Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Identity Politics vs Class Based Populism is Not an Either/Or Question (Part II)

In a previous post, I critiqued Thomas Edsall's suggestion that the Democratic Party's focus on identity politics was at odds with a class-based populism that would appeal to low-to-moderate income white voters based on presidential election results. Now let's take a look at how the election of our country's first African American President has affected the Party's policy proposals.

Barack Obama was elected President during this country's Great Recession. As such, his first priority was to pass a stimulus package, which he did within 28 days of being inaugurated. The next great battle was over the passage of health care reform. And after that came Wall Street Reform (to correct the abuses that had led to the Great Recession). In the middle of all that, he rescued the auto industry - saving millions of jobs. None of these efforts targeted "identity groups," but some have suggested that Obamacare was the greatest redistribution of wealth from upper incomes to lower since the Great Society programs of LBJ.

Since then, with the Republican takeover of the House and the loss of a supermajority in the Senate, Democratic priorities have not been able to get passed in Congress. But the list of proposals have included an infrastructure bank, the American Jobs Act, universal pre-K, raising the minimum wage, paid family leave and free community college. All of these would provide universal benefits that are not targeted to identity groups.

As a matter of fact, President Obama has consistently come under fire for not doing more on issues like the disparities that exist for African Americans on income, housing, education, etc. Joy Reid documents in her recent book Fracture how the Congressional Black Caucus and African American leaders have continually pressured this administration to target legislative proposals towards these issues - only to be rebuffed. Jennifer Senior recounts some of the same dynamics in her recent article titled: The Paradox of the First Black President.

On the other hand, the Obama administration has fought for immigration reform, pay equity for women, criminal justice reform and the end of DADT/DOMA. Democrats passed the Lilly Lebetter Fair Pay Act, the Fair Sentencing Act and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Act. President Obama has also used the executive branch to investigate police brutality, challenge voting restrictions, prosecute redlining, reach settlements with Black farmers and Native American tribes, etc.

But in terms of an over-arching agenda, President Obama has continually articulated what he believes to be "the defining issue of our time." Here's how he talked about it during his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas in 2011.
Today, we’re still home to the world’s most productive workers. We’re still home to the world’s most innovative companies. But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments -- wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t -- and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up....

But, Osawatomie, this is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.
And in a speech at an Associated Press luncheon in 2012.
In the face of all these challenges, we're going to have to answer a central question as a nation: What, if anything, can we do to restore a sense of security for people who are willing to work hard and act responsibly in this country? Can we succeed as a country where a shrinking number of people do exceedingly well, while a growing number struggle to get by? Or are we better off when everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules?

This is not just another run-of-the-mill political debate. I’ve said it’s the defining issue of our time, and I believe it. It’s why I ran in 2008. It’s what my presidency has been about. It’s why I’m running again. I believe this is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and I can’t remember a time when the choice between competing visions of our future has been so unambiguously clear.
And in a speech at the Center for American Progress in 2013.
But we know that people’s frustrations run deeper than these most recent political battles. Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles -- to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement. It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were. They may not follow the constant back-and-forth in Washington or all the policy details, but they experience in a very personal way the relentless, decades-long trend that I want to spend some time talking about today. And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain -- that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.

I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American. It’s why I ran for President. It was at the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office.
I'll stop there because perhaps you get the idea. Throughout his presidency, Obama has referred to this as his "North Star." It's true that, unlike some of his Democratic colleagues, this President doesn't tend to identify and demonize a villain in this story. But to the extent that people don't hear his commitment to addressing income inequality (i.e., class-based populism), one has to wonder whether it also has to do with their issues with the messenger rather than the message...which brings us back to the needs addressed by identity politics.

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