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Either A Defense Or Else An Attack On Barbara Ehrenreich

Henry Farrell and Kevin Drum defend Barbara Ehrenreich against Brad Delong's attacks. I'm not sure whether my thoughts on this controversy constitute a defense or an attack, but here they are. The 2000 Nation piece Brad quotes from is by far the most coherent case for Ralph Nader that I've ever read.

Her point is that if you think the US political system is fundamentally broken, which she does, then it makes no real sense to be voting for the Democrats just because they're better in some ways. If a system is broken, the system needs to be fixed, and the Democratic Party as an institution is one of the system's key pillars and isn't going to do it. The would-be system-fixers need to start a new movement somewhere out there on the grassroots and they're more likely to do it with the Republicans in power. This is correct as a general analysis, and her empirical predictions have been largely born out -- the Bush administration has led to a resurgence of interest in organization and institution-building on the left. In particular, Bush's proclivity for taking the imperial tendencies in American foreign policy to extremes has started to give fundamental criticism of the entire post-Coldwar national security posture its first mainstream hearing ever, as far-left critics find that they have unexpected friends in the CATO Institute and can make hit documentary films. (Lenin -- an absolutely brilliant political strategist if someone lacking in morals and capacity for good governance -- had this all figured out long ago).

So that's the defense. The attack, though, is this: What on earth could have led a person to believe in the late 1990s that something was fundamentally broken with the American political system?

This is the same system that was for a long time marred by chattel slavery, after all, and for a hundred years after that by a period in which one major region was groaning under the yoke of a one-party apartheid state (to say nothing of racial problems in the north). That system proved amenable to incremental reform from within by major stakeholders. And despite much moaning by folks on the left, it simply isn't the case that since 1981 the United States has moved backwards to its pre-Great Society state. Instead, a rising tide of conservatism has succeeded in rolling back a few of the Great Society's innovations, while leaving its most important monuments (Medicare, Medicaid, Civil Rights) untouched and allowing a few further steps forward (gay rights, EITC, the Americans with Disabilities Act, CHIP and S-CHIP, and some new environmental rules, to name a few). Ehrenreich's big complaint seems to be that Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Restoration Act (PWORA, a.k.a. "welfare reform") in 1996, abolishing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and establishing instead Temporary Assistance to Needy Familiies (TANF). I would say that TANF, for all its flaws, is something of an improvement over AFDC, but if people want to disagree I'll respect that. What is not at all a respectable belief, however, is the notion that AFDC was either so fabulous (the poor weren't actually doing so hot in the Reagan years, as you'll recall) or, frankly, so important (both are very small programs) that its abandonment in favor of TANF is reasonable grounds for this sort of radical dissilusionment with conventional politics.

You had people in contemporary Iran who thought for a while that they could pursue reform from within the existing system and who have now mostly concluded that this was wrong -- the system was too resistant to change -- and it was time to take a radical stance. That's a fine and proper thing to do -- radicalism has its place -- but it's Iran. I don't want to be too rose-tinted here, but to look back across the breadth of American history and then look again at the past ten years and decide that now -- now -- is the time to abandon our faith in the slow-but-steady gruntwork of two-party politics and incremental reform is just perverse.

But Ehrenreich should be praised for having a much better understanding (or, at least, a much better capacity to articulate her understanding) of what the purpose of a Nader vote is and for appreciating the general logic of her views. But where did she come by these views? The reporting in Nickle and Dimed struck me as an excellent case for sticking to it, and realizing that little things like a small boost in the EITC or the minimum wage or minor decreases in housing hosts or slightly better enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act or somewhat more energetic union organizing campaigns could make a big difference in the lives of people who have things pretty rough right now. Ehrenreich thinks they'll have to wait until after the Revolution. But why would she think that?

UPDATE: Epistemology's comment (see below) to the effect that this time it's okay to vote for Nader because Kerry's ahead right now and he'll win comfortably has me very afraid. Very. In re: the Civil War point, what I would say is this. Abraham Lincoln secured election under the normal procedure heading up a party that was basically the old Whigs under a new name. It was the reactionaries of the Confederacy who decided that the system was broken and they tried to seceed. In the course of preserving the union -- the system -- the system was reformed and slavery brought to an end. Indeed, it was even brought to an end in an incremental way -- manumission with compensation in the District of Columbia followed by emancipation of slaves behind enemy lines as economic warfare followed, finally, by the emancipation of the rest.

July 11, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

RE: "The reporting in Nickle and Dimed struck me as an excellent case for sticking to it, and realizing that little things like a small boost in the EITC or the minimum wage or minor decreases in housing hosts or slightly better enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act or somewhat more energetic union organizing campaigns could make a big difference in the lives of people who have things pretty rough right now. Ehrenreich thinks they'll have to wait until after the Revolution. But why would she think that?"

You will notice that the government is *absent* from _Nickel and Dimed_--that the impact of the social insurance state on poor people's lives is just not there.

I believe the reason Ehrenreich "thinks that" is that saying "Come the Revolution!" is an appropriate attitudinal stance, while "Let's worry about the balance as we raise the minimum wage and the EITC" is not...

Posted by: Brad DeLong | Jul 11, 2004 3:39:31 PM

"Ehrenreich thinks they'll have to wait until after the Revolution. But why would she think that?"

To understand this, I think you have to understand the mindset of people of real leftist beliefs around 1999 or 2000. (I was a person with such beliefs.) In the wake of the growing protests at the G8 (remember the half-million people in the streets in Genoa?) lots of people thought that radical social change was possible. I certainly thought so. Thus, if real change was possible, the left needed to sieze the moment.

Now, I'll admit that I was totally wrong about this. A combination of war and Bush have eliminated protest on real social issues in the US, and the revolution was not actually around the corner.

But if you think that the revolution is coming, then Ehrenreich's position is very understandable.

Posted by: Sam TH | Jul 11, 2004 4:10:19 PM

"This is the same system that was for a long time marred by chattel slavery, after all...
That system proved amenable to incremental reform from within by major stakeholders."

I don't think my elision changed your apparent meaning, which seems to be that the American Civil War falls under the category of "incremental reform".

But your general point is well taken.

Posted by: Ken C. | Jul 11, 2004 4:31:59 PM

The system is broken, as Nader says. And part of the reason is that the Democrats and Republicans have divided up the country and, while disagreeing on some things, on important issues, like the Iraq war and campaign finance reform, there is little difference. They are the Crips and the Bloods (Republicans the Crips, of course) and they have divided the country up between them. I live in Delaware County, PA, where, to be mayor of Chester, perhaps 90% black, you have to be Republican! Similarly in Philadelphia, you must be Democrat or get nowhere. Most of the country lives in solid Republican or Democrat territory, and there is no real choice. Half the electorate sits home each election. None of the above gets a plurality every time.

I understand the dismay with the last election, and Ralph Nader's alleged spoiler role, but that was then, this is now. Kerry is going to win this election comfortably, and Ralph will bring new blood into the process, as he says. If Kerry wins and the Democrats are seen as having been unfair to Ralph, this will do little for the progressive wing of the Democratic party.

Let Nader be Nader.

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 11, 2004 5:32:12 PM

I see that the Great Ken C. has beaten me to the punch.

Ah, well.

Posted by: praktike | Jul 11, 2004 5:41:39 PM


I agree with Ehrenreich that the system is broken. Thirty years with no improvement to the median wage? That's broken.

I even think that her analysis, that the system won't reform until people get angry enough to start a grassroots third-party movement, is correct.

In fact, I'd say the only real big mistake she made was that she failed to take Howard Dean's strategy into account. Howard Dean, for all practical purposes, created a third party. Granted, Dean's party fought in the Democratic primary rather than in the general election. But understand, that's just strategy: the Deaniacs really were a separate movement, not at all beholden to the Democratic party of old, the only use they had for the old Democratic party was to steal their brand name.

Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jul 11, 2004 5:44:13 PM

Why would we think the system is broken? Because the people running the system TELL US it is broken. They tell us we can't afford universal healthcare or, possibly, even Social Security. They tell us we can't defend our interests if we don't have total military dominance of the entire world. Clean politics? Clean air? Clean water? Nope, we can't afford any of these, or so the people running the system tell us.

Now, a lot of us know this can't really be true. Other people who look a lot like us can actually afford old-age pensions, and manage to get along without the world's largest military.

The obvious conclusion is that it's not just 'modern times' or the incurable laziness of the American worker that makes it impossible for us to do things. And when we see that our managers 'manage' to pay themselves 10-20 times what managers make in societies that can afford to do stuff, it gets pretty easy to connect the dots. Our managers are telling us WE can't afford it, but actually THEY don't know how to do it.

And when the people who can't or won't do the job are in charge, the job ain't gonna get done. In my book, that's 'broken'.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 11, 2004 6:12:40 PM

From the distance of more than one hundred and fifty years, the 'gradual' dissolution of slavery, then de jure apartheid, might seem like a system that works. But if you told the black people who received freedom in 1865 that they would live their whole lives, and their childred and their children's children, would also live their whole lives under an incessant reign of torture, murder and economic degradation, they might not be too likely to agree. The same could be said about industrial workers in the 19th century. Telling a twelve year old, one armed coal miner that he would probably die of black lung before he turned twenty-five and his kids would probably do so after him that, in seventy five years or so organized labor and government reforms would make it possible for his great-great grandkids to (maybe) go to a two year community college, most likely would not leave that kid thinking that the system didn't need fixing.

It strikes me as nauseatingly smug to sit in a position of near unfathomable priviledge and assure the downtrodden that the system will work things out eventually. Isn't that how the Democratic party became a group of self-satisfied corporate lackies in the first place?

Posted by: Matt_C | Jul 11, 2004 6:15:40 PM

" Thirty years with no improvement to the median wage? "

guess what -- economics is ~complicated~.

Eg. if we gave everyone rent vouchers, landlords would just raise the rents to capture the increase.

Eg2, the mortgage interest tax deduction is really no moneysaver, people just take it into account when bidding up the price of real-estate.

Eg3, the median wage just indicates that with a growing working population, employers have no real need to give away the store to labor. Don't like the pay, go work somewhere else.

Some days I'm a lefty libertarian, and others I'm a libertarian lefty. Today, I dunno.

Posted by: Troy | Jul 11, 2004 6:17:35 PM

Let history be your guide. If Democrats consistently in the lean years work for incremental change and profess moderation, the periodic self-destruction of the Republicans will provide the opportunities for serious reform.

1933,1965

Republicans seem to have to include their most extreme wings in order to gain power, while the Democrats have consistently shunned them. (Communists,Greens). This gives the Democrats the ability to suddenly move left in policy, and also gives the Democrats a greater possibility of a large governing majority.

Whereas, as much as we may have disliked the post-94 years, the Repubs have not been able to obtain that governing majority, and are desperately trying to pack the courts. They will consistently move farther right in frustration.

The Revolution will come either this year, with Bush setting up a fascist dictatorship, or in 2008, as the Republicans run their Ashcroft/Delay ticket, and the Democrats obtain their governing majority again.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 11, 2004 6:19:23 PM

"It strikes me as nauseatingly smug to sit in a position of near unfathomable priviledge and assure the downtrodden that the system will work things out eventually. Isn't that how the Democratic party became a group of self-satisfied corporate lackies in the first place?"

This is a better description of Ehrenreich's position than MY's. Ehrenreich is encouraging voters to pass up opportunities to make the lives of working-class people incrementally better in the real world, and to instead take the morally pure position of rooting for a revolution that might never come. Of course, Ehrenreich herself would continue to live in comfort and fame whether the revolution comes or not. If that isn't nauseating smugness, I don't know what is.

Posted by: JP | Jul 11, 2004 6:25:08 PM

Err...Epistemology, have you ever heard of primary elections? Even if one party dominates a particular region (which makes sense, anyway - parties are often regionally based - although I find it bizarre that a majority black city could possibly be Republican...could you provide a reference for that?), the party itself is an almost entirely decentralized operation. Anyone can run in a party primary - hell, Lyndon LaRouche runs as a Democrat every four years.

At any rate, I'd just note to Matt's comment on the Republicans - it must be noted that they were the Northern Whig Party under a different name, and with substantial infusions of northern Democrats who had become fed up with sucking up to the south (Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln's VP, for instance, had been a Democrat. So had the first Republican presidential nominee, J.C. Frémont.) The Southern Whigs had either gone over to the Democrats (as, for instance, future Confederate VP Alexander Stephens - this was pretty usual in the deep south), or were operating as rumps of the Whig party in a decentralized manner and under a different name (most of these parties, still fairly strong in the upper and middle south, were survivals of the American/Know-Nothing movement, which had briefly swept the south as the not-Democratic Party in the aftermath of the collapse of the Whigs)

Posted by: John | Jul 11, 2004 6:27:04 PM

Matt, Matt, Matt of the jungle,

friend to you and me

do da do da do

Roar!

watch out for that tree

doh!

Posted by: moocow | Jul 11, 2004 6:31:53 PM

Boy, if we could make an engine that would run on fumes the way some of these comments do, we'd have this oil shortage licked.

JP, for example, tells us what Ehrenreich thinks. However, it sounds so unlike what I've actually read of Ehrenreich's works that I think I'll wait for JP to supply a sample proving his point.

I do know that in Washington state homecare workers were poor because the Dems and Repubs passed a law denying the workers the right to collective bargaining, and both parties refused to change it. After an initiative to the people passed and the workers were allowed collective bargaining rights, their hourly pay went from $7.15 an hour to about $8.50. May not sound like much to you, but if you'd worked one of these jobs for a while you'd see the point.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 11, 2004 6:42:59 PM

Ralph Nader may be an egomaniac. He may not even be especially intelligent. But he's not a total idiot. He's surely well aware he'll never be president of the USA. So, why exactly does he run? Maybe there are some bad feelings toward the Democrats, and maybe he (like lots of folks on the hard left) blithely overlook the substantive differences between the Democrats and today's GOP.

But my guess is his calculation is that by throwing the election to Bush (yet again) the eventual furious reaction to Bushism will stoke the flames of progressive outrage. In other words, the Democrats will be pissed off, spoilin' for a fight, and in no mood to compromise. And only THAT sort of Democratic party will be able to effect meaningful (in Nader's eyes) change.

We obviously see some of this "spoilin' for a fight" party this year (I mean, the competitive, tough nature of the Democratic opposition is quite palpable). But if Kerry fails to prevail, and we have four more years of George W. Bush in the White House, 2008's campaign will make 2004's seem like a genteel tea party. And should events cooperate (say, for instance, a debt-induced return to recession, or stagflation, or maybe a significant property slump), the Democrats in four years' time may even seem like genunie advocates of social democracy in the European or Canadian mode. Apres George le deluge, so goes this logic.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Jul 11, 2004 6:55:24 PM

Troy:

Ever try compassionate libertarian.

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 11, 2004 7:14:54 PM

John:

Primary elections? Are you serious. I guess I missed it when the Republican masses rose up as one and demanded GW Bush be the candidate in 2000. The system is pretty well controlled by those in power. Save your civic lessons for the grade schoolers.

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 11, 2004 7:19:04 PM

bob mcmanus:

Are you following the election at all? Bush's chances are fading. Not just the poll numbers, the zeitgeist. The electorate didn't even turn on his father after Gulf War I this quickly. Kerry is a lock. I say this as a non-partisan. I have been registered Republican, I have been registered Democrat, I haven't been registered nor voted for over 25 years (since back when you were a hippie, bob).

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 11, 2004 7:23:06 PM

Perlstein

Hello, up there, Matthew! Serious piece of political wonkery linked here, tip from Tim Dunlop. Attacks yet uses DLC, Greenberg, Judis & Teixeira to advise on winning 2018 midterms. Not at all off-topic.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 11, 2004 7:25:37 PM

"Are you following the election at all? Bush's chances are fading"

Of course I am following the election. I also know it is only July, that Bush's base is more solid than his father's, that the Bush campaign has a serious array of weapons and tools not yet deployed, including many that no decent American President would have conceived of deploying.

Good Lord. You think this is a lock? John Edwards 16 yr-old-mistress has yet to speak up. The John Hancock building is still standing. And Iran has not yet tested its nuke. Bush has yet to put Condi Rice or Bill Cosby as his running mate, or refused to run, allowing the convention to put the McCain/Powell ticket in his place.

And then there are the unknown unknowns. No I am never comfortable in an election season.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 11, 2004 7:35:42 PM

As a self-described "technocratic leftist" I always find the plight of economic leftism in America fascinating. Why is America so far to the right of other western nations on so many economic issues? I think it's because America is far more rural and suburban than most other Western nations. WIth ruralism comes cultural conservatism. The reactionary plutocrats have brilliantly harnessed that strain of cultural conservatism for decades now.

So what's a leftist to do? I think the solution is simple. America needs a third party. It needs to be hystericaly reactionary on cultural issues, while being economicaly populist enough to make FDR blush. Think Jesus says yes to life and yes to massive increases in the EITC. A party full of gun lovin', bible thumpin', flag wavin', military servin' and sadly yes gay bashing socialists. Hell, even a few quiet comments about welfare queens and Al Sharpton might be necessary.

This party could pick up seats in Southern and great plains states. It's congressmen would then vote with the Dems on economic issues and grand stand with the Repubs on social issues. The Dems - no matter what Howard Dean tells you - can't win poor southern votes without moving way to the right on social issues. And if the Dems were to move to the right on social issues, their current coalition inlcuding formerly Republican highly educated urban professional types, would crumble.

I know what you're saying: "But WillieStyle, such a party would move the government dangerously to the right on social issues." I say so what? The left controls the national culture, pure and simple. Decades of Republican success have done squat to prevent the perpetual shift of the nation to the left. So much so that Civil Unions for homosexual couples is now a centrist position! SO there'd be two parties whining about Hollywood, big deal.
The government would be driven to do good in areas where it can actualy make a difference while remaining irrelevant where it might do some harm.

And no Roe v. Wade would NOT get overturned. That would be an absolute disaster for the pro life movement. Nothing like images of 19 year old women being imprisoned for having abortions to remind 60% of the country why fundamentalists suck.

Posted by: WillieStyle | Jul 11, 2004 7:38:54 PM

Three in a row, yecch.

All tin-foil stuff aside, the big story in November, after the election, tho it shouldn't be, is Republican turn-out. This completely throws off polls. There is a reason no Supreme Court judge has retired in Bush's first term.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 11, 2004 7:41:26 PM

But Willie, we already have the big-government big-handout big deficit Republicans. Whether you look at per-capita state payments, or the successful 'bidders' for no-bid war contractors, you'll find the Republicans are getting the most money and paying the least. And, unlike any actual socialist government that's ever lived, the Republicans really don't care if they make a huge deficit the future can never pay off.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 11, 2004 7:52:33 PM

bob mcmanus:

Interesting thesis. Perlstein overanalyzes. Progress is two steps forward, one back. Clinton was the consolidating step back. The author tags McGovern as the candidate of "acid, amnesty, abortion". I agree. But consider: If the Republicans instituted a REAL war on drugs, that started putting millions of middle class kids in jail; or sought to bring back a draft, with no amnesty for evaders; or looked close to overturning Roe v Wade; it would be the end for them. Drugs, abortion, and volunteer army are here to stay in America. The first two, at least, a victory, in a shockingly short time, for progressivism.

What does it mean to liberal (or progressive): conservatives cling to the past, liberals embrace the future. The tipping point was the Enlightenment. Modernism eschews sacred texts, all are open to revision; conservatism believes in eternal truths. Eternal truths are easier to defend when the accord with the zeitgeist. Problem in a rapidly evolving society like ours, the zeitgeist is a moving target. There is no core belief of progressivism because THAT is the difference between systems built on faith, and ones built on evidence and reason.

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 11, 2004 7:57:14 PM

Oh, and Bob, thanks for the link. Good reading. Especially germane in Delaware County, PA where our local Boeing plant (the biggest employer) keeps getting downsized and outsourced. Some of my favorite people work for Boeing. I hope they can find management with foresight and the guts to pursue a long term vision.

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 11, 2004 7:59:11 PM

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