Politics in the new Roaring 20s

robert-reich-rgbThere is a very interesting article in Newsweek by Robert Reich who is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, and Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the 20th century. He has written 14 books. Professor Reich is, of course, a Democrat and his article is addressed to the Democratic party, but it might well apply to many, many others, and not just in America, either.

Professor Reich begins by saying that “The Democratic Party as it is now constituted has become a giant fundraising machine, too often reflecting the goals and values of the moneyed interests. This must change. The election of 2016 has repudiated it … [and] … What happened in America Tuesday should not be seen as a victory for hatefulness over decency. It is more accurately understood as a repudiation of the American power structure.

He then goes on to explain that “At the core of that structure are the political leaders of both parties, their political operatives and fundraisers; the major media, centered in New York and Washington DC; the country’s biggest corporations, their top executives and Washington lobbyists and trade associations; the biggest Wall Street banks, their top officers, traders, hedge-fund and private-equity managers and their lackeys in Washington; and the wealthy individuals who invest directly in politics.” You could amend that to replace New York and Washington DC with Toronto or Ottawa or, for the Brits, The City and Westminster or, for Australia, imageswith Sydney and Canberra, and it would still ring true. Equally you can replace Wall Street with Bay Street and we, Canadians, would recognize the same issues. Big money, which includes big labour’s money, special interests with deep pockets, sometimes with foreign funded war chests, and a few wealthy individuals “direct” political parties, even Labour in the UK and the New Democrats here in Canada.

Recent economic indicators may be up,” Robert Reich says, “but those indicators don’t reflect the insecurity most Americans continue to feel, nor the seeming arbitrariness and unfairness they experience. Nor do the major indicators show the linkages many Americans see between wealth and power, stagnant or declining real wages, soaring CEO pay and the undermining of democracy by big money … [and] … Median family income is lower now than it was 16 years ago, adjusted for inflation. Workers without college degrees—the old working class—have fallen furthest. Most economic gains, meanwhile, have gone to top. These gains have translated into political power to elicit bank bailouts, corporate subsidies, special tax loopholes, favorable trade deals and increasing market power without interference by anti-monopoly enforcement—all of which have further reduced wages and pulled up profits … [further, he says] … Wealth, power and crony capitalism fit together. Americans know a takeover has occurred, and they blame the establishment for it.

He goes on to say that “The Democratic Party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades, the party has been taken over by Washington-based fundraisers, bundlers, analysts and pollsters who have focused instead on raising campaign money from corporate and Wall Street executives and getting votes from upper-middle-class households in “swing” suburbs.” I don’t think that’s wholly true, and I’m not sure it ever was. It’s a bit like saying that the CCF and now the NDP represent the working class in Canada. They claim that, but as people like Buzz Hargrove showed, when he publicly supported Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin in the 2000s, the “working downtown_Port_Hopeclass” is anything but monolithic. In fact both US Republicans and Canadian Conservatives have deep ties to small towns and small businesses, including family farms, where many more “working people ” are employed than are in big, unionized factories. So the “working class,” is, in my opinion, mostly a Marxist myth that is believed by progressives like Professor Reich. But that doesn’t obviate his observations about the concentration of power in the hands of a few who are seriously disconnected from most of us.

Robert Reich concludes that “Now Americans have rebelled by supporting someone who wants to fortify America against foreigners as well as foreign-made goods. The power structure understandably fears that Trump’s isolationism will stymie economic growth. But most Americans couldn’t care less about growth because for years they have received few of its benefits, while suffering most of its burdens in the forms of lost jobs and lower wages … [and] … The power structure is shocked by the outcome of the 2016 election because it has cut itself off from the lives of most Americans. Perhaps it also doesn’t wish to understand, because that would mean acknowledging its role in enabling the presidency of Donald Trump.

This divide is not about money, the inequality factor, trade unions or bank regulations, although all play some supporting role in it. It is about trust and it is about values.

Americans and Brits and Canadians and voters across the free world have learned to mistrust their elected leaders, of all stripes. I have mentioned before that Canadians mistrust Conservatives on some (many) social issues and that Americans and Canadians have lost faith in governments of all political stripes. It is not an issue just for the Democrats in the USA or for Conservatives, here. It impacts all political parties and movements, including all the various and sundry “anti” movements that coalesced behind Donald Trump. (It sure as hell wasn’t the Republican National Committee and the mainstream Republican Party that elected him … they, led by President George HW Bush, stayed home.) Those movements have turned their backs on the establishment parties that are controlled from remote offices and corporate (and big union) boardrooms in Canberra, London, New York, Ottawa, Sydney, Toronto and Washington, but that doesn’t mean that they are, in anyway, faithful to whatever it is that President elect Trump and e.g. Marine Le Pen in Paris are offering.

Political leaders of all stripes, not just American Democrats, need to understand what Robert Reich is saying: they need to understand the very real concerns and fears of “ordinary” people. Leaders may not identify with or share those concerns but, like Donald Trump, they need to understand them. Leaders also need to connect with people, too. It’s not enough to be a celebrity and to have a machine … read this, again: “Wealth, power and crony capitalism fit together. Americans know a takeover has occurred, and they blame the establishment for it.” Many, many Americans (and Australians, Brits and Canadians, too) believe that the “establishment” ~ that once respected and, to some degree accessible thing ~ that used to lead the nation sold it out to the mythical 1%.

That rather begs the question: is there, really, an “establishment” and, if there is then how does it differ from the 1%?

I would argue that there was and is a Canadian establishment (and I’m guessing American, 184_1v__masseyBritish and Australian ones too) exemplified by names like Massey and McGill, members of which amassed considerable wealth and coupled it with extensive public service. The 1% is a more recent a12922s4jatphenomenon, just real enough to have captured the public imagination. It is mostly “understood” through popular, mass media, not through direct contact … it is smart, although not usually part of the highly educated elite, ambitious, ruthless, energetic and not inclined to philanthropy. For all his great wealth, as a scion of the Massey-Harris industrial empire, and elite education, Vincent Massey, for example, was a public servant in the broadest sense of that word. The 1%, on the other hand, exemplified, perhaps, by Richard “Dick” Fuld Jr, the American banker best known as the final Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Lehman Brothers, too often lives up (or down) to Hollywood’s imaginations of it.

I think Professor Reich is right: the people, our friends and neighbours who vote, some for Conservatives, some for Liberals and some for the NDP and others, believe that the establishment sold the country out to the 1%. To the degree that political leaders are seen to be part of, beholden to, or “owned” by either group they are in danger. It seems to me that both the 1% and the “establishment” are, in Canada, closely tied to what John tk011212shipsnewser10_0Ibbitson described as the Laurentian Elites and their Laurentian Consensus and both of those are closely tied to the Liberal Party of Canada and to the Trudeau, Père et Fils, vision of Canada. Those who want to survive politics in the 2020s must offer an alternative vision: one that appeals to small towns, small business people, workers, of all sorts, and those who are EP-140929314not “represented” by a loud, well funded special interest group. They must appeal to people who do not get to fly in the first class cabin and who do not have well funded pensions and who worry, for the first time in generations, that their children will not have a better, brighter future than they did. I believe that President elect Trump is part of a backlash against the “establishment” and the 1% and, as such, his rise gives the values of Main Street a chance to return to the fore. The next prime minister of Canada needs to exemplify and enunciate those values.

tumblr_static_roaring-twenties-sourceI think we are about to enter another Roaring Twenties decade, but, instead of prosperity and fun and parties it will be cornhill-girls-tug-of-war-team-sponsored-by-brian-smith-engineerscharacterized by a tug-of-war between the “machine politics” of the Laurentian Elites and the overtaxed, under-appreciated, hard working families in rural Canada, in small towns and cities and in the massive, vote rich suburbs around our major cities. We, Conservatives, need to on the side of the people, with the people and leading the people. Would be Conservative leaders need, first and foremost, to stop telling the people what they should think and, instead, ask the people what they do think. Would be leaders need to understand what the people think and hope and fear, and then offer useful, practical, achievable proposals to help people ameliorate their fears and achieve their hopes and dreams. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution, not everyone shares, for example, my concerns with defence and foreign policy, not everyone is a fiscal hawk, many people are not social libertarians. The next prime minister of Canada needs to offer moderate fiscal, social, foreign, trade, defence, agricultural, energy and infrastructure polices and programmes that appeal to most Canadians and that do not frighten off too many.

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