The Need for Home-Team Criticism

by Will on October 21, 2010

Matt Yglesias is right:

Carney’s an interesting case because at a time when most have accused Barack Obama’s administration of being full of anti-business leftwing radicals, he’s invested his time in making the much more plausible critique that Obama’s agenda has been unduly favorable to the interests of big business. It’s a plausible critique because I think there’s a lot of truth to it. If you look at TARP or the health care bill or the failed cap and trade proposal, all of these were more “pro-business” than I would have deemed ideal.

Yeah (though note that TARP was signed by Bush, not Obama). The fact that so many spurious accusations of socialism have largely gone unanswered, when the administration has largely tried to do everything in the most pro-business fashion possible, is a huge public relations failure. It’s an unforced failure, and one that I don’t understand. The president was great at controlling his message before the election, but since then he’s ceded it completely to the crazed opposition. The fact that strident accusations of Bolshevism flood the airwaves is also a testament to the weakness of the modern left. Suppose more people had been screaming at the administration: “Public works now! High speed rail now! Medicare for everyone now! Bring the troops home now!” The administration would have had to respond, to publicly say, “No, we prefer to give stimulus money to private contractors. No, we prefer to keep the health insurance private. No, we prefer to build slow trains for the old tracks the rail companies own. No, we prefer to continue bombing foreigners forever,” &c. In that environment, people would see the administration for the knee-jerk friends of the status quo that they are. But in our world, more ambitiously liberal people like me criticize the shortcoming of Obama’s policies and most Democrats — including, frequently, Matt Yglesias — say, “lay off, the Republicans are mean and the system is stupid and he’s doing the best he can.” The administration’s habitual defenders would do well to read the Nation’s recent account of Upton Sinclair’s 1934 End Poverty in California campaign:

Of all the left-wing mass movements that year, Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) crusade proved most influential, and not just in helping to push the New Deal to the left. The Sinclair threat—after he easily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary—so profoundly alarmed conservatives that it sparked the creation of the modern political campaign

Sinclair lost in November, but the inspiring success of his mass movement—among other things, it basically created the liberal wing of the state’s Democratic Party, which also endures to this day—and its powerful influence on a wavering new president deserves close study. And where are the EPIC-style mass movements today? [My bold print]

Where indeed? The moment is desperate. Such a campaign would be welcome. Surely between labor, the unemployed, immigrants, debtors, and educated urbanites, there is a constituency for such a movement today. But, “be happy with the half-measures you’ve gotten” is hardly an inspiring rallying cry.

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