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Revisiting 'Resisting Republican Excess'

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The blog entry Resisting Republican Excess -- written as a critical comment on the policies introduced by North Carolina's Republicans since they captured both the legislature and the governorship in 2012 -- triggered more than a thousand comments in the immediate wake of its posting two weeks ago. The argument it contained clearly landed in territory of importance and concern to many Huffington Post readers; and because so many of them took the time to respond, it is only right and proper that -- after due reflection -- their postings too should receive a response. Providing that will do more than pay respect to those who wrote in: it will also help to clarify key areas of difference between progressives and conservatives on key issues of the day. Since so much of what passes for political discussion in America these days is effectively a dialogue of the deaf -- one in which people talk past each other rather than to each other, relying heavily on predetermined talking points as they do so -- there is much democratic mileage to be gained from responding carefully to arguments other than one's own. This is a view of the importance of informed democratic dialogue that I have expressed in many other places, but it is one to which I remain wedded, no matter how often I hear that the sensible center of American politics is now dead.

One line of response, from people as or more liberal than I am, focused on the difficulties of getting the Obama White House to be sufficiently progressive. Since that is a frustration I also share, I will not address it directly here. Instead, I want to pick up on the major lines of conservative response to what I wrote, noting both its content and the occasionally angry manner in which it was delivered. The conservative response to "Resisting Republican Excess" took at least the following four routes. (All the quotations are from the comments.)

  1. Republican ideas are quintessentially American and anchored in the Constitution. Progressive ideas are not. They are European and utopian, and threaten the individual liberty that the Constitution guarantees. Progressives are taking this country towards socialism. If the writer "paid more attention to the Constitution, he would realize that the Republicans are on the more sound legal basis."
  2. No matter what progressives think and say, government spending is the problem, not the solution, currently facing the United States. Government spending on entitlement programs, education and unemployment benefit is simply stacking up debt on future generations. That spending is taking us towards "the soft tyranny of the nanny state."
  3. Progressives want equality of outcomes, conservatives want equality of opportunity. Creating level playing fields by taxing away wealth just erodes the incentive to innovate and take risks, indulges those too idle to work, and hurts everyone in the end by lowering rates of economic growth. "Don't share my wealth, share my work ethic." "Didn't you know that competition increases efficiency and ultimately delivers a better end product?" "Why should I pay the burden for someone who has not made the effort?"
  4. Republicans get elected because they propose policies that their voters want. So this was "a very stupid post." Just "a rant" by "a spoiled little man facing his worse fear of actually working for a living." There is no excess in Republican policies, only in my response to them.

Each of these conservative arguments met powerful rebuttals from other contributors, for which many thanks: so let me merely add this.

America and Socialism

One thing we all do need to talk about is our own history. If people can be persuaded, as so many conservatives now appear to be, that there is a direct line of continuity from the Founding Fathers to Ronald Reagan and on to Mitch McConnell, then progressive ideas are bound to look both imported and threatening. But the canonization of Ronald Reagan is an important part of the way in which modern-day conservative politicians marginalize other currents in American political history, not least that represented by both the Roosevelt Presidents (Theodore and FDR). Free-market capitalism has always required massive amounts of federal help and regulation -- from the tariff that protected fledging northern industries after the Civil War right through to the huge subsidies to large American corporations on which researchers at the Cato Institute reported in 2007. The New Deal tradition that FDR embodied added to that long-established pattern of state aid to industry, a new set of minimum welfare rights and labour protections. The New Deal was and remains as equally American as its Republican alternative of a balanced budget, and equally compatible with the Constitution. It was and is also just as anti-socialist. Many people now seem unaware that America actually had a rich socialist tradition in the six decades after the Civil War -- a tradition against which the northern Democratic Party competed for the electoral loyalty of the emerging working class: that there were nineteenth-century Americans who favored the public ownership of banks and railroads (including agrarian radicals in the Populist movement of the 1890s), and even Americans who favored the ending of the private ownership of the means of production. But that socialist tradition, which was more radical and more widely supported in the United States before World War I than it was in the United Kingdom in the same period -- was effectively crushed by the Palmer Raids in 1920, and is no longer a presence of any scale on the American Left. These days, progressives favor managed capitalism, conservatives favor unregulated capitalism, and the discussion between them is not helped by pretending that any major political force in the United States currently favors Soviet-style socialism.

The Private and the Public in the Creation of the Good Society

The constant premise of so much of the pushback against progressive programs is this notion that left to itself the unregulated market is the best guarantee of freedom for all -- a modern-day version of Adam Smith's invisible hand. But that faith in unregulated markets downplays the vital role of governments in helping markets work as they should, not least by the imposition of basic standards: by trust-busting, by rules on food safety, drug testing, airline regulation and so on. It also misses the role that federal tax policy currently plays in subsidizing private charity. Private giving currently costs the American taxpayer $39 billion each year. Advocates of deregulation often also fail to recognize the two features of labor markets that separate them from other commodity markets in ways that make state intervention vital. One is that when firms close, their workers lose everything (income, health care, often pensions) even though, as workers, they had done nothing to deserve such a fate. A civilized society cannot leave discarded workers (not to mention their children) sitting idle and unrewarded on the shelf, as though they were cans of baked beans: unemployment benefit, and aid with retraining and relocation, are vital supports to a properly functioning labor market, not a burden upon it. And wages are also sources of demand. What is rational for one employer (to keep wages low) is not rational for employers in general (who need demand high). Government policy to block off the former and speed the latter is not illegitimate interference with free-market forces. It is proper management of an economy whose minimum standards, including a capacity to provide work for all who seek it, needs to be set and guaranteed by a democratically-elected state. The alternative -- deregulated free enterprise -- gives us growth spurts and recessions in regular order, 2008 being a classic example of the latter. Sensible societies smooth that growth path by intelligent economic management by public agencies. This is not socialism. It is common decency and common sense.

Equality and Incentives

As one of the contributors to the debate around "Resisting Republican Excess" correctly commented, there is often a double-standard in conservative conversations about incentives, taxation and welfare -- the fusing together of the claim that rich people need to be allowed to keep lots of money as an incentive to make more, while poor people should be denied lots of money because too much welfare will stop them from working. Rich people with lots of money need more money to incentivize them, poor people with little money need less. Can that really be so? Why? Are the rich and the poor so different as people? No, there is clearly a need for a calm and careful discussion about the impact of taxation on incentives, just as there is an equally important need for a calm conversation about the distribution of entitlement cultures at different levels of the American income structure. All that progressives are currently saying on the first of those is that since 1980 income inequality had incrementally returned to a scale first seen in the Gilded Age, even though there is plenty of evidence that in the 1940s and 1950s, when taxes on high incomes were heavier, the U.S. economy grew rapidly, raising general living standards as it did so. High taxes on high incomes were no automatic barrier to job creation and private investment then, so why should they be now? Nor are the vast majority of Americans who are currently living at/below the poverty level in 2013 in such a condition because they are work-shy, as the argument about welfare payments as a disincentive to work so often implies. 11.5 million of those Americans are trapped in poverty because of involuntary unemployment, and a further 8.2 million are trapped in part-time work for the lack of full-time employment. There are still three Americans seeking work for every job currently available; and even those in employment are now often on such low wages that it keeps them in/close to the poverty level for their size of family -- 10.4 million Americans were in that condition in 2011. There are welfare traps -- as people lose benefit by taking work, the effective tax rate they experience can be a staggeringly high one -- that need addressing; and no doubt conservative commentators will be able to find modern-day examples of Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen." But are conservatives really sure that our main problem now is an entitlement culture at the bottom of American society rather than at the top? How many hedge fund billionaires does it really take to run a fully-functioning economy -- more or fewer than we currently possess? What is so American about Wall Street paying out in bonuses to its top salary earners amounts of money that hard-working ordinary Americans cannot hope to garner over the entirety of their working lives? Is America about freedom or is it about excess?

Republicans, Voters and Professors -- Who is the Least Informed?

As to the argument that Republicans in power at the state level (as in North Carolina) are simply responding to voter requirements, there are counter-arguments worth considering too. One is that much of what was passed in Raleigh in 2013 was not policy promised by Republicans as they sought office. Indeed the Governor explicitly committed himself to opposing any moves to make access to abortion more difficult for North Carolinian women, even though now 16 of the 17 clinics providing the service across the state are likely to close. His approval rating is currently falling fast. A second is that, for a party that insists it is simply doing the people's will, the Republican Party in North Carolina and in a string of other states has proved remarkably quick to make voting harder for key groups of those people. Yet a third is that the Republican Party is now dominated by an unrepresentative group of activists, whose potency in the primary process is now so overwhelming that more moderate forms of Republican politics are literally being shut out of the national debate. Add to that the scale of misinformation currently disseminated by conservative media outlets, misinformation that makes it very hard for busy voters to stay accurately informed about the real choices that they face; and the anger with which at least some sections of the Republican base approach any conversation about health care, immigration or gay rights -- and you see why so many of us despair of ever seeing sensible political discourse in America again. It may make some of the respondents to "Resisting Republican Excess" feel better to critique my intelligence and my work ethic -- though they would do well not to assume that because a posting can be read quickly and easily that its writing was equally quick and easy -- but the democratic process as a whole is not helped by excessive amounts of rudeness and personal vitriol. Shooting the messenger is no substitute for actually addressing the message.

Questions for Moderate Republicans

Which brings me to this final point, addressed to any Huffington Post readers who still think of themselves as moderate Republicans: are you as disturbed as many progressives are with the current state of the Republican Party? Do conservative politicians like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz really represent you; and if they do not, what are you planning to do about it? And if you are actively religious, how do you square your faith with policies that so visibly disadvantage the poor? A political system built on checks and balances can only work if both parties contain majorities committed to bipartisanship. A society that purports to be Christian can only live up to the full promise of its religion if public policy follows the Beatitudes. Passing symbolic repeals of the Affordable Care Act, and blocking legislation on immigration reform, makes perfect sense if your view of good politics is that there should be no politics. But if your view of the legitimate role of government is less anti-statist than that, then total Washington gridlock must be something that you too wish to end. It is time, surely, for those of us who want to see important things done in Washington D.C. and in state capitals like Raleigh, North Carolina -- who want Washington and Raleigh to succeed -- to unite together to minimize the impact in both cities of those who want government to fail.

First published with full sourcing at

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