Thursday, February 14, 2019

Negative Reinforcement

Alan Minsky, the Executive Director of Progressive Democrats of America, asks

why does the DNC (and, by extension, the establishment wing of the Democratic Party) refuse not only to address poverty but really even to acknowledge its existence...

This is not a new question. By Bill Clinton’s presidency the shift away from supporting programs designed to address poverty became official party policy, echoing the Republicans mantra of self-help. Of course, poverty rates remained more or less constant. During Obama’s presidency, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West launched their poverty tour because of the president and the party’s refusal to even say the word, let alone do anything about poverty. Similarly the on-going Poor People’s Campaign explicitly operates outside of a party that refuses to seriously address an endemic social problem that conservatively has many tens of millions of Americans in its grips.

He answers- in part- his own question by noting

The prevailing ideology of the past four decades, call it neoliberalism or market fundamentalism, embraced by the mainstream of both parties, offers no solution to American poverty. Rather, it tacitly accepts it as part of the landscape. So an alternative poverty policy will, by definition, fly in the face of Democratic establishment orthodoxy. In other words, we’re going to meet resistance.

There are additional reasons, of course, including a lesson of Democratic primary history. In 2008, John Edwards based his campaign to become the Democratic presidential nominee on recognition of "two Americas."  Although recognizing that race played a part, it was a message centered on acknowledging that the poor of any race have been left behind while the wealthy had become wealthier and even more powerful.

Even before the scandal of having had an extra-marital affair resulting in a child, Edwards had fallen behind both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and facing a seriously uphill battle.

The race came down to one candidate promising to make history as the first female president and one determined to become the first black president. The latter prevailed, winning both the nomination and the office itself, with millions of independents (and a few Republicans) inspired by a message of good feelings and intentions. Democrats felt a real hunger for change and placed their faith in Obama's rhetoric of "hope" and"change." 

Nonetheless, as Smiley and West realized, that hope was never realized as President Obama presided over an Administration that did little to address either economic or racial inequality. Strategically, he didn't have to. As Aaron Coleman recently pointed out, "whenever Barack needed to shore up his black base, he could summon a sermon or a Jay-Z appearance quicker than you could say 'Kwanzaa.'” (The latter also played well with his young white liberal base, the former with his middle-aged white liberal base.)

And so Barack Obama remains extraordinarily popular among Democrats (which a former speechwriter of his actually believes is a good thing).  For eight years, President Obama sat on his popularity and did nothing to close the gap between the two Americas. The gathering interest among Democratic officials, including presidential candidates, in addressing the racial wealth gap could not have emerged without a failure to pay any attention to it in the previous ten (and more) years.

President Obama, largely unmoved by the plight of poor, working-class, and middle-class Americans relative to the wealthy, is the one recent successful Democratic presidential aspirant. And he is beloved with the Party's voters. It is a lesson that- unfortunately- the Democratic Party, and its national committee, has learned well.

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