By Robert Kuttner
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Where are the liberal protesters?
Wall Street and the abuses of corporate America crashed the economy, leaving regular people anxious and financially insecure. Yet the far right, not the reformist left, is getting the political windfall.
Something is severely off when economically stressed Americans confront members of Congress about "death panels" in the Obama health plan. The rumors, fanned by talk radio with a little help from Republicans, are false and even delusional. Yet the anger, if misdirected, is genuine.
People should be plenty angry about their jobs and their mortgages and their health insurance. With health care, however, virtually all of the fears attributed to the Obama health reform efforts more accurately describe the existing private system.
It is private insurance companies that ration care by deciding what is covered and what is not. Private plans limit which doctor and hospital you can use, define "preexisting conditions" and make insurance unaffordable for tens of millions. For many, all this can cause suffering and sometimes even death. Our one oasis of socialized medicine, Medicare, has the most choice and the least exclusion.
The misdirected citizen anger at the Obama health reform efforts is a surrogate for broader, entirely legitimate, popular economic backlash.
After receiving nearly a trillion dollars of taxpayer aid, Wall Street is returning to business as usual. Consider: Firms that received government help, after losing fortunes in 2008, still found money to pay out exorbitant bonuses at public expense.
Far too little of the government's aid to Wall Street is trickling down. Because of the administration's decision to target $75 billion in mortgage-relief aid to banks and mortgage companies rather than to beleaguered homeowners, foreclosures are still increasing far faster than loan modifications.
Despite the premature triumphalism about a trivial drop in the measured unemployment rate in July, more than 25 million Americans are either unemployed, out of the labor force, or working part time when they need a full-time job. No wonder there is widespread pocketbook anger.
When economically stressed and frightened people are anxious and sullen, you never know who will capture their fears and hopes. In the 1930s, economic anxiety produced leaders as different as Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. History shows that if the reformist left doesn't offer a plausible story and strategy of reform, the lunatic right will gain ground even with an implausible one. So where are the liberal protesters? The initiative has passed to the know-nothing right for two big reasons.
One is Obama himself. This president recoils from confrontation, even with those who are out to destroy him. He has had ample opportunities to put himself on the side of popular economic grievances and to connect America's economic troubles to the forces that Roosevelt called "economic royalists." But Obama, whose propensity for consensus is hard-wired, keeps passing up those opportunities.
Even now, he won't make clear that the private insurance industry is the problem. Recent administration statements on the "public" insurance option have been classics of mixed messaging. Obama's economic team is far too cozy with Wall Street, fanning populist suspicions.
Despite the president's history as a community organizer, his style as president is to tamp down popular protest, not rev it up. I know of several cases in which the White House requested allied progressive groups to cool it. When government-subsidized AIG disgracefully paid culpable executives "retention bonuses," Obama dispatched Larry Summers to the Sunday talk shows to helpfully explain that "We are a country of law. There are contracts." Tell that to laid-off and outsourced factory workers. It's hardly surprising that regular people resent the corporate-connected Washington of Barack Obama.
Second, the progressive grass roots have been weakened by the same Wall Street-dominated economy. The labor movement, the best single instrument for turning popular economic distress into reform, has been savaged by illegal corporate union-busting. While the Obama administration offers kind words to unions, reform to ensure workers' rights to organize is not one of its priorities. Too many other liberal interest groups have become Beltway operations, packaged and polite affairs disconnected from the real grass roots.
The remedy is not left-wing mobs to contest right-wing ones. In Germany in the 1930s, fascists tilted in the street with communists, and both were recipes for disaster.
One way or another, hard times produce popular anger at callous elites. Presidential leadership and progressive organizing energy to connect the mounting outrage to the real economic abuses are overdue. Otherwise, even a ticket of Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford could pick up the pieces.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of the American Prospect, a senior fellow at Demos and the author of "Obama's Challenge."