THE BLOG
05/10/2015 03:59 pm ET Updated May 10, 2016

Women as the Loyal Opposition

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Long ago, when I began writing newspaper columns, a wise editor advised me that a column is about one thing. I am about to violate that rule. This piece is about three different things (which are connected if you look hard.)

One is a 25th anniversary; the second is some Mother's Day musings; the third is the latest in a string of losses for the left, namely the trouncing of the British Labour Party in Thursday's election. Let me explain.

In 1990, Robert Reich, Paul Starr and I founded a new progressive magazine, The American Prospect, to try to breathe some intellectual spirit and political backbone into American liberalism. At the time, liberals were getting whacked both by resurgent right-wingers and by neo's who were urging liberals to become more conservative.

We often reflect on where we've made gains and where we've suffered losses in the 25 years since we've been publishing. It doesn't take much reflection to notice the huge losses when it comes to shared prosperity and robust democracy.

The nation is far more unequal than in 1990 -- and the economic inequality translates into a political tilt. As wealth becomes more concentrated, so does power. A far-right Supreme Court has compounded the damage by literally defining money as speech and corporations as natural persons.

On the other hand, the past 25 years have produced stunning gains for the politics of inclusion. Despite continuing police brutality and persistent glass ceilings, this is a more accepting nation than it was a quarter century ago.

We have more women and black CEOs, far more women and non-white professionals, an African American in the White House, who will very likely be succeeded by a woman. Same-sex marriage, once ridiculed, is increasingly seen as normal. All of these gains were the fruits of popular struggle, which has to give one some hope that inequality is at last breaking through as a top-tier political issue.

In many respects, the gains for women are the most robust and the most impressive.

Which brings me to the second observation. As the Obama Administration largely blew an opportunity to bring drastic and belated reform to a bloated financial sector, bailing it out rather than cleaning it out, virtually all of the perpetrators were men and most of the heroic dissenters were women.

That remarkable company includes Elizabeth Warren, who headed the Congressional Oversight Panel and is now of course leader of progressive Democrats nationally; Sheila Bair, then the chair of the FDIC, who like Warren wanted to break up the big banks and who was ostracized by the boys at the Treasury and the Fed; Brooksley Born, who was vilified in the 1990s and later vindicated for spotting the toxic potential of derivatives early on; Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State, who worked tirelessly to toughen the Dodd-Frank Act; Nancy Pelosi, who pushed President Obama for a bigger recovery stimulus and who is now leading the Democrats' opposition to fast track treatment for a bad trade deal; Sarah Bloom Raskin, then the toughest of the Federal Reserve governors on the subject of banking regulation, now the best we have at the Treasury; and Janet Yellen, the first chair of the Fed to temper the central bank's inflation obsession in favor of an equal concern for unemployment.

Oh, and most of these heroes, in their spare time, are also moms.

So what's at work here? I don't think it has much to do with chromosomes or female nurturance. I do think the gendered nature of dissent from the disastrous conventional wisdom on the stranglehold of finance has a lot to do with the fact that women were historically excluded from the Wall Street old boys' club.

That meant that they were not part of the echo chamber of self-reinforcing group-think, which freed them to follow their own lights and pose inconvenient questions in a different voice. (And yes, there were some male dissenting heroes, as well -- Senator Sherrod Brown and futures regulator Gary Gensler come to mind -- but this was mostly a female story.

As women become more pervasive as leaders, one hopes that these dissenting voices will become majority voices. (And before we get too carried away, let's recall that the jury is out on Hillary Clinton's progressivism, and let's also remember Angela Merkel and Maggie Thatcher, not to mention Sarah Palin and Carly Fiorina.)

Speaking of Thatcher, what to make of the latest defeat of the British Labour Party in Thursday's general election? Some commentators have concluded that the Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, was too much of a lefty.

But it's more likely that Miliband, who staged a coup against his own brother in a battle for the party leadership, was not well liked or trusted personally; and that Labour, as one observer put it, was whipsawed between two nationalisms -- the backlash against the EU, which drew off opposition votes to the UK Independence Party; and Scottish nationalism, which all but wiped out Labour's historic stronghold in Scotland.

Labour's top campaign strategist, M.P. Douglas Alexander, lost his own seat in working class Paisley, to a 20-year-old-university student of the Scottish Nationalist Party, a woman named Mhairi Black. (The national leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, is also female.)

The British electoral system also helped, by giving the Conservatives a bare majority of seats in what was depicted as a resounding victory, with only 36.9 percent of the popular vote. Parties to the left of the Tories together received a combined 47.3 percent. The remainder went to the anti-EU vote.

But let's not kid ourselves. Ascendant, banker-dominated, free market capitalism is destroying the life chances of ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic, and center-left parties have largely failed to turn that popular frustration into governing majorities that can deliver radical reform. The only recent exception is Greece -- and the Greeks are on the verge of bring crushed by their indignant creditors.

The Democratic standard bearer next time is very likely to be a woman -- Hillary Clinton, or possibly, given a very unlikely chain of events, Elizabeth Warren. She had better improve on the performance of recent watered down progressives. Otherwise, the script we just saw play out in Britain is likely to persist.

A happy belated Mother's Day to all. My own wonderful mother died a year ago today. She was 100.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of the American Prospect, which celebrates its 25th Anniversary Gala next Wednesday. Elizabeth Warren will keynote.

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