Presidents define our country's cultural ethos. Our cultural ethos impacts how large America's economic pie is and whether the benefits and sacrifices are proportioned fairly. The Republican presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43, promoted a cultural ethos of hyper individualism that rationalized waging ruthless class warfare against the middle class, working poor, the unemployed poor, the very old and the very young. Liberals were lonely voices against the tide as predatory conservatism eroded protections for consumers and wage earners alike.
Predatory conservatism's rationale was the virtues of entrepreneurial capitalism. Alas, it was crony capitalism that was promoted at the expense of America's meritocracy instead. As an American kleptocracy consolidated its grip, conservative Republicans justified their immoral excess as the establishment of an "ownership society" that would transition wage earners into the investor class and magically create wealth for everyone. Republicans also believed their electoral majority would be enhanced as more Americans joined this "investor class" and even hoped to dump Social Security in our fraudulently toxic stock market. Now investors, entrepreneurs and wage earners are all hoping the Democratic Party can pull our collective chestnuts out of the fire.
Sadly, Democratic presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were unable to redefine this cultural ethos and with too many policies were even co-opted by predatory conservatism's influence peddling machine. Indeed, the Democratic Party was itself corrupted as illustrated by New York Senator Charles Schumer's relationship with Wall Street predators who dumped hydrochloric acid on our economy's deregulated naked raw flesh. Democrats often rationalized such compromises as the price for power.
In fairness to Democrats, power and principle can be a delicate balance. The discredited former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was fond of saying, "Power without principle is barren. Principle without power is futile." Despite Blair’s legacy as George W. Bush’s poodle, that is a sagacious quote. It expressed a sentiment that largely defined the Clinton years and thankfully he possessed the political skills to squeeze as much juice on behalf of regular folks as his political capital allowed when predatory conservatism was riding high.
Times have changed and the body politic is currently debating whether America remains a center-right country - if it ever truly was. My admittedly unscientific visceral sense is that an old cliché still applies: Americans are ideologically conservative and operationally liberal. During prosperous times Americans embrace an ideologically conservative mindset and favor the preservation of their individual equity over policies they consider "redistributionist." An economic calamity such as we're experiencing today translates into Americans channeling a more operational mindset as they struggle making ends meet on a daily basis.
Put another way, John and Jane don't want Uncle Sam to subsidize a jobs program or healthcare when they have good paying jobs, healthcare and a valuable home in a nice neighborhood. But once John and Jane are threatened with foreclosure, are out of work themselves or working harder for less and their retirement pensions are disappearing into the free market ether, government intervention doesn't feel so intrusive. Hence, the cultural ethos of the moment is economic security over hyper-individualism.
It is imperative that President-Elect Barack Obama strikes while the iron is hot because predatory conservatives are always lying in the high weeds to seize at any soft underbelly they can exploit. One such underbelly is the newly formed Blue Dogs Caucus in the Senate founded by Indiana's Evan Bayh with Majority Leader Harry Reid's approval. With Republicans in the minority, predatory conservatives will look to establish a fifth column through so-called Democrats such as Bayh and peddle as much influence as they can. Thank goodness Obama didn't pick Bayh to be his Vice President. At least Joe Biden had the excuse of supporting bankruptcy legislation while a senator because it favored his Delaware constituents.
Yet even with predatory conservatism always lurking and dubious cabinet nominees such as the corporatist friendly Colorado Senator Ken Salazar for Interior and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack at Agriculture, I am encouraged by what I hear from the nascent Obama administration. Franklin Roosevelt also had to soothe the body politic with some of his appointments too and so far Obama's team is talking big with respect to his economic recovery plan.
When Tom Daschle was nominated for Secretary of Health and Human Services, it was with the understanding that universal healthcare is an indispensable component of economic recovery. The brilliant and unapologetic liberal Jared Bernstein was also recently appointed as Joe Biden's chief economist. Biden will chair a task force with respect to recommending economic policies designed to help the middle class. It's reassuring to know that Bernstein is in a position to influence Biden who in turn will influence policy.
The upshot is that the current calamity has the American public in an operationally liberal mindset and a Democratic president-elect with stratospheric poll numbers. The stars haven't been this aligned to establish an enduring progressive legacy since the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt skillfully used his political capital to establish institutions that even endured predatory conservatism's feculent rule decades later. Today, Obama has a bully pulpit and progressive Democrats in a congress such as the new House Committee Chairman for Commerce and Energy, Henry Waxman, have a platform to educate the public about why we need polices that consider the American community as a whole while the citizenry is receptive to it.
Yes, I fully recognize that predatory conservatism has not surrendered and never will. Yes, we liberals must remain vigilant and put Obama on notice whenever he compromises too much such as cultural pandering to homophobic evangelical preachers like Rick Warren or with respect to civil liberties issues such as FISA. The challenges ahead are immense. Predatory conservatism has left behind considerable debris and Obama won't bat 1.000 during the cleanup.
No president could and re-educating the public that the pursuit of empire is self-defeating as well as immoral while simultaneously maintaining political viability is a juggling act. Hence, Obama will have to sometimes tread carefully and dance through the raindrops as a public addicted to consuming a quarter of the world's resources endures withdrawal symptoms. Cleansing Americans from decades of predatory conservative brainwashing will not be accomplished overnight.
Yet, even as my 401K disintegrates and I'm scared about my own economic future, I am optimistic as we approach the new year. Debris and wreckage also means the opportunity to build something that is new, better and enduring. Instead of debating whether we need healthcare reform the conversation will instead be about how to achieve it. The days of having to scream that global warming is real are no more. Instead the debate will be focused on how to address it. Rather then having to justify the necessity of government as a check on private corporate power, the conversation will instead be about how to reform and establish public institutions that effectively protects wage earners and consumers.
After years of activism and blogging in the wilderness of opposition, I'm eager to roll up my sleeves and get to work.