Why Many People In The Middle Now Identify With The Left

While the country has become more liberal in some ways, the Republican Party has moved to the extreme right, and the Democratic Party has filled in the vacuum in the middle by also moving to the right on many issues. As a consequence, many people who previously considered themselves in the middle are finding that the current views of the left are closer to their views. Thomas Ricks, who wrote Fiasco, and excellent look at the Iraq War, described why he moved to the left at Politico:

Disappointment in the American government over the last 10 years. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the first big shocks. I thought that invading Afghanistan was the right response to the 9/11 attacks, but I never expected the U.S. military leadership would be so inept in fighting there and in Iraq, running the wars in ways that made more enemies than were stopped. I believe that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, not only launched on false premises but also strategically foolish in that ultimately it has increased Iran’s power in the Middle East.

Torture. I never expected my country to endorse torture. I know that torture has existed in all wars, but to my knowledge, its use, under the chilling term “enhanced interrogation,” was never official U.S. policy until this century. In fact, until our recent wars, the American military had a proud heritage of handling its prisoners better than most. During the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington reminded his men of the need to “Treat [captives] with humanity, and Let them have no reason to complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British army.”

How we fought. I never thought that an American government would employ mercenaries in a war. And yet we did this in Iraq by hiring thousands of armed “security contractors” who in practice were subject neither to local law nor to the American military justice system, and so could and often did treat Iraqis badly. In September 2007, I remember, American officers, who by then understood the need to treat Iraqi civilians well, were outraged when Blackwater employees shot 37 Iraqis in Baghdad’s Nisour Square—the rough equivalent of opening up on the lunch crowd in Dupont Circle. Yet to my knowledge, the U.S. government has not studied how the use of mercenaries poisoned the conduct of the war. Indeed, it gives every indication of planning to operate the same way in the future.

Intelligence officials run amok. I think that American intelligence officials have shown a contempt for the way our democracy is supposed to work in turning a vast and unaccountable apparatus on the citizens it is supposed to be protecting. I remain wary of Edward Snowden’s motivations and connections, yet still am worried by the intrusive surveillance by the National Security Agency he has unveiled. At the very least, in a democracy, we should be able to be informed about the actions that have eroded our privacy but supposedly were taken in our name.

Growing income inequality. I also have been dismayed by the transfer of massive amounts of wealth to the richest people in the country, a policy supported over the last 35 years by successive administrations of both parties. Apparently income redistribution downward is dangerously radical, but redistribution upward is just business as usual. The middle class used at least to get lip service from the rich—“backbone of the country” and such. Now it is often treated like a bunch of saps not aware enough to evade their taxes.

This led to a lengthy discussion at The Moderate Voice, where I also blog. Many of the bloggers and regular commentators there are in a similar position, thinking of themselves as moderates but finding their views are now more in line with the left, especially on social issues. While Ricks didn’t mention social issues, the desire to keep government out of the private lives of individuals has led many people to abandon the Republicans and the conservative movement.

Opposition to the Iraq War and related issues has generally been the defining issue for the formation of the liberal “netroots” and this dominates Ricks’ reasons. Republicans typically use fear and distort Democratic views, such as with the misquotation of Obama as the theme of the last Republican convention, to falsely paint liberals as being for socialism. There are no such economic views listed by Ricks, and the same is typical of many liberals. There is a far greater variation in views on the left than on the right, but the center of gravity has moved rightwards on economic issues. Liberals tend to be  more pragmatists and closer to Eisenhower Republicans than anything close to socialist (by its classic meaning).

If the word conservative really meant anything, in many ways today’s liberals are the conservatives who want to preserve our market economy, while eliminating its abuses, while Republicans are the radicals who want to destroy the system and make our economy more like a banana republic. It is the Republicans who are irresponsible fiscally, financing their policies on credit (while Democrats are more likely to include financing for their policies), caring more about tax cuts for the rich as opposed to cutting the deficit, and rigging the system to redistribute wealth from the middle class to the rich. Besides the ethical problems with this, destroying the middle class is horrible for the economy, and in the long run doesn’t even benefit the rich either, unless you want to live in a banana republic. On top of this we have the Republicans engaging in irresponsible action such as shutting down the government and making an issue out of increasing the debt ceiling, resulting in a lowering of the country’s credit rating.

The Affordable Care Act is a good example of how both parties have moved to the right on health care. Obamacare is quite close to Richard Nixon’s health care plan, the GOP counter-proposal to HillaryCare in the 90′s, and Mitt Romney’s plan. Republicans used to push for mandates, exchanges, and recommended high deductible plans tied to medical savings accounts. Once Obama pushed for all of this, as opposed to previous more liberal health care proposals, the Republicans suddenly claimed that everything they supported in the past is socialism and amounts to a government takeover of health care. (Of course part of the Republican opposition is because Obamacare does differ from the old Republican proposals in including regulations to keep insurance companies from ripping off consumers while pushing to increase use of private insurance companies.)

Conservatives are likely to misinterpret the inclusion of concerns about income inequality by Ricks, as well as myself  in this post, as indicating support for socialism. Concern about the deleterious effects of  the concentration of wealth to our economy is not an exclusively liberal viewpoint–see the works of Kevin Phillips on this. Nor does this mean that socialism is being advocated as the solution.

Nicholas Kristof has an op-ed on income inequality which is worth reviewing:

First, economic inequality has worsened significantly in the United States and some other countries. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Oxfam estimates that the richest 85 people in the world own half of all wealth.

The situation might be tolerable if a rising tide were lifting all boats. But it’s lifting mostly the yachts. In 2010, 93 percent of the additional income created in America went to the top 1 percent.

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

Certainly, the nation grew more quickly in periods when we were more equal, including in the golden decades after World War II when growth was strong and inequality actually diminished. Likewise, a major research paper from the International Monetary Fund in April found that more equitable societies tend to enjoy more rapid economic growth.

Indeed, even Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, warns that “too much … has gone to too few” and that inequality in America is now “very destabilizing.”

Inequality causes problems by creating fissures in societies, leaving those at the bottom feeling marginalized or disenfranchised. That has been a classic problem in “banana republic” countries in Latin America, and the United States now has a Gini coefficient (a standard measure of inequality) approaching some traditionally poor and dysfunctional Latin countries.

Third, disparities reflect not just the invisible hand of the market but also manipulation of markets. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote a terrific book two years ago, “The Price of Inequality,” which is a shorter and easier read than Piketty’s book. In it, he notes: “Much of America’s inequality is the result of market distortions, with incentives directed not at creating new wealth but at taking it from others.”

For example, financiers are wealthy partly because they’re highly educated and hardworking — and also because they’ve successfully lobbied for the carried interest tax loophole that lets their pay be taxed at much lower rates than other people’s.

Likewise, if you’re a pharmaceutical executive, one way to create profits is to generate new products. Another is to lobby Congress to bar the government’s Medicare program from bargaining for drug prices. That

Fourth, inequality doesn’t necessarily even benefit the rich as much as we think. At some point, extra incomes don’t go to sate desires but to attempt to buy status through “positional goods” — like the hottest car on the block.

The problem is that there can only be one hottest car on the block. So the lawyer who buys a Porsche is foiled by the C.E.O. who buys a Ferrari, who in turn is foiled by the hedge fund manager who buys a Lamborghini. This arms race leaves these desires unsated; there’s still only one at the top of the heap.

Fifth, progressives probably talk too much about “inequality” and not enough about “opportunity.” Some voters are turned off by tirades about inequality because they say it connotes envy of the rich; there is more consensus on bringing everyone to the same starting line.

Unfortunately, equal opportunity is now a mirage. Indeed, researchers find that there is less economic mobility in America than in class-conscious Europe.

We know some of the tools, including job incentives and better schools, that can reduce this opportunity gap. But the United States is one of the few advanced countries that spends less educating the average poor child than the average rich one. As an escalator of mobility, the American education system is broken.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

Update: Norm Ornstein On The Republican Battle Between The Conservatives And Lunatic Radicals