Losing and Winning in a Conservative Age
"The Contract With American worked because it had ideas." -- -Speaker Newt Gingrich, January 20, 1995Neither a Congressional reprimand for near-unlawful conduct nor appallingly low public-opinion ratings has done more than make Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich slightly more circumspect in his public behavior. In January, 1997, he was resoundingly re-elected to his post be a scarcely chastened Republican House caucus.Despite some turbulence, the ship of right-wing Congressional power keeps its steady course -- with Gingrich leading the House and his colleague Trent Lott presiding over the normally "moderate" Senate. Another decade of this hegemony, and the Welfare State -- even its most cherished programs such as Medicare and Social Security -- will occupy a dishonored place in the ashcan of history -- along with universal health care, public housing, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, environmental protections, and most types of federal student loans. A Politics of Ideas The political philosophy of Newt Gingrich and his cohorts has attained this degree of success largely because it represents the only new ideas clearly visible in American politics.The focus on ideas is no accident: The right has spent millions of dollars generating and disseminating its ideas. It has richly endowed a few think tanks -- notably, The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. These are not "specialized" institutions, but are comprehensive ideological apparatuses of an insurgent movement. They bring together scholars and journalists in a wide variety of fields, both in the social sciences and the humanities, with political, corporate, religious and civic leaders. More to the point, they have put forward a new agenda for America, spanning areas from the economy to everyday life.To stem this conservative tide, I would like to call for the creation of new efforts -- including think tanks, magazine- and book-publishing enterprises, and on-line services -- to provide the ideas and the means of their dissemination based on rethinking the entire gamut of economic, social and political questions that have animated the national debate for more than 25 years. This work would aim to change the climate of opinion, to transform the public discourse of politics and culture. The focus would be to: a)reexamine the long-held shibboleths and the programs upon which they are based of progressive liberalism that dominated left thinking for 60 years; and b)sketch the outlines of a new agenda for the left.Clearly intellectual work is no substitute for vigorous action by labor unions and social movements. But, it must be remembered that most of the prevalent concepts that today inform liberal public policy -- especially that public good be subordinated to private interests -- were first enunciated by intellectuals gathered in institutes and economics departments of leading universities in the first two decades after the turn of the 20th century. Although the New Deal refined many of these ideas and made them into practical social policy, they were at first perceived by politicians and most intellectuals to be contrary to received wisdom. Only with the conjunction of the Great Depression and the rise of a new labor movement did new ideas take hold of the popular political imagination. Without the ideas, imagination could have gone in a radically different direction -- to the left as well as the right. Listen to Gingrich For the moment, forget whether, upon assuming office, House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke in good faith when he proposed to devolve the federal government by consolidating many programs into a few block grants to the states and eliminating chunks of the executive branch, especially cabinet-level federal agencies.Listen, instead, to how these evocations managed, if only for a brief historical moment, to plumb the depths of the political unconscious, to reach down to the unfulfilled popular yearning for freedom from the increasingly heavy burdens of their lives. For, in the last instance -- from the perspective of political understanding rather than morality -- whether the Republican majority was sincere or not really does not matter. What counts is that the old distinctions between populism and conservatism blurred as Gingrich claimed the libertarian revolutionary legacy of Thomas Jefferson and, in contrast, liberal Democrats appeared to follow the Hamiltonian prescriptions of strong central government.What Gingrich managed to do was focus public attention on "big' government and its bureaucracies and "entitlements" to the alleged undeserving, rather than on the US-based international corporations who were busy squeezing blue-collar, white-collar and manual workers in their furious quest for profitability in a world of economic stagnation. Technology that has been ruthlessly employed to destroy jobs and raise productivity is portrayed by Gingrich and his allies as a savior, a utopian hope for unending pleasure."Now what you've got in this city [Washington] is a simple principle. I am a genuine revolutionary; they [the Democrats and the bureaucrats] are the genuine reactionaries; we are going to change their world, they will do anything to stop us, they will use any tool, there is no grotesquerie, no distortion, no dishonesty, too great for them to come after us." The voice, claiming the terrain of radicalism rather than conservatism belongs to Gingrich. Ironically, in the middle of the 94th Congress, Gingrich claimed the mantle of change; it is the Democrats who appeared as defenders of the status quo.Since the New Deal, the coalition of political professionals and the core Democratic Party electorate of trade unionists, Blacks, women and many people who work in the "helping professions" of health, education and welfare have been unremitting proponents of the proposition that those unable to care for themselves require the intervention of a compassionate state. The commitment of these advocates to the dominant role of the federal government, its regulatory policies and its agents -- the bureaucracies that administer the myriad of social and economic entitlements and distribute funds such as welfare payments and veterans benefits -- is rarely as passionate as it is compassionate. In the wake of the most sweeping changes in the role of the federal government in two generations, a New York Times reporter commented in the fall of 1995 that there was an ominous "hush" in the corridors of Congress; the once-fervent advocates of social justice had virtually disappeared from the scene. Listen to Voters Despite the fact that they directly benefit from government programs, many of the people who voted for the Reagan revolution and the Gingrich thermidor find the rhetoric of freedom, voiced by conservatives, more powerful than the restricted definition of the "caring" society presented by liberals.Given people's perception that government simply no longer works for them, no matter what the alleged benefit, many of these voters prefer to have more money in their pockets with which to purchase the services currently dispensed by the government.A New Hampshire octogenarian, for example, complained in spring 1996, on National Public Radio, about having to pay school taxes even though he had no children currently in the schools. Sentiments of this kind deserve the attention of progressives. They are a measure of how far we have come from the time when most Americans accepted the fact that the tax system was constituted to provide essential services to all, even if some would not benefit from them directly.The political choices made since the late 1960s by once-ardent Democratic constituencies reveal the complexity of political loyalty and refute, at least to some extent, vulgar economic determinism. Reagan's deployment of the New Left's "New Morning" slogan ("It's morning in America"), his adroit invocation of the rhetoric of freedom, his brazen reverse redistributive policies in behalf of the rich and powerful, and, of course, his debt-laden program of re- militarization in pursuit of the Evil Soviet Empire were logically contradictory, but extremely effective, tactics on the road to reversing a half-century of liberal dominance of the national agenda.Surely, many of the crossover voters who abandoned the Democrats for the Gipper and his successors have already suffered, materially, the results of the Reagan revolution. As federal health programs were cut and states failed to pick up many of the costs, deductibles on pre-paid health insurance have risen, and fee schedules have been slashed either by inflation or by dollar reductions; federal and state education funds have been reduced causing, in effect, many schools to partially privatize or curtail the school day or school year.Do people vote their economic interests in an era when both political parties seem to represent the same client -- large corporate interests? Surely, no discerning observer could accuse the post-regulation Democrats of being a party of workers, Blacks and women. Still, even as they agonize over the next necessary compromise to reduce social services and increase the government's policing functions to address the resultant fallout, the Democrats are unable to shake the images inherited from the Great Society era. In short, Republicans win because they are unabashedly in favor of their program, while the Democrats never lose an opportunity to retreat from their own traditional commitments. It may be an example of hyperbole, but we might pause at the remark of one Wall Street executive that "Clinton is the greatest Republican president of this century" (Wall Street Journal, November 12, 1996). Do Conditions Favor a New Progressive Agenda? At the same time, the traditional conditions for a new progressive paradigm are perhaps more salient than at any time since the end of World War II. Once again, the terms of economic, political and social life seem permanently altered: all the old arrangements -- really compromises -- by which the warring groups were able to live together for nearly 60 years, have been abrogated. The massive system of regulation by which business operated has been dismantled, with the exception of the permanent war economy. What some have called the "new enclosures" plague Africa, Asia, Latin America and North America as hundreds of millions have been driven from the land and herded into sprawling gargantuan cities where, frequently, they live on the streets or in hastily built shantytowns (in the United States we call them trailer parks).In the economically developed societies such as the United States, the "good" job is rapidly becoming a memory for millions of industrial and service workers as international business reorganizes the "labor market" on the basis of low-wage, part-time and contingent jobs. We may extend the metaphor of enclosure for the tens of millions in western countries who have been permanently expelled from the workplace and otherwise disempowered by the corporate- controlled technological machine. Since 1980, more than eight million US jobs were lost in some of the highest-paying production and service industries. Union membership declined slightly in this period but, more to the point, organized labor now represents about 15 percent of the labor force compared to a high of over 30 percent in the 1960s.The relentless application of information flows to the workplace makes the images of the computer as a new source of pleasure and learning a cruel joke for its victims. Where, after the war, many workers achieved decent living and work standards through strong unions, in the past two decades employers have found greener pastures for making more profits in the non-union American South, Mexico, Southeast Asia and China. Increasingly, it is not the progressives who warn corporate high flyers of the potentially dire consequences of unemployment, under- employment and stagnant wages. Economists themselves, victimized by corporate downsizing, are concerned that if present trends continue the economy may be permanently in recession. Equally appalling for their corporate employers, the long-dormant labor movement, which has shown some signs of new life, may have a second wind.As wealth consolidates into fewer hands -- mostly those of transnational corporations -- the old political arrangements cannot be maintained because they were predicated on an essentially national capitalism. Consequently, conservative and Social Democratic governments alike attempt to resolve the contradictions of the welfare state resulting from sagging revenues and capital flight by dismantling and otherwise reducing social benefits to the poor and immigrants in order to save those benefits that directly affect their core electoral constituencies. In the United States, all levels of government follow the bewildering shifts in corporate structures by shedding the institutions and the mechanisms of social justice, especially for the poor, women and children and the elderly.A case in point is the vast American higher education system. Today nearly one of 10 adults under age 65 attends, on a full or part-time basis, an institution of post-secondary education. The 14.2 million students in colleges and universities are there for many reasons, not least of which is their hope for a better future that, since World War II, seems to be umbilically tied to possessing credentials (even more than to possessing the accompanying skills). Everywhere except in the Southeast and parts of the Midwest, state legislatures are ruthlessly cutting public university budgets, especially student aid. In New York and California, the reductions have produced a veritable crisis in the capacity of their massive systems to deliver education itself. Liberals Have Run Out of Ideas The boldness of right-wing initiatives against state regulation and public goods of all kinds, especially of business and of income, is a measure of its determination to meet the challenge of globalization by reducing government to the core function of policing those most affected by the shifts. In full force since the 1980s, the war on the poor is now extending to the working class and to large sections of the middle class, especially professionals and managers who have suffered extensive layoffs due to mergers and acquisitions, capital flight, and administration. Today, inequality of income distribution is greater in the United States than in any developed capitalist country.In the US, but also in Great Britain, we are witnessing the emergence of what might be termed the hollow state. Shorn of most of its interventionist functions except regulating interest rates, providing some farm subsidies and, of course, huge peacetime military budgets, the federal government has increasingly linked its legitimacy to crime-fighting, anti-terrorist activity and international policing. Over time, the American presidency is resembling, except in style, the so-called "front porch" politics of a Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge of the 1920s or the adroit use of the institution as a "bully pulpit" to shore up American morality.The pace of change is a measure of the weakness of the trade unions. Whereas in the last great global shift, the Depression decade of the 1930s, liberals had solutions -- reform on the basis of deficit financing and a measure of redistributive justice -- now there is little more than a margin of hope that some of the institutions of the welfare state can be preserved, the minimum wage marginally raised and the Civil Rights Act kept intact.Liberals have run out of ideas that have even a faint chance of being heard. There seem to be no solutions within the old paradigm to the end of the regulatory state. Unfortunately, most liberals, and even most progressives, do not seem to have posed the right questions. For example, they persist in rehearsing the outworn cry of Full Employment, even as 30 percent of the global workers are unemployed or underemployed. In the face of worldwide economic stagnation, many still cling to "growth" as the key to achieving a measure of social justice, even as environmentalists demonstrate that growth may no longer be sustainable.More serious, progressives repeat to themselves the fiction that there was nothing wrong with their political ideology and program; they were simply defeated by the superior forces on the right. In the conventional account, the right controlled the media and other means of communications, captured the legislative branch, and neutralized the executive branch of the federal government. According to this wisdom, transnational corporations simply decided to avoid the constraints of national and local politics, which entailed a measure of social justice. The Left's Identity Crisis The events of the past two decades are attributable to more than greed and liberal misfeasance combined with aggressiveness of a well-funded right. The defeat of the traditional progressive agenda requires further explanation.In brief, for 60 years, the left functioned, for the most part, as participants in the regulatory state developed by the New Deal and its successors. Far from representing an alternative to the liberal welfare state, progressives became its most fervent defenders.From 1935 to 1970, it was still possible to win a measure of social justice through legislation even in the midst of war and permanent militarization. But, when two world historical events conjoined -- the eclipse of regulation, including its income-support aspects, and the end of the Soviet Union as the institutionalized revolutionary alternative to capitalism -- the left was utterly disarmed. For, it must be admitted at least in retrospect that whatever the calumnies of the Soviet state and the Communist movement, the "spectre" they represented, together with the labor movements, concentrated the capitalists' minds. Communism may not have solved the economic and social needs of its subjects, but the alternative it embodied and the Cold War that it made possible contributed, perhaps crucially, to the relative economic stability of the post-World War II era.With few exceptions, the left (recoded after the war as "progressive forces") lacked imagination. And, as the old Jules Feiffer cartoon goes, since liberals borrow their ideas from the left when the left has no ideas neither do the liberals. No less than the liberalism with which it was allied, the left is utterly stumped (and trumped) by the new world situation. This, more than the defeats since 1973, forms the core of the political crisis.Yet, as the right learned, imagination is the stuff of which the future is made. If we can imagine a different path than than which appears today inevitable, perhaps there is a change for fundamental change to emerge form the ruin of the historical progressive movement. But only if the movements and their supporters such as funders of progressive groups and issues put a high priority on the urgent task of rethinking the core commitments of the progressive era. In what follows, questions outnumber solutions, for those we have at hand are both tired and outmoded. This is why, following the example of the conservatives -- who launched their quest for power 30 years ago -- the emphasis of movements and their financial and individual supporters should be on efforts to find new ideas. For only on the basis of an affirmative alternative to both the liberal and the conservative agenda can the force of social and cultural justice hope to win. Rethinking Eight Domains 1.The Economy. What do progressives have to offer an economy that appears to be in a state of permanent stagnation made worse by the relative decline of military spending, the globalization of capital and the enormous attack against the working class and its chief organizations, the unions? In the past, the liberals posed policies such as job creation, investment and the social safety net as key components under the assumption that only a win-win economic growth program could garner sufficient support. We are today in the midst of a zero- sum game. Wages have declined steadily since 1973, punctuated only by a brief upturn during the Reagan remilitarization boom. Jobs are created, but mainly at low wages and on a temporary or part-time basis. And, the social safety net has all but collapsed. Moreover, environmental considerations put severe limits on growth policies unless they can be proven to be sustainable.The economic situation confronts any possible social-justice agenda with serious problems. A thorough analysis of the scope of the current crisis, including income inequality, capital flight and wage stagnation, is long overdue. Is the task of reversing current trends a legislative question? Or, is the first priority to build from the bottom by strengthening the hand of the unions, Black freedom and women's movements? What kinds of structural reforms, including such policies as placing limits on the free movement of capital, are needed to redress the grievances of the workers, the middle class, the poor, and local communities? Is the best job-creation strategy to fight for work-sharing politics such as shorter hours at no reduction in pay? Should unions adopt a no-overtime policy and should the wage-hour law be amended to provide double-time for overtime after eight hours? And, should unions adopt a more militant bargaining stance in the face of high corporate profits?How can race and gender discrimination be addressed in employment at a time of economic stagnation? Are affirmative-action programs still viable? What is a progressive policy on NAFTA and other free-trade agreements? On immigration? Is there a rationale for limited protectionism, especially when US production and service jobs are involved? What is the relationship between civil rights for minorities and trade policies? Should set-asides be set aside in favor of a national campaign for job creation and a decent public education system?2. Foreign and Military Policy. Since the end of the Cold War, conservatives and the independent military have labored mightily to create new legitimations for the permanent militarized state. Nationalism in Europe and Africa has collaborated to find the reasons to forestall the logic of demilitarization. Underlying these is the question of the global role of the United States in a post-Cold War world. A focus of policy-oriented research on the international commitments of the US government is necessary because the size of the military establishment and the centrality of the United States in world affairs bear heavily on any possible domestic program.Apart from a serious investigation of the international role of the United States, we must ask the question whether the military has served, in part, as a mask for major elements of the welfare state. What are the economic consequences of demilitarization? What alternatives exist, in regional and local terms, to the permanent war economy? Can we calculate the benefits of the end to defense spending as well as the costs? Who has collected the best wisdom in this subject? Must we perform original research to find the answer(s)? And, what alternative economic plans may be offered to induce workers and local communities to convert defense plants, bases and other facilities to peacetime uses?3. Welfare. Since World War II, but especially since the Johnson Administration, the American welfare state is based upon the bankrupt premise that only the very poor deserve a measure of income support, housing, and publicly financed health care. With the exceptions of the Social Security System and veterans programs, virtually all other "entitlements" require a means test. Gradually, the conventional wisdom is becoming that only senior citizens and people with disabilities deserve public support. All others should be required to work, mostly in the private sector, which, according to the prevailing wisdom, will supply enough jobs for anyone willing to work.In the 1960s, civil rights and community activists criticized the welfare state as a monstrous bureaucracy that promoted dependency, even if unwittingly. By the late 1960s, ideas such as the Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) had gained considerable public support: even the Nixon Administration came up with a plan to implement it. Should we persist in fighting to save such programs as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Home Relief? Should we revisit the GAI as an alternative to income support programs for the poor? What are the costs of GAI? How could it be financed without provoking a capital strike?4. Tax Policy. All of these issues are intimately tied with tax policy. Should progressives wage unremitting struggle for the return of progressive taxation, including such measures as stock transfer taxes, tax imposition on mergers, acquisitions and plant removal? Are taxes the best way to insure income redistribution? What is the economic impact of the widening income gap and its possible closure through tax reform?5. Technology. There is almost no discussion at the policy level of the economic, social and political impact of the scientific/technological revolution of our time. Yet, science and technology have had enormous effects on the nature and the quantity of work; on the health care industry; on the possibilities available to transnational corporations for blackmailing national governments to grant tax and deregulatory concessions; on the burgeoning communications and information industries; and on education. What should a new progressive science and technology policy be? Should progressives call for regulation of the intensity of technological applications until social supports can be provided for those displaced by them? What is the role of scientific and technological citizenship in developing such policies? Should the left mount a campaign for technological access for minorities and low-income communities and their schools and/or should it take a new look at Luddism as a strategy of calling attention to technological displacements of all kinds?6. Education. Obtaining higher educational credentials has been, for 40 years, the key mechanism for many to achieve professional and technical jobs. The explosion of universities since World War II -- first through the GI Bill and then through massive expansion at the state level of the number of campuses and the number of students -- provided burgeoning industries the labor force required by means of new markets and new technologies. With the disappearance of precisely those jobs for which credentials are needed, many public and private universities and colleges are at risk. Legislatures and taxpayers see less need to provide funds to maintain the current level of enrollments and faculty and staff. What, then, is the purpose of higher education. Since universities have been a major site for mobility for working-class, Black and women students, what are the consequences of the drive to "downsize" them? What new justifications may be offered to keep our universities?7. Social Issues. During the past 25 years, some of the most emotionally charged and politically visible controversies in US politics have concerned the so-called "social" issues of abortion rights, sexual freedom, "family values" and the abuses and rights of children. Feminists and welfare advocates have addressed these issues, but they are still not an integral part of a larger progressive agenda. Some questions: what is the relationship between social- justice issues and social issues? How can advocates in both areas work together on the basis of mutual obligation and concern? Most of all, with the revival of the "social question," should we not guard against the growing smugness of the economic-justice left to ignore or otherwise demean cultural and social issues?8. The Cities. Large cities today comprise only 21 percent of US residents, and at the same time they are home to a large proportion of the country's Black, Latino and Asian populations. For more than 20 years, the cities have been the stepchildren of federal largesse; current trends will only worsen the tendency to ignore them. Capital flight has devastated Detroit, Chicago and other midwestern cities, while severe cuts in services throughout the Northeast have made disaster areas of many cities such as Hartford, Jersey City and Newark, not to mention Philadelphia and New YorkMost politicians, urban experts and urban advocates cling to the fiction that the pendulum will swing back to heavy federal aid to the cities. While federal aid remains essential, this may be a long way in the future. Plainly, we need a new approach to urban problems in which local initiative and control play a larger role in renewal. What are these approaches and initiatives? How can they be implemented? A fresh investigation of cities and their future is a high priority in any social-justice agenda. Many of these questions are beginning to be addressed at conferences, on picket lines and in legislative campaigns. Some require real thought. Is one of the lessons of the Million Man March more self-help in Black and minority communties such as programs of local economic development? What is the significance of Jeremy Rifkin's call for job creation in the "third sector" of voluntary, non-profit agencies? Who has calculated the economic impact of government programs in center cities and the consequences of their reduction or destruction?What should be clear from this preliminary list is that in addition to stepping up resistance to most egregious aspects of the conservative counterrevolution, the left and progressives must begin to do the long-term and short-term intellectual work to adapt their commitments to a new political, economic, and cultural world.Stanley Aronowitz is professor of sociology at The Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York.