Friday, November 5, 2010

No Time for Compromise; It’s Time to Fight

In the words of President Obama, the Democrat Party took a "shellacking" on Election Day. Congressional Republicans picked up at least 60 seats in the House, regaining control of the chamber. They took at least six seats in the Senate, though not enough to take control from the Democrats.

I eagerly anticipated the President's first press conference. I wanted to hear his take on the election and to hear what he had to say about how Democrats with the help of their progressive allies would move forward. I was hoping that he would stand up, dust himself off, and recommit to the vision he had when he won the White House.

I was wrong.

Instead, Obama was somber and sounded beaten rather than emboldened by the Republican's triumphant return to power. Rather than say he was ready to fight, the President said that he had been humbled by the election results. He sounded contrite, almost apologetic for the past two years. He even agreed with a claim made by Tea Party activists that he is out of touch with the American people, saying it was a consequence of living in the "White House bubble."

During the press conference, the President expressed his desire to sit down with Republican leaders in the House and Senate, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, and their Democratic counterparts to figure out a way to work together. "I have been willing to compromise in the past and I am willing to compromise going forward," he said.

Meanwhile at a press conference at the Capital, the future Speaker of the House did not sound like a man ready to find common ground with the President. Regarding the President's signature program, Boehner said, "The American people have concerns about government takeover of healthcare. I think it's important for us to lay the groundwork before we begin to repeal this monstrosity."

My fear is that the President and much of the Democratic leadership in the Congress will interpret this election as a rebuke and move that Party even further to the right away from Progressives like myself in an attempt to "reclaim the center."

Senator–Elect, Richard Blumenthal, of one of the nation's bluest of blue states, Connecticut, summed up my worst nightmare in his first press conference: "People in Connecticut and across the country want their representatives to reach across the aisle and find common ground,'' said Blumenthal. "There are no Democratic or Republican solutions to these economic problems, there are simply good, common-sense pragmatic solutions,'' he added.

Hey Senator-Elect, what are you talking about? With only one exception, the entire Connecticut Congressional delegation is held by the Democrats (the Independent Senator caucuses with the Democrats). The Governor-Elect is a Democrat. The Democrats hold a majority in the state legislature. All of the state-wide elected officials are Democrats.

Of course, the Republicans in Congress and their Tea Party allies do not share Blumenthal's enthusiasm for bipartisanship.

A quick glance into the past should give us a glimpse of what the future may hold for President Obama and Democrats in Congress.

After winning control of Congress in 1994, the Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton, refused to confirm many of his judges, shut down the government, refused to listen to him on climate change, blocked his efforts to save Social Security, and pushed draconian welfare reform and crime bills through Congress.

The incoming Congressional Republican leadership is even more partisan, more mean-spirited, and more extreme than the Republican leadership that took the House in 1994.

Part of the problem is that they are beholden to a base that has some really wacky ideas about the President. According to a Gallup poll taken earlier this year, the hatred of Obama runs deep among the rank-and-file Republican voters: 67 percent of Republicans believe that Obama is a socialist; 57 percent of Republicans believe that Obama is a Muslim; 45 percent of Republicans agree with the Birthers in their belief that Obama was "not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president;" 38 percent of Republicans say that Obama is "doing many of the things that Hitler did;" and most frightening, 24 percent of Republicans say that Obama "may be the Antichrist."

Yeah, that is not a typo; roughly a quarter of Republicans think the President of the United States may be the Antichrist?

Republican leaders are not bashful about their disdain for Obama and his policies nor are they bashful about their desire to run him out of office. In an interview with National Journal magazine last month, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said that his party's top priority in the new Congress would be to make sure that Obama is a one-term president.

With each passing day, McConnell has become even more emboldened about evicting the Obama's from the "big white house" at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In a speech before the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank, he said, "If our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things it is to put someone in the White House who won't veto any of these things."

Clearly, Congressional Republicans have little or no interest in compromising with the President or reaching consensus with their Democratic colleagues across the aisle.

America deserves an alternative to the neo-liberal policies of the Congressional Republican Party and the pathological hatred of the President by their Tea Party allies.

Congressional Democrats need to step up to the plate. They need to mobilize their base to fight for progressive alternatives to the Congressional Republican agenda.

I have been reading Chantal Mouffe's book "On the Political (Thinking in Action)." She provides an important insight about politics and voting that Democrats and their allies need to understand:

"Mobilization requires politicization, but politicization cannot exist without the production of a conflictual representation of the world, with opposed camps with which people can identify. ... what moves people to vote is much more than simply the defense of their interests. ... Political discourse needs to offer not only policies but also identities which can help people make sense of what they are experiencing as well as giving them hope for the future."

The Tea Party gave people an identity and a cause. Democrats and their progressive allies need to give people a reason to vote so that their passions can be mobilized for politics.

Enough with this post-political vision, a refusal to acknowledge that Congressional Republicans and their Tea Party allies have declared war on everything Democrats and progressive have been fighting for during the past two years.

Congressional Democrats need to heed the words of Jim Hightower, "there's nothing is in the middle of the road but dead Armadillos."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Culture versus Structure: The Never Ending Debate About The Causes Of Black Poverty

Ever since the publication of then, assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report entitled, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," there has been a fierce debate in both popular and scholarly literature about the causes of black poverty and racial and ethnic inequality in American society more generally.

In what became known as "the Moynihan report," the future U.S. Senator from New York created a firestorm of controversy with his contention that cultural pathologies, including the breakdown of the black family, were the leading causes of black poverty. Many conservatives and some liberals praised Moynihan's work. Critics, on the other hand, responded that Moynihan did not focus enough on structural factors, such as discrimination in the labor market, to explain racial inequality and that his emphasis on cultural factors amounted to simply blaming the victim.

In the decades since the publication of Moynihan's study, the scholarship of Harvard Sociologist, William J. Wilson, has become the focal point of the popular and scholarly disputes about race and poverty. Like Moynihan, Wilson's work has been both widely praised and forcefully condemned in social science and policy circles.

In his most recent book, More Than Just Race: Being Black And Poor In The Inner City, Wilson once again tackles the culture versus structure debate raging about the causes of poverty in black inner-city communities.

For people who are familiar with Wilson's earlier work – see, for example, The Declining Significance of Race, When Work Disappears, and The Truly Disadvantaged – there are few surprises. Wilson has not deviated much from his core contention that in order to understand urban poverty and persistent racial and ethnic inequality, one must take seriously both culture and structure as explanatory factors.

In spite of the familiarity of the arguments, two things make More Than Just Race worth exploring. One is the clarity of Wilson's writing, especially, the way he lays out his theoretical framework. His review of literature on culture and social structure is as thorough as any you are likely to see in the academic literature on the subjects.

The other reason to read the book is because of the overall "accessibility" of the text. With this book, it is clear that Wilson is trying to reach a broader audience. Of course, and perhaps, unavoidably, there are some areas of the book loaded with your typical academic jargon, but, for the most part, More Than Just Race is quite readable.

For years, Wilson has criticized liberals for not taking cultural explanations of black poverty seriously. In More Than Just Race, Wilson focuses more explicitly on culture than he did in any of his previous works. Culture, Wilson writes, "refers to the sharing of outlooks and modes of behavior among individuals who face similar space-based circumstances … or have the same social networks." As such, people develop cultural repertoires (that is, values, belief systems, orientations, habits, particular skills, worldviews, linguistic patterns, and styles of acting and self-presentation) to make sense of and give meaning to the world they live in.

In other words, when someone acts "their culture," they are simply following "inclinations developed from their exposure to the particular traditions, practices, and beliefs among those who live and interact" in the same community. Importantly, once these repertoires of actions and beliefs are formed, they "display a degree of autonomy in the regulation of behavior."

Wilson suggests that while the cultural repertoires people adopt are imaginative and perhaps, even sensible given their live circumstances (such as living in a poor segregated neighborhood), they may also hinder social mobility, and thus reinforce structural conditions that produce racial and ethnic inequalities.

For conservatives, a deficient culture and individual character flaws that ensue (for example, aggressive and violent behavior, sexual promiscuity, indifference to educational opportunities, and a tendency to try to "get over" without working hard) are the driving forces behind persistent black poverty. This view that essentially blames the black poor for their own poverty shapes much of the discourse about the causes and solutions to racial inequality in America.

Wilson does not object to these kinds of characterizations of the black poor.

I do.

For example, one reason that I object to these characterizations is because many poor blacks have the same key problems that debt-ridden middle-class Americans have, the disease of materialism, an inability to defer gratification, and a tendency to live above one's means.

A 2009 report, The Plastic Safety Net, by Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization, sheds a light on just how deeply in debt Americans are:

During the height of the housing bubble, from 2001 to 2006, homeowners cashed out $1.2 trillion (2006 dollars) in home equity and households accumulated nearly $900 billion in credit card debt. As households tapped their savings and spent nearly all of their incomes, the nation's personal saving rate dropped to 0.4 percent of disposable income by 2006.

Due to the "Great Depression," current household debt is probably worse today than what Demos reported last year. Certainly, the explosion in credit card debt and cash-out financing is being fueled by the fact that millions of households experience trouble covering their day-to-day expenses due to declining and stagnant wages, job loss, and rising health care costs. But, the growing debt problem is also being fueled by the fact that Americans overstretch their household budgets with too much consumption.

Overconsumption is part of an addictive illness sometimes called Affluenza, "an epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream."

For example, the homes we live in and the cars we drive are bigger, much more luxurious, and technologically advanced than the ones our parents and grandparents purchased. In fact, many three car garages that are attached to McMansions built during the housing bubble in developments in exurbia are larger than homes built during the 1950s. Of course, McMansions are not the norm, but homes built today dwarf ones built a century ago when families were typically larger and needed the space. Indeed, since 1970, the typical American house has doubled in size.

What do we do with all that unused space? We fill it up with "Stuff." Americans spend three to four times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do. If the rest of the world consumed at U.S. rates, we would need 3 to 5 planets.

Unfortunately, for the rest of the people we share this planet with, America's consumer culture is being exported around the globe.

To Wilson's credit, however, when it comes to delineating the main forces that shape black poverty, he is very clear: "structure trumps culture."

Wilson's discussion of the structural causes of poverty is enlightening and masterfully constructed, making a significant contribution to the literature on race and poverty.

According to Wilson, social structure "refers to the way social positions, social roles, and networks of social relationships are arranged in our institutions, such as the economy, polity, education, and organizations of the family." As an example, a social structure could be the criminal justice system that both threatens and utilizes sanctions in order to compel people to obey the law.

There are two types of structural forces that contribute directly to racial and ethnic inequality, especially in the areas of poverty and employment. One factor is social acts, "the behavior of individuals within society." Some examples of social acts that he gives include: stereo-typing; discrimination in hiring, job promotions, housing, and admission to educational institutions and; exclusion from unions, employers' associations, and clubs.

A second factor is social processes, which "refers to the 'machinery' of society that exists to promote ongoing relations among members of the larger group." Social processes include such things as laws, policies, and institutional practices that produce inequitable racial and ethnic outcomes (for example, Jim Crow segregation laws; voter suppression tactics; felon disenfranchisement laws; racial profiling by law enforcement officers and; redlining by banks and other lending institutions).

While much attention has been paid to the structural forces that directly contribute to racial and ethnic inequality, little attention has been paid to those political and economic forces that indirectly produce group disparities.

Wilson's discussion of how political actions and impersonal economic forces – which are not the result of actions, processes, or ideologies that reflect racial bias – affect life in urban America should be read by anyone seriously committed to combating the problems of racial and ethnic inequality.

Indirect structural forces that have profoundly affected the life choices and opportunities of poor blacks living in inner-city communities include: "the decreased relative demand for low-skilled labor caused by the technological revolution and the growing internationalization of economic activity; the relocation of urban industries first to suburbs and then to points overseas for a sharp decline in the central-city manufacturing sector; and urban sprawl that reduces inner-city residents access to economic opportunities and exacerbates the 'spatial mismatch' between poor black neighborhoods and jobs that pay well."

Significantly, blacks have been disproportionately impacted by the decline in manufacturing jobs, especially those related to the auto industry. Since World War II, the manufacturing sector, with its unionized and better-paying jobs, had been a significant source of employment opportunities for the black community. At the same time, the collapse of the low-skilled urban labor markets has created jobless black ghettos across America.

Wilson's book makes it very clear, policy-makers seriously committed to addressing the problems of race and poverty must confront structural forces that create and reinforce racial inequality.