There's a lot of frustration on the left these days. Of course, the left has pretty much always been frustrated - with the exception of a couple years after Nixon's resignation and (maybe) the first couple years of Clinton's presidency, it's been a long, long dry spell for the Progressives. Obama was supposed to change things (ignoring that his positions during the campaign were decidedly middle of the road; we'll come back to this). He hasn't. A year into his presidency, his agenda is in tatters, and his party is headed for what looks to be the biggest defeat in living memory.
What gives? How can the Progressive Agenda be so unable to deliver? After all, its proponents will tell you that it's the Last Best Hope for the majority of Americans. A typical formulation from the Fever Swamps puts it down to Indoctrination via Patriotism:
We're indoctinated [sic] into believing the most unbelievably rosy portrait of America as breadbasket, treasure-trove, land of opportunity, and benevolent savior of the world, that any ideas that undermine that image are simply unthinkable to a large portion of the population.A more highbrow formulation was offered in a famous Op-Ed in the New York Times in 2004, right after John Kerry lost the election. In it, Nick Kristof put it down to economic matters being trumped by conservative social ones:
And of course, there are the folks living off of mac n' cheese in a double-wide somewhere who feel they've got it made, that they're middle class - even though they've got to pay half the cost of a lousy HMO plan, and can't sock away ANYTHING for the future...
Democrats are still effective on bread-and-butter issues like health care, but they come across in much of America as arrogant and out of touch the moment the discussion shifts to values.Ignoring for now the focus on social issues, the common thread is that the Democratic Party supposedly has a basket of economic issues on offer that is being rejected by poor voters, who mysteriously are voting against their own interests. This is nonsense on stilts. As long as Democrats and "progressives" (redundancy alert) keep believing this, they will remain frustrated.
Democrats peddle issues, and Republicans sell values. Consider the four G's: God, guns, gays and grizzlies.
To start with, I want to approach this from the Democrat's perceived strong position - that their agenda is designed to help the poor. As such, I'll ignore obvious counter evidence like the fact that they raise more campaign contributions from the wealthy than Republicans do, or that they poll better in the most affluent zip codes than Republicans do. Let's fight this battle on grounds of their choosing.
Their value proposition boils down to this:
The progressive agenda will make lower income Americans better off.It doesn't. On the contrary, it makes middle America (the third and fourth quintiles of the population, not the bottom 20% of earners, but the next two groups, i.e. 40% and 60%) much worse off financially. Consider the out-of-pocket expenses paid by Middle America, and what would happen to these expenses if the Progressive Agenda were fully implemented:
Gasoline Taxes. Anyone who drives (i.e. most of Middle America) pays tax on every gallon of gasoline they put into their tank. On average (the fifty states plus the District of Columbia), the tax is 21¢ a gallon for the State, plus more than 18 ¢ for the Feds. At an average of 15,000 miles per year and an average of 17 miles per gallon, this means that each car pays average gasoline taxes of $347.50 a year. If Middle America consists of two car families, that's a gas tax of $695 a year.
It's actually worse than this. "Progressive" states like Wisconsin and Rhode Island have much higher gas taxes - over 30 cents a gallon, instead of the state average of 21. That's an extra $90 a year, per car. Our two car, Middle America family in these progressive states will pay almost $900 a year in gas taxes.
And it's even worse than this. If you look at the progressive agenda, it's filled with programs to move people out of their cars and into mass transit, despite the demonstrated failure of these transportation systems. The only real way to accomplish this is by making driving much more expensive, both to raise revenue to subsidize mass transport and to discourage driving. While the Democrats haven't (yet) tried to push massive gas taxes, you do hear progressive intellectuals periodically mooting big gas taxes. Friedman in the New York Times, in 2008:
Raising taxes in a recession is a no-no. But I’ve wracked my brain trying to think of ways to retool America around clean-power technologies without a price signal — i.e., a tax — and there are no effective ones.So any well informed member of Middle America should rightly think that voting for progressives will cause their gas taxes to go up, possibly substantially.
Sin Taxes, particularly on Tobacco. Progressives make no bones that they hate smoking, and are doing their best to tax it into oblivion. This is being done for the Good Of The People, who are presumably too stupid to be allowed to choose whether or not they should smoke. Average tax on a pack of cigarettes is now $5. Smoking is concentrated among the poorer sectors of the population, so this is a massively regressive tax on poor people. A person with a pack-a-day habit pays $1825 a year in state and federal tobacco taxes.
And quite frankly, this tax is inseparable from the Progressive Agenda. Conservatives may be heartless is their inclination to let people choose for themselves, and perhaps get cancer and die; progressives intentionally crafted these taxes knowing that they would fall disproportionately on the poor. In fact, this is a good predictor of what progressives might do to the gas tax, if Middle America were to vote them in.
Alcohol taxes are lower, maybe a dollar a gallon or so. Still, this adds up to $50 a year or so for a lot of folks. Progressives want this to go up, a lot.
Social Security. Progressives will jump in here to point out that this program is massively popular. That's not the point. Social Security hits Joe and Jane America with a 15% off-the-top tax on every penny they earn. While people in the top two quintiles hit the FICA cap (the tax drops to 7.5% after the cap), the target demographic of the Progressive Agenda is offered no such respite. At the median family income of around $50,000 (2007), the target of the Progressive's Agenda pays $7,500 a year in tax for this.
Ignoring Social Security's serious financial condition (which means that these taxes will have to go up), this is a program that Progressives love, and it presumably will be a model for other programs on the Progressive Agenda.
Health Care. In Progressive Utopia, if you don't have it, you'll have to buy it. Wealthier quintiles almost all have it, lower quintiles may not. In Massachusetts, if you don't buy it, the state will fine you more than $1000.
The Environment. The Progressive agenda leads to shortages and higher prices. No off shore drilling, no Nukes, and Cap-And-Trade all raise the cost of electricity. We'll ignore what this costs because this post is already too long and because it's hard to figure out how big a nut this is. But it isn't zero.
I could go on, but here's my point: programs that Progressives support by huge margins cost the average citizen $12,500 a year, out of an income of $50,000. That's 25%, right off the top, for the Progressive Agenda. Let's look at Friedman's original quote again:
Democrats are still effective on bread-and-butter issues like health care, but they come across in much of America as arrogant and out of touch the moment the discussion shifts to values.Yes and no. No, they are not more effective on bread-and-butter issues. Anyone paying the least attention knows that Progressive programs are (a) expensive, (b) regressive, and (c) much too small to suit Progressives. Joe and Jane America are correct to vote against Progressives on economic grounds.
But Friedman is absolutely correct that Progressives come across as arrogant and out of touch. The examples of this are legion, but I'll leave you with a couple selected ones:
Megan McArdle on the reaction of some friends to Sarah Palin's first speech:
I heard basically the same thing last night from a friend who grew up in the small-town south. They're all libertarian. They're all male. They all liked her. She speaks to the sense of people who didn't go to Ivy League schools that Harvard grads think they're not quite bright, and definitely not competent to run their own lives without a Yale man supervising things. And they're entirely right that a lot of Ivy League grads do think this way, consciously or unconsciously.Eric Raymond, ostensibly on moral posturing trumping protecting the country, but covering much broader ground:
I was born and educated into the class that produces “gentry liberals”, but I’ve come to loathe them. This is why. It’s always someone else who pays the cost of their posturing. Very often, it’s the people they claim to be helping: the black teenager who ends up in a drug posse because because minimum-wage laws would force the small businessmen in his ‘hood to take a loss if they hired him for a legal job; the coal miner who gets pneumoconiosis because nuclear-plant construction was strangled in environmental red tape; the woman found in an alley strangled with her own pantyhose, because the handgun she could have shot that rapist with was denied her by force of law.Add to this Candidate Obama on bitter people, clinging to their guns, and we can about wrap up the "arrogant and out of touch" bit.
But we can't ignore it. Middle America - the folks who Progressives are so sure should vote for them - won't ignore it. And here is where Progressives find themselves in a deep pool of FAIL: people think they're a bunch of liars.
I said I'd come back to Candidate Obama running as a centrist. He's governed as the most left wing president in history. Remember how the K Street Lobbyists wouldn't have a place in his administration? Remember how he was only going to take campaign contributions from small contributors? Remember how the Stimulus Bill was going to put people to work immediately, rather than simply channeling tons and tons of dough to favored interests? Remember transparency, debating the Health Care bill on CSPAN?
I also said I'd come back to social issues, where even Friedman admits that Progressives lose. Of course, Obama will take our guns - it's in his platform. Add economic issues: of course he'll raise taxes and fees on Middle America - it's the only way to change behaviors that his platform said he'd change. Middle America isn't stupid - they understand this.
There is a huge gap between Progressive's perception of themselves and their agenda, and Middle America's. The Agenda doesn't empower the little guy; it empowers Big Government (and its Big Business allies) and crushes the little guy. And so, the gap:
What Progressives say to Middle America: Yes, our program is going to cost more and make government bigger and more powerful, but it will make you much, much better off.
What Middle America hears Progressives telling them: It's not for you. It's for us.
Now go back and listen to Glen Beck. While I don't by any means agree with everything he says, ask yourself how Middle America will hear this. He's right that progressivism is a cancer, he just didn't go far enough saying it.