Wednesday, July 23, 2014

HEINTZ: Can liberals win back the white working class?

By ANDY HEINTZ, For What It's Worth | 12/18/2013

One look at the vast inequality that exists in America today and many progressives might be tempted to throw in the towel and concede defeat. For several decades now, Reaganomics, the fons et origo of the decline of liberal economic theory and influence, has provided a bulwark against progressives determined to challenge the legacy left by the political avatar of the conservative movement. But, to those progressives tempted to sound the death knell for FDR-style liberalism, I urge them to reconsider.

While a cursory glance at U.S. politics might serve to reinforce pre-existing ideas of a hopelessly conservative country, a closer examination paints a more complex and contradictory picture of what Americans expect from their government. While it’s true Americans by and large support the idea of limited government and low taxes in theory, they don’t always support the inevitable consequences of this worldview when it’s actually put into practice; especially when it means taking a meat cleaver to a public program they depend on. Liberals and progressives have failed to take full advantage of this curious paradox in American politics.

One look at the vast inequality that exists in America today and many progressives might be tempted to throw in the towel and concede defeat. For several decades now, Reaganomics, the fons et origo of the decline of liberal economic theory and influence, has provided a bulwark against progressives determined to challenge the legacy left by the political avatar of the conservative movement. But, to those progressives tempted to sound the death knell for FDR-style liberalism, I urge them to reconsider.

While a cursory glance at U.S. politics might serve to reinforce pre-existing ideas of a hopelessly conservative country, a closer examination paints a more complex and contradictory picture of what Americans expect from their government. While it’s true Americans by and large support the idea of limited government and low taxes in theory, they don’t always support the inevitable consequences of this worldview when it’s actually put into practice; especially when it means taking a meat cleaver to a public program they depend on. Liberals and progressives have failed to take full advantage of this curious paradox in American politics.

Instead, many liberals have timidly taken half-measures to preserve aspects of social programs instead of vigorously and passionately opposing any measures destined to worsen the already pernicious state of income inequality in this country. In many instances, the impetus behind this timidity is a reluctance to challenge the wealthy corporations and individuals that fund their political campaigns. This is why elections should be publicly funded, but that’s a topic for another day.

Nonetheless, when ostensibly liberal politicians refuse to give a full-throated defense of progressive policies in the economic sphere, they unintentionally sabotage their chances of making inroads with portions of the American electorate who don’t self-identify as liberals: The white working class and rural America.

To be more specific, when self-described liberals rub shoulders with anti-union companies, help deregulate Wall Street, push corporate-friendly free trade deals that outsource working class jobs to other countries, and do nothing to protect family farmers, much of their appeal to working-class white and rural voters is squandered. After all, progressives are unlikely to ever win over working-class and rural voters with their stances on social issues like abortion, immigration reform, environmental regulations, gun control or gay marriage. While poor working class white voters who support Republican candidates could and should take a more nuanced look at their largely inflexible stances on the aforementioned issues, liberals need to concede that they’ve often been negligent in addressing the needs of this voting bloc.

This negligence doesn’t come without a cost. When liberals choose pathological centrism over progressive economic policies, they neglect not only white working-class voters, but poor voters in general who feel they don’t have a voice in either party.

This is a terrible mistake because contrary to popular myth inside the Beltway, there is bipartisan support outside of Washington for inherently progressive ideas and programs like expanding Social Security, preserving Medicare, raising taxes on the wealthy, cutting military spending, exacting a financial transactions tax on Wall Street, expanding Medicaid and raising the minimum wage.

Progressives can win on economic issues if they choose to fight for their principles instead of simply settling for some sort of Grand Bargain that is opposed by the majority of Americans.

Andy Heintz is a political commentator. He previously was a Herald staff writer, now a sports reporter at the Ottumwa Courier, Ottumwa, Iowa. Read his blog at http://www.orble.com/just-one-mans-vision/ and follow @heintz23 on Twitter.

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