Fighting the Flow of History

Okay, fine – it’s less than a week to the first presidential debate, and then two more will follow, along with a vice-presidential debate in there somewhere, and then we all vote, if we can, given all the new hoops to jump through, or if we decide to wander down to this year’s polling place and just do it – and this is the part of the campaign where each guy says he really cares about the middle class, where most Americans find themselves, or pretend they are. Romney has that new ad up everywhere – pretty much the only one he’ll run now – saying he and Obama both care about the middle class, and the working poor, but that his policies, unlike Obama’s, will actually help the middle class. It seems all Obama has is what he’s done – lower payroll taxes and save General Motors and scold Wall Street, hoping those change their ways, or at least stop screaming bloody murder every ten minutes as the regulations mandated under Dodd-Frank get formulated, finally, if they ever do. Of course Romney threw in that bit about the working poor to cover all the bases, as no one quite knows what the middle class is. Everyone thinks they’re in it, but fears they’re not. The guy earning thirty grand a year hopes he’s part of it, and the guy earning two-hundred grand hopes no sees him as some snooty rich dude, because he doesn’t feel all that rich. It’s a muddle, but Romney had to do this I-really-do-care-about-you-all ad because his remarks made at a private fundraiser went public. There he said he really doesn’t give a shit about the forty-seven percent of the country that finds, when they calculate their taxes, that they don’t owe any federal income tax. They pay nothing, and he said they were basically freeloaders, people who love to play victim and think they’re entitled to things like food and shelter and clothing and healthcare, and he didn’t have to think about them – there was no way he could convince them to assume any personal responsibility and take care of their own lives. They’d vote for Obama. They were the folks that just take – and the implication that he and his kind were getting damned tired of handing them money, their money, that they should get to keep.

That was devastating – a political disaster – so Mitt had to talk about the middle class. He really does care about such folks, honest. But the whole thing was pretty transparent. He suddenly realized that he couldn’t cede all those folks to Obama – every vote counts – and Obama had been talking about them, and to them, and doing specific things for them all along. So it was a shift in strategy, away from the argument that everyone should be in awe of his vast wealth and in even more awe of how he amassed that wealth, using his vastly superior knowledge of how the economy really works. That wasn’t working. It’s not that easy to explain what a private equity firm like his Bain Capital actually does – lots of the companies that Bain acquired were dismantled for profit and tens of thousands lost their jobs and pensions and all the rest, but some of those companies thrived and ended up doing quite well. It’s better to just talk about the middle class, and how he wants them to do well. It was time to drop Bain Capital.

Unfortunately, David Corn at Mother Jones, who released the first hidden-camera video, the nasty stuff said at the Florida fundraiser, won’t let him. Now everyone is talking about Romney saying that Bain “harvested” profits from companies it took over, as shown in the newly unearthed video:

Bain Capital is an investment partnership which was formed to invest in startup companies and ongoing companies, then to take an active hand in managing them and hopefully, five to eight years later, to harvest them at a significant profit.

Harvesting, for sheer profit no less – that’s not an attractive image, and Corn notes the timeline is also a problem:

In this clip, Romney mentioned that it would routinely take up to eight years to turn around a firm – though he now slams the president for failing to revive the entire US economy in half that time.

That’s ironic, and perhaps one could make something of it as an issue, but the whole Bain business is confusing. It’s best to keep it simple. Let’s make this about the middle class. Obama was always fine with that, and now Romney is too. That’s what we’ll talk about, and we might as well talk about the middle class before it disappears again. After all, such a thing was always an anomaly. America’s great consumer middle class was a post-war phenomenon, created by all the returning servicemen and the GI Bill and all the excess production capacity left over after we took care of the Nazis and the Japanese. It gave us the suburbs and two cars for every household and all the rest, but before that time the only time we had a solid middle class was in the twenties, before the crash, which ended all that. This crash may do the same, as both were built on absurd levels of personal debt. The promise in the twenties was a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, and this time around it was a station wagon in the driveway and the big house that generated all that equity you could use to put the kids through college and buy a sailboat too.

It was all illusion. Read a book like Walter Lord’s The Good Years about America’s Gilded Age – it’s an eye-opener. Most of our history is a tale of a few very rich people running everything and everyone else having next to nothing, sometimes admiring those rich folks and sometimes ready to fight them tooth and claw for a few scraps from their table. We’re just in a period where we think having a solid middle class is the way things have always been and always should be. It’s pleasant to think so. Everyone does.

People think lots of things of course, but maybe Mitt Romney is really onto something, even if he would never admit it. Maybe he actually wants to return America to its historic norm – the rich few run things for themselves and everyone else doesn’t matter much at all. That’s who he was speaking to at that Florida fundraiser, the rich few pissing and moaning about the little people who think they matter, who think they’re entitled to some basic things, or to anything at all. Putting it that way makes it sound awful, but Romney has history on his side, and this odd age of the middle class may be ending.

The trouble is that no one is willing to believe that, which makes Obama’s new forty-seven percent ad so deadly – just Romney’s words from the Florida fundraiser, in his own voice, without comment of any kind. Jonathan Chait puts it this way:

It’s an absolutely crushing blow. Obviously it doesn’t guarantee his defeat – if a secret video surfaces depicting Obama promising to impose Sharia law in his second term, Romney will stand a good chance of coming back – but it destroys his public standing in ways that make a comeback nearly impossible.

Chait explains that:

What’s devastating about the ad, aside from the juxtaposition of Romney’s words against photos of regular Americans, is something I only noticed the second time I watched it. It’s the sound of silverware clinking on china in the background as Romney speaks. That detail contrasts the atmosphere Romney inhabits with the one in which most Americans live. You can tell, even though you’re not seeing this, that the remarks are being made to people enjoying a formal dinner.

The damage of the remarks is twofold. Obviously, it deeply reinforces the worst stereotypes voters have of Romney. Indeed, the fact that he is currently running ads trying to make the case that he does care about all of America testifies to the grim position in which Romney finds himself. If you’re trying to clear the threshold of “does this candidate hate me” six weeks before the election, you’re probably not on the verge of closing the sale.

And then there’s the matter of credibility:

Here America sees what he says behind closed doors. Nothing he can say in public can possibly overcome the damage of these comments, because voters will quite correctly assume that he is telling them what they want to hear. George W. Bush’s campaign figured out how to do this to both Al Gore and John Kerry – by painting them as liars, Bush destroyed them as a message delivery platform. Romney has, essentially, done it to himself.

The size of the political damage Romney has incurred is beside the point. He was trailing narrowly, but in a polarized electorate with a tiny number of undecided voters. Not only has he turned some of those undecided voters against him, but he’s blown up his bridge to reach them.

But Chait says that’s only fair:

It will be fair because Romney has spent the last five years refashioning himself in the image of his party, discarding his most decent elements along the way, only to be caught in the end speaking bluntly. I’ve argued that the comments reflect his true beliefs now, but it scarcely matters. America has now seen Mitt Romney talking about us (or 47 percent of us, which offends many more of us) behind our backs.

And there’s poetic justice too:

This is not a random gaffe, a joke gone bad, or even a terrible brain freeze. It is Romney exposed for espousing a worldview that is at the heart of his party’s mania. The idea he summed up at that fund-raiser was a combination of right-wing fever dreams I’ve been analyzing since Obama took office – the Ayn Randism, the fact-free class warfare, the frantic rage at a changing America. The Republican Party is going down because its candidate was seen advocating exactly the beliefs that make the party so dangerous and repellant.

On the other hand Romney could just be ahead of the times. The middle class isn’t dead quite yet, although the worldview that is at the heart of his party’s mania, as Chait puts it, is a worldview that assures the end of a middle class, and maybe Ronald Reagan started the effort to end the middle class with all his talk of how the government is always the problem and never the solution. Government policies can create and sustain a middle class, ensuring fairness and widespread opportunity, by law, and redistributing tax dollars to public schools and roads and all the other stuff that makes middle class life possible. A middle class must be subsidized – with mortgage interest deductions and tax exemptions for children and all the rest in the tax code, and lots of public services of course so that it’s not just the rich who thrive. The Reagan push for small government was oddly tragic. The less the government does the less it’s possible to have a middle class, out there buying everything that catches their fancy, on credit, which make the rich richer, even if the rich start to think that too many of the wrong sort of people have good stuff. It’s a nifty system, which worked well from 1946 to 1980 or so, when it started to fray. It’s pretty much unraveled now. We’re just pretending that it’s still is working fine, even if Romney momentarily dropped the pretense. But he wasn’t exactly wrong.

Where Romney was historically wrong – or at least where the Republicans seem to be missing obvious trends – is the matter of a changing America. It’s not all about economic structure. Earlier Chait had written about Republicans worried that this election could be their last chance to stop history:

“America is approaching a ‘tipping point’ beyond which the Nation will be unable to change course,” announces the dark, old-timey preamble to Paul Ryan’s “The Roadmap Plan,” a statement of fiscal principles that shaped the budget outline approved last spring by 98 percent of the House Republican caucus. Rick Santorum warns his audiences, “We are reaching a tipping point, folks, when those who pay are the minority and those who receive are the majority.” Even such a sober figure as Mitt Romney regularly says things like “We are only inches away from no longer being a free economy,” and that this election “could be our last chance.”

Something’s up, and they fear it may be irreversible:

The Republican Party is in the grips of many fever dreams. But this is not one of them. To be sure, the apocalyptic ideological analysis – that “freedom” is incompatible with Clinton-era tax rates and Massachusetts-style health care – is pure crazy. But the panicked strategic analysis, and the sense of urgency it gives rise to, is actually quite sound. The modern GOP – the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes – is staring down its own demographic extinction. Right-wing warnings of impending tyranny express, in hyperbolic form, well-grounded dread: that conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests. And this impending doom has colored the party’s frantic, fearful response to the Obama presidency.

The problem is demographic:

The Republican Party had increasingly found itself confined to white voters, especially those lacking a college degree and rural whites who, as Obama awkwardly put it in 2008, tend to “cling to guns or religion.” Meanwhile, the Democrats had increased their standing among whites with graduate degrees, particularly the growing share of secular whites, and remained dominant among racial minorities. As a whole… the electorate was growing both somewhat better educated and dramatically less white, making every successive election less favorable for the GOP. And the trends were even more striking in some key swing states. …

Obama’s victory carried out the blueprint. Campaign reporters cast the election as a triumph of Obama’s inspirational message and cutting-edge organization, but above all his sweeping win reflected simple demography. Every year, the nonwhite proportion of the electorate grows by about half a percentage point – meaning that in every presidential election, the minority share of the vote increases by 2 percent, a huge amount in a closely divided country. One measure of how thoroughly the electorate had changed by the time of Obama’s election was that, if college-­educated whites, working-class whites, and minorities had cast the same proportion of the votes in 1988 as they did in 2008, Michael Dukakis would have, just barely, won. By 2020 – just eight years away – nonwhite voters should rise from a quarter of the 2008 electorate to one third. In 30 years, nonwhites will outnumber whites.

Our thirty or forty year middle class might have been a fluke, and we should move on and let the rich rule and have everyone else fend for themselves, but White America may be passing too. Catching the right historical wave is tricky:

In the cold calculus of game theory, the expected response to this state of affairs would be to accommodate yourself to the growing strength of the opposing coalition – to persuade pockets of voters on the Democratic margins they might be better served by Republicans. Yet the psychology of decline does not always operate in a straightforward, rational way. A strategy of managing slow decay is unpleasant, and history is replete with instances of leaders who persuaded themselves of the opposite of the obvious conclusion. Rather than adjust themselves to their slowly weakening position, they chose instead to stage a decisive confrontation. If the terms of the fight grow more unfavorable with every passing year, well, all the more reason to have the fight sooner. …

At varying levels of conscious and subconscious thought, this is also the reasoning that has driven Republicans in the Obama era. Surveying the landscape, they have concluded that they must strike quickly and decisively at the opposition before all hope is lost.

So you talk of parasites, almost always of the other demographic, but that demographic just keeps growing. You can’t fight history. It’s the opposite of dropping the pretense that the middle class is almost gone now, and will be gone soon enough, which isn’t fighting history at all. But they’ll fight this battle:

None of this is to say that Republicans ignored the rising tide of younger and browner voters that swamped them at the polls in 2008. Instead they set about keeping as many of them from the polls as possible. The bulk of the campaign has taken the form of throwing up an endless series of tedious bureaucratic impediments to voting in many states – ending same-day voter registration, imposing onerous requirements upon voter-registration drives, and upon voters themselves. “Voting liberal, that’s what kids do,” overshared William O’Brien, the New Hampshire House speaker, who had supported a bill to prohibit college students from voting from their school addresses. What can these desperate, rearguard tactics accomplish? They can make the electorate a bit older, whiter, and less poor. They can, perhaps, buy the Republicans some time.

And to what end?

That’s a good question:

If they lose their bid to unseat Obama, they will have mortgaged their future for nothing at all. And over the last several months, it has appeared increasingly likely that the party’s great all-or-nothing bet may land, ultimately, on nothing. In which case, the Republicans will have turned an unfavorable outlook into a truly bleak one in a fit of panic. The deepest effect of Obama’s election upon the Republicans’ psyche has been to make them truly fear, for the first time since before Ronald Reagan, that the future is against them.

It is against them. You can’t fight history. Now if people would just stop talking about this hypothetical middle class. We recently had one again, for three or four decades this time, but it was an accident of history, sustained by public policies that half the population now hates and may never allow to return. Maybe we’ll return to avidly reading the society pages, following this Astor or that Vanderbilt, or their modern equivalents – Paris Hilton or who’s hot now. Maybe we’ll follow dressage and cheer for Ann Romney’s horse. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was followed by “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Some other such show will come along soon enough. The poor will watch the rich and be thrilled – and politicians will still be talking about supporting and sustaining the middle class, unable to define it, and with the rest of us pretending it’s still around. We do like to pretend history is what it isn’t.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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