American Fault Lines and a Silver Lining

by Jonathan J.B. Mijs, Harvard University

The pandemic has had an uneven impact across the U.S. — exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new political challenges. The following are three American fault lines laid bare by the coronavirus, and one silver lining. 1. For millions of Americans, staying at home is a luxury they cannot afford. The comfort and well-being of all Americans depends on grocery clerks, delivery drivers and factory workers putting their own safety second. While the upper middle classes take their work with them, working and middle class Americans are tethered to their jobs: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018) show that 52 percent of college-educated people can work from home, as compared to just 12 percent of workers with a high school degree, and 4 percent of those without. The same line cuts across race. White Americans are twice as likely as African Americans or Latinos to have the option to work remotely. The coronavirus highlights just one dimension of the increasingly polarized U.S. labor market that offers high compensation and autonomy to a lucky few, and precarious employment for the rest, marked by low-wages, little to no benefits, and a lack of control or security. 2. The government’s slow response to the coronavirus almost certainly cost lives, but arguably the most consequential government action dates back more than half a century. Since 1942, health care in the U.S. has been tied to employment. Across the developed world, losing your job means relying on unemployment benefits, subsidized housing, food banks. In America, it may mean losing your right to health care. As is, a fifth of Americans without a high school degree do not have health insurance, compared to just 3 percent of college graduates (US Census Bureau 2018). Lack of access to mental health care and addiction treatment are part of why those without a college degree are four times as likely to die a “death of despair,” by suicide, alcoholism or drug abuse (Case & Deaton 2020).

While awaiting the final death count of this pandemic, epidemiologists report that past flu and tuberculosis epidemics especially hurt low-income communities that lacked access to health care. In low-income communities, rates of preexisting conditions are higher, the uninsured may delay or forgo care, and medical services, already stretched thin, may be unable to provide treatment. These are neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Corona, Queens, which account for almost triple the rate of cases as nearby Manhattan. Economic deprivation leads to higher mortality and exacerbates rates of transmission, jeopardizing all members of society. 3. While the President blames the coronavirus on China, the Surgeon General hones in on communities of color, urging them to avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Their words reveal a tendency to blame people instead of circumstances. Scapegoats help maintain Americans’ belief in a just world, where successful people pull themselves up by their bootstraps and poor people face hardship because of bad decisions. My research shows a growing number of Americans believe that hard work is all that stands between failure and success (Mijs 2019). The daily discrimination experienced by Asian Americans, sometimes singled out as culprits of the pandemic, is a reminder of the “probational nature” of immigrants’ existence. In normal times they face stereotypes, but in times of crisis they are to blame. As Mia Tuan (1999) puts it, it is a hard fall from model minority to “forever foreign” — one that American history shows is never too far away.

Book Forum: Leftism Reinvented by Stephanie Mudge

In the spotlight is Leftism Reinvented Western Parties from Socialism to Neoliberalism by Stephanie Mudge. Keep reading for three insightful reviews on her 2018 book by Thomas Janoski, Gabriel Chouhy Algorta, and Jeff Stilley. Leftism Reinvented

Is it the Left or the Right that We Should be Focused On or Both? Review of Stephanie Mudge’s Leftism Reinvented

by Thomas Janoski, University of Kentucky

 

Two major books and a third have come out in the area of comparative political sociology in the last two years. Stephanie Mudge’s Leftism Reinvented: Western Political Parties from Socialism to Neoliberalism (2018, Harvard University Press) and Daniel Ziblatt’s Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (2017, Cambridge University Press) followed by Sten Levity and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018, Crown Publishing of Penguin).[1] Mudge follows social democratic, labor and democratic (US) parties in three periods: socialism (1900 to 1929 but centered on 1920), Keynesian revolution (1930 to 1974 but centered on 1960), and ‘left’ neoliberalism (1975 to 2005 centered around 1995).

She examines these three periods, focusing on economic policy shifts in four countries: the US, the UK, Germany, and Sweden. She focuses on party experts and how they have become economized in the middle period, and then share power with professional campaign experts in the third period. Her main conclusion is that we should pay attention to party experts because they articulate policy downward upon the rest of the party and the public in general. But the sub-text to the book is that left parties are the key to greater democracy and reducing endemic inequality in a capitalist economy. And a sub-sub-text is that Bill and Hillary Clinton sold out the left to neoliberalism.

Daniel Ziblatt examines the role of conservative parties in two of the same countries: the UK and Germany. Conservative parties have a major problem in that they represent rich people who are few, and in a mass party system how in the world are they going to keep their massive amounts of money when the non-rich and poor seemingly have little or no reason to vote for their candidates? Using the method of difference, he shows that conservative parties in the UK were able to extend their reach into the middle and working classes by building institutions that interested these two classes, and then pushed their message on non-income related issues like the empire and the Irish question. One of the main vehicles for doing this was the Primrose Society that operated a combination of fairs and political indoctrination in the Victorian period. German conservative parties mainly represented by the Deutschenationale Volkspartie (DNVP) stayed focused on elites and carried a very small constituency. Ziblatt’s major point is that moderate conservative parties are entirely necessary to protect democracy from the far right like the Nazi Party in Germany. Levity and Ziblatt follow this with How Democracies Die, which is a more popular book implementing their principles and also applying them to Donald Trump. One criticism of Ziblatt’s thesis would be why he did not focus on the Center Party during Weimar which was a larger conservative (or maybe center) party during the Weimar Republic.

Conservative Innovators: How States are Challenging Federal Power

Merriman, Ben. 2019. Conservative : How States are Challenging Federal PowerChicago: University of Chicago Press.

Conservative InnovatorsConservative Innovators describes how conservative state-level officeholders, including governors, attorneys general, and secretaries of state, mounted a major challenge to the Obama Administration and federal power more generally. The opportunity for this challenge to federal power arose from the conjunction of several processes: marked growth in executive power at both the national and state level; shifts in administrative law doctrine friendly to state litigation; and high party polarization that yielded regularly divided national government but single party dominance of state governments. Conservative executive officials cooperated across states in litigation and through various administrative practices; they also adopted a notably uncooperative, conflictual stance in their relations with the Obama Administration. Through chapters examining multistate litigation, new uses of interstate compacts, and new elections administration practices, this book shows that state executive officeholders have used an innovative combination of means to successfully pursue a familiar set of conservative policy goals. A chapter on the small government experiment in Kansas shows that this activity is not a crudely anti-government stance, but rather a particular program of reform grounded in a sophisticated understanding of law and modern administrative institutions. The concluding chapter shows that the domestic agenda of the Trump Administration is substantially a continuation of this earlier state-level activity, and that liberal state officeholders have been quick to emulate new conservative strategies. The likely result is a rearranged, conflictual American federalism in which the states are more important and powerful than they have been since the Progressive Era.

The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan, and the Mainstreaming of Resentment

McVeigh, Rory and Kevin Estep. 2019. The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan, and the Mainstreaming of Resentment.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Politics of LosingThe Ku Klux Klan has peaked three times in American history: after the Civil War, around the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and in the 1920s, when the Klan spread farthest and fastest. Recruiting millions of members even in non-Southern states, the Klan’s nationalist insurgency burst into mainstream politics. Almost one hundred years later, the pent-up anger of white Americans left behind by a changing economy has once again directed itself at immigrants and cultural outsiders and roiled a presidential election.

In The Politics of Losing, Rory McVeigh and Kevin Estep trace the parallels between the 1920s Klan and today’s right-wing backlash, identifying the conditions that allow white nationalism to emerge from the shadows. White middle-class Protestant Americans in the 1920s found themselves stranded by an economy that was increasingly industrialized and fueled by immigrant labor. Mirroring the Klan’s earlier tactics, Donald Trump delivered a message that mingled economic populism with deep cultural resentments. McVeigh and Estep present a sociological analysis of the Klan’s outbreaks that goes beyond Trump the individual to show how his rise to power was made possible by a convergence of circumstances. White Americans’ experience of declining privilege and perceptions of lost power can trigger a political backlash that overtly asserts white-nationalist goals. The Politics of Losing offers a rigorous and lucid explanation for a recurrent phenomenon in American history, with important lessons about the origins of our alarming political climate.

First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Power

Lachmann, Richard. 2020. First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Power. Verso Books.

First Class PassengersThe extent and irreversibility of US decline is becoming ever more obvious as America loses war after war and as one industry after another loses its technological edge. Lachmann explains why the United States will not be able to sustain its global dominance. He contrasts America’s relatively brief period of hegemony with the Netherlands’ similarly short primacy and Britain’s far longer era of leadership.

Decline in all those cases was not inevitable and did not respond to global capitalist cycles. Rather, decline is the product of elites’ success in grabbing control of resources and governmental powers. Not only are ordinary people harmed, but also capitalists become increasingly unable to coordinate their interests and adopt policies and make investments necessary to counter economic and geopolitical competitors elsewhere in the world.

Conflicts among elites and challenges by non-elites determine the timing and mold the contours of decline. Lachmann traces the transformation of US politics from an era of elite consensus to present-day paralysis combined with neoliberal plunder, explains the paradox of an American military with an unprecedented technological edge unable to subdue even the weakest enemies, and the consequences of finance’s cannibalization of the US economy.