Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism responds to Melissa Harris-Perry’s post on The Nation that racism is driving the abandonment of Barack Obama by white liberals. Harris-Perry has been one of the more prominent reflexive defenders of President Obama, but her charge of racism is serious and merits evaluation. Smith does that, as well as connecting her piece to strong criticisms from Brooklyn College professor Corey Rubin and Jon Walker at FireDogLake. Walker points out that Obama doesn’t have a white people problem, he has an everyone problem.
But I’m more interested in Smith’s critique of the core difference in the Democratic Party that create rifts around really big issues, not just identity politics:
The left is obsessed with what ought to be peripheral concerns, namely, political correctness and Puritanical moralizing, because it is actually deeply divided on the things that matter, namely money and the role of the state. The Democrats have been so deeply penetrated by the neoliberal/Robert Rubin/Hamilton Project types that they aren’t that different from the right on economic issues. Both want little regulation of banking and open trade and international capital flows. Both want to “reform” Medicare and Social Security. Both are leery of a welfare state, the Republicans openly so, the Rubinite Dems with all sorts of handwringing and clever schemes to incentivize private companies that generally subsidize what they would have done regardless (note that Americans have had a mixed record in providing good social safety nets, but a big reason is our American exceptionalism means we refuse to copy successful models from abroad).
The powerful influence of moneyed interests on the Democratic party has achieved the fondest aims of the right wing extremists of the 1970s: the party of FDR is now lukewarm at best in its support of the New Deal. Most Democrats are embarrassed to be in the same room with union types. They are often afraid to say that government can play a positive role. They were loath to discuss the costs of income inequality until it became so far advanced that it is now well nigh impossible to reverse it. After all, that sort of discussion might sound like class warfare, and God forbid anyone on the mainstream left risk sound like Marx.
So the Democratic party (and remember, our two party system makes the Democrats the home by default for the left) pretends to be a safe haven for all sorts of out groups: women, gays, Hispanics (on their way to being the dominant group but not there yet), blacks, the poor. But this is stands in stark contradiction to its policies of selling out the middle class to banks and big corporate interests, just on a slower and stealthier basis than the right. So its desperate need to maintain its increasingly phony “be nice to the rainbow coalition” branding places a huge premium on appearances. It thus uses identity politics as a cover for policy betrayals. It can motivate various groups on narrow, specific issues, opening the way for the moneyed faction to get what it wants.
The Democratic coalition, let alone the liberal/progressive movement (such as it is), has huge internal conflicts. The CWA supports a merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, while opposing net neutrality. Progressive leaders like Eric Schneiderman oppose the merger, as do internet freedom activists. A transpartisan spectrum of groups supports net neutrality. It’s OK that these differences exist. But it’s not OK to ignore them and their implications. As Smith points out, things get even more pointed when we look at the conservative economic policies of huge swaths of the Democratic Party.
What we’re seeing with #OccupyWallStreet is that people are arriving at conclusions about the ways this country actually works on their own, without liberal politicians or progressive groups telling them what they are, let alone how to act in response. It strikes me that a lot of white liberals are upset with Obama for the same reasons black and Hispanic liberals are upset with him – namely, his policy ideas don’t work for them and he repeatedly bashes the progressive base. Could there be elements of racism in this? Sure, particularly unintentional and structural racism. But it doesn’t explain what is well explained by looking at well-documented (and documentable) policy differences.