by Jared Bernstein
Sep 22, 2011
There are three fundamental issues that will be at the heart of the political debate from now until the election. They are:
–the role and size of government
–fairness, both in terms of economic outcomes and tax policy
–the effect of supply-side, trickle down, deregulatory economics
All three are, of course, already in constant motion—the American Jobs Act, the President’s new deficit plan, the current class warfare dust up, and the conservative economic playbook—including that of the R presidential candidates—each one invokes some or all of these core issues, which have, in one way or another, been at the heart of the American political economy since Jefferson first argued with Hamilton.
Faithful visitors to this site know that these fundamental questions are one reason why it exists. Getting them right has lasting implications for the prosperity of the broad middle class, the mobility of the poor, the productivity of our infrastructure, the security of the elderly, and the opportunities of the young.
These thoughts came back to me when I re-stumbled on this trenchant NYT oped by Stan Greenberg. I’ve been meaning to write about this piece—Why Voters Tune Out Democrats— ever since it came out at the end of July. Unless we can answer that question, the likelihood that we as a nation make the right call on the big three is sharply diminished.
Greenberg notes that progressives should be in a much better place regarding our key issues.
“When unemployment is high, and the rich are getting richer, you would think that voters of average means would flock to progressives, who are supposed to have their interests in mind — and who historically have delivered for them.
During the last half-century or so, when a Democratic president has led the country, people have tended to experience lower unemployment, less inequality and rising income compared with periods of Republican governance. There is a reason, however, that many voters in the developed world are turning away from Democrats, Socialists, liberals and progressives…
…In analyzing [US polling data], I see clearly that voters feel ever more estranged from government — and that they associate Democrats with government. If Democrats are going to be encumbered by that link, they need to change voters’ feelings about government.
They can recite their good plans as a mantra and raise their voices as if they had not been heard, but voters will not listen to them if government is disreputable.”
He points out that most voters favor the ideas progressives and the President support, like infrastructure investment, more progressive taxation, while opposing austerity measures. But they don’t believe government will deliver.
Or more precisely, that government will deliver to them. To the contrary, they believe the politicians will just tell them what they want to hear, while delivering goodies (and bailouts) to their corporate sponsors.
“Many voters prefer the policies of Democrats to the policies of Republicans. The just don’t trust the Democrats to carry out those promises.”
And when it comes to broken government that can’t deliver, the R’s have a real edge. They can inveigh against government as feckless at best and downright harmful at worst…and then they can make sure that prophecy is fulfilled.
“If government is seen as useless, what is the point of electing Democrats who aim to use government to advance some public end?”
How might progressive prevail in this climate? I’ll increasingly speak to that in coming months but here are a few thoughts:
–Greenberg stresses the importance of rebuilding public trust by taking on special interests, lobbyists, special breaks in the tax code, and by imposing a financial transactions tax (a small fee on the sales of securities), and reducing the deficit.
–I’d add that point number two—fairness—is extremely important right now and conservatives are vulnerable. Yes, they can convincing prove gov’t is feckless—debt ceiling debate—but they can’t hide from facts like the decline in middle class incomes since the late 1990s, the skewing of the tax code, the sharp increase in inequality, and all the existential difficulties that those trends pose, from declining living standards to steeper mobility barriers (e.g., the inability to afford higher ed).
–Also, point number three: they wrecked the car in the 2000s and now they want the keys back.
Like I said, more to come on this, but if progressives want voters to tune us in, we need to send a compelling message over a strong signal stressing the role of gov’t, basic economic fairness, and the failure of trickle down, self-regulating markets.