04 November 2011

Why won't the Democrats exploit Occupy?

Facing the Democrats in the age of Occupy
Part 1 of 2 | Part 2
In general, politicians are first and foremost opportunists. That doesn’t mean they’re without principles or ideology, but it means they tend to be flexible and instrumental about how to accomplish their goals. So the Democrats’ response to the Occupy Wall Street movements is rather mystifying. National Democratic leaders, while claiming sympathy with the protesters, have by and large decided to allow the movement to wither rather than seeking to draw its energy into the election cycle (compare the Republican Party’s response to the Tea Party). At the local level, Democratic mayors – from the far corporate end of the spectrum (Emanuel) to the former-organizer end (Quan) – have been at the forefront of unleashing police repression on the occupations.

This is a stunning repudiation of political advantage. The latest New York Times poll, conducted October 19 to 24, once again demonstrated that the silent majority of our moment supports a liberal-Keynesian approach to the crisis.
Of those polled, 66 percent say that the distribution of wealth should be more even and 65 percent support raising taxes on millionaires to address the deficit. When surveyed on measures meant to create jobs, 80 percent endorsed government spending on infrastructure while only 50 percent support reducing regulation on business. While 78 percent are in favor of cutting taxes on small businesses, 67 percent oppose doing so for large corporations. Fifty-three percent want the federal government to send money to the states to avoid layoffs, a number that rises to 65 percent when the jobs that would be saved, those of teachers, firefighters, and police, are mentioned.

Occupy Wall Street has already had a tremendously edifying impact on the national political conversation, abruptly swinging the media debate from a relentless focus on reducing government debt to the employment crisis and financial system, not to mention leading the pollsters to ask questions that put the silent liberal majority in the spotlight. So it was more than a little jarring to read that the Congressional Democrats on the so-called super committee to reduce the deficit released an opening negotiating position that would more than double the deficit reductions required and do so with two or three times as much in cuts to programs like Medicare as with higher revenues from raising taxes on the wealthy. The committee has dismissed out of a hand a financial transactions tax, which could reduce uncontrolled speculation on Wall Street. Remember, this is an opening position, so any deal that is struck could only be worse.

Are the Democrats really that tone-deaf? They could have seized the momentum from Occupy Wall Street, pushed their advantage with the overwhelming popular support for raising taxes on the rich, and proposed deficit reduction measures that solely hit speculators and the rich. What’s more, they could have sold the proposal as a restoration of balance to the sacrifice required in budget cutting – don’t forget the rich have been completely exempted from contributing to previous deficit reductions. They could have ridiculed the Republicans for their cries of “class war” that would have followed, throwing the albatross of defending the privileges of corporations and the wealthy around their necks. After all, what should be one of the most alarming findings for the Democrats from the New York Times poll is that fully 28 percent of Americans – the largest group – believe Obama favors the rich as opposed to the middle class (23 percent), the poor (17 percent), or treats all equally (21 percent).

On the left, the standard explanation for the Democrats’ abiding aversion to mobilizing the silent progressive majority is that corporate money has corrupted the Democrats as surely as it has the Republicans. There is abundant evidence for this position – members of the super committee have together received $41 million from Wall Street, with Democrats (Kerry and Baucus), not Republicans, leading that list. After leaving the government, Democratic regulators routinely take jobs in the industries they once regulated; former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin is only the most notorious example. In the last election cycle, Democratic candidates for Congress took ten times as much money from corporations as from unions, the only popular constituency making significant contributions. Whether you believe neoliberal ideology or not, there’s no way to seriously contend for high office without taking the positions that will attract huge amounts of corporate campaign contributions.

This analysis certainly captures part of what’s going on, but reducing it to this is a bit too mechanical. Unless we assume that most politicians are completely unprincipled mercenaries for capital, it raises but cannot address a key question: why did neoliberal ideology become compelling to virtually the entire political class? Only since the 1970s has that ideology gained appeal, and corporations certainly had money to throw around in the 1950s and 1960s, so what changed? And it ignores the fact that in Europe and Japan, where corporate money does not enjoy the stranglehold on electoral politics it does in the US, neoliberal ideology has also shaped policy for decades, if in significantly less brutal form.

Continue reading: Part 2

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