Wednesday, August 26, 2009

a question

I wanted to get something down quickly this morning before taking a walk up to the Capitol in a little while. I really don't have anything interesting to say about Ted Kennedy at the moment other than I'm heartbroken he didn't get to see health care reform passed (and I still think it will). If there's anything interesting to report going on up on the Hill I'll let you know.

Thomas Frank more or less was like "What Nehls said" in the WSJ this morning on the parameters of the health care debate as a conversation about government. Nobody's delved into the disconnect between corporate power and suspicion of government in the conservative mind better than Frank (who, I may add, also has a degree from UVa and a history PhD). I've been thinking a lot about his What's the Matter with Kansas? and about Populism recently. The question Frank poses about his home state in the book is why, in a place with a rich political history of suspicion of corporate power, the fire has gone out and cultural issues reign supreme.

I think Frank has some more affection for the Populists than I do. Like the birthers or the deathers of today, they had their own nutty and offensive conspiracy theories - like Jews controlled the global economy or capitalists and African-Americans were conspiring to squeeze lower-class whites. But at least these outlandish theories were grounded in an economic sensibility-- that the democracy faced a serious threat in the Gilded Age from the power of big business. More sensible Populists called for greater governmental power to level the field for the people (this was, after all the People's Party). They wanted the government to nationalize companies like railroads and for the state to seize components of the agricultural economy like grain elevators. They wanted new monetary policy for the credit system to work better for the rhythms of their business, not Wall Street.

You would think in an era in which limited concentrations of corporate greed nearly drove the entire economy into the abyss that some of this sentiment would bubble back up. I've been waiting for evidence of a neo-Populist critique of big business as an affront to rights and liberties of ordinary citizens. Short of some grumblings about free trade in the Democratic presidential primary season and a few small protests in front of the New York Stock Exchange when the market crashed it really hasn't happened. Instead, we've had the same old song and dance this summer about the Orwellian nightmare of health reform and the existential threat to our liberty that the government's market-based reform through the "public option" represents. This fear of the hypothetical power of government seems totally out of line with the very real, quite entrenched, and demonstrably deadly power that corporations have over the lives of American citizens. Death panels exist -- in the accounting departments of insurance companies.

So the question I've been kicking around is why are Americans continually fixated with governmental concentrations of power and not economic ones? Have we had a period in American history when the average citizen has been more out of touch with his or her own place within the economic system? Is there a populist outrage that's flying under the radar (or until Michael Moore makes a movie) or have most Americans ceased to think of their citizenship as being connected to the economy (beyond maybe the tax rates they pay)? Or have they just thrown their hands up and decided not to struggle against the economic currents of power?

I'm hoping my more economic history-oriented friends can help me out with this one.

And yes, Senator Kennedy would have a strong opinion here.


  1. With the exception of the Populists, I don't think the American people have ever been too keen on fighting corporate power with countervailing government power. And even the Populists, Elizabeth Sanders shows, were more interested in creating self-starting statutory remedies rather than administrative remedies. Teddy Roosevelt's New Nationalism amounted to a quasi-fascist desire to force large corporations to serve the common good as defined by a powerful national state, but he lost to Woodrow Wilson's wishful thinking that the government could restore competition. On the whole, the progressive era's anti-corporate program, especially federal incorporation, was a nonstarter because of public fears of national authority.

    I think the key today is not that people don't understand the danger of corporations, but that they link those corporations to government and see them as part of the same threat. The radical political movement in this country is not Republicanism, but libertarianism. People can't really do much to fight off corporations on their own, but they sure can yell at government and use their opportunity to do so whenever they get the chance.

  2. Thanks, Dan. The comment went through this time!

  3. I would also add that Reagan (or at least the heroic narrative that he has come to embody) was very successful in shaping how many people understood the relationship between democracy and capitalism. As Gordon Gekko said, 'Greed is good.' The supposed economic nirvana that Reagan ushered in serves as the ideal for many Americans in their understanding of the government's relationship to the economy and private industry. This framework, however, does not reconcile the negative aspects of corporate wealth and power within its own paradigm. To do so would force the questioning of their fundamental assumption that all government intervention in the private sphere is inherently harmful or somehow an infringement on one's basic freedoms (which a 'free' market is now included in). As your 'Third Way' post noted, until Democrats stop conceding the basic tenet that government is simply a necessarily evil rather than a mediator and shield between individuals and concentrated power, their efforts to enact policies that call for government to serve that purpose will be doomed to fail.

    As an out-of-practice historian, I'm sure my attribution of this philosophy to Reagan is flawed (it obviously existed before he came on the scene). But, similar to the use of Cold War rhetoric in the opposition of healthcare and other reform efforts, he is the reference point for current conservatives.