Wayne O'Leary

The Symbolism Gap in Liberal Politics

What is it about today’s Democratic leadership class that causes its members to develop blinders when it comes to political symbolism? This seems to be particularly true for graduates of the elite law and business schools — the Harvards of the world — who tend to fill the command slots when liberals achieve power in Washington. It’s a phenomenon that extends right up to the man at the top.

The Obama administration’s failure to energetically prosecute the perpetrators of the late financial crash, an oversight highlighted recently by the PBS series Frontline (leading to the embarrassed resignation of a high-ranking Justice Department official), is a case in point.

ln May 2009, a Democratic Congress enacted, and the president signed, legislation that established the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, chaired by Phil Angelides, to look into doings on Wall Street. The Angelides commission finally reported more than seven months later, in January 2011 (well after the 2010 passage of the mild Dodd-Frank financial reforms), to a large public yawn — an instance of closing the barn door once the horse had escaped; its 19 days of public hearings and 700 interviews caused barely a ripple in or outside of Washington, and the few cases of possible wrongdoing it referred to Attorney General Holder have resulted in almost no serious charges laid.

New Deal Democrats exhibited a qualitatively different approach. Faced with similar circumstances in January 1933, a Democratic-dominated Senate Banking and Currency Committee immediately held hearings under the direction of crusading committee counsel Ferdinand Pecora, who pursued the “banksters” of his time and paraded them before the public in shame.

The sight of pompous J.P. Morgan and other masters of the universe in the dock cheered millions; equally important, the sensational revelations of the Pecora committee led within months to financial reforms that cleansed “the Street” and minimized speculation for the next half-century. These included the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial from investment banking and kept the wolf from the door until 1999, when Bill Clinton, in his wisdom, signed off on its termination.

Today’s White House crowd and its legislative counterparts on what presently passes for the Left betray no comparable sense of urgency; they evidently lack the requisite populist-outrage gene. Cool, rational, self-contained, and businesslike, they fail to grasp the dramatic importance of political theater. Technocrats for the most part (the vice president and the retiring secretary of labor conspicuously excepted), unequivocal and colorful advocacy causes them to cringe with uneasiness. To the voting public, however, it’s important; it fills an emotional need.

Average Americans, no dummies, understand that for this generation, the good times and the wealth ($11 trillion worth) went down the shoot five years ago, when the financiers went wild; they know they’ll probably never get their money or (for some) their homes back, but they expect their leaders to make an effort at compensation or, failing that, to at least haul the miscreants before the bar of justice and into the bright light of the court of public opinion. As Frontline investigators made clear, it hasn’t happened yet and may never happen.

For all its talent, highly credentialed expertise, and abstract good intentions, the Obama administration, laden with apolitical and bloodless bureaucrats at the cabinet and sub-cabinet levels, fails to acknowledge this sort of reality; its staffers can’t make the connection between policy and politics. People know the president is working hard; they sense that he cares. But the visceral component is missing. That’s a large part of why he’s lost significant segments of the traditional working class in the last two elections.

The Obama conundrum is that portions of the administration have unabashedly identified with the working middle class, while others have cozied up just as strongly to Wall Street and corporate America. In the latter camp are such recent presidential confidantes as former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who advised against a reinstitution of Glass-Steagall, and former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who opposed the interests of organized labor.

Stylistically, Obamaites project an Ivy League demeanor open to misinterpretation as condescension, but so have other Democratic administrations, notably FDR’s and Kennedy’s. The difference is that where earlier liberal White Houses had the saving grace of being home to a leavening cast of unconventional political characters possessing the common touch — JFK had his “Irish mafia;” FDR had, among numerous others, Hugh Johnson, Harold Ickes, Louis Howe, Marriner Eccles and Harry Hopkins — the present one has only Joe Biden. It’s a hard administration to love at the human level.

If the general public feels its concerns about lost wealth and well-being are being ignored or neglected by Democratic policymakers in their vapid response to financial chicanery, those concerns pale next to the diminished priority given to issue number one: jobs. Job creation, unless you’re a Republican who clings to the fantasy that tax cutting leads to hiring, means government deficit spending to stimulate economic growth through increased demand. On that score, Democrats have fallen victim to the deficit-cutting austerity mania sweeping Washington.

Austerity, the cause célèbre of Republicans, means budget reductions, and the Democratic response is, ‘We’ll cut, too, but in a kinder, gentler manner.” The practical result? Keynesianism, the principal policy route to increased employment in a stagnant economy, is left dead by the side of the road. Tough luck for the millions of unemployed and underemployed. Official Washington now apparently views 8% unemployment as the new normal, and by their silence, Democrats have acquiesced to the Hooverite notion that affirmative government action is counterproductive. Best to do nothing and assume the free market will eventually solve the problem.

No one in the Obama administration is aggressively pushing a jobs agenda, nor is the symbolism that might advance it much in evidence. This would include promoting organized labor, both rhetorically by campaigning against right-to-work laws and the incessant GOP attacks on public-sector unions, and, more concretely, by advocating openly and persuasively for legislation likely to help organizing efforts.

Nothing would boost the economy more than a unionized workforce able to demand and get better pay, and raise consumption levels. Getting there might be a bridge too far at the moment; nevertheless, symbolically, the effort would allow the Democratic party to “get right” with a core constituency and show which side it’s on — people or money.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2013



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