Issue #24, Spring 2012

“Moocher Class” Warfare

How four decades of radical individualism diminished society and gave rise to the Tea Party.

And it is the supply of radically simplified answers that has been libertarianism’s gift to the present moment. In the 1930s, the labor movement’s all-for-one and one-for-all understanding of the realities of an individual worker’s lot in industrial society helped give a social frame to the New Deal’s experiments. Now, in a post-mass-production age, the mental mindset of self-made oil tycoons and free-market economists sets the course. Here, too, one wishes that Skocpol and Williamson had framed their research project more broadly. The Koch brothers, whose group Americans for Prosperity has played such a key role in sustaining and channeling the Tea Party’s outrage, have been pressing libertarian ideas on the polity, with mixed success, since the 1970s. What enabled them to leap so successfully into the opening the Tea Party provided was not just the scale of the government response to the crash. It was the steady shrinkage through the 1980s and 1990s of the progressive vocabulary for a society made up of something bigger than private selves and private choices. It was an “age of fracture,” I have argued elsewhere, in which the very words for social relationships were recast around micro, market models. Notions that were politically marginal in the Reagan years—privatization of Medicare and Social Security, wholesale charterization of public schools, the return of public responsibility for the poor to the efforts of private charity, employment of for-profit soldiers in the public army, fully self-correcting markets—are all live ideas now. The contraction of the public imagination preceded the Tea Party and opened the way for its political effects.

In the face of this, Skocpol and Williamson remain relatively sanguine about the political future. Civic engagement, they insist, cannot in itself be an unworthy thing. Tea Party activists are old, and the passions they represent are much more firmly lodged in older than in younger voters. Fox News voters are disproportionately old as well. Ultimately, they remind us, they must pass from the scene.

But nothing guarantees the return of the stronger, denser progressive vocabulary that was once common in political discourse. In the crisis to date, progressives have rallied vigorously in the face of cutbacks to benefits and union rights. But without a larger rationale than preservation of the status quo, the battle between the progressives’ and conservatives’ senses of moral entitlements can only intensify the current stalemate. The Occupy Wall Street outcry against the extraordinary privileges of the 1 percent carries important traction, but the underlying economic and moral philosophy behind progressive taxation goes almost wholly unarticulated. Social Security persists, but in most Americans’ minds its benefits have become almost completely unhinged from the risk-pooling, social insurance arguments that framed it. Franklin Roosevelt talked about the interdependence of individuals’ economic fates in the face of collective crisis. Obama’s “we,” by contrast, has been much less clearly defined. He talks about “fairness,” a “fair shot,” and a “make or break” moment for the middle class. They are important terms. With luck they may help inch the marginal tax rate of the wealthiest Americans back to its 2001 level. But if progressives cannot find a language of more concrete and encompassing interdependence than this, if they cannot explain more articulately and persuasively how our economic lives are entangled, from the poorest and most marginalized to the very top of society, they will exhaust the moral and intellectual capital that early twentieth-century Progressives bequeathed to them without replenishing it.

While progressives struggle to defend benefits, business conservatives refigure the corporation as a great altruism machine, a cornucopia of endless job creation if only regulatory meddlers got out of the way. That, too, is an illusion—but one that has a magnetic pull in a society that has forgotten what it once knew about the business cycle. We wait for Obama to give a fireside chat on macroeconomic fundamentals that begins to match the clarity and simple honesty of his 2008 Philadelphia speech on race. So scared are Obama’s handlers of the image of an elite university professor that they have run away from one of his largest natural advantages. Glenn Beck played the professor’s role to terrific advantage. He made sense of the world to millions of Tea Partiers, mapping on his blackboard how absolutely everything fit together. Ross Perot did the same. Obama does not need Beck’s blackboard or Perot’s charts, but he needs to explain more. He needs to be fed fewer slogans and sound bites. He needs to start giving lessons in how a modern, interdependent economy and society actually work, why market competition does not always produce a fair outcome, why public goods and public regulation matter, and why the fate of the 1 percent, the poor, and the Tea Partiers who feel themselves squeezed in between are, in sober fact, dependent on each other.

In the material that Obama’s speechwriters prepare for him, phrases that were once a common part of progressive politics still surface. “We have a stake in each other’s success,” Obama declared in Osawatomie, Kansas. That’s a powerful moral-intellectual claim that even frightened persons can get their heads around. But if it is not articulated more effectively than it has been in the crisis so far, the privatized nightmares that the Tea Party promotes will continue to haunt our politics.


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Issue #24, Spring 2012
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Greg Marquez:

I think part of the problem progressives have in articulating their economic agenda is their support of "libertarian" type social policy.

It's hard to argue that we have a responsibility to each other while at the same time arguing that we are individuals free to do whatever we want without censure from the rest of society. I don't think those two ideas go together.

Progressives have basically decided to abandon economic issues, abandon the poor, in order to promote lifestyle issues.

I keep expecting that the parties will regroup in a socially conservative/economically progressive vs. socially progressive/economically libertarian grouping, but it hasn't happened yet. I think that Huckabee was a move in that direction from a Republican point of view.

Mar 12, 2012, 5:11 PM

I think you are confusing progressives who are liberals with libertarians. Liberals and libertarians are like oil and water .... they do not mix. Some might even find it insulting if you called a liberal a libertarian, or visa-versa.

Jan 21, 2013, 10:19 PM

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