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The New Benevolent Democrats

mass's picture

Before the primary it had been so long since Democrats held power I never noticed how much Democratic philosophy and policy advocacy had changed.  But during the primary I started to note what I would call a split in the Party between those who sought economic justice for the middle class, and those who sought social benevolence for the poor.  I'm always on the side of helping the poor, but in policy terms, I've always thought what helps the poor most is to empower the middle class.  Policies that target only the poor through subsidies and welfare programs, and sort of ignore the plight of the middle class over the last several decades, don't leave those on the bottom with anywhere to move up to.  Further, often the needs of the poor can only be met through vigorous funding of public programs, not simple charity. And, at this time of economic lopsidedness, often policies need a broader scope than limiting social programs to the least among us.  When social programs include the majority of working people they are extremely empowering and hold great staying power.  Medicare and Social Security are two examples.  Both programs are taxpayer supported by the broad populous.  Neither is a welfare program.  Social Security, particularly, is a program where what you put in is basically what you get back. It puts everybody on the same playing field and no one who pays into those programs thinks they are recipients of the gift of health care or the gift of retirement security.

Our greatest social achievements came at a time when we had a strong labor movement, but that era is over.  So who are the policy makers now?  They are largely academics, white elites who seem more intent on policies of benevolence than in risking their upper middle class status in the name of supporting a larger middle class through empowering policies of justice.  

Anglachel says it better than me, but I find it both reassuring and troubling that I'm not the only one noticing this trend.

Via Anglachel:

Charity is enactment of a power relationship, an exercise of largesse from a have to a have-not that never need have happened and is fundamentally performed for the psychological satisfaction of the empowered party. It is capricious and, in that caprice, reifies the power of the giver and the powerlessness of the recipient.

Lind's key observation, which is simply brilliant, is the precarious position of the have-littles when charity is substituted for political interest. They aren't quite destitute or damaged enough to "deserve" the pity and charity of the social elites, but neither do they have the necessary tools or access to power to defend their very material interests. These are the people that Obama et. al. spoke of with such contempt throughout the election, Bubbas and Bunkers. The very real condition of the eroding living standards of the working class combined with contempt for them from both left and right for not having the good sense to transform themselves into something else (as though it is personal failings alone that account for the worker's limited conditions), serves to cut this class off from receiving social goods. The emphasis on identity politics, where much of the benefit goes to those already well off and who know how to work the system to claim disadvantage, further isolates the have-littles from the haves and the have-nots.

I recommend reading the entire post.

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jumpjet's picture
Submitted by jumpjet on

the highest form of love. But her formulation of the problems of modern liberalism strikes me as being rather accurate.

But what does one do about it, other than to take up the fight anew for broadly shared prosperity? What can I, of the upper-class, do except strive to be a traitor to my class in the spirit of FDR?

mass's picture
Submitted by mass on

I think she was criticizing those who put policy based on charity above policy based on empowerment.

You can seek policies that empower the broad middle class.

mass's picture
Submitted by mass on

lots of folks who may even benefit from policies of charity, who educated elites would call "poor", would call themselves "middle class". They are more apt to embrace policies of empowerment than policies of charity. This is one of the reasons I think Medicare for All is such an important policy. It's funded by taxpayers, and puts everyone on the same playing field. That's empowering. Subsidies to buy private insurance, whom many in the middle class would not enjoy, and some would, is not empowering.

mass's picture
Submitted by mass on

the economy, and with it the quickly deteriorating, already shrunken middle class, that really made me think, no, we can not do this ala Romney Care with some vague public option that perhaps will turn into something, we have to go all the way, because there is no single policy we could pass today that would be more empowering or grant more economic justice to more people than Medicare for All.

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

This post brings up one issue I wanted to jump into in my reclaiming liberalism series that no one really wanted. But I'm glad you and Anglachel bring it up. My formulation has been framed on paternalism v empowerment, and this post nails that. Its an extremely important point, IMO. I think the paternalistic tendencies of the left lead to the bully tactics and cries for us to just play nice and let our betters stick it to us. The fact that they don't seem to value us charity cases probably explains why they don't invite us to the table (e.g. single payer) or don't bother to read what we write here at Corrente (I'm speaking of the obvious case).

Its a shame there is so little interest in vigorously evaluating and debating this issue on philosophical grounds, say, A Theory of Justice. Thanks for this postn though. It made me smile because rather than a cacophony (or speciousness for its own sake) it suggests to me we are on the right path. I see the major issue as the battle against the paternalists, be they christian fundamentalists or bankster/finance bois or The Village.

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

a good example of paternalism.

And I don't know what led you to believe folks weren't interested in any series about reclaiming liberalism. Sounds like a great discussion to have and it needs to start somewhere. Might as well start with you.

mojave_wolf's picture
Submitted by mojave_wolf on

whether or not I chimed in when you first mentioned this, I very much was looking forward to this series; my reading has been spotty of late and I didn't realize you hadn't gone forward.

I haven't read any Rawls in over 10 years and never read some of his work, but I would be happy to argue the philosophical side of justice and politics, time permitting, and even lacking the time to do so myself, would love to read others whose opinion I respect doing so.

Submitted by hipparchia on

i'm the only one here with an aversion to philosophers, don't listen to me on the topic.

Submitted by lambert on

I can't be popularlzing undilute Rawls. Not going to get anywhere being in favor of the "veil of ignorance"! But the concept, now...

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

I am not a deep person. I need my philosophy translated into analytical tools I can use in the kiddie pool.

Submitted by lambert on

The shallow end for me!

Anglachel's picture
Submitted by Anglachel on

I for one would be *very* interested in reading a series on reclaiming liberalism, and I think you are just the person to write.

The US welfare state (to the degree that there is one) has its roots in the efforts by bourgeois, educated/socially prominent women's societies to bring bourgeois values and practices to poor, especially immigrant poor, women, to save the women from prostitution and destitution. It was always based on a concept of rewarding the deserving women and preventing freeloading, and so was highly normalizing.

You should read, if you haven't already, "Hull House" by Jane Addams for an unselfconscious case study of how this was done. It is the kind of disciplinary practice that Foucalt wrote about.

The welfare states of Europe (and I am *grossly* generalizing here, so examples and counterfactuals are encouraged) are rooted in labor movements and political parties who were anti-aristocracy/anti-established religion. It rejected judgments about private virtue and personal traits, insisting on solidarity of citizens and workers.

These very different origins explain a lot about why our perspective on what is due to citizens and under what circustances varies so much from other liberal democracies. Privatization and paternalism go hand in hand. Even "liberal" policy finds it difficult to break from trying to divide the nation into the deserving and the undeserving, which is fundamentally a judgment about private qualities, particularizing in order to exclude.


Submitted by gmanedit on

is the phrase I started using under old George Bush. (It didn't start with him, but had become obvious by then. Al Martin, in his free-access days, said the Bushes used terms such as "useless eaters" and "fodder units" to refer to the masses.)

My belief is that a democracy needs a large middle class for social stability. The U.S. had a large working class that thought it was middle class. The major factor was the G.I. Bill, which spread prosperity through access to education and housing. People living in their own homes, able to go to school and send their children to school, buy a car, furnish those homes with appliances, and eventually retire—that was the American Dream. Now we have a jumped-up working class deprived of good jobs, or any jobs. This is a dangerous time.

We need a jobs policy, debt forgiveness, and single payer. (Yes, "Medicare for All" is a better slogan, but I've been reading up on Medicare, and it's not all that: there's a lot it doesn't cover, and there are still hefty co-pays. Plus, it's being whittled away. Hell, they've just taken away COLA for Social Security recipients while their Medicare premiums are going up. I want single payer: no bills sent to my home, no paperwork.)

mass's picture
Submitted by mass on

Can not believe the COLA thing. WTH?

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

How badly can you screw the American public during a horrible recession on behalf of Wall Street and still get re-elected?

I'm betting not nearly as much as the Democratic Party thinks it can.

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

I'll dig my philosophy books out of storage. I've been meaning to anyway now that I have a new bookshelf...

Aeryl's picture
Submitted by Aeryl on

I love it when I open up more bookshelf spaces. Especially with my eclectic book collection.

Now, it's all about maximizing space, and organizing with some rhyme or reason. I try to keep books in a series together, as well as authors, and so I will run back and forth across the room, trying to get the books to fit together on the shelves in just the right manor.

Why yes, I am a bibliophile, who is probably a little too anal, why do you ask?

You may now return to your regularly scheduled thread.

Yes, GQ, I am also voicing my support for a post on this from you.

Submitted by lambert on

For example:

The emphasis on identity politics, where much of the benefit goes to those already well off and who know how to work the system to claim disadvantage, further isolates the have-littles from the haves and the have-nots.

DADT in a nutshell.

Submitted by cg.eye on

Last week, I saw part of this speech, and it made me slack-jawed with wonder:

The solutions to the healthcare issue: Cash, charity, or catastrophic healthcare coverage -- which perforce leads to the dissolution of the principle of health insurance itself, to make each sick person and guardian their own, least-informed consumer, in a killer's market.

Why do the 1% love to be charitable, when it involves even more begging than the US welfare bureaucracy requires of its recipients? I fear I've answered my own question: As the drug pusher loves the jonesing client, they need the rush of servitude to make their money even more fun to use.

The sick part? The Right that loves Scrooge, pre-conversion, now gets to love him on the flip-side, too -- and they now see that enhanced philanthropic image, funded by the tiniest percentage of their ill-gotten gains, as progress. Someone has to reputationally launder the cash, so why not them or their clerically-minded progressive relatives?