Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dr. King's populist message: We are tied together in the single garment of destiny

Lately columnist Noam Scheiber has taken on the mantle of making a case for Senator Elizabeth Warren's brand of populism. It has become conventional wisdom these days to link Warren with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as the "new new left." But Scheiber writes about the differences between the two.
De Blasio’s rhetoric sounds more leftist, implying a relentless competition between underclass and overclass. But the substance of Warren’s agenda is far more radical. She wants to upend a fundamentally corrupt system, one in which big banks and other interests have coopted the apparatus of government. By contrast, de Blasio implicitly accepts “the system”—which in New York means an economy built around the financial sector and the real estate industry—and wants to mitigate its least desirable effects.

Or, put differently, de Blasio accepts that today’s rich and powerful will continue to be rich and powerful; he just thinks they should do more to help the rest of us. Warren questions the very legitimacy of their wealth and power.
Whether or not Scheiber has given us an accurate description of these two politicians I'll leave to others to examine. I found the distinction helpful in understanding where I tend to part ways with many progressives on the left who have been sounding like this depiction of Senator Warren ever since the Great Recession of 2008. Those folks were livid that when President Obama came into office, he didn't use the opportunity to break up the banks and basically destroy the financial sector. Of course his failure to do so was seen by them as proof that he was merely a tool of the 1%.

But right in the middle of Scheiber making his case for Sen. Warren's position, he points this out about Mayor de Blasio's.
New York City would fall into a deep depression if the financial sector shrunk substantially.
That was always my position when Congress was discussing financial reform. What the progressives who argued for "taking down the banks" never grappled with was what that would do to the poor and middle class in this country...those who depend on either a wealthy tax base for our social safety net programs or the pensions invested on Wall Street. Regardless of how angry we feel about the greed and corruption that led to the Great Recession, our economy reflects a central truth articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King.
We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
That might sound like language too lofty to apply to the mundane world of the economy. But its true. We cannot take down whole industries (be it the financial sector or health care) without the ripple effects falling most heavily on "the least among us." That is something liberals MUST grapple with...and not let our anger at the abusers overtake our empathy for their victims.

That doesn't mean that we don't hold the abusers accountable. It just means that we do so by keeping in mind the consequences our actions will have on what President Obama has called his North Star - those in the middle class and those striving to get there.

BooMan recently weighed in on all this and comes down in support of the message Scheiber assigns to Sen. Warren because it mobilizes the anger people feel about the government working on behalf of the wealthy.
Where Warren is on the right track is that she is focused on changing the reality and the perception that the government doesn't work for middle class folks, rather than coming up with programs that will redistribute wealth down to the underclass. The reason that this path is preferable to de Blasio's is because we can't garner support for big government programs until we change the people's perception that Washington is not representing their interests.
What that argument fails to address is that the method Republicans have used for the last 40 years to convince people that the government doesn't work for them can be summed up in the Southern Strategy. In other words, racism. White working and middle class Americans have consistently been told (sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly) that government programs are a hand-out to be used and abused by "those people," ie, black and brown folks. That doesn't pose a problem for Mayor De Blasio in New York City, but its the core of the battle being waged in what Sarah Palin calls "the real America."

To me, BooMan comes a little too close to acquiescing to the libertarian position that government is bad. His argument sends us on a path of needing to assuage white working/middle class concerns by suggesting that if we simply use government as a way to punish the wealthy, they will eventually join us in taking care of the poor and middle class. Sorry, but that ain't gonna happen.

I agree that as liberals we need to promote a populist message. Here is the one I would suggest. It was delivered exactly six years ago this Monday by the man who is now our President.
“Unity is the great need of the hour.” That’s what Dr. King said. It is the great need of this hour as well, not because it sounds pleasant, not because it makes us feel good, but because it's the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exits in this country.

I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. I'm talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another, to understand that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, that in the words of Dr. King, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”
A little different take on that same message played pretty well back in 2004.


  1. His finest speech. I remember watching this live on MSNBC & they showed a shocked Hillary in the audience with her jaw dropped.

  2. Never have I known this kind of love for a POTUS. He is exactly the medicine this country needs.

    The same knee-jerk tear-it-down fantasy was used for the ACA, as if everyone in the insurance industry being unemployed would be a good thing. The far left is too busy reifying their pet peeves and not nearly busy enough thinking about people who have to work for a living, and their families, and what horrors there are for people who can't keep their heads above water in this country.

    The idea that "revolution" means tearing up the whole fabric of our society and is a good thing is primarily the dream of white men who are not responsible for anyone but themselves. Whether or not they actually believe that the U.S. would magically become bucolic after destroying the economy, the fact is that failed states are very bad places for everyone but the single male who wants to get his power struggle on. It's ludicrous for women to support such an outlook, and I'm guessing that those who do have a trust fund or some other means to protect them so much from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that they don't have to consider them to be real, much less formidable to the degree a person's life can be made a living hell.

    A lot can be done, and is being done, to bring balance--- and most of that work is incremental but effective, nevertheless. Any relief, any help is good for people who struggle to get by, especially those who are losing. When congresspersons refuse to extend unemployment benefits, it hurts the unemployed, but it's also on record and should be remembered by people who were denied. The democratic solution is to get informed, communicate with our representatives (which includes thank yous and praise when due), and voting for people who want a strong middle class and know how to get there.

  3. The issue about Elizabeth Warren is that she is looking to do what is needed to prevent economic collapse, NOT to break up the banks without thought. She does not pander to the 'perp walk' mentality any more than her mentor, President Obama. Who brought her from obscurity and gave her wings? She flies with his blessing and his policies. The harnessing of finance for Main Street is incredibly complex - if we want our localism to succeed, it cannot if we don't have way to sustain the capital needed. So she is being as careful as PBO in HOW we do this so that credit unions, crowd funding, and other alternatives may flourish, too.

    One way to unite white working people with people of color is through mutuality of cooperative ownership. The White House has given support to the formation of employee owned and managed businesses a la the USW-Mondragon Cooperative Corporation initiative. Across the Rust Belt businesses are being created that will be entirely owned by the people who work there. From the New Era Window plant - the one shuttered by Bank of America - to laundries, railcar repair facilities, hothouses and food prep, housecleaning services, and home healthcare work - businesses are converting to cooperatives. These lie outside the capacity of global capital to kill easily. They can sustain themselves and their worker owners on far lower profit demands and offer quality goods and services at lower prices to the public. This all is supported by this president.

    If we liberals do not stop demanding theater over substance, if WE are the ones who perpetuate divisions between races, classes, ethnicities, and genders, we will not succeed. Time to get engaged in building new ways of tackling inequality and to build sustainable self sufficiency wherever we can.

    1. Womderful! Bad economies are great for cooperative ventures.


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