BOTH SIDES? BULL.
Conservatives Built ‘the Establishment’ They Love to Hate
Conservatives demanded supply-side economics, tax cuts, stagnant wages, assaults on trade unionism, disinvestment, tuition increases. Liberals were against every one of them.
I trust you’re familiar with the phrase “both-sides-ism,” as in, “both sides are guilty of” whatever. It goes back to the 1990s, when the current era of polarization first dawned, and pundits like David Broder (he was conspicuous in this regard) used to write columns bemoaning that both sides were equally culpable.
Well, it’s taken a quarter-century and one of our two parties sending an authoritarian demagogue to the White House, but finally, a decent chunk of America (and even the mainstream press) seems to accept that one side has been more to blame than the other. Yes, I know that Lindsey Graham would counter by caterwauling about how monstrously the Democrats just treated Brett Kavanaugh, but my answers to that are 1) at least we had a chance to learn about Kavanaugh’s background, which is more than one can say about Merrick Garland, and 2) putting the last two weeks aside, every other week of the year, Democrats haven’t played hardball remotely the way the Republicans routinely do.
So that both-sides-ism battle here is going… OK. But there’s another one that infuriates me.
The failures of “the West” that resulted in Brexit and Trumpism and Viktor Orban and the other manifestations of right-wing populism are a little more in the news this week than usual. Bernie Sanders gave a very good speech on the topic this week at Johns Hopkins (I find Sanders considerably more nuanced and less bombastic on foreign policy than on his usual meat-and-potatoes domestic issues). And Robert Kagan has a new book out on the subject, which he promoted in a Washington Post column (and which Tom Friedman promoted in a Times column; nice week for Kagan!).
Virtually all of the writing about this collapse employs these grand, generic phrases to name the culprit who let this happen. “The West,” as I noted above; the “liberal world order,” which Kagan uses in his Washington Post piece; “the establishment,” which you’ll see here and there. They make it sound like the failure was everyone’s.
Well—no, I’m sorry. The failure is not everyone’s, and culpability most assuredly does not fall equally on both sides. Conservatives and Republicans did far more to bring about this collapse than liberals and Democrats did.
In the 1970s, conservative economists and intellectuals led by Milton Friedman started to promote the idea that public investment was the root of our economic problems at the time, and that we should give the money back to rich people and let them decide what to do with it. Friedman also advanced the notion that corporations have no responsibility to their communities or workers, only their shareholders.
What has resulted has been the most grotesque transfer of wealth in the history of the country, with far more money involved now than there had been even in the Gilded Age. Right-wing economic policy has confiscated trillions out of the bank accounts of middle- and working-class people.
Liberals fought this every step of the way from day one. Liberal social scientists, economists, and other intellectuals warned about wage stagnation as soon as it started in the 1970s—and proposed ways to address it. Ditto the runaway inequality that started in the 1980s, the bottomless consumerism, the ill effects of free trade on manufacturing areas, the GOP attacks on unions, you name it.
As conservatives have persuaded Republicans—and, alas, a good chunk of the American people—that they needed tax cut after tax cut since government couldn’t do anything good with their money, liberals said no, there’s a price that we pay for all these tax cuts, and that price is lack of public investment. People wonder why the state university keeps jacking up their kids’ tuition? In no small part, it’s because state governments keep slashing their levels of support for higher education. Those levels ticked up last year a bit, but they’d been falling since—guess when?—the early 1980s, when supply-side took over.
These are things conservatives demanded and won: supply-side economics, tax cuts, stagnant wages, assaults on trade unionism, free trade, disinvestment, tuition increases—that have hollowed out our communities. Liberals were against every one of them—and put forward proposals to fight them.
When it comes to the Democratic Party, the record is admittedly less pristine. Yes, Bill Clinton pushed free trade (although in Congress, members of his own party opposed him by 60-40 percent), and Barack Obama tried to. Yes, both could have done more, at moments, to rebut and reverse neoliberalism. Obama should have come down much harder on the big banks. All these stock buybacks that keep billions of dollars in the hands of the 1 percent came about as a result of a mere SEC rule change promulgated under—guess who?—Ronald Reagan. Either Clinton or Obama could presumably have had their SEC undo rule 10b-18, and neither did.
But Clinton—the Clinton who increased public investment and yes, raised taxes—delivered a broader prosperity to this country than it had known since the mid-1960s (yes, median household incomes increased, and poverty was alleviated, at greater levels under Clinton than under the sainted Reagan).
And Obama tried to do numerous things for a struggling middle class. He wanted a big infrastructure bill (not big enough by my lights, but pretty good). He wanted to raise the minimum wage. He tried to expand overtime pay to reach millions more workers. And, of course, he did expand health care to millions.
All these things would have (or did) reduce to some extent the suffering and the struggling of the blue-collar working poor. But the members of one party voted against all these things. Gee, remind me who that was again? Which party’s governors chose under Obamacare not to help their own people because it was more important to fight the president’s evil socialistic scheme?
And while you’re at it, remind me: which fox was in charge of the chicken coop in 2008, when the big banks were betting against themselves and the responsible people in Washington didn’t care and the whole world economy nearly collapsed? And remind me also which party was against bailing out the auto companies, and think about how much worse things would be for those angry Trump voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio if the “elitist” Obama hadn’t insisted on doing it.
Some of what has happened is, of course, no one’s fault specifically. Globalization can’t be blamed on either party, and technological change is inevitable and will always adversely affect some people and regions more than others.
But it remains a fact that conservatives and Republicans have spent 35 years pushing policies that have taken money away from middle- and working-class people and thwarting liberal Democratic policies that would have helped them.
So let’s get it right when we talk about what happened to working people in this country. We can’t afford to spend another 25 years living under a cloud of false both-sides-ism.