I’ve long been a fan of Robert Reich. I love it that he’s at Berkeley and I’ve been able to attend a number of his lectures and public appearances. He strikes me as being sensitive and aware. He’s certainly more knowledgeable and experienced in the ways of government than most of his colleagues, even the democratic ones. And, probably most importantly, unlike me and others like me who are so weary of the corruption of the political process in this country that they/we have largely given up, he is doggedly in there fighting, a major figure in The Resistance.
His latest contribution is an insightful claim that America has not two political parties, but six. It’s a simple but obvious look at how Americans have grouped themselves politically into six different factions, each with their own special interests.
He’s saying, in effect, that we’ve become more like a parliamentary system that works with coalitions and a greater diversity of political parties. They represent their voters more closely because there are more options to choose from.
But leaving the question aside for the moment of whether there is all that much practical difference between a faction in a coalition government and a faction within a ruling party, I think it’s useful to look at how Reich sizes up the American electorate. As a Bernie Sanders supporter, I had no trouble dividing the country into black hats and white hats, the white hats being those who focused on social equity and a fair distribution of wealth. I think government should act as if we are a national community, and just as happens within a healthy family, never let the strong overpower the weak. Label me a democratic socialist, in other words. The label fits.
I don’t think much of the folks in the black hats, the “I’ve got mine” party. They’ve become more open about advocating welfare for the rich of late – just check out the current misnamed tax reform efforts to eliminate taxes on those earning more than five million dollars a year. We know that the argument that this will generate more growth is bogus, and that it simply means those who earn less will pay more in taxes. But they have the political power now, and this effort may actually succeed.
Here’s how I see Reich’s six categories. The expansions are mine, and Reich probably would find them oversimplified, overstated, and maybe even wrong, but they are how the landscape looks to me at present. First off the three subgroups among the Republicans:
1. The Establishment – This is corporate America, sometimes called the 1%. Their goal is to keep the wealth in the hands of the superwealthy. They justify greed by the Calvinist notion that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Even those who no longer cast it in religious terms have nonetheless inherited the notion as cultural (predestinationist) Calvinists. Some may be sincere – I believe most are not – when they attempt to justify the politics of greed by claiming the trickle-down theory of economics. I think anybody who has been paying attention knows that this theory has long since been debunked and what can one conclude but that the claim is self-serving bullshit?
Along with this is the notion that rich people tend, in general, to be smarter than others. In many cases that’s true – they at least have better access to formal education, and in many cases that allows them to cultivate their intellectual capacities. But a simple rich = smart has got to be one of the most corrupt and immoral notions ever to come down the pike. Don’t believe me? Spend some time among the wise folks in poverty-stricken places. You’ll see what I mean. And, of course, even if there is a correlation between rich and smart, there is no logical connection to be made to the idea that smart = good.
2. Anti-establishment. These are the Small Government Republicans. They include the Tea Partiers and the Libertarians. Reich stresses that in many ways their heads are in the right place. They are against corruption in government (the bigger the government, the greater the opportunities for corruption). They therefore want to starve government by limiting taxes. That leads them to underestimate the need for money to build roads and bridges and schools and provide welfare for the vulnerable and the needy among us. But they argue (and their arguments are worth listening to) that the solution is more sensible spending policies, not more money collected in taxes.
3. Third come the Social Conservatives. This group is represented mostly by those with religious ideological convictions. Many will argue, if you push them, that God’s law (as they interpret it, of course) should outweigh man’s law. This is most clearly seen in the Islamic world where sharia law has become civil law, but even in secular states, and the United States was intended from the beginning to be one, despite the fiction that America is a Christian nation, you will find people who tell you in their hearts they believe they are justified in pushing God’s law onto the rest of us.
Those driven by religious ideology are readily manipulated by more sophisticated folk who know what buttons to push. Wedge issues such as abortion and homosexuality, dear to the heart of absolutist literal-minded religionists, easily outweigh all other issues, and persons living on the edge of poverty can often be seen to vote for fewer taxes on the superrich and more on themselves, simply if along with those tax policies comes an anti-abortion policy. Check out the videos of Pat Robertson of Jim Bakker sometime.
It’s important to distinguish among “religious” people. There is a far greater division between spiritual religionists and literal religionists than there is between the spirituality-focused religious and the non-religious. It’s not hard to identify who’s who. The spiritually inclined tend to listen in humility for the voice of God; the literalists are only too happy to tell you they can speak for God (“because I read it in the Bible!” – the evangelical version, or “because the church hierarchy has been ordained by God” – the catholic version). Another way to distinguish the two groups is to recognize that one (those with a spiritual focus) is essentially open and the other is essentially closed. Secularists tend toward a scientific world-view and thus take a “don't tell me/show-me” approach to knowledge. They want evidence for truth claims, and that makes them essentially open to change and possibility. Spiritual religionists and secularists are both “open” in other words; literalists are by nature “closed.”
There are other social conservatives. Reich mentions rural Southern whites as such a group, but I think, when push comes to shove, that group is working on a fundamentalist Christian basis, and is not, for all practical purposes, all that different from other fundamentalists, closed to outsiders, closed to evolution in thought, closed to new possibilities.
So much for the three subgroups under the rubric of the Republican Party. Reich then turns to the Democrats and finds:
4. The Establishment – not all that different from the Republican establishment, and that’s why you so often hear “there’s no difference between the parties.” What people mean by that is there’s not all that much to distinguish the ruling class within the two parties. They are both governed by the conviction that reality means recognizing that money rules the world and that whoever has the most money when they die wins. What distinguishes the Republican Establishment from the Democratic Establishment is that the former adheres more to the “invisible hand” idea, the market place as the source of truth and knowledge, somewhat more than the Democrats do. And the Democrats take more time to see to health, education and welfare, to see to it that government follows Hubert Humphrey’s admonition to care for those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life and the shadows of life. But let’s not forget our priorities. Money comes first.
5. My folk – the anti-Establishment Democrats. They tend to be younger, they are inherently more progressive, open to new ideas, committed to the welfare of the outliers among us – transgendered folk, prisoners, the mentally ill, no less than women, lesbians and gays, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities. They see inequity as America’s chief problem, they take the problem of climate change very seriously, and they definitely see money as a problem, not an automatic solution, especially in politics. To a Martian, they might appear to be advocating a practical and righteous (i.e., non-Stalinist) form of communism, or perhaps a practical form of Christianity (I don’t see much difference). This is due to their conviction that capitalism as it has come to be practiced in the West is crony capitalism – and some like to call it vulture capitalism.
That leaves the final group, the one that put Donald Trump in power. The “out of the frying pan, into the fire” folk. The folk duped by a Pied Piper, the “none of the above” voters willing to give him free rein to ride roughshod over tradition and decorum simply to register outrage at change, at modernism, at internationalization, at evolution. A pot pourri of discontent.
6. Trump – the greatest challenge to American democracy in modern times. Some claim he merely reveals the ugly underbody of a racist sexist society, a greedy self-serving bunch of folk for whom popular democracy is simply another way to rule by id and not by superego. The best we can hope for is that the shock of Trump in the White House will shake the apathy America (and other modern democracies) are cursed with.
I am convinced that Trump is not the problem, that he is a symptom of the problem. He serves, of course, as the icon of the problem, but we will not get out of the current chaotic state if we continue to fail to see the problem is not this one wretched, probably mentally ill, narcissist, but a failure to show a respect for facts, if we continue to believe that truth is whatever we want it to be, particularly if we can get others to go along with our fantasies.
Trump’s Republican enablers are leaving what looks for all the world like a sinking ship. That’s not all that needs to be done, but it’s a beginning.
Coalition governments may be superior to government by a two-party system in some ways, but only if party leaders can find a way to override tremendous differences. The German government is struggling to put together a coalition that includes the German equivalent of our establishment parties (both Democratic and Republican) and the Green Party (our environmentalists). Some worry about the consequences of putting an environmentalist in charge of foreign policy - a real possibility in Germany - and other worry the question itself could become disruptive to efficient government.
The point is only that the times call for desperate efforts to build coalitions and make them work. In the U.S., that means, according to Reich, getting the subgroups to work together – he stresses the tax relief and money-out-of-politics segments.
Unfortunately, that’s only the what, not the how. What Reich leaves out is any information about the size and relative power of each of these factions, and the fact that the battle for control of the Democratic Party between Factions 4 and 5 (Establishment (Hillary Clinton/Debbie Wasserman-Schulz/Donna Brazile) Democrats and Bernie Sanders and the majority of young voters, respectively) gets both hostile and downright dirty at times - as hostile and dirty as the battle between parties.
What I find useful in all this is the opportunity to look a little more closely than most of us look most of the time, to find distinctions, and possibilities for an opening.
Something’s got to give.