Friday, February 27, 2009

Republican Myopia

I'm back from a self-imposed hiatus and hope to start again with daily updates. Obama has just passed a bill that radically alters the social contract, at least for the short run. We are in the midst of a crisis and the government often steps in to address these situations and then steps back and puts their faith back in the unfettered market. As sociologist Karl Polanyi once argued (The Great Transformation), this has been the general trend in capitalism. People demand government intervention in times of financial crisis and when the income gap grows too large. When times are good, the government retrenches, deregulates and alters the tax policy to the advantage of elites.

Republicans have shown a general ignorance of this trend and, I suspect, a planned ignorance of the fact that the longest sustained period of economic growth in the country occurred after WWII; from about 1947 to 1973 or so. During that period, the benefits of society were distributed relatively equally across the economic spectrum. Poverty decreased precipitously (among Blacks and Whites), a huge middle class developed and those at the top agreed to take less so that the American economy could remain strong. Since the 70s and particularly starting in the 90s (as the last vestiges of communism disappeared), there has been a concerted effort to dismantle the social safety net and to allow the accumulation of wealth at the very top of the economic ladder. This trend has been coupled with the call for small government and limited intervention in the economy. We are now seeing the effects of that policy.

And yet Republicans continue to decry any attempt at addressing the issue as "socialist." They are continuing the mantra of "small government" as if the economy was fine and the average American wasn't in financial peril. Can this platform work? Probably not in the short-run, but I wonder if Americans are actually ready to reconsider the role of the government in the economy. Are we ready to alter the tax policy to benefit the average American? Are we willing to reconsider the importance of unions and labor power in ensuring equitable distribution of income and wealth? Are we willing to address persistent economic and educational inequality?

There are certainly hints that the answer could be yes. But first we must start the long process of redefining the social contract, of rearticulating citizenship as moving beyond consumption to civic engagement and of asking people to think collectively rather than simply about their own interests. This is not as easy process and certainly demands a concerted effort to confront the complicity of education, media and political discourse in eternal return to the past. Obama stands at the forefront of this effort at the moment, and one only hopes he continues to impart hope as a central part of his message. It is the job of everyone else to move beyond being stirred by his words and actually act to restore hope across the political and social spectra.