Are Corporations Trying to Distract Us with Social Issues While They Take Control of Our Economy?

News & Politics

I was having breakfast with a friend in North Carolina the day after that state voted against gay marriage, and after Barack Obama said on television that he now supported it. My friend knew I had supported the cause for a long time, so he asked me what I thought of Obama’s comments. I said "I think he’ll be tacking to the right economically once he’s re-elected."

I was right, but not because I have any special predictive gifts. History had provided the background for Obama’s changed views while Republicans had pioneered his tactics.

One key to Obama’s “evolution” can be found in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? In it, a frustrated Frank argued that conservatives had persuaded heartland Americans to vote against their own interests by using social issues like gay marriage and abortion. His arguments resonated with a lot of liberals. Many of my friends expressed anger, frustration, and even contempt for the way “values voters” (as Republicans called them) repeatedly undermined their own economic needs in the voting booth.

Is it their turn? Politicians are winning liberal hearts and minds on social issues, while at the same time embracing a corporate political agenda based on ever-greater wealth for the few and increasing austerity for the many.

Let’s be clear: The term “social issues” is not used dismissively. These are human rights issues which speak to our core values of personal freedom and social justice. But are these just causes being exploited by corporate-backed politicians?

The answer seems to be yes.

Politicians in the “liberal Kansas” school are increasingly outspoken on issues like reproductive choice and gay marriage, while at the same time continuing to promote their corporate economic agenda. Many, if not most, of them are so-called "centrist" Democrats from the Bill Clinton wing of the party. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat turned Republican, is also a prominent member of the “personally liberal, economically conservative” clique. 

They’re not alone. I’ve known more than a few corporate leaders and Wall Street executives, and most of them were quite liberal on social issues too. It makes sense, when you think about it. When your goal is money, you’re not likely to care what people do with their bodies – as long you get their wallets.

That’s the “liberal Kansas” strategy in a nutshell.

Frank considered the “Kansas” phenomenon a liberal political failure, and he was certainly right about that. He also derided the centrist Democrats as “criminally stupid” for “pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues.”

That’s also correct, if the Democratic Party ever wants to win consistently and build a working majority. But it’s beginning to look as if, at least where its base is concerned, the Democratic “Kansas” strategy is working. It seems that most of party’s rank and file is happy to let this rightward economic shift continue, as long as its leaders say the right things about social issues. 

Democrats campaigned on populist themes in 2012 campaign. But as soon as the election was over the party’s leaders returned to what Frank described in 2004 as “endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it.”

Since his re-election, Barack Obama has proposed to cut Social Security, echoed the deficit hysteria of the right, continued to negotiate NAFTA-like trade deals in secret (hidden from Congress and the public but available to 600 “corporate advisors”), and continued to privatize the military/national security state. (He has also pursued the most aggressive anti-whistleblower presidential campaign in American history.)

And yet 85 percent of registered Democrats either “somewhat approve” or “strongly approve” of Obama’s performance, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. While the level and intensity of Democratic support has dipped somewhat, these figures are still surprisingly robust for a President who moved to cut Democrats’ signature achievement – Social Security – and whose other economic policies are so out of line with his party’s base.

What’s more, both the party’s leadership and its rank and file appear enthusiastic about the potential presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, who as First Lady was part of the administration that cut welfare benefits (in a destructive and ultimately discredited “reform” process) and deregulated Wall Street in a way that directly contributed to the 2008 crisis. Since the talk about a 2016 run began, she has made no effort to distance herself from those policies or to stake out a different position on any significant economic issues.

How do right-leaning Democrats like Obama and the Clintons maintain the loyalty of the Democratic and liberal base?

They seem to have learned a thing or two from Republicans. While their social stance lacks the “anti-elite” aura of their conservative counterparts – something which might force them closer to genuinely populist positions – they have certainly learned how to use issues like gay marriage and reproductive rights to win liberal hearts and minds, while at the same time pursuing conservative economic policies.

Gay marriage had been somewhat problematic for these Dems. The political calculus of the last two decades, at least as they understood it, demanded that they distance themselves from the issue. It would have taken courage for a politician to support the idea 15, or 10, or even five years ago. 

That courage was nowhere to be found in this crowd. Barack Obama said in 2004 that “I believe marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman,” while spokesman Robert Gibbs reaffirmed that “Barack Obama is opposed to gay marriage.” President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act and advised John Kerry to outflank Republicans from the right by endorsing anti-gay marriage amendments in the 2004 election campaign. (Clinton recently denied that story, but the political consultant who first reported it reaffirmed its accuracy. Newsweek also reported the story at the time.)

The 2008 financial crisis should have resulted in the final discrediting of the Clinton-era, DLC and “Third Way”-style politics. The deregulation bill which Clinton signed unleashed Wall Street greed, giving it the freedom to accelerate the destruction of the middle class – and ultimately, to nearly destroy the global economy.

This pseudo-centrist school calls itself “moderate” and “centrist,” despite the fact that poll after poll has affirmed that its economic policies – on Social Security, Medicare, Wall Street regulation, and taxing corporations and the wealthy – are far to the right of public opinion. In many cases polls show that their positions are to the right of Republican voter opinion.

But the corporate Dems caught two lucky breaks. First, in a sign of society’s often-underestimated capacity for change, public opinion shifted strongly toward support for gay marriage. Most Republicans are unwilling or unable to do to capitalize on that shift, since that would alienate their base. In a second lucky break, the Republicans have been increasingly extreme and barbaric in their stated positions about reproductive rights, women’s health, and women’s rights overall. (That is a shift. Few people remember that Republican President Gerald Ford supported the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, for example.)

These two developments gave corporate-friendly Democrats the opening they needed to protect their unpopular economic positions … by changing the subject. In Obama’s case, all it took was an eloquent statement of affirmation to give him the aura of a hero on the subject of gay rights. (Obama didn’t propose to take any specific actions when he announced his “evolution.”)

The same strategy was used by Michael Bloomberg – along with lots and lots of money – to win and retain the mayoralty in heavily Democratic New York City. Bloomberg’s liberalism on social issues repeatedly won over voters who otherwise might have rejected his economic platform. He was even seriously discussed as a third-party presidential candidate, despite holding fiscal views that are far to the right of the general electorate.

Any discussion of “social-issues corporatists” must also get into another very sensitive territory: identity politics. Yes, it’s an enormous social breakthrough when offices once restricted to white males are occupied by women, people of color, those of different (or no) faith, and people of all sexual orientations. No argument there.

But the “reverse Kansas” crowd is quite capable, consciously or otherwise, of using identity politics to push its pro-corporate agenda.  We saw that in the exhilarating moment when Barack Obama won the presidency, only to tack to the right once in office; when Geraldine Ferraro was nominated for the vice-presidency; and in the many congressional and state offices now held by female, minority, gay, Muslim, atheist and other leaders.

But identity politics, like social issues, can be exploited to push a Wall Street agenda. There may be no better example of that than the New Jersey senatorial candidacy of Cory Booker, who is both African American and gay – and who is a former Wall Streeter who stridently defends even that community’s worst excesses. If Booker replaces Robert Menendez, as appears likely, he is far less likely to defend the public’s economic rights against corporate pillagers.

It didn’t have to be that way. There are many committed leaders who fit Cory Booker’s profile and have much more reasonable economic views.

There are also many talented women who could run for president. (Elizabeth Warren comes immediately to mind.) But today Hillary Clinton’s 2016 nomination is considered a sure thing, should she choose to run, despite the fact that she has not stated her positions on key economic issues and is closely associated with the economically disastrous actions of the Clinton administration. 

Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Hillary Clinton: Each of these politicians has expressed pro-corporate economic views that are both unpopular politically and deeply inconsistent with core progressive beliefs.

It’s time to ask the question: What’s the matter with Liberal Land? Why do they continue to support politicians who frequently work against their economic self-interest? Are social issues being used on liberals the same way they’ve been used on Thomas Frank’s Kansas voters? What Frank wrote about conservatism in 2004 could easily be said about mainstream Democratic liberalism today: “The movement's basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern—that Values Matter Most …”

But economics is a matter of values, too –  values like fairness, equal opportunity, equal justice before the law, and the preservation of our social contract. And there shouldn’t be a gap between “social” issues and “economic” ones, since they both affect all of us. Women suffer disproportionately during times of economic hardship. Wealth inequity strikes minorities especially hard. People continue to suffer from rising poverty and the death of the middle class, regardless of their sexual orientation.

And when one person is not free, personally or economically, we are all less free. 

It was a beautiful moment for gay Americans when the President of the United States expressed support for the right to marry. It was an affirmation of their right to exist as full citizens of this country. It’s good that, whatever their motives, these corporate-friendly politicians have “evolved.” Now it’s time for their supporters to do the same, and demand leaders who represent them in every dimension of public policy.

None of this is meant to condemn liberals who support corporate-backed politicians. We all want safety and security, and that includes the sense that we have leaders we can trust. But there’s a difference between being led and being had. It’s time to demand leaders who understand that economic justice is an essential part of our national fabric, and that you can’t achieve full equality without it.

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