Wednesday, January 11, 2012

David Brooks: Why aren't there more liberals?

Of course Brooks's op-ed is mostly wrong, but it's wrong in a thoughtful way, not a "liberals-hate-America-and-are-trying-to-destroy-it" way, so Brooks deserves a thoughtful response.

To start, we must concede that "liberal" is a dirty word in the U.S. nowadays, unfair and silly as that may be. We liberals have failed to own it and say it proudly. (Except for me). The Right has done a pretty good job of destroying it, by linking "liberal" to anything that goes wrong with government. As Brooks correctly points out, Republicans are in the ridiculous but advantageous position of being able to criticize any lapse of government, including lapses of their own creation, on "liberal" government, or Big Government. When they screw up it's just an abstract "See, I told you so," moment. When they don't screw up, they've defied the odds and "proven" that Republicans govern better. Win-win for them. Give them a pat on the back for excellent spin control.

But as Michael Moore and others have aptly noted, when you go policy by policy, Americans who won't dare call themselves liberals say they hold liberal policy views -- equal pay for equal work; higher taxes on the rich; right to abortion and gay marriage; environmental regulation, etc.

Liberals and liberalism, I believe, are partly a victim of their own successes. I don't distinguish "progressives" from liberals in any significant way, except self-identified progressives seem more interested in reform. Anyway, my point is that the Progressive Era, one of the only hopeful and shining eras of U.S. politics, is now under attack, as is the word "progressive" *. I've written about this before. The achievements of the Progressive Era, presided over by reformist Republicans Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft, are numerous, profound, and enduring. To name just a few: ban on child labor; the 8-hour workday; regulating sweatshops; direct election of U.S. senators; breaking up monopolies and trusts; regulating interstate commerce; food and meat inspection; establishing national wilderness parks (a uniquely American invention); and on and on. None of us wants these reforms repealed. We take them so much for granted, or are simply ignorant about how hard-fought they were, that today's liberal-progressives don't even think to brag about their track record of successful reform within the framework of free market capitalism.

* Evil psych patient Glen Beck's recent "lectures" about the "horrors" of the Progressive Era and Teddy Roosevelt are his attempt at Swiftboating U.S. history; because Republican sharks like him understand they must attack their opponent's greatest strengths, not their weaknesses.

If you want to go back to the post-WWII and Great Society, again, I believe liberals are victims of their own success. After winning two world wars and ending the Great Depression, Democrats passed two programs, Social Security and Medicare, which have helped to keep generations of U.S. seniors out of squalor, suffering and indignity in old age. Compare poverty stats of seniors before and after Social Security: 50 percent in poverty before; 12 percent in poverty today (during a recession, mind you). No comparison. The G.I. Bill and cheap G.I. housing loans put the Greatest Generation through college with a roof over their heads. The War on Poverty did work. It's just that Democrats (and liberal-progressives) don't take credit for it, because, well, maybe we look at those today as American achievements. But strictly speaking, they weren't. They were liberal-progressive achievements. We liberals are always stuck, as David Brooks remarks, defending Big Government's administrative weaknesses, and not celebrating its dramatic successes -- as Republicans would do... if they had any successes to celebrate. (Seriously, think hard and name one in the last 30 years that is all theirs. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. .... OK, I'll name one for you: they ended unfunded federal mandates on the states. Bet you weren't going to say that, though.)

Brooks is right about "rent-seeking" behavior, although let's face it, he's really just talking about the need for congressional campaign finance reform of our pay-to-play system. We don't have bureaucrats regularly soliciting bribes in America, or political patronage on a 19th century scale anymore. What we have are the rich paying for more legislated tax breaks and privileges all the time, to the detriment of the middle-class majority.

Americans may not have a lot of trust in government, but compared to what? The military? Oops, that sort of is government. The priesthood? Big oops. Corporations? Do they trust BP more than the EPA? I doubt it. But again, it's the fault of us liberal-progressives for not constantly pointing out the obvious, which is just how seamlessly our federal bureaucracy works most of the time. We suck at self-promotion. Instead we let conservatives jump on every badly designed program, or dishonest citizen who games the system, and blame it all on hapless liberals, as if the exceptions prove the rule.

For better or worse, America is a country where the loudest voice seems the most convincing, where you spike the ball in the endzone to brag about every achievement, and where you kick your opponent when he's down and call him a loser. But that's just not the way most liberals are. And it costs us. We look terribly weak and ineffective when in fact we are strong and make America stronger. That is our problem, Mr. Brooks.

By David Brooks
January 9, 2012 | New York Times

Why aren't there more liberals in America?

It's not because liberalism lacks cultural power. Many polls suggest that a majority of college professors and national journalists vote Democratic. The movie, TV, music and publishing industries are dominated by liberals.

It's not because recent events have disproved the liberal worldview. On the contrary, we're still recovering from a financial crisis caused, in large measure, by Wall Street excess. Corporate profits are zooming while worker salaries are flat.

It's not because liberalism's opponents are going from strength to strength. The Republican Party is unpopular and sometimes embarrassing.

Given the circumstances, this should be a golden age of liberalism. Yet the percentage of Americans who call themselves liberals is either flat or in decline. There are now two conservatives in this country for every liberal. Over the past 40 years, liberalism has been astonishingly incapable at expanding its market share.

The most important explanation is what you might call the Instrument Problem. Americans may agree with liberal diagnoses, but they don't trust the instrument the Democrats use to solve problems. They don't trust the federal government.

A few decades ago they did, but now they don't. Roughly 10 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing most of the time, according to an October New York Times, CBS News poll.

Why don't Americans trust their government? It's not because they dislike individual programs like Medicare. It's more likely because they think the whole system is rigged. Or to put it in the economists' language, they believe the government has been captured by rent-seekers.

This is the disease that corrodes government at all times and in all places. As George F. Will wrote in a column in Sunday's Washington Post, as government grows, interest groups accumulate, seeking to capture its power and money.

Some of these rent-seeking groups are corporate types. Will notes that the federal government delivers sugar subsidies that benefit a few rich providers while imposing costs on millions of consumers.

Other rent-seeking groups are dispersed across the political spectrum. The tax code has been tweaked 4,428 times in the past 10 years, to the benefit of interests of left, right and center.

Others exercise their power transparently and democratically. As Will notes, in 2009, the net worth of households headed by senior citizens was 47 times the net worth of households led by people under 35. Yet seniors use their voting power to protect programs that redistribute even more money from the young to the old and affluent.

You would think that liberals would have a special incentive to root out rent-seeking. Yet this has not been a major priority. There is no Steve Jobs figure in American liberalism insisting that the designers keep government simple, elegant and user-friendly. Sailors scrub their ships. Farmers clear weeds. Democrats have not spent a lot of time scraping barnacles off the state.

Worse, in an attempt to match Republican rhetoric, Democratic politicians are perpetually soiling the name of government for the sake of short-term gain. How many times have you heard Democrats from Carter to Obama running against Washington, accusing it of being insular, shortsighted, corrupt and petty? If the surgeon himself thinks his tools are rancid, why shouldn't you?

In the past few weeks, the Obama administration has begun his presidential campaign by picking a series of small fights with the Republican-led House over things like recess appointments. These vicious squabbles may help Obama in the short term by making him look better than Republicans in Congress. But they will only further discredit Washington over the long run.

Life is unfair. Republican venality unintentionally reinforces the conservative argument that government is corrupt. Democratic venality undermines the Democratic argument that Washington can be trusted to do good.

Liberalism has not expanded because it has not had a Martin Luther, a leader committed to stripping away the corruptions, complexities and indulgences that have grown up over the years.

If you'll forgive some outside advice, President Obama might consider running for re-election as Luther. It's not enough to pick a series of small squabbles and then win as the least ugly man in the room. He might run as someone who believes in government but sees how much it needs to be cleansed and purified.

Make the tax code simple. Make job training simple. Make Medicare simple. Every week choose a rent-seeker to hold up for ridicule and renunciation. Change the Congressional rules. Simplify the legal thickets that undermine responsibility.

If Democrats can't restore Americans' trust in government, it really doesn't matter what problems they identify and what plans they propose. No one will believe in the instrument they rely on for solutions.

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