Chin up, Jacobins

Rich Yeselson, like George Scialabba, is one of those quiet workhorses on the left of which we’d all be better off reading more. That said, I have problems with Yeselson’s latest in Jacobin. I’ll just do this by the numbers.

1. It’s true that the Republican Party base is far more energized than the Democratic Party base. Maybe this has something to do with Harold Meyerson’s argument that the Democratic Party refuses to “deliver broadly shared prosperity”? Yeselson doesn’t even entertain the possibility.

2. It’s also true that Democrats fail to carry white people beyond those with postgraduate degrees. Again, maybe this has something to do with Meyerson’s critique?

3. Evangelical Christians continue to vote Republican. Sure. Again, couldn’t one (like Meyerson) argue that they do so because the Democrats have given them few socio-economic reasons to vote otherwise? I’m not suggesting, were the Democrats to adopt a social democratic agenda, they’d find themselves carrying the majority of Evangelicals. That’s preposterous. I am suggesting they would stand a better chance of at least chipping away at that demographic.

4. There is little doubt Americans don’t like taxes, although (as Yeselson notes) they are cool with taxing the rich. There is also little doubt that the United States was “in part founded on a tax revolt.” Then again, it was also “in part” founded on a revolt against the great quasi-corporate behemoth of the age, the East India Company. It should also be noted that American history has always proven a tug-of-war between the small government/low revenue politics of Thomas Jefferson or (the later) John Calhoun and the big-government/high revenue politics of Alexander Hamilton or Henry Clay. What’s crucial here is that in the long haul, it’s the latter group that always seems to win. Calhoun’s vision lost. Abraham Lincoln, a great admirer of Clay, won, along with his wartime personal income tax. In the 1890s, America would greet its first peacetime income tax, and in 1913, we’d end up with the Sixteenth Amendment. Furthermore, from the Appomattox surrender (1865) all the way to the American entry into World War One, the United States would be rattled by a unique intermingling of Jeffersonian (i.e. egalitarian) and Hamiltonian (i.e. statist) movements and politics, most prominently during the populist revolt of the 1880s and 1890s, but, to a lesser extent, even in the Progressive maelstrom of the early 1900s.

I summon these moments from the dead only to provide some countervailing context to Yeselson’s charge in bullet point six, where he leans on the scholarship of the historians Nick Salvatore and Jefferson Cowie in order to convey the postwar New Deal consensus as a “historical anomaly.” It is the historians’ contention that oft-neglected continuity can be discerned from the Gilded Age times of the classically liberal stalwart William Graham Sumner to the neoliberal insurgence post-Richard Nixon. Why of course. But the same could be said for the kind of continuities raised above, and there is little reason to believe these opposing continuities will not continue.

5. The Republican control of the states signals a daunting obstacle for the left. There is no getting around this. It seems to me, however, that this only calls for competing state-minded activism and organization on the part of progressives. The minimum wage, marijuana, and paid sick leave ballot initiative victories offer some hope in this regard.

6. I’ve already discussed why I don’t believe the New Deal consensus is as anomalous as Yeselson (and Salvatore and Cowie) make it out to be. But Yeselson goes even further and claims that there is no social scientific evidence that the populace of today is “intensely interested — as a matter of voter-motivated preference — in greater union bargaining rights, redistributive public programs, and the taxes that would be needed to pay for them.” I beg to differ, here and here, and the Washington Post (The Washington Post!) seems to agree with me.

In sum, I concur that the left is confronted with an uphill battle, especially when it comes to convincing the public of the need for labor power and a broad tax base. But our Democratic politicians aren’t even attempting to climb up that hill, and there’s plenty of evidence that they ought to. Furthermore, there are other redistributionist workarounds available, ones that point to further historical continuities stretching from Thomas Paine to Henry George, and ones that very much tap into the individualistic and “small government” creed Salvatore and Cowie find so troubling. And these workarounds are already emerging across the land, even in (especially in) red states and among “red-state” thinkers. Isn’t it about time for Democrats and progressives to take heed?

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