NY Times Composite Book Review

"Winner-Take-All Politics" is the first book in our 6.5-year history to be the subject of two different NY Times OpEd Columnists - Bob Herbert and Frank Rich.

Click here to view the two OpEd columns and a NY Times composite Book Review which puts "Winner-Take-All Politics" in context.
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NY Times Composite Book Review

Post by johnkarls »

The New York Times – 10/21/2010

Reading Liberally Editorial Note = This is a NY Times Book Review of several books and, as such, puts “Winner-Take-All Politics” in context. The discussion of “Winner-Take-All Politics” begins in Paragraph 9.

The State of Liberalism
By Jonathan Alter - a columnist for Newsweek and an analyst for MSNBC, is the author of “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope” and, most recently, “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.”

It’s a sign of how poorly liberals market themselves and their ideas that the word “liberal” is still in disrepute despite the election of the most genuinely liberal president that the political culture of this country will probably allow. “Progressive” is now the self-description of choice for liberals, though it’s musty and evasive. The basic equation remains: virtually all Republican politicians call themselves conservative; few Democratic politicians call themselves liberal. Even retired Classic Coke liberals like Walter F. Mondale are skittish about their creed. “I never signed up for any ideology,” he writes in his memoirs.

That would be fine (people are sick of labels) if clarity weren’t such an obvious political advantage. Simple ideology routinely trounces nuanced pragmatism, just as emotion so often beats reason and the varsity fullback will most likely deck the captain of the debate team in a fistfight. For four decades, conservatives have used the word “liberal” as an epithet, while liberals have used “conservative” defensively (“I’m a little conservative on . . .”). And Fox fans range out of factual bounds (“death panels”) more than their NPR-listening counterparts in the liberal “reality-based community” (a term attributed to a Bush White House aide by the author Ron Suskind).

Liberals are also at a disadvantage because politics, at its essence, is about self-interest, an idea that at first glance seems more closely aligned with conservatism. To make their more complex case, liberals must convince a nation of individualists that enlightened self-interest requires mutual interest, and that the liberal project is better constructed for the demands of an increasingly interdependent world.

That challenge is made even harder because of a tactical split within liberalism itself. Think of it as a distinction between “action liberals” and “movement liberals.” Action liberals are policy-oriented pragmatists who use their heads to get something important done, even if their arid deal-making and Big Money connections often turn off the base. Movement liberals can sometimes specialize in logical arguments (e.g., Garry Wills), but they are more often dreamy idealists whose hearts and moral imagination can power the deepest social change (notably the women’s movement and the civil rights movement). They frequently overindulge in fine whines, appear naïve about political realities and prefer emotionally satisfying gestures to incremental but significant change. Many Democrats are an uneasy combination of realpolitik and “gesture politics,” which makes for a complicated approach toward governing.

As Senator Al Franken says of the Republicans: “Their bumper sticker . . . it’s one word: ‘No.’ . . . Our bumper sticker has — it’s just way too many words. And it says, ‘Continued on next bumper sticker.’ ”
Action liberalism has its modern roots in empiricism and the scientific method. Adam Smith was the original liberal. While “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) has long been the bible of laissez-faire conservatism, Smith’s first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), pioneered liberal ideas of social and moral interdependence. By today’s standards, Abraham Lincoln’s support for large-scale government spending on infrastructure and appeals to “the better angels of our nature” would qualify him as a liberal. In the 20th century, progressives cleaned up and expanded government, trust-busted on behalf of what came to be known as “the public interest,” and experimented with different practical and heavily compromised ways of addressing the Great Depression.

The quintessential example of the pragmatic core of liberalism came in 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that “Dr. New Deal” had become “Dr. Win the War.” Roosevelt believed that the ends of liberalism — advancing democracy, expanding participation, protecting the environment and consumers (first promoted by a progressive Republican, Theodore Roosevelt), securing the vulnerable — were fixed, but that the timing and means of achieving them were highly negotiable, a distinction that often eludes modern liberals.

Whatever F.D.R.’s advantages over President Obama in communicating with the public, they share an unsentimental emphasis on what’s possible and what works. Both men, for instance, rejected the urgent pleas of some liberals to nationalize the banks and tacked toward their goals rather than standing ostentatiously on principle. Roosevelt was criticized by New Deal liberals in 1935 for allowing Congress to water down the Social Security bill before passage. Sound familiar?

Many movement liberals consider such concessions to be a sellout, just as they thought President Bill Clinton sold out by signing welfare reform in 1996. It’s important to criticize parts of Obama’s performance where merited — he didn’t use his leverage over banks when he had it — but some liberal writers have gone further, savaging his motives and integrity. Roger D. Hodge’s book is called THE MENDACITY OF HOPE: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism (Harper/HarperCollins, $25.99), as if Obama’s corporate fund-raising and failure to live up to the unrealistic expectations of purist liberals made him and his team puppets and liars. Hodge says the fact that Obama is “in most respects better” than George W. Bush or Sarah Palin is “completely beside the point.” Really? Since when did the tenets of liberalism demand that politics no longer be viewed as the art of the possible?

Hodge, formerly the editor of Harper’s Magazine, makes valid arguments about the failure of Democrats to undertake the essential liberal function of checking the excesses of capitalism. But the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson are closer to the mark in their important new book, WINNER-TAKE-ALL POLITICS: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (Simon & Schuster, $27). Without rationalizing specific policy choices, they describe the “paradox” Obama confronted on taking office when the country faced a genuine risk of another depression: “how to heal a fragile economy without simply reasserting the dominance of the forces that had brought that economy to the brink of ruin.” It’s the healing part — preventing another depression — that voters often forget in their understandable rage over bailouts, almost all of which, by the way, have already been paid back.

In making the broader case that the rich have essentially bought the country, Hacker and Pierson zero in on two killer statistics. Over the last three decades, the top 1 percent of the country has received 36 percent of all the gains in household incomes; 1 percent got more than a third of the upside. And the top one-tenth of 1 percent acquired much more of the nation’s increased wealth during those years than the bottom 60 percent did. That’s roughly 300,000 super-rich people with a bigger slice of the pie than 180 million Americans. The collapse of the American middle class and the huge transfer of wealth to the already wealthy is the biggest domestic story of our time and a proper focus of liberal energy.

Arianna Huffington wasn’t exaggerating when she entitled her latest book THIRD WORLD AMERICA: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream (Crown, $23.99). Poverty in the United States isn’t as bad as in the third world, but the disparity between rich and poor is far beyond that of other highly developed nations. While Huffington’s muscular tone fits the mood of today’s liberals, she insists on pivoting to the positive. After excoriating politicians, she cites innovative nonprofits that can help liberals feel less helpless.

The good news reported by Hacker and Pierson is that American wealth disparities — almost exactly as wide as in 1928 — are not the residue of globalization or technology or anything else beyond our control. There’s nothing inevitable about them. They’re the result of politics and policies, which tilted toward the rich beginning in the 1970s and can, with enough effort, be tilted back over time (emphasis added for impatient liberals). The primary authors of the shocking transfer of wealth are Republicans, whose claims to be operating from principle now lie in tatters. It doesn’t take feats of scholarship to prove that simultaneously supporting balanced budgets, status quo entitlement and defense spending, and huge tax cuts for the wealthy (the Republicans’ new plan) is mathematically impossible and intellectually bankrupt.

But of course Democrats, caught up for years in the wonders of the market, are complicit in the winner-take-all ethos. President Clinton and his Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin played to the bond market, and many of their protégés later came to dominate the Obama administration. Hacker and Pierson call Rahm Emanuel types “Mark Hanna Democrats,” a reference to William McKinley’s campaign manager, who said: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Action liberals can explain that they opposed the ruinous 2001 Bush tax cuts and that their prodigious fund-raising is necessary to stay competitive, but large segments of their base are no longer buying it. They want a more bare-knuckle attack on Wall Street than Obama has so far offered.

But now the president is getting hit from both sides. In FORTUNES OF CHANGE: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America (Wiley, $25.95), David Callahan points out that Obama raised more than John McCain in 8 of the 10 wealthiest ZIP codes in the United States. Callahan, the author of “The Cheating Culture,” notes that Hollywood money proves that rich donors don’t always push the parties to the right. It can also push the Democrats left on issues like the environment and gay rights. And yet in the months since he finished his book, many wealthy Obama supporters have grown disenchanted with what they see as the president’s “anti-business” language (he attacked “fat-cat bankers”). This was inevitable. “A benign plutocracy is still a plutocracy,” Callahan concludes. He quotes Louis Brandeis: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” That’s as relevant today to liberal thinking as it was when Brandeis said it, decades ago.

On social issues, liberals have mostly won, with the public backing them on abortion, gay rights and other live-and-let-live ideas. That doesn’t necessarily make liberals more libertine (in fact, divorce rates are higher in red states than in blue). But it floats them closer to history’s tide. The great hope for the future of liberalism lies in the changing demographics of the country. With younger voters and Hispanics moving sharply into the Democratic column, Republicans are in danger of being marginalized as an old, white, regional party. The Tea Party energy might be seen in retrospect as the last gasp of the “Ozzie and Harriet” order, with Obama as the scary face of a different-looking America. (Why else did Tea Partiers not seem to care over the last decade about President Bush’s profligate spending?) For now, of course, it’s conservatives who have the mojo, and not just because the economy is so bad. Despite historic advances in 2008, liberals remain better at complaining than organizing, which is a big reason they may take a shellacking in November.

A couple of new books recall the story about the civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who was visiting F.D.R. to push for a policy. “Make me do it,” the president is said to have replied. Roosevelt meant that his visitors should go out and organize and demonstrate, not just expect him to wave a magic wand. Liberals have a tendency to think that when the “right” person wins, order has been restored. The idea of permanent trench warfare between liberals and conservatives is an abstraction to them rather than a call to arms. One reason health care reform stalled in the summer of 2009 was that Tea Party forces turned up en masse at town meetings in swing districts while liberals stayed home, convinced that after electing Obama they were free to go on Miller Time.

The enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was a bad experience for certain movement liberals. If conservatives were mindless in describing as “socialism” what was essentially a plan pioneered by Bob Dole, Howard Baker and Mitt Romney, liberals seemed strangely incapable of taking yes for an answer after more than 70 years of trying to expand coverage. They were right about the value of a public option, but wrong to attack Obama for not obtaining it when the votes were never there in the Senate. Many Democrats were ignorant of all the good things in the legislation (partly the fault of White House mistakes in framing the message) and politically suicidal in echoing Howard Dean’s infamous cry of “Kill the bill!” By the end of the process, voters were revolted by the notorious “Cornhusker kickback” and other smelly deals. If making laws is akin to making sausage (you don’t really want to know what goes into it), the stench from Capitol Hill spoiled everyone’s appetite for the liberal meal.

But somewhere Ted Kennedy is smiling. To the list of revealing Kennedy books, add Burton Hersh’s EDWARD KENNEDY: An Intimate Biography (Counterpoint, $32). Hersh, a Harvard classmate of the future senator, ignores much of his Senate career but makes good use of sources going back six decades to paint a personal portrait. While Hersh’s uncontrolled freight-train prose is loaded with often extraneous details, he nonetheless brings many of the old stories alive again. Kennedy was both the heart and the tactical brains of late-20th-century liberalism, which won many small victories even as it fell out of fashion. Had he been vital in 2009 and able to work his charm across the aisle, senators in both parties agree, the health care debate would have been healthier.

In GETTING IT DONE: How Obama and Congress Finally Broke the Stalemate to Make Way for Health Care Reform (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, $25.99), Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, strips the color from that story in order to maintain his Washington relationships. But Daschle, forced by a tax problem to step down as Obama’s health care czar, has written, with David Nather, an exceptionally clear account of an exceptionally tangled piece of recent history. He’s especially good on why the credibility of Democrats depends on how skillfully they implement the bill over the next 10 years. Left unsaid is that Democrats in 2012 will face not just hostile Republicans favoring repeal but also cost controls on Medicare that will encourage conservatives to resume their pandering to the elderly, an approach long taken by liberals to retain power. Beyond the specifics of the bill, Daschle is obviously right that “health care has become a symbol of the deep divide in Americans’ feelings about the role government should play.”

In his Inaugural Address, Obama tried to define his view of that role when he said, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” This is a sensible definition of modern liberalism but also a bloodless and incomplete one, evoking Michael Dukakis’s claim that the 1988 presidential election was about “competence, not ideology.” That definitional dispute had first flared four years earlier, when Gary Hart mounted a stiff challenge to Walter Mondale for the Democratic nomination. Both have new books out.

Hart’s eccentric contribution, THE THUNDER AND THE SUNSHINE: Four Seasons in a Burnished Life (Fulcrum, $25), will remind readers why he and the presidency would have been an awkward fit. His bitterness over the sex scandal that ended his political career in 1987 hasn’t fully ebbed. As always, he tries to aim higher: Condoleezza Rice is in the index, but Donna Rice isn’t.

The book contains a sustained and ponderous “Odyssey” metaphor, with one chapter opening, “As he rises from his stony perch above the harbor, Ulysses tells his mariners that he is prepared to sail beyond the sunset.” Hart began his career as a 1960s movement liberal, a seeker and intellectual (he received a doctorate from Oxford in 2001, at the age of 64) with Homeric aspirations. He ruminates well about some of the essential differences between the American political creeds. Conservatives, by nature more skeptical, “accept that life is just one damn thing after another, that we are on our own, and it is up to us to make the most of it. But for those with a sense of commonwealth and common good, the shattering of dreams and hopes is always viewed more tragically.”

True enough, but it raises the question of why attaching emotion to politics makes conservatives stronger but often weakens liberals. In the years since Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, something soft has wormed its way into the heart of liberalism, a diffidence about the cut-and-thrust of politics. Carville-style fisticuffs are satisfying, but have not yet made it a fighting faith again.

Mondale’s memoir, THE GOOD FIGHT: A Life in Liberal Politics (Scribner, $28), written with David Hage, is, not surprisingly, more conventional than Hart’s, but he comes to terms more squarely with the limits of liberalism. Looking back at his early days in the Senate in 1965, at the peak of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — what he calls the “high tide” of liberalism — Mondale says: “A lot of it was wonderful, overdue and much needed. But we also overstated what was possible.” He recalls the years in the wilderness, when “I wanted to talk about poverty and opportunity, but people wondered why I wanted to give away things for free.” Even in feeling vindicated by Obama’s election, he admits that “liberalism is still on trial.”

Especially when it comes to education. It’s encouraging that even a paleoliberal like Mondale now believes that “we should weed out teachers who are unsuited to the profession” and that teachers’ union rules “must have flexibility.” There’s a great struggle under way today within the Democratic Party between Obama and the reformers on one side and, on the other, hidebound adult interest groups (especially the National Education Association) that have until recently dominated the party. If liberalism is about practical problem solving, then establishing the high standards and accountability necessary to rescue a generation of poor minority youths and train the American work force of the future must move to the top of the progressive agenda. Education reform is emerging as the first important social movement of the 21st century, a perfect cause for a new generation of idealists.

Where education might offer grounds for cooperation with conservatives, foreign policy almost certainly will not. After a long period of favoring interventionism to fight fascism and Communism, liberals have been doves since Vietnam, even in a post-9/11 world. If Democrats retain control of the House, they will pressure Obama hard next year to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan as promised. Chalmers Johnson, a noted scholar of Japan, has in recent years made a point of explaining how the Afghan freedom fighters the C.I.A. supported in the 1980s, when they were fighting the Soviet Union, are now the Taliban and Qaeda forces trying to kill Americans. In DISMANTLING THE EMPIRE: America’s Last Best Hope (Metropolitan/Holt, $25), he argues for a complete reordering of the national security state to save not just lives but treasure. While Obama won’t go as far as Johnson urges, a big tussle between the White House and the Pentagon is likely next year, when we’ll learn if neoconservatives can once again convince the country that liberals are “unpatriotic.”

The answer to that question — and to the immediate fate of liberal ideas — depends largely on the performance of one man, the president. Jeffrey C. Alexander’s intriguing argument in THE PERFORMANCE OF POLITICS: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power (Oxford University, $29.95), a meticulous review of the 2008 campaign, is that his fellow sociologists have overemphasized impersonal social forces at the expense of the theater of public life — the way politicians perform “symbolically.” It’s a prosaic call for a more poetic (or at least aesthetic) understanding of politics. Ideology must connect viscerally, or it doesn’t connect at all. Liberalism, like any idea or product, can succeed only if it sells.

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