[The rise of inequality as a political issue] has brought about a reaction from center-left types, who insist that the progressives have their priorities wrong. In the process, they mischaracterize the progressive view, and set up a false dichotomy between that and establishment positions….
In a New York Times Op-Ed, Bill Keller recently provided a representative sample:
The left-left sees economic inequality as mainly a problem of distribution — the accumulation of vast wealth that never really trickles down from on high. Their prescription is to tax the 1 percent and close corporate loopholes, using the new revenues to subsidize the needs of the poor and middle class…
The center-left — and that includes President Obama, most of the time — sees the problem and the solutions as more complicated. Yes, you want to provide greater security for those without independent means (see Obamacare), but you also need to create opportunity, which means, first and foremost, jobs. … The center-left … agrees on the menace of inequality, but places equal or greater emphasis on the fact that the economy is not growing the way it did for most of the last century.
First of all, this is a bit rich to hear from the center…I have never met or even heard of someone concerned with inequality who is not also a fervent supporter of immediate monetary and fiscal stimulus to restore full employment as fast as possible…The left has been howling about jobs and growth for five years now, for so long and so loud that our collective tonsils have about come unglued — and who were we arguing against? The centrists, who were a major bloc of support behind the premature turn to austerity back in 2010. Better late than never, I guess. Welcome to the party, guys!
In fact, Cooper is being much too charitable. Keller is worse than just a Johnny-come-lately. What’s basically going on in his Op-Ed is that Keller is creating a straw man called the “left-left” – an imaginary political formation for which he does not offer a single actual think-tank or spokesman as an example – that is invariably wrong — even when it is right. For example, in paragraph twelve of his Op-Ed, Keller says “Almost everyone to the left of John Boehner agrees, for example, that we are overdue for a raise in the minimum wage” (This, Keller omits to note, was a position that was championed by progressive think-tanks like the Economic Policy Institute but until recently ignored or rejected by more conservative groups within the Democratic coalition). But in paragraph six of his same Op-Ed, Keller then cites raising the minimum wage as an example of the flawed “redistributionist” approach of the “left-left” that ignores the more important issue of jobs.
So which is it? Is raising the minimum wage a good policy or a bad policy? After one carefully parses Keller’s Op-Ed, the only possible answer is that it’s a good policy when “the center left” (in which Keller includes absolutely everybody in the Democratic coalition except for the straw man “left-left”) endorses it and bad when the “left-left” straw man endorses it. The issues of jobs and inequality follow a similar but more convoluted “it’s right when I say it but wrong when you say it” pattern.
Democrats should prepare themselves for more of this kind of intellectual three-card-Monte in the coming period. As the center of gravity in the Democratic coalition has shifted toward more progressive economic stances, left-bashing centrists, primarily those in Third Way, and commentators like Keller are going to increasingly claim that they always favored the progressive approaches that have now become widely popular (when in fact they really didn’t) and will also criticize the excesses of imaginary “left” straw man opponents who somehow can never be identified with any actual policy paper or notable spokesman.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb to follow to cut though the nonsense: if a commentator doesn’t point to a single specific position paper or statement by a recognized spokesman as evidence for the significance of some “left” or “left-left” or “left-left-left-left-left” wing faction or position he claims malignly influences the Democratic coalition, it’s because it exists only inside his head.
P.S. By the way, Keller’s titles his Op-Ed “Inequality for Dummies.” The temptation to take advantage of that to say something snarky is absolutely tremendous but I’ll refrain. It’s just too damn easy.