Obama and the politics of party unity
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.