“Moocher Class” Warfare
How four decades of radical individualism diminished society and gave rise to the Tea Party.
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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