reaction in America was near. It would be interesting to read the article he would have written, but he had his mind changed when looking at the evidence. And that isn't without some degree of reason. I will first grant Beinart an important and major point: the American public has definitely shifted left in certain ways over the past decades. Americans are more pro-gay rights, more supportive of legal marijuana, more in favor of wealth redistribution, and more dissatisfied with the current anti-poverty policies. And, as Beinart points out, the youngest voters are clearly left of what has historically been mainstream, as can be seen from, for instance, the fact that a poll has shown them having a more positive view of socialism than capitalism. Beinart makes a good case for why their liberalness will not vanish with age, as some might assume it would. Beinart does himself another favor by making it clear that he is not arguing that America is shifting leftward on foreign policy (which would be a truly incredible claim), but rather only on domestic policy.

The issue is more with Beinart's view that this leftward shift has been truly reflected in public policy. First of all, he tries to paint Obama's presidency as being more liberal than it is, in my view. He writes:
President Obama has intervened more extensively in the economy than any other president in close to half a century. In his first year, he pushed through the largest economic stimulus in American history—larger in inflation-adjusted terms than Franklin Roosevelt’s famed Works Progress Administration. In his second year, he muscled universal health care through Congress, something progressives had been dreaming about since Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose. That same year, he signed a law re-regulating Wall Street. He’s also spent roughly $20 billion bailing out the auto industry, increased fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, toughened emissions standards for coal-fired power plants, authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the production of carbon dioxide, expanded the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to regulate the sale of tobacco products, doubled the amount of fruits and vegetables required in school lunches, designated 2 million acres as wilderness, and protected more than 1,000 miles of rivers.
Firstly, intervening in the economy doesn't necessarily make you a good liberal--there's plenty of examples of right-wing, pro-corporate intervention in the economy. But let's examine his examples. The stimulus bill, regardless of its size relative to FDR's program, was quite a bit smaller than even liberals like Paul Krugman called for. Even Republican Jon Huntsman admitted it had probably been too small. It was also a little less, in terms of percentage of GDP, than the budget originally allocated to the WPA (not to mention Roosevelt's even bigger follow-up in 1935--still during his first term) and a lot smaller relative to the federal budget.

Second, Obama's healthcare law. While the narrative has often been spun that Obama managed to achieve what the liberals of the past hadn't, that's not really accurate. Richard Nixon proposed a plan to the left of Obama's, and Ted Kennedy refused to support because he thought it was still too conservative. Obama settled for something the other liberals refused to settle for; it was a step in the right direction, but not some unheard of achievement, seeing as it bears a lot of similarity to the Heritage Foundation's plan from the 1990s.

As for Dodd-Frank, the law "re-regulating" Wall Street, the law is pretty toothless, and the biggest banks are, well, bigger than ever. Not exactly a smashing success on that front (which Obama's actions afterwards haven't done much to help). As for the auto bailout, Obama actually missed a huge opportunity in terms of reorganizing the industry. The auto bailouts also started under Bush, who wasn't exactly known for his progressivism. As for Obama's environmental legacy, he's currently pushing a trade pact which has been very strongly opposed by numerous environmental groups, who see it as a major step back.

Beinart claims that Obama is the Democrats' Reagan toward the end of his article. I wish I could I see some merit in that claim, given that I like Beinart, but I really can't. Reagan's presidency marked a major shift--serious deregulation, slashing welfare programs, a top tax rate that plummeted from 70 to 28 percent, a big drop in union membership and a spike in illegal union firings, to name a few changes that happened. Under Obama, we've seen cuts to Food Stamps (in a bill he praised for being a bipartisan accomplishment), proposed cuts to social security, and a proposed corporate tax cut. While the top tax rate is higher, that's because the Bush tax cut for highest earners expired--after Obama agreed to extend it for two years. If Obama is comparable to Reagan, it's not because of the dramatic shift he's ushered in.

Beinart also tries to portray the Democratic establishment as having warmed up to the left, due to their endorsement of Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movement. But, given the energy behind movements like these, it's a lot more likely the Democrats saw an opportunity to co-opt the movements rather than acting out of sincere support. Beinart also claims that Bernie Sanders has had little "ideological resistance." While the Democrats have perhaps refrained from attacking his ideas in the way they would have in the past (given that they don't want to alienate young voters who like those ideas), they've also tried to sabotage Sanders's candidacy in pretty much every way you can think of. Not exactly the sign of a serious change of heart.

Beinart tries to portray Hillary Clinton as being demonstrative of this wave of liberalism, but his arguments are, again, unconvincing. He states:
At the first Democratic debate, she noted that, unlike him, she favors “rein[ing] in the excesses of capitalism” rather than abandoning it altogether. But the only specific policy difference she highlighted was gun control, on which she attacked him from the left.
While Clinton may not have gone out of her way to highlight her other differences with Sanders, she also made it clear she doesn't support the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, supports the PATRIOT Act, and was unwilling to lend her support to legalizing marijuana. Those are some pretty important differences.

Beinart also writes that "[s]he has called for tougher regulation of the financial industry, mused about raising Social Security taxes on the wealthy (something she opposed in 2008), and criticized the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a trade agreement she once gushed about)." Clinton's calls for tougher regulation are, at this point, just words, as are her musings about raising Social Security taxes on the wealthy. Her criticism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was both weak and opportunistic, and given that she once voted for a bill in Congress that she'd helped defeat as First Lady, it's not hard to imagine her re-reevaluating her positions. While Beinart seems to believe she would depart from the legacies of Bill Clinton and Obama, she praised them as continuing the tradition of the New Deal when she began her campaign. She clearly wants to sound liberal--not surprising, given the real shift to the left on economic issues among the American public--but what proof do we have that that will translate into actual action? How many real, major policies has she even proposed?

The most bizarre, though, is Beinart's attempt to argue that we're about to see the Republicans shift to the left.
Just as Clinton would govern to Obama’s left, it’s likely that any Republican capable of winning the presidency in 2016 would govern to the left of George W. Bush...Whit Ayres, a political consultant for the Rubio campaign, calculates that even if the 2016 Republican nominee wins 60 percent of the white vote (more than any GOP nominee in the past four decades except Reagan, in 1984, has won), he or she will still need almost 30 percent of the minority vote. Mitt Romney got 17 percent.
This need to win the votes of Millennials and minorities, who lean left not just on cultural issues but on economic ones, will shape how any conceivable Republican president campaigns in the general election, and governs once in office. It could tempt a President Rubio to push for immigration reform that, while beginning with toughened enforcement, lays out a path to legalization, and eventually citizenship—something he still supports, despite the fury of his party’s base. (So does Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.)
Beinart seems to forget that Bush was actually not an extremist (relatively speaking) on illegal immigration. Neither was John McCain, the 2008 GOP candidate, for that matter (though, naturally, he had some anti-illegal immigration pandering in his campaign). And in any case, Marco Rubio is in third place in nationwide polling, at about eleven percent, well behind Ted Cruz and with a fraction of the support of Donald Trump, who's running on an extreme anti-immigration platform. This is the sign of a party that's about to moderate itself?

Continuing on with the idea of Rubio as president, Beinart writes:
Although liberals praised his [tax] plan for “upend[ing] the last half century of conservative thinking on taxes,” as The New Republic put it, Rubio included new cuts on taxes of capital gains, dividends, interest, and inherited estates, which overwhelmingly benefit the rich. But despite this, it’s likely that were he elected, Rubio wouldn’t push through as large, or as regressive, a tax cut as Bush did in 2001 and 2003. 
Of course not; we didn't have a national debt in 2001 or 2003 anywhere near the size it is now. The Bush tax cuts were always supposed to be temporary. Is it really some sign of moving leftward that maybe Rubio (who is, again, not even close to being the frontrunner for the GOP nomination at the moment) wouldn't enact such a massive and costly tax cut when we've all been hearing about how huge the national debt is for years?

Again, Beinart has some points in this article; there are definitely ways in which the American public has shifted to the left. But that has yet to manifest itself very much in the institutions of America. Obama has simply not represented the shift toward liberalism that Beinart seems to believe. The reality is, we have one party in which the current frontrunner is essentially a fascist, and another where the frontrunner is an establishment politician who's shown little integrity, and has backed the disastrous policies that have gotten the country to where it is today. I hope that Beinart is right that we'll see a shift to the left in terms of actual policies in America; but I'm still waiting for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment