New York Senator Chuck Schumer has made waves this Thanksgiving season with a lengthy speech on the supposed lessons of the 2014 midterm elections for his Democratic party. When I saw the first news reports, I was pretty interested, too – mainly because Schumer seemed to be taking President Obama and the party’s top legislative leaders to task for focusing too tightly after the new administration took office on passing healthcare reform rather than fighting the recession.
It wasn’t that I’m so anti-Obamacare – though I do believe its pretense of being all things to all people will ultimately backfire both economically and therefore politically. Instead, I was intrigued by Schumer’s reported argument because it dovetailed with my own belief that the Democrats’ interest in reducing income inequality and in particular lifting up the lowest-income Americans has turned into a relative neglect of the better off but also struggling middle class.
This theme certainly was high on Schumer’s agenda, and I can understand why it dominated press coverage of the speech. But much more important, in my view, was how much time Schumer devoted to a stale restatement of a myth that has warped the thinking of centrist Democrats like him, and of course like the party’s likely presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
That myth holds that Americans who haven’t made it into the ranks of the one percent (or the ten percent, or however you define the genuinely affluent) have been victims of vast, impersonal forces that have sparked tremendous progress for humanity as a whole – economic globalization and technological advance – but whose benefits tend to be concentrated heavily among the already highly successful.
As claimed by Democratic centrists starting (at least most prominently) with Bill Clinton, the best response for their party and for the country at large is to protect non-elite Americans from these forces’ harshest effects and, where possible, use government to help them capitalize on the opportunities they create.
I couldn’t find a polished transcript of Schumer’s remarks, but according to a rush CNN version, here’s his description of the problem — which is also typical for its insistence that technological advance has been the prime mover:
“WE MUST EXAMINE WHY INCOMES HAVE DECLINED. WHY THE PRODUCTIVITY DOESN’T RESULT IN MIDDLE-CLASS ECONOMIC ADVANCEMENT. IT CAN BE DESCRIBED IN ONE WORD — TECHNOLOGY. TECHNOLOGY ALLOWS CAPITAL TO GARNER FOR FAR GREATER SHARE OF INCREASES. TECHNOLOGY ALLOWS MACHINES, COMPUTERS, ROBOTS TO PRODUCE GOODS MORE EFFICIENTLY THAN WORKERS CAN, DISPLACING MILLIONS OF WORKERS. TECHNOLOGY ALLOWS DISTRIBUTION NETWORKS TO CONGLOMERATE AND BECOME MORE EFFICIENT OR AN AMAZON TO BE CREATED THAT DISPLACES MILLIONS OF WORKERS IN MOM-AND-POP STORES. TECHNOLOGY ALLOWS COMPANIES TO LOCATE FAR FROM WHERE THE MARKETS ARE AND SEEK LOWER LABOR COSTS. AT FIRST IN THE SOUTHERN UNITED STATES AND NOW OVERSEAS. TECHNOLOGY IS A PRIVATE SECTOR FORCE IN THE FREE MARKET ECONOMY. IT IS PRIMARILY THE PRIVATE SECTOR THERE THAT PRODUCES EFFICIENCIES HIGH-TECHNOLOGY MAKING THEM MORE PROFITABLE BY REDUCING THE NUMBER OF WORKERS THEY EMPLOYEE AND THE AMOUNT OF DOLLARS THEY NEED TO PAY THEM.”
Schumer’s proposed solution is a Democratic “pact with the middle class” that entails “using government in a direct and focused way” to
“PROVIDE A SHIELD AGAINST LARGE FORCES THAT HAVE WORKED AGAINST MIDDLE-CLASS FAMILIES SO THEY HAVE A BETTER JOB AND MORE MONEY IN THEIR POCKETS. WE WILL HAVE ENACTED GOVERNMENT THAT ENABLES THE MIDDLE CLASS TO HAVE THE TOOLS THEY NEED TO MAKE YOUR LIVES BETTER.”
Later in the speech, Schumer elaborated:
“WHEN LARGE FORCES HARNESS POWER AND PUSH YOU AROUND, YOU NEED A LARGE AFTER FORCE TO STAND UP TO — TO STAND UP FOR YOU. THE ONLY FORCE THAT CAN GIVE YOU THE TOOLS TO STAND UP TO THE LARGE TECTONIC FORCES THAT CAN MITIGATE THE EFFECTS THAT TECHNOLOGY CREATES ON YOUR INCOME IS AN ACTIVE AND COMMITTED GOVERNMENT THAT IS ON YOUR SIDE. PEOPLE KNOW IN THE HEART THAT WHEN THEY, ARE FULL SECTOR FORCES AFFECT THEIR LIFESTYLES, ONLY GOVERNMENT CAN PROTECT THEM. WHEN PEOPLE ARE EDUCATED, THEY DO BETTER. THEY UNDERSTAND WHEN WE PUT DOMESTIC INDUSTRIES AND A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD, THE MIDDLE CLASS DOES BETTER. WHEN WORKERS CAN BARGAIN FOR A GREATER SHARE, THE MIDDLE CLASS DOES BETTER.”
Some causes for optimism: Schumer’s references to these larger forces “harnessing” and abusing power, to the need for “level playing fields,” and to enabling workers to “bargain for a greater share” indicate an awareness that the effects of globalization have reflected human – and more specifically, special interest-prompted – decisions as well as autonomous developments like technological change. So logically, they also indicate an awareness that human decisions can offset and even in theory undo the damage.
Schumer has promised to get more specific in subsequent speeches and statements, so that’s another reason for hoping there’s at least a chance that his trade policy proposals will go beyond hackneyed calls for more level playing fields. His record also demonstrates a willingness to challenge the offshoring-friendly trade policy status quo.
At the same time, on China-related issues, Schumer has been too clever by half at crucial junctures. And as with many lawmakers from New York State, he relies heavily on Wall Street funding during elections. But in the wake of their 2014 losses, many Democrats clearly are looking for ways to reconnect with middle class voters. Stranger things have happened than high-profile, semi-unconventional speeches like Schumer’s wittingly or not pushing politicians towards some genuinely important insights and constructive actions.