I was away last week, traveling and talking to people from various walks of life about what’s happening in our world. (And for goodness’ sake, can’t a guy take a week off without numerous disasters accumulating?!)
Among many, there’s an increasing sense of despair. They recognized from Day One that the president is a dangerous man, but they did not know whether established institutions — Congress, the courts — would check his destructive whims. Now, that hope has blown up with the separation of migrant children from their parents, the Supreme Court’s acceptance of the Muslim travel ban, the activated threats to international trading regimes and the payoff of the McConnell gamble to shape the high court for decades to come. A common refrain from Team Despair was, “And we’re not even halfway through.”
Others shared these concerns but worried that the Democrats would respond too radically to them, drifting too far from the mainstream. One older person, reflecting on the upset primary loss of Joe Crowley, a high-ranking, 19-year incumbent Democrat, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old democratic socialist, warned me that at this rate, Trump would end up running against Sen. Elizabeth Warren. That this was a recipe for failure was considered so obvious that it didn’t need to be spoken.
Yet, for all the different reactions to current events, there was a clear, common signal that came through the noise of despair and political upheaval: a desire for more WITT and less YOYO. That’s “we’re in this together” vs. “you’re on your own.”
Here is a quick primer on both. YOYO politics involves pitting groups against one another and inculcating fear that everyone is ripping you off. That includes foreign workers and welfare cheats attacking you from below, and banks, corporations and foreign governments attacking you from above. Under YOYO politics, every institution — government, the courts, unions, political parties — is corrupt and can’t help you. Only you, alone, can look out for yourself.
YOYO policy, thus, takes down social insurance: Social Security and Medicare are anathema to YOYOs. It gets rid of safety nets, regulations on business and worker protections (e.g., minimum wages, overtime pay). A classic YOYO play: Turn Social Security into a private investment account. Similarly, the long-term shift from guaranteed pensions to market-driven, variable 401(k) investment plans is entirely consistent with YOYOism. YOYOs hate unions and, thereby, worship right-to-work laws, last week’s Janus decision against public-sector unions and the general fissuring of the workplace. The more arm’s-length there is between workers and employers, the more you’re-on-your-own.
WITT is simply the inverse of all the above. At its core is the notion that without institutions to fight for the common interests of the majority — economic security, the ability to meet your basic needs, a fair chance to get ahead, freedom from discrimination — markets and politics will be dominated by the few with the most resources.
If that all sounds very abstract, let me bring it down to our current reality. With YOYOs in ascendancy, we would expect to see increased economic inequality, budgets that cut social protections for the poor and taxes for the rich, attacks on unions, international isolationism and the politics of racial animus. Check, check, check, check and freakin’ check.
This reality poses the question: Given that there are many more who would benefit from WITT vs. YOYO policies, why is YOYO winning? We can glean some insight to that question from a poll result I’ve long remembered. After I introduced WITTs and YOYOs in a book I wrote more than a decade ago, some political pollsters wondered whether this framing might be usefully employed by WITT candidates.
The results were mixed. As I expected, people responded very negatively to YOYOism. But before they could warm to WITT, they wanted to know “just who is it that I’m in it together with?”
This was not unexpected. The YOYO/WITT frame elevates class unifiers over racial divisions, but the latter are so fundamental in America that they can never be discounted, and they can always be tapped and exploited by YOYOs.
So, where does that leave us?
For one, consider the victory of Ocasio-Cortez — and she’s not alone — while you watch a short video from the Democratic Socialists of America called “Thanks, Capitalism.” The video, as well as the platform of DSA candidates, tees up the problem and solution in much the same spirit as the YOYO/WITT dichotomy, with a heavy emphasis on progressive policy solutions — Medicare for all, guaranteed jobs, free college — that are the stuff of YOYOs’ nightmares.
As a D.C. policy wonk, I’ve broadly supported these goals while raising concerns about their feasibility given the path dependency — where you end up is determined by where you start — of U.S. policy. The government could not realistically employ everyone who wants a good job, and getting to a Bernie Sanders-style health-care and education agenda means taxing back economic “rents” (undeserved profits) worth maybe 10 percent of GDP from powerful interests.
But while we can and should argue over incrementalism vs. leapfrogging path dependency, the common ground between the WITTs and the socialists is increasingly evident and compelling. The emphasis on class, power, youth, gender and diversity as a unifying, rather than a separating, factor feels to me like the most powerful framework to bring down the YOYOs and elevate the WITTs.
If that sounds too radical to some in my age cohort (that would be “old”), I urge you to consider the fact that your comfort zone is increasingly uncomfortable. While we’ve not done nearly enough to pave the way for those coming up after us, the YOYOs are trying to pull up the ladder. Our sole goal must be to stop them and create opportunity, security and prosperity for the many with whom we’re in this together.