We’ve just gone through how the Great Recession caused a predictable populist uprising and how that uprising was hijacked by conservative Republicans and became the Tea Party.
In the interests of full disclosure, the Democrats had something to do with this too.
Here’s a short summary of how the Democrats missed the opportunity of a lifetime to make the case for government as the protector of the working man and the middle class. By failing to engage in a vigorous defense of the New Deal, Democrats lost an opportunity to re-educate another generation of voters on why free markets can’t be trusted to regulate themselves.
After 8 years of Bush’s version of trickle-down economics, two wars, Halliburton, Black Water, Abu Grebe, an unfunded expansion of Medicare, Enron, torture, wiretapping, outing of CIA agents, a politically motivated purge of the justice department, Katrina, the housing bubble, and the inevitable burst of that bubble, ballooning deficits, dramatic job loss, the resultant rash of foreclosures, the collapse of the housing market, and the collapse of the domestic auto industry; the country was ready for a change. The collapse of the global financial markets only put an exclamation point to the cry for CHANGE!
The country selected a young bright Ivy League-educated African American who promised change. He promised to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He promised to expand healthcare. He promised immigration reform. He promised a new era of political cooperation and focus on rebuilding the middle class. More than anything else, he promised that a vote for him was a vote AGAINST everything that the Bush administration stood for. Shortly after his election, however, he was handed a global financial crisis.
His reaction was to retain many of the people that Bush had put in place to deal with the crisis and pass the basic recovery package that had been crafted by that team. From a financial point of view, you can’t argue with the results. The plan worked. The global financial system stabilized. Bad financial institutions were consumed by good ones. The domestic auto industry was restructured. Five years later the stock market is setting records and job growth is finally hitting numbers that will reliably reduce unemployment.
The optics, however, were bad. You had Larry Summers and Tim Geithner leading the charge. Summers was the guy under Clinton who had championed the repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law which prohibited financial institutions from mixing securities trading and FDIC-insured banking. Geithner was a disciple of Alan Greenspan who had famously believed that the captains of Wall Street could regulate themselves. The focus of this team was on restoring confidence in the markets.
The collapse of the mortgage derivative market had left many financial institutions holding assets of questionable value as collateral for loans that they weren’t sure were collectible. In self-defense most banks stopped lending and started hoarding cash to protect against having their own loans called. That caused the economy to essentially seize-up as we transformed overnight from a credit economy to a cash economy. Getting the credit economy going again while avoiding the panic bank runs we’ve seen in the past was a masterful accomplishment.
The team completely ignored the need to also restore voters’ confidence. This opened the door for movement conservatism to put their own spin on events.
The AIG Moment
The stage was set when the news broke that AIG planned to pay out $165M in exec bonuses, and company-wide bonuses that could exceed $1.2B. This after the government provided AIG a huge bailout (a credit line from the Fed and Treasury of up to $182B). The President and Congress expressed outrage, but the die was already cast.
It didn’t matter that the AIG bailout turned out to be a ridiculously good deal for taxpayers netting almost $23B dollars in two years.
It also didn’t matter that AIG was the lynch-pin in the financial structure supporting the derivative trading market that was at the core of this collapse. If AIG was allowed to collapse, the financial meltdown could have easily become a depression. That’s because virtually every financial institution holding mortgage-backed derivatives in their portfolio also had an insurance policy from AIG to hedge against the performance of those derivatives. If AIG failed to pay their insurance claims, ALL of those institutions would be forced to unravel the value of their holdings to determine what they were worth. In the meantime, no one would lend to them; and they wouldn’t lend to anyone else.
While the Obama team of financial all-stars worked feverishly behind the scenes to keep the fragile interconnected network of international financial institutions from collapsing, the public saw something very different. They didn’t see all of the deals and personal promises required to keep the all the leaks in the dike from becoming a flood that would drown the world. Instead they saw what appeared to be obvious evidence that those who had caused the financial meltdown had successfully gamed the bailout too. They saw a system that was still rigged to benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
What mattered to them was not that President Obama and his team of Wall Street insiders had masterfully kept the whole system afloat by propping up AIG. They saw a “crony” deal that ALLOWED AIG to reward themselves when they should have been punished.
The right were able to capture this sense of anger with “let it burn” irrationalism.
The Democrats were caught flat footed because they had lost their ability to speak to or empathize with the working man.
President Obama in Audacity of Hope describes the “modern” Democrats that he has met on the fund-raising trail.
As a rule they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing . . . in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class. . . . They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy. . . . They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital. Most were adamantly pro-choice and anti-gun and were vaguely suspicious of deep religious sentiment.
The financial meltdown frightened these people too, but they did not lose their jobs or their homes. They had a deep and sophisticated understanding of the financial markets because they are generally well educated and well off. They knew why you couldn’t simply “let it burn”. They could probably even empathize with those who were losing their jobs and their homes, but they could not appreciate the abject terror, vulnerability, and rage that comes from having your future stolen. These Democrats simply could not understand why so many people were obsessed with finding and punishing the criminals when first priority had to be stabilizing the financial system.
Herbert Hoover or FDR
History has lost track of the fact that Herbert Hoover used bailouts extensively to try to jump start the economy after the 1929 stock market crash. They were massively unpopular because of blatant cronyism. FDR won the presidency in 1932 because he campaigned against them. It was FDR’s genius that he understood the plight of the working man even though he himself never experienced it. He was able to gain their confidence because he laid the blame for the Great Depression squarely on the shoulders of greedy business men and the unregulated free market.
His actions supported his words.
He used government to get money flowing again rather than working through financial institutions. He closed corrupt banks and regulated the rest. He created new investment regulations and imposed wage and cost controls. He supported the growth of unions. When that wasn’t enough to put everyone back to work, he printed money and hired the unemployed himself to build roads, develop parks, write books, record songs, and create public art. He was able to create the grand New Deal bargain between business and the workers because workers believed in him.
Instead, Obama and his team trusted their own expertise and intelligence. Their message to the public was that we’ve got the best economic minds in the world engaged in the managing this recovery. The recovery plan is based on solid Keynesian economic principles, so trust us. It’s going to work. It may take some time, but it’s going to work.
They were right. It did work.
They were wrong in assuming that people who were terrified, would feel better knowing that smart people were in charge. For many it was exactly the opposite.
What people were hungry for was a leader who not only told them that everything was going to be OK, but who also demonstrated by his actions that he understood their righteous wrath. They needed someone to take out after Wall Street, punish those who misbehaved, regulate the industries that couldn’t regulate themselves, and place the blame squarely on the failed philosophy of unregulated free markets. Democrats should have been promoting the role that government plays in times like this. Instead they found themselves protecting Wall Street from a larger collapse that could have plunged the world into depression. The recovery plan required cooperation from the insiders who helped cause the problem. The Obama administration secured that cooperation by reassuring insiders that the government’s primary concern was recovery rather than prosecution.
Instead of FDR, Obama became Hoover.
Movement conservatism took advantage of the opportunity that they helped create. Just as a segment of the population in the 1930’s turned to communism as the utopian alternative to capitalism, movement conservatism began promoting utopian market populism as the cure of our economic ills today. Market populism is the answer for everything and a potent defense against relativism. Whatever shortcoming conservatives confront, whether it be math, or science, or political reality can be explained away through the fiction of a “Randian” free economy.
The challenge that this presents for Democrats is, just as Republicans are becoming more fictional and conservative, Democrats have become more professional and pragmatic. Democrats live in the world of facts. Republicans live in the world of ideology. The world of ideology will trump the world of facts every day because ideology is about religion. You can’t argue religion.
The emergence of the cult of utopian market populism also made it much easier for Democrats to dismiss right wing zealotry as hysterical and illogical. That’s because Democrats themselves were becoming the equivalent of political atheists. Democratic political positions were grounded in fact rather than belief. Democrats trust and self-identify with academia and subject matter experts because that’s where facts come from.
Republicans identify with the conservative meme of revolting against the ruling elite class who are imposing an ideology (the world of facts) on them. They see themselves as heroic revolutionaries storming the barricades of conventional wisdom.
It doesn’t matter that overturning the status quo, as represented by the scientific method, is a the heart of virtually all academic research.
It also doesn’t matter that holding up the free market as the example of a revolt against the ruling class is completely backwards. The free market CREATES the ruling class. The ruling class use their wealth and power to warp the free market and preserve their position. The dramatic growth in a fabulously wealthy ruling class in this country is only the most obvious result of our willingness to give them free reign. The fact that Republicans chose a poster child for the ruling class as their nominee in 2012 was no accident. The religion of the right, however, tramples these facts with the free market fantasy that EVERY man could achieve the wealth of Mitt Romney if the market were simply allowed to function without limit.
What matters to movement conservatives is that there is an elite in this country who dare to question their religious beliefs in a free market utopia. They ASSOCIATE this elitism with academia. In a fit of moral intuitionism, they reject science and research that contradicts their views as part of a vast conspiracy to hide the truth and brainwash the unconverted. They attribute cronyism and self-serving classism to any political influence gained by those who live a fact-based life. They infer from that that the great ills in the economy today flow from the attempts by the elite to control and manipulate the otherwise pure and dependable free market to their own ends. These elites engage in this behavior because they fear what would happen to them in a truly free market utopia.
Obama made a fateful choice when he decided to pivot from financial recovery to healthcare reform. Rather than engage in a battle to promote fundamental Democratic beliefs about the role of government to protect the little guy against the excesses of the market, Obama chose to fulfill his campaign promise of universal healthcare. Unfortunately this played right into the hands of movement conservatism. The government that was already guilty of cronyism on a massive scale, and racking up debt of historic proportion in the process, was now planning to take over the largest segment of the economy. What started as a populist backlash to the financial meltdown turned into a political movement called the Tea Party. That movement recaptured the House in 2010.
If healthcare reform does come close to its enrollment targets, significantly reduce the rolls of the uninsured, and sign up enough young healthy people to support its business model – the politics in this country will change again.
That political change will weaken Republicans, strengthen Democrats, and relegate the Tea Party into a fringe opposition group. That’s because a majority of voters will realize that just as the Republicans were wrong about the free market’s ability to regulate itself, they were wrong about healthcare reform. It did not kill people. It did not destroy jobs. It did not add to the debt. The Republicans, because they have invested so much into Obamacare opposition, will get punished at the polls until they find another issue. The Tea Party because they are likely to continue in their obsessive opposition to a program that they are not going to be able to repeal, will lose their ability to influence the Republican Party.
While the Tea Party figures out how to move forward, Republicans and Democrats will engage in the next big ideological fight. That will be the unfinished business from Obama’s first term – Economic Justice and Income Inequality.