Only economic justice can save progressive politics

I just came across an excellent post by Matt Bruenig that, through an empathetic portrait of a poor man who supported Trump and Cruz, skilfully brought together the reasons why economic inequality must be at the centre of progressive politics.

Bruenig came across Eric Harwood on Twitter, when the latter spoke about feeling abandoned by the American safety net. Harwood had worked his whole life, but developed a serious physical disability. He was reaching the time limit of all available welfare programs and despaired about looming homelessness. He could not understand how despite having done all the right things – been a hardworking, loyal American – he could be thrown out on the scrap heap. There are millions of stories like this. It’s part of an extraordinary trend in the USA where life expectancy for middle aged whites is decreasing, mostly due to suicide, alcohol and drugs.

I recommend you read Bruenig‘s post in full, but here’s an except:

When asked what his main issues are, he talked at length about the bank bailout. In his view, the bailout was an incredible mistake. The money that went to the banks should have been given out to the people more generally, who then could have used it to pay off their loans (and thus save the banks) and to pump up demand more generally. He explained further that the bank bailout is just one part of a broader problem with the way the government spends money. Specifically, he thinks it spends too much money on foreign aid, refugees, and immigrants, when it should be spending it on struggling veterans, seniors, needy children, and those who cannot work. He also confirmed that he is, at least in some respects, a social conservative and that he believes abortion is murder. In the 2016 campaign, he says he wants a Trump and Cruz ticket and he doesn’t care who leads it.

Altogether, Harwood struck me as a basically kind and decent man. He’s been economically wrecked by so many of the trends that have hit working-class people in the country over the last few decades. He lost his home in the Great Recession. He has had lower-paying work for much of his life. And now he has a work-limiting disability that may soon cause him to become, in effect, homeless. He has experienced his latest setback as an abandonment of him by society and government institutions: he contributed in the labor force for 31 years and yet he can’t get the social benefits he is justly owed.

His concern about foreign aid, immigrants, and refugees, though misguided in my opinion, has a very clear connection to his economic situation. Put bluntly, he wonders why his country can somehow help these people while he drowns. In the grand scheme of things, the reality is that the US does not spend that much of its GDP on foreign aid, refugees, and immigrants. The reason there are so many poor veterans, elderly, children, and disabled (the four populations Harwood kept bringing up) is not because the government doesn’t have the means to help these groups. It just chooses not to for various ideological reasons. This is something I know because I spend most of my waking hours studying the shape of government spending and the US welfare state. But you could certainly see how someone like Eric Harwood might think otherwise.

The erosion of the American safety net has undoubtedly contributed to the populist right-wing backlash.  Impoverished people, lacking education and access to the political system, are looking for simple answers to their woes. And they have rich, successful people who will confidently tell them who to blame. A growing immiserated under-class is a perfect storm for an reactionary backlash. That’s why economic protections are so vital to a socially progressive and free society. Social liberals should think about embracing a pro-equality economic agenda, if they aren’t already.

There are other compelling reasons for rebuilding fragile social protections. For a social democrat, of course, the restoration of the safety net is simply a moral principle. But for a rational capitalist, it is also an economic imperative. If we open up economy – embrace disruption – members of our community are exposed to more risk, even as there is a greater return to the economy as a whole. The rational response to such risk is good insurance. But instead of increasing social protections, most countries – the USA in particular – have weakened them. It’s no surprise, then, that we have a popular backlash against openness that threatens to undermine international trade and immigration.

Whatever you think of Bernie Sanders, you must admit his message is cutting through. His rhetoric is powerful because it redirects working class anger onto bankers, elites and greedy politicians. His punchy slogans give the afflicted a story with which they can make sense of their suffering. This is why he has a vastly larger political coalition – not just students, but also truck drivers – than the warm-lettuce lefties before him.

There is no agility without security. Morally, economically and politically: the case is overwhelming that frank discussion about class, inequality and the social compact must be the centerpiece of a successful centre-left agenda.


2 thoughts on “Only economic justice can save progressive politics

  1. Su-Min

    Hi David, nice blog 🙂 But, I think you’re significantly overstating the case on this post.

    When you say ‘Only economic justice can save progressive politics’, I interpret that as you arguing either that:

    a) There is a causal relationship between economic inequality, and other socially progressive causes (race, gender, sexuality); or
    b) Alleviating economic inequality is *more important* than these other socially progressive causes.

    I don’t think either of these premises is exactly *wrong*, but I don’t think they’re *right*, either, and it’s worth unpacking why that is.

    On a) – When Bruenig says, ‘you could certainly see [why a voter would blame refugees and immigrants for the economic woes of children, the disabled and the elderly]’, the ‘certainly’ is doing quite a bit of work there. Well, ‘you’ certainly could reach that conclusion – that is, if you came from a baseline position that any particular problem in life must be attributable to minorities, because there really isn’t any more causation offered than that – why, for instance, would it not be equally logical to blame the government for spending too much on, say, national parks? I mean, the logic just doesn’t flow without an underlying belief that minorities are, in themselves, a problem.

    Also, to reach that conclusion, you would need to believe that minorities are never themselves children, disabled or elderly, because…? I mean, I’m not going to say that you’d have to believe that minorities aren’t *human*…but you would need to assign them to a special category of person not subject to the ordinary dimensions of human experience. Which is slightly better – but again, I am definitely raising an eyebrow at the fact that Bruenig seems to think that this is a perfectly natural thing which ‘you’ might think.

    I mean, it’s possible that economic distress can *exacerbate* various prejudices, but it’s not the root cause, and it shouldn’t be necessary as a justification for addressing said distress. The guy in the interview deserves help because he’s a person – no-one deserves to live in poverty. In a moral sense, this shouldn’t be conditional on his becoming more progressive. In a practical sense, I do not have high hopes that this will happen.

    On b) – well, I can imagine cases where this is true, and cases where it isn’t. Increasing labour protections is probably more useful than increasing, say, Hispanic winners at the Academy awards; but I can imagine that a raise in the minimum wage may not be of much comfort to a black woman whose unarmed child has been shot by police, or a woman who falls further into poverty (along with her family) because she was unable to have an abortion when she needed one. What I’m saying is that socially and economically progressive causes are interlinked. Just as you can’t talk about socially liberal causes in isolation from economic inequality, you can’t talk about economic justice as if it can be abstracted from the conditions under which different groups of people live.

    One more thought:

    I want to say something else about the ‘you’ in the Bruenig article. Clearly, Bruenig’s imagined reader isn’t an immigrant or a refugee himself, and is probably not close to anyone who is. This phenomenon of talking as if minorities don’t exist, or aren’t worth addressing, has been a problem with elements the Bernie campaign. It’s a big reason why, to put it bluntly, Bernie is losing black people.

    (Not that it matters, but insofar as I have an opinion (which isn’t very far), I’m a Sanders supporter).

    Liked by 1 person


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