A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN FOUR YEARS

Four years ago, after watching John Kerry on TV conceding the election, I went into my room, put Barack Obama’s convention speech on repeat, and wept. I’d first watched that speech in Tampa, where friends and I spent a summer outside supermarkets and inside trailer parks registering people to vote. From summer through to fall, we knew we were going to win. We had an endless paper chain of hopeful justifications – another paper endorses the Democrat for the first time in this many elections; another Bush gaffe sure to drag him down; the Tin Man is beating the Scarecrow in a Zogby poll; undecideds always break for the challenger; I canvassed a man today who voted Bush-Dole-Bush be he says it’s time for a change. And that was before the exit polls started coming in. I spent a lot of election day in Philadelphia with college classmates co-ordinating GOTV in a basement, but at one point I stumbled upon a TV somewhere just in time to see Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speculating on how John Kerry had carried his state. By the time we were driving back to my parents’ house, there was a steady stream of exit polling, sweet and plentiful like Halloween candy, and I made some snarky comment to a friend about the foolishness of cynical leftists that doubt the essentially good judgment of the American people. Within an hour, the real results were coming in, and our beloved Florida – which we’d sworn we wouldn’t let be lost again by a fraction of a percentage point – went for Bush by five points.

I turned on Obama’s speech when Kerry conceded because at that point Barack Obama symbolized for me the long-term vision towards which electing John Kerry (of the eponymous “butimvotingforhimanyway” website) was a small but pivotal step. I wore a John Kerry button in the final days of the election (four years earlier, I kept my Bill Bradley sticker on all through the recount), but it was Barack Obama’s T-shirts that I ordered (in bulk to save money, and two sizes too small to get people to go in on them with me) from Illinois. I wrote a column at the time in the school paper saying that after electing John Kerry we on the left should continue the work of building “a party radical enough to elect Barack Obama president.”

Things haven’t turned out that way. John Kerry lost his presidential race, and four years later, Barack Obama is about to win his.

Of course, this is a testament for one to the fact that Barack Obama is not as progressive as I and others hoped he might prove to be, or convinced ourselves he was, four years ago. The Obama of The Audacity of Hope has trimmed his sails quite a bit since Dreams From My Father. As much as we may have declared ourselves prepared to be disappointed, it was a let down to see how Obama landed in DC, whether it’s the times he seemed to be acting from political expediency or the times he seemed to be driven by an earnest commitment to disassociating himself from those he sees as ideologues of the left. I would have been shocked in 2004 to hear that Barack Obama would run a presidential campaign in 2008 – and more shocked to hear that he’d be running to the right of John Edwards.

That said, Barack Obama is the most progressive Democratic nominee in my lifetime (so far). He’s run a campaign defining himself first against George Bush conservatism and all it’s wrought, and second against the inertia of Washington and the smallness of our politics, but hardly ever against progressivism or its constituents. He’s vocally defended the need to negotiate with our enemies and the fairness of taxing the rich. He came out early on against California’s marriage ban when the Democratic consultant class would have said to duck and call it a state issue. Maybe most tellingly, when the explosion of Jeremiah Wright coverage posed a maybe mortal threat to his candidacy, he offered a reasoned and provocative speech on race that called on White Americans to understand the roots of Black anger at dreams deferred (then, when Wright basically dared Obama to denounce him, he did so).

I always assumed America’s first Black president would be many years in the distance, and that he would look more like Harold Ford – or Bill Cosby for that matter – than Barack Obama. I thought he’d be someone who made a show of talking down to Black people all the time, issued hair-trigger condemnations of Sister Souljahs, and compensated for the perception of otherness with an outspoken conservatism on crime, welfare, and immigration. Instead, we’re about to put a community organizer in the White House who doesn’t apologize for wanting to spread the wealth around.

There’s a lot to be said about how this happened. One piece, as can’t be said often enough, is that conservatives were given the car and the keys for eight years to drive the thing off a cliff. Another is that Americans are more progressive on the issues than most pundits think, and this year more than ever there’s an opening for a progressive who tells a compelling story about America and offers confidence and optimism rather than apologies. But another piece of the story is that Barack Obama has realized the promise (speaking of disappointing election days) of Howard Dean’s campaign: a presidential campaign grounded in organizing (but he realized that in Real Life, unlike the internet, you can’t substitute supporters in California for supporters in Iowa). Obama and company started not with identifying supporters, but with identifying volunteers who would find supporters. They inspired, built, and trained a network of leaders ready to push themselves, people in all corners of their lives, and strangers drawn together by a common sense of promise.

Let’s see what it can do.

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WHITHER AMERICAN NATALISM? (OR "DAVID BROOKS’ WHITE FERTILITY")

Kate Sheppard notes the passage of Russia’s “Day of Conception:”

Today falls exactly nine months before Russia Day, and as one of Putin’s policies to encourage more breeding in his country, he’s offered SUVs, refrigerators, and monetary rewards to anyone who gives birth on June 12. So the mayor of Ulyanovsk, a region in central Russia, has given workers there the afternoon off to make with the baby making. Everyone who gives birth is a winner in the “Give Birth to a Patriot on Russia’s Independence Day” contest, but the grand prize winner — judged on qualities like “respectability” and “commendable parenting” — gets to take home a UAZ-Patriot, a Russian-made SUV.

This seems like as good an opportunity as I’m likely to get (at least until June 12, which incidentally is the anniversary of two commendable parents I know) to ask why the kinds of natalist appeals and policy justifications that are so widespread in Europe are all but non-existent in the United States. Sure, American politicians seem to be expected to have gobs of kids to demonstrate their family values. But why is it much more common for politicians in Europe to push policies explicitly designed to make people have more kids?

Discouraging though it may be, I think the best answer is race. Politicians in Sweden or in Russia or in France get further with calls for the nation to have more babies for the sake of national greatness or national survival because that nation and those babies are imagined to look more the same.

Marty Gillens caused a stir with his research suggesting that Americans have negative attitudes towards welfare and its beneficiaries because of their negative views towards the racial groups imagined to benefit (Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, Bruce Sacerdote, Simo Virtanen, and Leonie Huddy further explore this). Americans are less inclined to support government spending on social programs, these scholars argue, because they’re less likely to imagine those programs benefiting people who look like them. Conversely, Swedes are more content with a robust welfare state because their immigration restrictions keep those benefits away from people of other races.

(In 1990, the top country sending immigrants to Sweden was Norway. In 2000, it was Iraq. And the increase in Sweden’s foreign-born populations in the 90’s roughly equaled the increase from the 70’s and 80’s combined. There’s cause for concern that as immigration to Sweden increases, benefits will decrease or access for immigrants will decrease – a process Swedish conservatives already began in the 1990s.)

I don’t think you can really explain the lack of natalist rhetoric in the US without similar logic, and particularly confronting animus towards a group Americans can’t deny welfare benefits simply by cutting off immigrants: African-Americans. What Ange-Marie Hancock calls “the politics of disgust” heaps shame on imagined “welfare queens” for working too little and birthing too much. In the controversy over the ’96 welfare bill, fertility came up plenty, but the imagined problem was too many babies, not too few. Churches and others made what you might consider natalist arguments against the bill, but they didn’t get much traction – unlike the GOP Congressman who held up a “Don’t feed the alligators” sign.

So when David Brooks wrote a paean to natalism in America, he left those hated Black women out. Instead, in a column a month after the ’04 election, he cited Steve Sailer (who even John Podhoretz recognizes as a racist) celebrating that “George Bush carried the 19 states with the highest white fertility rates.” Brooks’ column celebrates these fertile white parents for demonstrating good red-state values:

Very often they have sacrificed pleasures like sophisticated movies, restaurant dining and foreign travel, let alone competitive careers and disposable income, for the sake of their parental calling…The people who are having big families are explicitly rejecting materialistic incentives and hyperindividualism.

Can you imagine a prominent right-wing pundit or politician saying such things about a low-income Black family that chose to have more kids?

Now some will say that American conservatives are less natalist than their European counterparts because they’re more anti-government. Which is a fair point, but I think it’s difficult to explain the presence of “Christian Democrat” parties in Europe without considering race. Or you could argue that the natalist push in Europe is based in part in fear of immigration. Which circles back on the same argument: racial fears and prejudices map more easily along lines of citizenship in countries that have historically had fewer non-white citizens. Just as the comparative historical ethnic diversity of the United States plays a role in explaining why our political system has held down benefits for everyone rather than only restricting them to citizens (though we’ve done that too), it seems like the strongest explanation for why we don’t hear lots of appeals for America to have more babies.

Is there a better explanation? (This is where those of you who’ve been kvetching about the paucity of posting should leave comments)

ONE SIDE OF THE DEAL

An American worker who works at the current federal minimum wage – $5.15/ hour – for forty hours a week for fifty-two weeks, without interruption, would make $10,712.

The 2006 federal poverty line for the continental United States for a two-person family is $13,200 a year.

That means a family of one child and one parent who works full-time at the federal minimum wage is living at least $2,500 below the poverty line.

The reality faced by the working poor in America is somewhat different. People struggle to find consistent full-time work. People take multiple jobs adding up to well over forty hours without receiving the benefits of full-time work from any of them. People get sick.

A decade ago, conservatives in Congress – with a good many ostensible liberals in tow – inflicted a harsh revision of the American social contract, tearing away the safety net from those who utilized its support for more than three or five years of their lives – even if they were using that time to gain the skills for a better shot at living-wage work. Under the regime of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the uncompromising message sent to every low-income woman and man in this country by our congress is that your first and immediate responsibility is to find a way into the minimum-wage workforce.

But the same leaders who have most loudly pushed that message on marginalized Americans have fought fiercely against either requiring that work pay by raising the minimum wage or facilitating workers’ freedom to demand that work pay by protecting their organizing rights.

This week, some of them floated an insulting proposal – intended to fail – which would ease the minimum wage higher for some workers while both leaving tipped workers out to dry and depleting the federal government’s resources for empowering working Americans by lavishing cash on this country’s wealthiest families.

We deserve better.

GO TO THE PRINCIPLES, OFFICE?

A few days ago, Matt Yglesias made the point that all the talk about how principled Joe Lieberman’s hawkish votes have been should make us think less of principled votes qua principled votes rather than more of Joe Lieberman. Ben Adler, echoing Matt’s point that how elected officials vote should concern us more than why they do, questioned why Matt sees people who call for censorship in order to get votes as any less blameworthy than the ones who call for censorship on principle.

The right, incidentally, deploys both the “Don’t worry, he doesn’t believe it” and “But those are his principles” arguments to great effect to shield its politicians from criticism, depending on which one fits best at the time. The best contemporary examples come to mind around gay rights. Every time a current or historical anecdote emerges about George W. Bush being personally other than hostile towards someone he knows is gay, Bush apologists seize on the story as proof that imputing intolerance to the man just because he pushes policies that make gay folks second-class citizens is the real intolerance. Meanwhile, when Republican judicial nominees are questioned about their records on protecting the rights of gay folks, conservatives pillory the questioners for trying to punish their principles – and being “anti-Catholic” to boot.

Matt responded to Ben that the politicians who hold bad positions on principle are more likely to push them forward in political discourse rather than simply voting for them. Call me cynical (and I’m younger than either of them), but while it’s probably the case all things being equal that politicians devote more energy to the positions closest to their hearts, all things tend not to be equal, and there are a fair number of examples out there of politicians taking stances that seem to have more to do with their sense of political reality than their sense of ethical imperative and then do whatever they can to highlight those issues and those positions.

But testing that hypothesis would require devoting more energy to divining the secret motivations of our elected officials, which only reinforces the narrative of political change as personal psychodrama rather than clash of collective actors. It reinforces the “Great (Elected) Man” theory of history to which too many progressives fall prey, in which progress comes from getting the right visionary leader into office and then keeping him there. Speculating about what Bill Clinton really thought of throwing moms in vocational training off of welfare or denying full faith and credit to same-sex couples makes for good copy and good conversation. But we’re both better equipped and more responsible to consider whether he was right to make those moves, and under what structural circumstances they might not have been as appealing.

Of course when elected officials do the right thing I’d rather think that they believe in it too (if a politician also, say, calls for an end to poverty in hopes of getting elected President, then that sure beats executing a mentally disabled man in order to get elected President). But I’ll choose which Senators to vote for based on how they’ll vote, how they’ll shift which issues capture political discourse and what the margins of that discourse are, and how they’ll affect the partisan breakdown of the body. That said, Lieberman’s people know what they’re doing with their appeal to “principle”: Voters tend to prefer candidates they perceive as acting from principle (Paul Waldman has a great discussion of this in his aptly titled book Being Right Is Not Enough). Hence the quarter of 2004 Bush voters in Wisconsin who also voted for Russ Feingold. Those amongst our elected officials with left opinions that dare not speak their names would do well to keep that in mind.

COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM

Bush today pardoned not one, but two turkeys. They’re both going to Disneyland.

Look who’s encouraging a culture of dependency now?

Hope the Cato Institute won’t go easy on this soft on turkey/ soft bigotry of low expectations shtick.

Otherwise, more turkeys might settle for sucking on the teat of the welfare state rather than claiming their piece of the ownership society.

I keep committing to myself not to link every column Barbara Ehrenreich pens for the Times all month. But then again, I do owe her something for coming down to New Haven to get arrested with us. And maybe more links will help, in whatever small way, to shake enough sense into Bill Keller to carve her a permanent niche on the page. And ths piece is just damn good:

‘The lower-economic people,’ Cosby announced, ‘are not holding up their end in this deal.’ They let me down, too, sometimes – like that girl at Wendy’s who gave me sweet iced tea when I had clearly specified unsweetened. She looked a little tired, but, as Cos might point out: How hard can it be to hold a job, go to high school and care for younger siblings in all your spare moments while your parents are at work? But it’s just so 1985 to beat up on the black poor. During the buildup to welfare ‘reform’ in 1996, the comfortable denizens of think spas like the Heritage Foundation routinely excoriated poor black women for being lazy, promiscuous, government-dependent baby machines, not to mention overweight (that poundcake again). As for poor black youth, they were targeted in the 90’s as a generation of ‘superpredators,’ gang-bangers and thugs.

It’s time to start picking on a more up-to-date pariah group for the 21st century, and I’d like to nominate the elderly whites. Filial restraint has so far kept the would-be Social Security privatizers on the right from going after them, but the grounds for doing so are clear. For one thing, there’s a startling new wave of ‘grandpa bandits’ terrorizing rural banks. And occasionally some old duffer works himself into a frenzy listening to Cole Porter tunes and drives straight into a crowd of younger folks. The law-abiding old whites are no prize either. Overwhelmingly, they choose indolence over employment – lounging on park benches, playing canasta – when we all know there are plenty of people-greeter jobs out there. Since it’s government money that allows them to live in this degenerate state, we can expect the Heritage Foundation to reveal any day now that some seniors are cashing in their Social Security checks for vodka and Viagra. Just as welfare was said to “cause poverty,” the experts may soon announce that Medicare causes baldness and that Social Security is a risk factor for osteoporosis: the correlations are undeniable.

Is there an urgent place for social criticism of the African-American community from within? Certainly. Is that place filled by a millionaire who made his money first offering a not-too threatening image of Black America for White America and second offering a whole lot of jello blaming the victims of economic inequality for being the ones not holding up their end of the bargain? Not in the slightest.

Part of my job at the Philadelphia Unemployment Project two summers ago was tracking several Philadelphia newspapers each day for coverage of the impact of debates over the welfare reauthorization bill on the lives on thousands of Philadelphians. The short summary of that research would be: there wasn’t any. This is probably when I developed my now deeply-ingrained dislike of the Philaelphia Inquirer, and also when I started joking that were the city of Philadelphia to explode, the paper’s banner headline would read “SUBURBAN FAMILIES FACE DELAYS GETTING TO WORK.” Unfortunately, that still seems to be the case. There was one exception yesterday, however: a good piece on the dangers posed by the PA Welfare Department’s proposed cuts in assistance for transportation, rightly titled, “Paths to better lives are at risk“:

Created during welfare reform in the late 1990s, the QuickSilver is among two dozen local transit services that may dwindle or disappear through widening holes in Pennsylvania’s safety net. Facing a budget crisis, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare plans to cut 30 percent of funding for these routes under the department’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 – which could mean fewer buses or none at all on some local routes serving nearly 3,000 people a day. The department threatens to ax the program by mid-2005, if the funding problems remain. Working with SEPTA, seven agencies in Southeastern Pennsylvania provide transportation for poor workers isolated from suburban jobs. Some have grown weary of unpredictable state support for transit…”These are real people that really need this service,” said Tom Klevan, coordinator for Altoona’s transit provider.

As Congress remains focused on Iraq, welfare reform languishes with Head Start and transportation funding in a long line of issues overdue for legislative reauthorization. As a result, welfare grants to states remain stuck at 1996 levels. In a sign of the times, Andrew Bush, who presides over federal welfare aid for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is on assignment in Iraq, advising its new government how to build a welfare system.

More like this, please.