Civility Won’t Save Us

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, a reliable tribune of the conventional wisdom, bemoans the rise of Republican tribalist obstruction in a column titled “The American Civil War, Part II.”

“What stops it?” Friedman asks. “When a majority of Americans, who are still center-left or center-right, come together and vote only for lawmakers who have the courage to demand to stop it.”

This is not only naïve, but wildly implausible. In theory, one could imagine, say, a Jeff Flake teaming up with a Chris Coons, and running as a civility ticket pledging to restore norms of democracy.

One problem, however, is that Flake, while a Republican senator, has voted for virtually all the policies that have rigged the economic game against ordinary Americans, and centrist Democrats like Coons (who voted for the Republican bill to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act) were often enablers.

A second problem is that civility by itself is not a governing philosophy. It’s hard to imagine more than a handful of people other than Friedman voting for such a ticket, or voting for members of the House and Senate primarily on that basis.

As even Friedman acknowledges, Republicans are the source of the incivility. Democrats can restore civility—and democracy—by winning big.

A related outburst of mistaken conventional wisdom holds that since the economy is booming, it would be a mistake for Democrats to run on pocketbook issues. “All economic indicators indicate that things are roaring in the country,” wrote Chris Cillizza of CNN in a recent op-ed. “Just 12 percent of people say that any aspect of the economy is the most important issue facing the country.”

Therefore, in this view, echoed by a number of political scientists and economists, it would be folly for Democrats to emphasize pocketbook issues. This also strikes me as profoundly wrong.

The economy may be doing well on average, but for most income groups (except the top) it has barely made up the ground lost since the collapse of 2008. Even if people respond to superficial pollster questions that the economy is not top-of-mind, most are painfully aware that the rules of the game have been turned savagely against working families in the past several decades.

Gone are the days when one breadwinner could earn a middle-class standard of living; when a week’s pay roughly equaled the monthly mortgage payment on a home in a decent school district; when the standard job came with good health and pension benefits and the assumption of lifetime employment; and when young people without wealthy parents could attend university without incurring crippling debt. Ask a different set of polling questions and people are painfully aware of this.

Public opinion is not a static thing. It responds to leadership, narrative, and definition. In the same way that Donald Trump could bring to the fore latent racial grievances, a progressive Democrat could (and must) give voice to latent economic frustrations.

By |2018-10-03T22:08:30+00:00October 3rd, 2018|Kuttner on TAP|0 Comments

About the Author:

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect as well as a Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe. He co-founded the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and serves on its executive committee.

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