Bloom Briefing 12: Bettering Material Conditions; Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia; Trump vs GOP
Happy baseball season, and welcome to the twelfth edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week, the focus is on the rise and fall of redistributionist arguments; the relationship between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in contemporary political rhetoric; and the importance of disentangling what is Trump and what is Republican.
Raising the Floor of Material Circumstance: The Contemporary Challenge
Last week, I wrote about how there is discord between two groups on the left: those who use a rights-based foundation to argue for the removal of systemic barriers to social mobility for specific protected classes of Americans; those who believe that there is too much inequality (full stop) and want the government to raise the floor of living conditions for the least fortunate of society.
The essential divide between these groups is that the first largely believes that their responsibility is to level the playing field. Inequality is treated as an inevitable consequence of liberal democratic life, so as long as everyone has had an equal opportunity, inequality is acceptable. The second group believes that there are conditions of life which should not be permitted to exist in contemporary society and that government should do everything in its power to ensure that they don’t.
To make this more concrete, the first group fights for things like gender-neutral bathrooms (gender identity), ending police brutality against people of color (race), stopping inhumane deportations (because these tend to be highly racialized), equal pay for equal work (gender), and preventing the effectuation of the Muslim ban (religion). Its primary goal is to put an end to any kind of policy that is designed to make the realization of opportunity more difficult for people who carry the status of some protected class (race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). This is why this group is frequently considered to have a focus on identity politics.
The second group, the one focused on raising floors, agrees with all of these initiatives but would add to them things like a universal basic income (or some policy equivalent), single-payer healthcare, a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, the strengthening of unions, and other policies designed to raise the quality of life for people across the income spectrum, but particularly for those at the bottom.
It is my contention that this second group is marginalized in the political sphere – that few, if any, politicians focus their rhetoric on this suite of issues. Bernie Sanders does, to a small extent, though he is now back to being an independent. Elizabeth Warren does, to an even lesser extent, but for both Sanders and Warren, their focus is more about limiting the damage of corporations than it is about directing resources to making everyone’s lives better.
Raising the Floor of Material Circumstance: An American Intellectual History
Given the intellectual tradition of the left, this lack of focus on the redirection of resources to raising the floor of outcomes is a bit surprising. The “left,” as we commonly understand it today, emerged from Marxism. It takes as its essential, if infrequently-spoken, creed, that the inevitable inequality produced by capitalism need not be accepted by the exploited masses. Government can and should make the lives of everyone better.
While the American left has never adopted as Marxist a tone as its European counterpart, there was a time when commitment to raising the floor was a more central component. In fact, you can trace its rise and fall in a simple arc spanning about 100 years, from the 1870s to the 1960s.
The Populist Movement became the first major movement in American politics to adopt the language of economic circumstance as part of its core set of concerns. Rural farmers, frustrated by the financial practices of the banks that controlled their compensation for crops, and having their tenuous existence complicated further by a monetary contraction, banded together to demand better circumstances.
In fact, in the “Omaha Platform,” often considered the founding document of Populism, the farmers make explicit their focus on material circumstance: “The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation. We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin.” Much of the Omaha Platform would be woven into the Democratic Party platform for William Jennings Bryan’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1896.
This remains only a nascent manifestation of “raise the floor” political demands because such a politics exists only in the background. The focus remains on changing a few official government policies (like basing currency value exclusively on gold) and the removal of tariffs which disadvantaged farmers. Nonetheless, this kind of rhetoric, focused on unsustainable material conditions, paved the way for a more explicit kind of politics surrounding material conditions moving forward.
The peak of this politics occurs in the New Deal. New Deal politics are explicitly about making sure that everyone has a job, that there is social security for the elderly, and that the poor are adequately cared for. The entire constellation of progressive politics in the New Deal is specifically around making the material conditions better.
While Democratic politics retained this kind of message throughout much of the post-war era, the last great policy push under the auspices of this politics occurred with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. The idea of Medicare and Medicaid is that everyone should have access to healthcare.
Raising the Floor of Material Circumstance: American Politics Today
There’s a case to be made that Obamacare represents a similar kind of policy. This is certainly true. But Obamacare is essentially designed to fix the fact that Medicare and Medicaid don’t go far enough towards ensuring everyone has access to healthcare. Obamacare is an important step, and it has helped reorient American politics around the idea that everyone should have healthcare, but the idea that everyone should have healthcare is not new. This only returns us to where we were in 1965.
There is a large opportunity for the left here. Reorienting towards a politics focused on bettering the conditions for those at the bottom of the American economic hierarchy could help peel some Obama voters who swung for Trump back. It could also motivate higher turnout among constituencies that already vote heavily Democratic: union members, African Americans, Latinxs, the poor, and others.
This return would come at minimal electoral cost. Perhaps the Democrats would lose a few suburban white voters who voted for McCain and Romney, but were turned off enough by Trump’s racism that they grudgingly voted for Clinton. But these are voters the Democrats probably aren’t likely to retain anyway, so the cost of “losing” them is illusory.
The stakes are also tremendously high. If Trump, with his toxic brand of populism, xenophobia, and racism, pivots toward economic populism before the left gets there, it could force the left into more traditionally liberal policies, keeping the part boxed in to its predominantly liberal, but anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-xenophobic, anti-homophobic constellation of the politics they already inhabit.
That’s okay from a Democratic perspective (that constellation of politics works just fine for them most of the time), but the thought of the union of economic populism allied with racism, xenophobia, and chest-thumping nationalism is a union that has only been seen once in the industrialized west: 1930s fascism. When progressives raved about the potential terror of a Trump presidency during the campaign, this is why. Trump has shown no particular adherence to the free-market orthodoxy of the last 50 years of Republicanism, so he looks like a potential neo-Nazi.
Not only is it potentially good politics (i.e., they could win more votes) for the Democrats to move to explicitly speak about raising the floor of material circumstance for all Americans, but it could also save the country from a turn towards fascism. Such policies are almost certainly the right moral call as well.
Right now, the ball is the hands of Tom Perez, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer – three politicians steeped in the intellectual tradition of identity politics. Will they be able to pivot successfully to a more progressive economic agenda? The fate of the country may hang in the balance.
Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Trump-Era America
The New York Times published an op-ed by Michelle Goldberg this weekend that focused on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in contemporary America. Goldberg’s understanding of contemporary hatred and nuance in describing it are well worth your time.
The claim, Goldberg points out, is not that Trump himself is avowedly anti-Semitic, rather that Trump is willing to traffic in anti-Semitic tropes.
“Mr. Trump himself does not appear to harbor person anti-Jewish animus: He has a beloved Jewish daughter and close Jewish advisers. Yet he and members of his circle have broken long-established social and political norms by mining the anti-Semitic far right for images and arguments.”
Goldberg smartly contrasts the symbolic anti-Semitism and posturing of the Trump administration and the public outcry around it (she reminds us that “all 100 senators signed a letter calling on the Trump administration to take ‘swift action’ against the anti-Semitic bomb threats.”) with the lack of similar outcry over overt, open, and materially significant Islamophobia.
“The president and his associates mix anti-Semitic dog whistles with frank attacks on Muslims, immigrants, and refugees. The paradox is that in today’s America, coded anti-Semitism is more political taboo than open Islamophobia.”
And on the subject of one of Trump’s advisers (Sebastian Gorka), who donned Nazi paraphernalia at an inauguration ball:
“Naturally, many Jews find this chilling, but we should not lose sight of the real import of Mr. Gorka’s appointment. He may flirt with anti-Semitic iconography for sentimental reasons, but he owes his career to his apocalyptic view of America’s war with radical Islam.”
Goldberg’s point is that we wouldn’t allow this type of discourse if it were about Jews. We simply wouldn’t tolerate it. If you wouldn’t talk about a certain group of people with certain language, it’s probably best not to talk about another group of people using that language. Similarly, language we wouldn't allow about one group of people shouldn't be acceptable about another.
What is Trump? What is Republican?
The editorial board of the LA Times published the first part of a four-part series examining Trump’s unfitness for office today. In their introduction to the series, they make an important note about focusing on the truly dangerous aspect of Trump: his character.
“Although his policies are, for the most part, variations on classic Republican positions (many of which would have been undertaken by a President Ted Cruz or a President Marco Rubio), they become far more dangerous in the hands of this imprudent and erratic man. Many Republicans, for instance, support tighter border security and a tougher response to illegal immigration, but Trump’s cockamamie border wall, his impracticable campaign promise to deport all 11 million people living in the country illegally and his blithe disregard for the effect of such proposals on the U.S. relationship with Mexico turn a very bad policy into an appalling one.”
There has been a worrying tendency in political commentary of late to elide the unique temperamental unfitness of Trump with generic Republican “very bad policy.” This elision helps the resistance not at all. It makes it feel as if the removal of Trump would be an end to bad policy. It won’t. It will simply eliminate the most dangerous aspects of those policies that make them truly “appalling.”
At Vox, Nicole Hemmer published an article chronicling the history of scientific racism and an analysis of its role in contemporary conservative thought.
At Gizmodo, Ashley Feinburg recounted her likely successful quest to find FBI Director James Comey’s personal Twitter account.
At the Atlantic, Samuel Huneke explained why Germany has less of a problem with right-wing populism than most of the rest of the world.
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