Obama and the politics of party unity

By Chrystia Freeland
May 10, 2012

The world, particularly the world economy, is pretty vulnerable at the moment. The recent French and Greek elections, and Germany’s unpredictable response to their results, have again raised the specter of a crisis in the euro zone that Robert Rubin, a former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, told me this week could be far worse than the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Nor is everything fine in the United States, where disappointing job numbers for April have set off fears that the economic recovery may be weakening.

Yet, at a time when the global economy is so fragile, and in a year when it had been billed as the only election issue that matters, the United States has spent the week focused on same-sex marriage, which President Barack Obama explicitly endorsed on Wednesday after a dance of the seven veils by other members of his administration.

This focus on social issues when so much else is awry can be perplexing to outsiders: Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir V. Putin’s press secretary, memorably sneered about the mixed-up U.S. priorities in a recent conversation with David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker.

But the often contradictory interplay between social policies and economic ones is the underlying dynamic that today drives U.S. politics. The party that juggles the two agendas most adeptly will be the one that wins the White House in November.

To understand what is going on, you have to go back to the 1960s. Since then, two big political shifts have reshaped U.S. society, politics and economics. The first is the vast expansion of individual rights and liberties. Women, ethnic minorities and, although not completely, gay men and lesbians, fought their way into the public arena. This tremendous social transformation was championed by the left, and it has largely succeeded.

Beginning in the 1980s, however, a second big shift was taking place. This was the Reagan Revolution in economic policy, which brought cuts in taxes and in regulation and a weakening of unions and the social welfare safety net. This transformation was championed by the right, and it, too, has largely won the day.

These two different victories are the back story to the big political dramas of today. They are the reason that the left and the right both feel cheated and aggrieved, and both want to win back a country they feel has been stolen from them. The right wants to win back the country from the left’s social revolution; the left wants to win it back from the right’s economic revolution.

They are also why, even as the distance between left and right has increased, the fault lines within the two parties have deepened, too. For many Americans, supporting a party that advocates both their vested economic interests and their social preferences has become hard to do.

Thomas Frank dubbed this the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” problem in his 2004 book of the same title. Frank’s point was that the Republican Party had won support for its economic policies from the lower middle class by backing that group’s conservative social preferences. These people were so strongly opposed to the liberal social agenda imposed by coastal elites that they were willing to back the party that fought it, even if that meant voting against their economic self-interest.

Frank’s book deserved its best-seller status. But it should be read alongside a phantom companion volume titled, “What’s the Matter with Palo Alto?” or “What’s the Matter with the Upper West Side?”

That’s because, for the sake of the social values they hold dear, many members of the affluent coastal elite were willing to back a party whose policies went against their vested economic interests: the Democrats. That trade-off was particularly evident in 2008, when some of the leading lights on Wall Street, a community that has historically been staunchly Republican, defected to Barack Obama.

These awkward marriages of social and economic issues are again dominating the 2012 race. The “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” paradox was at play in the campaign of Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and Republican runner-up, who portrayed himself as the candidate of the working man and also espoused an extremely conservative social agenda.

Winning over their own economically conflicted constituents has been harder for the Democrats: The financial crisis and its aftermath have weakened the fragile alliance between the 1 percent and the left. It is one thing to support a highly educated leader whose very biography embodies the socially liberal convictions of your class at a time when the economy is booming and George W. Bush’s tax cuts are still in place. It is quite another to back that same president when he is pledging to target beloved tax loopholes with the Buffett Rule.

Here is where same-sex marriage comes in. This is a cause strongly advocated by young voters and committed progressives, two important groups in the Obama base. But it also turns out to be an issue with tremendous traction within the highly educated, individual-rights-based 1 percent.

As the NBC journalist Chuck Todd put it earlier this week, “gay money in this election has replaced Wall Street money. It has been the gay community that has put in money in a way to this president that is a very, very important part of the fund-raising operation for President Obama’s campaign.”

The good news for Obama, and the political logic behind his statement of personal conviction this week, is that “gay money” and “Wall Street money” can be one and the same. As Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York demonstrated in his push for same-sex marriage last year, even billionaires with strongly conservative economic views, like the hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, whose son is gay, are willing to back Democrats on what they see as an issue of fundamental human rights.

14 comments

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The key issue that no one seems to see is that the US system is highly undemocratic, compared to most countries. The 2 main parties are state sponsored and keep power in an almost dictatorial way; how about proportional representation?

Look at Greece.. it might be in chaos now, but the plethora of parties has enabled each person to vote for someone who represents their views, and will stand up for them. That’s democracy.

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

I have to agree. I was born and raised in the South as a Republican. My father was an entrepreneur and preached business to me from a young age. I also grew up in a different era than the older generations of Republicans. I am agnostic and I would consider myself very pragmatic and socially liberal: If gays want to marry, let them. If you want an abortion, that’s your decision. Legalize, tax, and regulate drugs and prostitution and put the money into rehabilitation and education. Etc.

I get very annoyed when GOP representatives pander to the religious side of the voting base, but I also understand why it is a neccesity: because the Christian voting base is probably the largest in the country.

What frustrates me about the Democratic party is their negligence concerning fiscal and economic issues. While many of their initiatives sound enticing, they are not always financially and economicaly feasible.

I wish there was a party that promoted business investment and thus job creation: cut taxes across the board, remove all loopholes, effect efficient regulation and get rid of the rest, spend on infrastructure, spend on education, open free trade, get our fiscal order and prodive certainty concerning the aformentioned issues AND at the same time got it’s pesky fingers out of individuals lives: let gays marry, let people have abortions, let people use drugs, that is their perogative and not the business of the federal government.

As it stands, I see the GOP evolving into this party as “religiousness” wanes due to demographic changes. I do not see the democrats becoming this party because they continue to neglect pro-business issues and fiscal prudence and I do not see a catalyst for that to change.

You are right in saying that “The party that juggles the two agendas most adeptly will be the one that wins the White House in November.” I believe that will be increasingly true going forward and will continue to play out in future elections.

Posted by jaham | Report as abusive

Very risky shift for Obama´s campaign. But he can be remembered as a first president who moved the agenda forward.

Posted by milosm | Report as abusive

This commentary has the best explanation that I have ever read behind the cause of the extreme left and right divide in the US. Thank you for that. And overall, it is a great explanation behind the politics of the “why now” question.

Posted by Dilbert314159 | Report as abusive

Is voting Democrat against a wealthy person’s economic interests if they believe that government provides neccessary services and thus needs funding?

Posted by notnews | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, while many Americans have moved in their opinions toward equality for gay people, their enthusiasm is nothing compared with the acute emotional disgust felt by social conservatives. This combined with the poor economy and mass amnesia regarding which party is most responsible for it means that the Republicans are poised to gain the most from Obama’s newest position on gay marriage.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

Ummmm, the author of this commentary does not seem to get it.It is not about Gay Marriage, or Gays, or anything remotely associated with this topic, the piece seems to be typical diversionary tactics, in a further attempt by media to attempt to divert the public’s attention from what is really important.No Way Democrats are not going to vote for this man in the same numbers as previously. He blew it.So now he and other assorted creatures of the political fauna are now “Adamant Gay Supporters !!!” ??
Umm….excuse me.. the train wreck is just around the bend, why can’t these same politicos pull their collective heads out of their a$$es and stop the anal obsession. For once, why can’t politicians do something right. It is pretty simple to understand right?
Massive unemployment, loss of manufacturing jobs, the mortgage default crises, continual state of war on an undefined enemy…..sheesh.
It’s The Economy Stupid !!!

Posted by STRAIGHTMAN | Report as abusive

I would like to hear the author’s analysis of Obama’s hypocritical position on the War on Drugs.

Consider all the vested interests that benefit economically from the War of Drugs: Weapons manufacturers, private prison operators, police, lawyers, judges, etc.

Is it their influence that has persuaded Obama to adopt his appallingly unimaginative resistance to change?

Posted by DifferentOne | Report as abusive

When did the Right in America even produce an economic revolution? The 18th Century?

Ever since, it has been the Right who has dragged their feet holding back against any sensible economics which brought us back from depressions and recessions.

That hasn’t changed since FDR. The Right costs almost as many capitalists money as they do working people. Their dedication to the biggest extractive industries + leeches like the insurance industry are their greatest consistency. Everyone else could drop dead as far as Republicans and today’s papier mache conservatives are concerned.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive

The fight between the left and the right can be symbolized by the fight in 2 economic schools, Keynes and Hayek.

The Supreme Keynesian Voodoo priests believe in higher inflation, tax on income, high spending and consumption, while the Zealot Hayekian Templar acolytes believe in the opposite low inflation, tax on consumption, high production and saving.

The interesting thing is that both are right and both are wrong. It depends on the situation, so whether we call on the priests or the acolytes also depends.

There are several levels just like macro and micro economics. We have economics at the global level, regional level, country level, local level and individual level.

I think the entities that are running a deficit right now needs to call on the acolytes. This applies to the US, southern Europe. The entities that are running surplus right now (Northern Europe, Eastern Asia) should be calling on the priests.

Paul Krugman was not completely wrong, but he probably should be advising Germany, Japan and China instead.

I think the way to get out of this is somehow make the people in surplus countries spend and ultimately have balance at every level. The tricky part is the saving everywhere even in surplus countries probably gets clogged up in the corporations and the rich, and it’s not easy to make these people spend while demonizing them.

To make the haves and rich spend, liberals embrace the view of confiscating them through higher tax, which is counter-productive because they will just try to squeeze it on something else. Liberal economists also combine their policy with inflation pressure to make the rich spend.

Too bad it hurts the poor more because the rich have their assets in hard capital (like land, factories, oil fields and profitable companies for ex) which will be shielded by inflation of basic consumption. This leaves the poor and the mass with even less money to spend on anything other basic consumption, now they wonder why there is no demand? There are demand! there is just no ability to pay for those demand.

[Note: oil price though increases because of no one's fault. More wealthy people all over the world caused it. Drive smaller and live closer to your work place! Stop blaming]

We can only hope that the rich and the profitable companies understand their responsibility and spend to avoid crazy people coming out with the pitch forks. Whether it is spending on luxury items and vacations, spending on new employees or equipment or new ventures. Even spending on dividends and shares buy back would help.

While we are at it, the angry mass in the West also needs to understand good life is not a birthright because of their accident of birthplace. Don’t listen to politicians. You need to be better to live better. Most of you possess skills, labor ability and productivity that are not really in demand and are quite mediocre anyway.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

Sounds like Ms. Freeland’s evolution is not complete yet. People on both sides of the aisle recognize that minority rights are on a different plane than governance. Denying someone’s rights and personhood has no “values”. Perhaps the author should meditate on what the concept of ‘free land’ really means, now and in US history.

Posted by TomG2 | Report as abusive

Due to the inherent nature of the voting bloc amalgam called “The Democratic Party”, if the GOP were a “STATIC ENTITY” with the views and values of the time of the first Bush Administration, the 2012 Presidential election cycle would produce more gain for the GOP…But in REALITY, with the Republicans showing a nonsensical bent at pursuing a radical anti-feminist, anti-worker, anti-senior with legislation to match at the State AND the Federal Level, the GOP has WIDENED the “CHOICE GAP” for the Democrats providing a “There’s NO Alternative” condition at the Polls this November…
MY opinion is that the OVEREAGER AND OVERZEALOUS GOP blew a real chance for big gains…

Posted by heardthisbefore | Report as abusive

No doubt the anti-gay knee-jerk reaction will drag far more anti-Obama zealots to the polls than will be lured by support gay rights. I suspect it may cost him the election.

And if Obama loses, a huge number of people will wave their arms in celebration, thinking they’ve done God’s work by throwing him out of office. Then, as millionaire Romney and his gang shift business policies ever further to the right, those strongly religious supporters will learn that the party of tax-cuts-for-the-rich doesn’t care about their welfare at all.

It’s a cycle going back for decades — Republicans throw a party, crash the country, democrats come in and try to straighten things out. Repeat. Carter, Clinton, Obama — they don’t get in until things are broken by the Republicans. Guess what happens when Mitt takes over? Party and crash.

Posted by melgurney3 | Report as abusive

Tom G2; Free land meant a govt. handout usually, for poor immigrants, who increased the wealth of a country. While people on both sides of the aisle are just as you describe, if you are on the right side of the aisle, you risk being labeled a RINO if you actually vote for that conviction. Heard this before; I agree,& you can add anti-intellectual, anti-career civil servant, and anti-media (except Fox).
And let me repeat jaham;
What frustrates me about the Democratic party is their negligence concerning fiscal and economic issues. While many of their initiatives sound enticing, they are not always financially and economicaly feasible.

I wish there was a party that promoted business investment and thus job creation: cut taxes across the board, remove all loopholes, effect efficient regulation and get rid of the rest, spend on infrastructure, spend on education, open free trade, get our fiscal order and prodive certainty concerning the aformentioned issues AND at the same time got it’s pesky fingers out of individuals lives: let gays marry, let people have abortions, let people use drugs, that is their perogative and not the business of the federal government

Posted by Wetsu | Report as abusive