Friday, September 13, 2013

Beinart understands the role of millennials but not the Obama coalition

I can't say that I have always agreed with Peter Beinart on politics, but a few years ago he took a big picture look at the swings of the political spectrum in one of the best pieces of analysis I've ever read. He's just written another important article in which he attempts to make a case for the emerging "new new left." Once again he makes some important points that many pundits are missing. But there are a couple of big gaping holes in his analysis this time.

Beinart's main point is that up until recently, our politics have been defined by the Reagan/Clinton years. Reagan set the tone with his "government isn't the solution, its the problem," and Clinton solidified that with his ascent to big business, triangulation and suggestion that "the era of big government is over."

Where Beinart gets it right is to suggest that that old frame is over for the millennial generation. But he goes on to focus only on the part about their opposition to the 1%ers in big business and erroneously suggests that President Obama has simply carried on with that part of the Clinton legacy.

It is true that the President didn't use the financial crisis that was underway when he came into office to simply tear down Wall Street as many on the left hoped he would. One can make the case that doing so would have caused even bigger chaos in the world economy and ultimately hurt the already struggling poor and middle class more than they were at the time. But let's leave that argument for another day.

Does the President's failure to go the direction many liberals were suggesting mean he bought into the Clinton legacy of appeasing corporate interests in our political process? Beinart suggests that it does. And yet further down in the article as he's describing the process for the emergence of the "new new left," he points out how Howard Dean initially changed the calculus of political campaigns and Obama eventually succeeded where Dean failed.
...he [Dean] established a template for toppling a Democratic frontrunner: inspire young voters, raise vast funds via small donations over the Web, and attack those elements of Clintonian orthodoxy that are accepted by Democratic elites but loathed by liberal activists on the ground.

In 2008, that became the template for Barack Obama.
The main reason Clinton bowed to corporate interests is that he and the DLC calculated that the only way to avoid another overwhelming loss like the one the Democrats suffered in the 1984 presidential election was to get access to corporate funds for political campaigns (anyone else old enough to remember the Clinton fundraising scandals that emerged as a result? If not, I have two words for you..."Lincoln bedroom.")

What Dean started and Obama finished was to prove that those vast amounts of funds that could be raised via small donations could beat the stranglehold big business had on our political process. Not only did he end the Clinton legacy in that regard, he did so by beating that very same Clinton machine in the process. That allowed President Obama to make pragmatic decisions about Wall Street during the great recession rather than become beholden to them for his political survival.

But an even bigger hole in Beinart's analysis is that he sees the millennial generation confined to their opposition to corporate interests. In doing so, of course he trots out that OWS was comprised mostly of millennias. But what he misses is that OWS appealed almost exclusively to white millenials. At an earlier point in the article, even Beinart has to accede that is not a true representation.
But among Millennials, there are fewer white, Christian non-immigrants to rouse. Forty percent of Millennials are racial or ethnic minorities.
Beinart's big example of the emergent "new new left" is de Blasio's victory in the New York mayoral primary this week. He sees it primarily through the lens of a battle over economic policies. While he makes a casual reference to de Blasio rejection of "stop and frisk" (but fails to even address Bloomberg's racist remarks about de Blasio's family), he doesn't tie it to the idea that millenials of color (and the issues that are primary to them) will have an impact on the "new new left."

Leading in to the 2016 presidential race, Beinart suggests that Elizabeth Warren could pose a challenge to Hillary Clinton and capture this "new new left" due to her strong record of challenging Wall Street and income inequality. This continues the assumption that the issues that are important to black and brown millennials are the same as those articulated by white millennials via OWS. Of course that has almost always been the assumption of white liberals in this country. We've been able to get away with that for decades and so it comes as no surprise that Beinart continues to do so.

I would submit that a day of reckoning on that assumption is fast approaching. National political candidates who recognize that their fortunes are dependent on capturing the Obama coalition going forward are the most likely to help us avoid the consequences of clinging to those old assumptions for too long. As far as I can see, that field is still open for 2016.


  1. Yeah, I read that article yesterday and thought it was illuminating, but was strangely struck by his references to OWS and Elizabeth Warren. The whole anti-finance tone of the post seemed very NYC centric. I'd posit that the author needs to get out more. I think he was right about the arbitrariness of generation descriptors. They are arbitrary. I liked his ideas about how events more strongly shape generations than dates. Calling Obama anything at all like Clinton, just because he's business friendly was quite a stretch. Glad to get your take on it.

    1. I agree that what he said about generation descriptors is an important contribution. A lot of people cling to the myth that we get more conservative as we get older. I was glad to see him bring up the evidence that shatters that one.

    2. I feel the same way about these writers spending too much time in New York.


    3. Good catch on the NYC (actually, upper-east cost) centricity of so much analysis of liberal politics. There's a lot more to the Obama coalition than what you see in an OWS rally. In fact, I think you see more of what Obama represents in the response to Trayvon Martin and in the Dreamers. Neither of those groups are particular favored towards the Wall Street crowd, but the fact that some millionaires and billionaires are making even more money is not the central concern of their activism.

  2. Smartypants, I thank you kindly for clarifying my uneasiness for me. :-) When I read that entire article yesterday, I 'got' most of it just fine and agreed with several parts. In particular the way he approached the labels attached to generations and his 'new' descriptions. I thought I saw his argument about Warren, thinking his assessment seemed reasonable and not really caring about 2016 at the moment. However, I brushed off my uneasiness with his description of the Obama campaign, telling myself that I'm always ready to pick up arms when the president is criticized. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this area; they make more sense to me than his. ;-)

    1. I like Warren, a lot. But I'd really like to see what kind of appeal she has outside of the northeast and outside the realms of the white liberal class. I haven't heard much from her on the issues of racism, voter rights and immigration. I don't doubt that she is well disposed on those issues, I just haven't heard her talk about them.

  3. SP, it took me FIVE attempts to decipher the code so I could be 'published' above!!! Doesn't this system take into consideration that some of us may not be robots but we don't have the best eyesight?

  4. VC - re your comments about decipering the "code" to prove you are not a robot. I have the same problem with several of those programs, and I think the problem is that robots create the images that we as humans are supposed to decipher. :-)

    Many times the letters overlap in such a way that you are really guessing as to what is what.

    As to the article being discussed ... I thought it was well thought out and made good points. I am not so sure of myself or confident in my ultimate wisdom to suggest that the author was wrong and I am correct. That being said, I would like further analysis of exactly what the "Obama Coalition" really consists of. Sure, we can identify age, gender, race, education and economic status demographics, but sometimes the whole is greater than, and way more complex than the sum of its parts. I imagine that as a relatively well off boomer, my reasons for (mainly) supporting Obama are quite different from those from different demographic slices of the pie, and yet we all pulled the lever (or mailed in our ballots) the same way.

    1. 'I think the problem is that robots create the images that we as humans are supposed to decipher.'

      Oh, the irony! Never gave that any thought! :-)

      (Wonder how many attempts I'll have to make this time? /grin/

  5. Glad to have your take on the Beinart article, smartypants. I also thought that his description of Obama being a Clintonian was wrong, even though the premise was right: Obama did go to great length to appease the plutocracy. He also did go to great length to appease the military and the CIA. And he had a very good reason for that. He needs to keep them loyal or at least not plotting upheaval to being able to accomplish something. This aspect of the appeasement Beinart completely overlooked - although it should be very obvious, given this country's history of violence.