KATHY IS A NICE MOTHER

As if MSNBC’s “Are you spending more or less than last holiday season?” survey wasn’t bad enough, they just read an e-mail from a woman named Kathy who plans to spend “over $1,000” on a new XBox for her child on EBay. The correspondent’s response: “You’re a nice Mom, Kathy.”

I guess any low-income women hoping to be nice mothers are out of luck.

CAREER PATH TO MOTHERHOOD?

Tuesday’s New York Times piece on women at schools like Yale who plan to become stay-at-home moms addresses an important phenomenon. Unfortunately, it makes little more than passing mention of the underlying issues of class and gender which shape the choices the article pitches largely as curious lifestyle decisions.

Class divisions deeply inform women’s and men’s decision about parenting in work in multiple ways. They make it possible for some women to picture living and raising children comfortably off of the income of an exceptionally well-paid spouse without making the economic sacrifices most families have to when one parent stays home. At the same time, class divisions leave other women in positions where the work-family compromises they would like to strike as working mothers are unfeasible because they lack the bargaining power to achieve the schedules and receive the support from employers that they need. So while class makes it possible for some women and impossible for others to maintain economic security while leaving the workforce, class also makes it possible for some women and impossible for others to balance work and family responsibilities.

Underlying the responsibilities in play here are gendered conceptions which haven’t yet changed as much as many of us would like to think. It’s difficult to argue with those who suggest that a woman’s choice to stay home and raise kids deserves respect, but it’s important to consider the ways in which social structures and pressures constrict and inform that choice. The debate need not be confined to one side which argues that women and men should both be evaluated by the standards by which we’ve traditionally judged men and another side which argues for an essentialist, “difference feminist” understanding of what women are and should be that trots out old tropes about their essential nature. Instead, progressive feminists can and should take on traditional paradigms of male and female identity behavior, arguing for a shared, less gendered repetoire of goals and actions which makes traditionally male and female jobs and tropes accessible to both genders. Women who want to build homes with men can’t make fully free choices about how to balance family and work until men are equally challenged and expected to make equivalent sacrifices as well.

We’re not there yet.

TWO THOUGHTS

Zichronam livrachah.

Disasters like this one provide a dramatic reminder of why we need a social contract through which people commit to mutual sacrifice for mutual prosperity and security. They make pronounced the limits of a worldview in which people are atomized entities threatened by the oppressive restrictions of a government which would have the gall to spend their money. The outrage of ordinary citizens at our leaders’ failure to take reasonable measures to ensure their safety is not the sign of weakness the radical right would have us believe any call for government action to be – it’s the rightful grievance of people who know they deserve a better deal which makes the investments necessary to protect them and their families. Hurricanes are a reminder that our interests are interconnected, and that justice demands finding common cause in common challenge, not appealing to the charitable private impulses of individuals as the single means to confront public crises. We may a thousand points of light, but we share the same space.

But even as these horrific events remind us of our common vulnerability, they demonstrate yet again how deeply the impact of such threats is determined along lines of race and class. By and large, those who have been unable to make it out of the devastated city have certain things in common – and contra Bill O’Reilly, they don’t include a desire to lay in wait so they can rape and plunder. A week ago, a friend was defending the old idea that property requirements for voting make sense because they restrict voting to those who have something to lose and therefore have a stake in what government does. I suggested that if we were really to assign votes based on one’s stake in what government does, the poorest would get the lion’s share because they’re the ones who have only voice, not exit, at their disposal when the government fails them. This week shows all too graphically how high the costs can be when elite decisions and oppressive poverty make a terrible situation that much worse.

PROGRESSIVE POPULISM

Having suggested what I think are some of the very different concepts in play in the dominant discussion of populism, and argued that one that’s ubiquitous in those discussions – prejudice – is out of place, it’s only fair that I take a stab at setting forth what the concept of populism is that’s in play when I call myself a populist and urge the Democrats to take on the mantle and meaning of populism. I won’t bother to argue that the conception of populism I’ll put forth here is somehow more real or historically accurate than the others floating around. What I feel strongest about when it comes to how use the word itself is simply, as I said yesterday, that the conflation of populism and prejudice by economic elites is deeply disingenuous, reflects a deeply entrenched class bias, and underpins a long-term campaign to mark the majority unfit to govern and its criticism of corporate power rank demagoguery.

That said, here are a few of the contentions which I think underpin a progressive populism:

The contention that a healthy economy is one in which the benefits of growth and prosperity should be shared and spread across society.

The contention that a just economy is one in which working people exercise a meaningful voice in the conditions and rewards of their work and in economic policy within and between nations.

The contention that basic human freedoms and opportunities are universal rights, across lines of race, sex, class, and nation, and not provisional privileges.

The contention that the ability of individuals to connect the conditions and challenges of their own lives to those of others, and to their political ideals, has the potential to propel progress.

The contention that policy and democracy both suffer when certain sets of experience are driven out of public discourse.

The contention that for a politician to seek out and fight for more votes is not the moral equivalent of seeking out and fighting for more dollars.

The contention that a willful compact to preserve individual rights by entrusting certain decisions to more insulated institutions is different from and preferable to the unauthorized handover of decisions to enfranchised elites and experts.

The contention that the political victories which last are the ones with popular mandates.

FROM CHICAGO TO WASHINGTON

One of the contentions which largely cuts across the AFL-CIO/ Change to Win divide is a recognition that the labor movement has yet to match the power of its Electon Day turnout operation with an effective mechanism for holding accountable the politicians it helps elect. Still more controversial is the recognition that a winning agenda for the movement demands a broad conception of the interests of working people and a more comprehensive social vision.

Yesterday, the AFL-CIO followed progressive unions like SEIU in passing a strong anti-war resolution condemning the impact of the war on working families and urging that civil rights be strengthened in Iraq and that the troops be brought home “rapidly.” Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days when they used to half-jokingly call it the AFL-CIA. We’re not in Kirkland-Land anymore…

And Monday, as SEIU and the Teamsters were leaving the federation, the two unions’ presidents joined the presidents of eighteen other unions, AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition alike, in sending a strongly-worded letter to the Democratic leadership rightly condemning the party’s refusal to put its full force behind defeating CAFTA (David Sirota offers a good overview of the damage CAFTA could do if approved tonight by the House).

Good signs, in the wake of Monday’s split, for a more muscular movement. Here’s hoping John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson, who were re-elected without opposition this afternoon, will be driven further in this direction, and can find a way to facilitate – rather than block – the co-operation with the Change to Win folks necessary to make it happen.

A KICK IN THE TEETH

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ): “There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have their arms, who have their eyesight, who have their lives, because OSHA has teeth.”

Right now in the House, the Republicans are pushing four bills to further weaken OSHA by making it easier for employers to put off responding to complaints, making it easier for the President to stack the commission, and limiting OSHA’s ability to aggressively interpret its laws. All this, of course, in the name of protecting small business. “Mom and Pop” companies, we’re asked to believe are wrongly aggrieved by the requirement that they notify OSHA within fifteen days should they wish to contest responsibility for conditions which cause serious injury or death for their employees. And we’re asked to believe, further, that the current law is unfair to all those small business owners who are injured simultaneously with their workers. Employers, of course, already have the opportunity to seek extensions in extraordinary circumstances; what Republicans want is to shift the responsibility to OSHA to prove why the deadline, which saves lives by facilitating rapid redress of unsafe conditions, should ever apply.

Rep. Major Owens (D-NY): “There is a class problem developing in America…What we’ve found in this war in Iraq, is that people on the top aren’t providing the kind of protection needed for people on the frontlines from working families.”

Truth is, there’s been a class problem developing in America, sadly, for a long time. It’s one we should be hearing about more often on the floor of the Congress and outside of it. And we’d be well served by more media attention to dangerous legislation like the bills under debate right now. But for all their claims to be looking out for regular Americans, you’ll notice that the Republicans aren’t hoping to see their handiwork on this issue in the news:

Rep. John Boehner (R-OH): “Let me remind my colleagues what this small, inocuous bill does…”

If a line like that doesn’t set off alarms, you haven’t been paying attention.

SPEAKING OF LOCHNER…

Kevin LoVecchio is right to argue over at TPMCafe that the libertarian faith in free contracts willfully ignores to extent to which many of the contracts Americans are coerced into on a daily basis are “not about negotiations, but instead are about tricks and traps.”

The conservatives’ ironclad, reality-be-damned faith in the absolute inviolability of contract has an ugly historical pedigree, going back to Congress’ refusal, on “free contract” grounds, in the wake of the Civil War to punish industrialists who knowingly sold defective weapons to the US Army. It’s philisophical pedigree is fraught as well. Hobbes, for example, insists that “Covenants entered into by fear, in the condition of meer nature, are obligatory” lest collective irrationality in the absence of contract fundamentalism drive societies into the war of all against all whose avoidance Leviathan sets forth as the major task of political philosophy.

Such an argument begs the question of whether human desires can really be inferred from contractual behavior in absence of full information or meaningful alternatives, and of whether human beings have any inalienable rights which they are themselves unable to contract away.

Modern conservatives would do well to remember that even Hobbes is forced later in Leviathan to recognize that there are indeed limits on the individual’s freedom to contract freedoms away. “A Covenant not to defend my selfe from force, by force,” he writes, “is alwayes void.” No human being, Hobbes argues, would knowingly trade away the fundamental right to self-defense, nor should an attempt to do so be recognized as valid. Hobbes thus qualifies his faith in contracts as guardians of collective peace and individual liberty with a nod to inalienable rights. What Hobbes does not or cannot set forth is what should distinguish a promise not to defend oneself from violence from a range of other contractual promises – from mortgaging your home to renouncing union membership – which men and women are coerced into making every day, and which many experience as threats to their bodily integrity or that of their families. None of the free contract fundamentalists, most of them members like Hobbes of a class with little reason to fear for their economic security, has come up with a convincing answer since then either.

From Ruth

A brief aside: Lest anyone missed it, note (belatedly) Gawker’s delicious appraisal of the entire paradox of the New York Times:

Match the excerpt to the source. Half are from from the Times’ current series on class. The others are from from their advertising kit. The results may surprise you — no cheating!

1)”Being born in the elite in the U.S. gives you a constellation of privileges that very few people in the world have ever experienced,” Professor Levine said. “Being born poor in the U.S. gives you disadvantages unlike anything in Western Europe and Japan and Canada.”

2)Affluent U.S. readers of the New York Times are 39% more likely than the average affluent adult to hold a college or postgraduate degree, 90% more likely to have a household income exceeding $150,000 and 46% more likely to be a top manager.

Guest-blogging over at Ezra Klein’s site (mazal tov!), Dan Munz is suggesting the possibility of a Mfume v. Steele Maryland Senate race as a chance for Democrats to take on and shoot down the GOP argument that Democrats take Black voters for granted. I think Dan’s absolutely right that a concerted, rigorous response from the Democrats is long overdue. I’d say part of the problem, though, is that the Democratic party establishment does indeed take Black voters for granted, in much the same way it takes most chunks of the party’s base – union voters for example – for granted, and in a way the GOP simply doesn’t treat it’s own base. Wherever one comes down on the Katha Pollitt vs. Thomas Frank debate on whether or not evangelicals who vote Republican to erode reproductive choice get their money’s worth, the Republican party makes a serious, year-in and year-out campaign of selling itself to its base while the Democratic party more often treats its base like the weird uncle who always shows up drunk to Thanksgiving (the pundits who complain about how short-sighted the NAACP is for wanting Democrats to swing by when the NRA doesn’t ask the same of Republicans might spend their energies better considering why the parties’ records might leave NAACP members with more concerns about how loyal the candidates they vote for will be).

Granted, President Bush’s appeal to Black voters to better defend their interests by spreading their votes more evenly is pure condescending silliness (I’d like to see him apply the same logic to, say, Enron executives: “As long as you all keep voting for us, what incentive do we have to keep giving you those invisible handjobs?”). More fundamentally, of course, the problem with Bush’s case is the idea that Democrats brazenly push forward with liberal policies they know are bad for their Black constituents. The reality, unfortunately, is that Democrats tend not to do nearly enough brazenly pushing forward with much of anything. The problem isn’t that the Democrats are too far left; the problem (I know I know, I’m the guy with the hammer, and look – it’s another nail!) is that the Democrats are failing Black constituents, as well as White ones, by not offering a program or an approach that’s progressive enough. The Republicans are hard at work rolling back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, while the Democrats, even when they had branches of government of work from, have shown precious little initiative in extending them. Republican national candidates have mastered the art of the coded appeal to racist voters, while Democratic candidates remain anxious about looking like they’re trying too hard to attract Black voters (or, god forbid, “dependent” on them).

What might an aggressive Civil Rights agenda look like? An aggressive push for comprehensive voting reform, including a constitutional individual right to vote, uniform standards for ballot access and machinery, paper trails, and abolition of felon voter disenfranchisement. An aggressive push to transform the crimminal justice system into one which takes seriously the equal protection rights of Americans of different races and classes and which rehabilitates rather than stigmatizing those who pass through it. An aggressive push for drastically increased investment in education at all levels. An aggressive push to raise the minimum wage and strengthen the right to organize. An aggressive push to strengthen anti-discrimination legislation. An aggressive push for universal health care. An aggressive push for real affordable housing. That would be a start. Some of these areas have attained greater prominence in the Democratic party’s agenda of late, to a lot of people’s credit; others are still waiting. As Dr. King observed not long before death, the reforms that will achieve real progress in Civil Rights will cost billions. All of these reforms are changes in which Americans of all races have a stake, and which could be achieved such that the great majority of Americans would benefit. And this summer in Florida, I had infinitely more conversations with African-Americans reluctant to register to vote because of the party’s silence or meekness on continuing the progressive work of the Civil Rights movement than because they wanted school vouchers or felt demeaned by affirmative action or were scared of gay people.

So yes, the Democrats need better answers to the Republicans’ cynical appeals to Black voters, and they need candidates who are better at articulating them. But any message which boils down to “No, Democrats don’t take [you/us] for granted, they care about [you/us] very much” is doomed to fail. What the Democrats need, as Al Sharpton put it several times during the Presidential debates, is candidates who can give the donkey the kick it needs (not something Sharpton accomplished a great deal at). And the most powerful kicks tend not to come from candidates at all. As much as Dan talks about a “traditional” relationship between Democrats and Black voters, the tradition is fundamentally one of tension and contestation, one which envelops both Jack Kennedy’s supportive call to Coretta Scott King and Bobby Kennedy’s call to John Lewis pleading him to cancel the freedom rides. As with so many other cases, the job facing the leaders of the Democratic party is as much about improving its record as defending it.

To the editor:

If President Levin offered a plan for financial aid reform last night (“Levin states plan to alter financial aid,” 2/23), I must have missed it. Levin made no specific proposals and maintained his refusal to sit down at the table with students who have. He asked students to choose between unspecified reductions in the family contribution and the student contribution, on the grounds that Yale can’t “be a leader along every dimension.” Yale students, including the over a thousand who’ve pledged support to the UOC’s financial aid reform platform, expect better. It’s time for Yale to eliminate the family contribution for low-income families and halve the student contribution for everyone as a step towards equality of access to Yale and equality of experience for students here. Asking students to choose one reform or the other is an impossible choice. And for the many students working additional hours to help close the gap between what Yale thinks their families can afford and their actual circumstances, it’s a meaningless one. That’s among the things Levin might have learned last night if he had taken students’ stories seriously rather than dismissing them as exceptions or questioning their honesty.

Josh Eidelson ‘06

Over at The New Republic, Hillary Clinton is winning accolades from Michelle Cottle and Andrew Sullivan for her new rhetoric on abortion last week. Like Clinton herself, they’re each partially right.

Cottle takes on Jim Wallis of Sojourners and others for trying to win the “moral values” debate for Democrats by shifting it onto economic turf. She’s right to argue that responding to the heartfelt opposition of all too many working class Republicans to the Democrats’ stances on abortion and other so-called “social issues” with a sleight-of-hand is both insulting and ineffective. The Democrats do indeed need to win the values debate on the “social turf.” But, contra Cottle, a winning strategy for the Democrats will also depend on broadening the popular conception of moral politics to include the economic exploitation and persistent poverty of millions of Americans. Cottle should know better than to take on face value the idea that so-called “values voters” simply could care less about children without healthcare. She completely overlooks the extent to which, in the absence of a real discussion by Democrats of America’s savage inequalities. Republicans have been able to successfully repackage “social issues” as class grievances against liberal elites and activist judges. It’s not surprising that those who want Democrats to change the topic and trounce the GOP on economic moral issues and those who want them to change the message and trounce the GOP on social moral issues each see the other standing in the way of progress. But a winning strategy will have to do both.

Sullivan, like Cottle, writes with the stated intention of helping Democrats win on abortion. And parts of the approach for which he credits Clinton are indeed good moves. Certainly, Democratic politicians and activists should recognize the difficulty and sadness with which many women approach the choice to have an abortion (Sullivan, like most pundits, drastically exaggerates the extent to which this is not already the case). And absolutely, Democratic politicians and activists should frame access to all forms of contraception in all situations as “the surest way to prevent” abortions (nothing so new here either). As for demonstrating respect for one’s opponents, I don’t think many are arguing that the Democrats should demonstrate intentional disrespect for those who disagree on abortion.

But what those on both sides of this debate want, more than respect, is to win. And while Sullivan insists (in a strange turn of phrase) that “Democrats can still be and almost certainly should be for the right to legal abortion,” readers can be excused for coming away with a mixed message. Sullivan follows a long line of pundits and reporters in conflating changes in discourse on abortion with changes in policy. Seemingly intentional ambiguity radiates from Sullivan’s insistence that

One reason that John Kerry had such a hard time reaching people who have moral qualms about abortion was his record: an almost relentless defense of abortion rights – even for third trimester unborn children – with no emphasis on the moral costs to all of us of such a callous disregard of human dignity. You cannot have such a record and then hope to convince others that you care about the sanctity of life.

One could read such a graph to mean that Kerry could have won the abortion debate if only he were on record mourning the “moral costs.” But it’s not clear why one would. A more intuitive reading would be: To win over “pro-life” voters, Democrats should cast more “pro-life” votes. Otherwise, how are we to understand Sullivan’s criticism of Kerry for being “almost relentless” in supporting the right to choose. Sullivan isn’t so much offering ideas on how to win the debate over abortion as urging a partial surrender.

More specifically, Sullivan lauds Clinton’s support for abstinence-only education as good politics, despite the preponderance of evidence that diverting dollars from sex ed to abstinence ed will lead to more unprotected sex and therefore more abortions. And Sullivan urges Democrats to back candidates like Bob Casey in Democratic primaries specifically because they oppose the party’s position on abortion rights. He pushes this plan – that Democrats essentially should sell their position by working against candidates who support it – as a corrective to a mythical “fatwa” against such politicians in the Democratic party. Those who believe such a fatwa exists may still be under the mistaken impression that Casey’s father was denied the chance the speak at the convention nominating Bill Clinton because he opposed abortion and not because Casey had announced he would be voting against Bill Clinton. Either that, or they’re willing to suggest with a straight face, as Sullivan does, that for the GOP to have a pro-choice second-in-command at the RNC while the Democratic party has an anti-choice Senate Minority Leader demonstrates that “the Republicans are more obviously tolerant of dissent than Democrats.”

Finally, Sullivan wants Democrats to tone down the rhetoric about women’s rights and instead frame abortion as killing and abortion rights as a way to avert more gruesome killing. Instead of “reproductive rights,” Sullivan argues, Democrats should talk about a decision through which “one soul is destroyed and another wounded.” But while talking about abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice” for the mother may help make the case, arguing that it’s a tragedy for “unborn children” won’t. Either a woman is a constitutionally-protected person with a fetus inside of her, or a fetus is a constitutionally-protected person with a womb attached. If Democrats frame abortion as killing, as Sullivan does, they will only increase support for banning abortion (and for the dissolution of the Democratic party). This too, is not a new idea. Neither is it a good one.

Last Martin Luther King Day, after a march to the New Haven Savings Bank to threaten a boycott, students, workers, and community members gathered in the Woolsey Rotunda to speak out about the meaning of the day and the path to making “Jobs and Freedom” a reality in New Haven and in this country. Here (because mine is the only one I have a copy of) is what I said:

Never in this country has the symbol of Dr. King been so popular and so ubiquitous; never in this country has the vision he struggled for faced such tremendous opposition. In this morning’s New York Times, a Reagan archivist argues that Reagan and King were soulmates – that though their politics differed, their values were the same. Such a claim goes beyond cynicism – it is nihilism. It demonstrates a choice to forget who Reagan was – that he kicked off his Presidential campaign in a city in which civil rights activists were murdered and he called for states’ rights and excoriated welfare queens as a threat to our society. But as troublingly, it demonstrates a choice to forget who King was. There was a time when the FBI called King the most dangerous Negro in America. It’s time King was dangerous again.

On Thursday the President of United States made a last minute visit to lay a wreath on King’s grave, and in so doing foisted on the American people the bill for a trip followed by a $2,000 a plate fundraiser. Hundreds of people turned out to protest, and the administration decided to salvage its photo op at Dr. King’s grave by obscuring the view of the social protest, the non-violent resistance, going on behind. And they did it with rows of buses. The searing image of Dr. King’s birthday, 2004, is that of Blacks, Whites, and Latinos mobilized in protest on the other side of buses. What did Dr. King’s last living birthday look like? According to Jesse Jackson, “Perhaps what he did on that day would be instructive to us…he pulled together the coalition – black, white, Jewish, Hispanic, Native American, labor – to work on the Poor People’s Campaign. The object was to demand a job or an income for all Americans. He was driven by a moral imperative to include all and leave no one behind.”

“It is crimminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income,” King preached in Memphis soon before his death, standing with striking sanitation workers. “One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job diseases are rampant.” Today in New Haven, service workers who make hospitals function and graduate student researchers who make medical research happen both find themselves unable to pay for health insurance for themselves and their families.

Dr. King declared that “Negroes will no longer spend our money where we cannot get substantial jobs.” Today this bind remains salient, as does its twin: even as too many are locked out of substantial work in the institutions their business and their taxes fund, too many are forced to work manufacturing products they cannot themselves afford to buy. Wal-Mart employees cannot afford discount Wal-Mart clothing. University employees here in New Haven cannot afford to send their children to college.

One year after the Voting Rights Act and two after the Civil Rights Act, King argued that these “legislative and judicial victories did very little to improve” the ghetto or “penetrate the lower depths of Negro deprivation.” Thirty-six years ago, on his last birthday, Dr. King declared “we have an underclass, that is a reality – an underclass that is not a working class…thousands and thousands of Negroes working on full-time jobs with part-time income…to work on two and three jobs to make ends meet.” The solution, he said the next month, was “a redistribution of economic power.”

“The problem of transforming the ghetto,” Dr. King wrote, “is a problem of power–confrontation of the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo. Now power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. Walter Reuther defined power one day. He said, ‘Power is the ability of a labor union like the UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say, ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.”

It’s not enough to glorify the symbol of the fallen King. We must rededicate ourselves to his vision of social, economic, and democratic change. It is not enough for our leaders to lay wreaths on the man’s grave. We must hold them accountable for a status quo which has deprived too many Americans of all races of the right to freedom from want, of the right to a voice in the decisions which determine their future. It is not enough for the President of this great University to recount that he cried on hearing Dr. King’s “I have a dream”
speech. Yale, as King confidante Rev. James Lawson declared here this summer, must commit itself to becoming fully human.

“A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will thingify them,” Dr. King warned, “make them things…And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, ‘America, you must be born again!'”