2008/01/13

Poverty and the election: More polemics on Obama vs Clinton

Lorrie Moore's op-ed today is the counterpoint to Gloria Steinem's deeply flawed argument for privileging gender over race while ignoring class and voting for Hillary Clinton. The first third of Moore's op-ed is the best opinion piece I've read in the mainstream media about the election. For a brief, shining moment, "likability", "change", "experience", the latest polls, and incessant campaign advice from so-called political analysts disappear, replaced by a harsh reminder that politics is actually a matter of life and death. Moore is the first person I've seen who raises what is probably the most urgent social issue in the country - poverty and its connections to institutionalized racism. This is a theme ignored by all the candidates except John Edwards (chastised as being too harsh by those so-called political analysts the few times they bothered to mention his candidacy), but Moore does not mention Edwards.

Moore also reminds us of what the Clinton years were like - something that many have forgotten or are too young to remember. There were a few big initiatives - the killing of around a million Iraqis thru sanctions and bombings, a variety of airborne war crimes in Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Afghanistan, military aid to state terrorists in Turkey, Colombia, and elsewhere, an unprecedented neoliberal offensive to remove all limits on the power of capital, an end to the last few guarantees to a basic standard of living. But mostly the Clinton presidency was an era of minute poll-tested policies designed to buy the electoral support of the middle class while avoiding the central problems of the time - global warming, deindustrialization, poverty, skyrocketing inequality of wealth, race and gender discrimination, punitive criminal justice laws and the drug war, rising numbers of uninsured coupled with rapid increases in the cost of healthcare, the crippling debts of the global south, the unchecked power of corporations.

In other words, the Clinton approach was to combine major negative policies with a paralysis of low expectations on central social problems. There is good reason to think a Hillary Clinton presidency would replicate this pattern - a point made nicely by Frank Rich, who notes that Clinton's top campaign strategist is a pollster - the same man who helped make the 1996 presidential election primarily about school uniforms and V-chips.

After pounding home the execrable Clinton legacy, Moore shifts gears and argues that the worst-off social group in the country is not girls but boys.
The political moment for feminine role models, arguably, has passed us by. The children who are suffering in this country, who are having trouble in school, and for whom the murder and suicide rates and economic dropout rates are high, are boys — especially boys of color, for whom the whole educational system, starting in kindergarten, often feels a form of exile, a system designed by and for white girls.
Designed by and for white girls? Moore provides no evidence for that, and it seems pretty implausible to me. Given the level of segregation in this country, most boys of color don't even go to school with any white girls. I'm even more troubled by Moore's refusal to admit that gender inequality remains a huge social problem in the US. But her point that boys of color are faring worst in our society seems pretty fair (altho Moore's failure to mention girls of color even once seems motivated exclusively by her polemical anti-Clinton, pro-Obama aim). So if you buy the idea that a president who belongs to an oppressed social group might somehow alleviate that oppression - even if his or her policies do not address it at all - then Moore seems to be on pretty solid ground in endorsing Obama.

But wait a minute. Why are these boys doing so badly? Is it because they don't have any role models in national politics? Moore herself knows the answer:
their families [have been] torn apart by harsh economics and a merciless criminal justice system. Why does it seem to be the Republicans who are more vocal about reforming our drug laws? Why has no one in the Democratic Party campaigned to have felons who have served their time made full citizens again?
I'm not sure where she's getting the idea that Republicans are calling for the reform of the drug laws, but otherwise this is a pretty good summary. Deindustrialization and the flight of capital that accompanied the creation of the suburbs robbed these communities of their jobs. The enforcement of drug prohibition, targeted primarily at people of color, and punitive rather than rehabilitative criminal justice laws imprisoned a large percentage of the community. Exploitative landlords and banks and criminally negligent public housing agencies and school systems ground these communities into the dirt. The explosion of violence surrounding the drug trade and the emergence of gangs as surrogate families ravished these communities, and left most of their young men with felony records that made it impossible for them to reintegrate into society.

The solutions are pretty straightforward: end drug prohibition or at least decriminalize drugs. Make it illegal to discriminate against felons in employment and allow them to vote. Sever education financing from property taxes and equalize funding across neighborhoods. Harshly penalize predatory commercial practices. Undertake massive investment in job creation and infrastructure in the poorest neighborhoods.

Is Obama supporting these kind of policies? This may come as a surprise to the progressives who have low expectations of Obama, but to a certain extent he is. There's a huge hole in the part of the proposal where an end to drug prohibition should be, and the job creation section seems far too weak, but Obama actually has a pretty good list of policies that would constitute a decent start to addressing the issue.

The problem is that Obama has intentionally excluded any discussion of poverty from his campaign, which continues to be built around empty rhetoric and biography. Can we really expect Obama, if elected, to spend any of his political capital pushing expensive programs to help the systematically disenfranchised underclass? If progressive forces remain silent, or demobilize in the wake of the election, I think the answer is an obvious "no".

But here's the difference with Clinton: she doesn't even have a poverty proposal. And if she ever did try to push an antipoverty agenda, she'd be tarred as an unreconstructed liberal. Ironically, Clinton is the least liberal candidate but is popularly identified as the most liberal, making it even harder for her to push good policies even if she wanted to. Obama, precisely because he is campaigning as a post-partisan candidate, would probably have more room to advance liberal policies if he were so disposed.

We shouldn't kid ourselves - to the extent Obama's policies are progressive, it's because the mood of the country is progressive and he was afraid of losing support if he didn't match Edwards's proposals. And we certainly shouldn't settle for Moore's terribly naive optimism that simply having a black man in the White House will save the victims of poverty. But if we get organized before a President Obama takes office, we have a shot at ending up with positive reforms. The chances seem much smaller if we face a President Clinton.

4 comments:

Chris said...

what did you think about krugman's assertion that, as far as economic policy, obama is more conservative than clinton and edwards?

Jake said...

krugman's column can be found here.

he is specifically talking about the candidates' economic stimulus plans meant to head off a recession. and the edwards and clinton plans do look a bit better than obama's.

in terms of overall economic plans, however, there are no big differences between clinton and obama. which is not a good thing, because clinton is being advised by the same people who brought us bill clinton's conservative economic policies, viz gene sperling and richard rubin.

see here for a good post on obama's economic advisers. they're straight out of the clinton mold.

obama's proposals on poverty really are better than clinton's tho. i'm not sure why krugman thinks obama is less progressive on domestic policy than clinton. aside from the stimulus package and obama's healthcare plan lacking a requirement that everyone buy insurance (which makes his plan less than universal, but it's sort of a gray area in terms of being progressive or not), i don't see any important differences between the two.

kyle said...

I have actually had a change of heart about Obama's resistance to insurance mandates. While his health care plan isn't a good one, I think he's right on this issue and progressives should support the stance. Mandated coverage is not at all the same as universal care, though Clinton would like us to believe otherwise. Without a single-payer system, mandates will just mean more profits for insurance companies. I wrote about it already, in rant form, and I'm just going to post that here instead of rewriting it all.

"Previously, I had read an article on ZNet and an editorial by Paul Krugman bashing Obama's resistance to a health insurance mandate. The reasoning goes that without a mandate, care won't be universal. People won't buy insurance, and insurance can't be more cost-effective if everyone isn't joining in. Thus, the proposed state-run programs will never take over because they won't take in the critical mass of people needed to make them the cheapest option. This reasoning made sense to me. And both Clinton and Edwards support a mandate. However, a representative from the National Nurses Organizing Committee / California Nurses Association spoke at the rally yesterday and gave Obama credit for standing up against insurance mandates. I was intrigued, since up to this point, I disagreed with Obama but support NNOC and CNA's steadfast advocacy for a single-payer system. The nurses' reasoning makes sense. Mandates force people who don't have money to buy health insurance that has proven to be faulty. Not only does having insurance fail to guarantee proper care in this country, those who could barely afford the insurance plans would likely be unable to pay the premiums and co-pays required in the cheapest plans. People would be paying, often to for-profit companies, but wouldn't be getting care. The candidates are saying the government would subsidize low-income families to help with the burden. But then federal money would go into supporting health insurance rather than health care. Advocates fear a particular diversion of funds away from public health services if the mandate plans go through, and therefore an extension of a two-tier health system where the rich get good care and the poor get screwed. In the only U.S. test case, mandates aren't working so well in Massachusetts, and the CNA is fighting a similar plan on the table in California."

Check out these links:

Huffington Post article
NNOC and CNA press release
CNA and NNOC factsheet on CA plan

I could perhaps be convinced again to change positions on this, but I'm apt to follow the lead of these organizations on the issue. Which means Obama still sucks, but is slightly better than Clinton.

Chris said...

kyle, i think you summarized my feelings on the whole primary in that last sentence.