Crackpopulist Democrats, Unite!
The Life of the Party: Democratic Prospects in 1988 and Beyond, by Robert Kuttner, New York: Viking, 265 pages, $18.95
It would be easy to dismiss Robert Kuttner as what my colleague David Boaz has dubbed a "crackpopulist"—someone whose politics and economic nostrums are characterized by ignorant appeals to the ignorant. And indeed Kuttner's egalitarian worldview of protectionism, soak-the-rich tax schemes, and government control of capital flows is nothing if not ignorant.
At the same time, there is more than a grain of truth to Kuttner's plaintive assertion that his views represent the heart and soul of Democratic politics—"the life of the party." For all the talk about pragmatism among prominent politicians, politics is ultimately an ideology-driven phenomenon. Bob Kuttner knows this and wants the Democratic Party, in a manner of speaking, to come out of the ideological closet.
Kuttner is the economics correspondent for The New Republic (presumably as a sop to what's left of their old bleeding-heart readership) and a columnist for Business Week (America's antibusiness news weekly). But more importantly, he is a Democrat, and a partisan Democrat at that. He has little patience with journalists (the vast bulk of whom are liberals) who persist in their pretense of objectivity. He goes so far as to chastise neoliberal writer Mickey Kaus for having the gall to say he was "not a Democratic Party tactician."
Kuttner, on the other hand, is an obsessive Democratic Party tactician, strategist, and loyalist rolled into one. The Life of the Party is a blueprint for bringing the Democrats back into power. But it is more than that. Kuttner, unlike most Democratic politicians (Republicans, too, to be fair) who want power for power's sake, wants a Democrat in the White House for a specific purpose: to complete the leveling of America left unfinished by the New Deal.
There is, contends Kuttner, an "intuitively egalitarian strain in the American character." The "progressive-populist" tradition of the New Deal was able to tap into that "sense of egalitarianism" and make it "very clear that there was more to civic life than a giant marketplace in which buyers and sellers were free to choose and free to lose." Problem is, somewhere down the road the Democrats lost their social democratic and egalitarian vision and "were becoming a technocratic, managerial party at best, and a laissez-faire, imitation-Republican party at worst."
You might assume, since the Reagan administration has presided for nearly eight years over a federal government that is larger and more meddlesome than ever, that in using the phrase laissez-faire to describe the Republicans, Kuttner was merely engaging in a bit of partisan hyperbole. Sad to say, he means it. In no less than two dozen instances throughout the book, Kuttner is moved to describe Republicans, conservatives, Ronald Reagan, and (so help me) the Brookings Institution as laissez-faire; sometimes even as ultra-laissez-faire.
As a proponent of laissez faire, I must confess to having been mildly annoyed at this process of mislabeling. Where's the Federal Trade Commission when we need it?
Kuttner, who delights in using pop-Leninist phraseology, writes that "the social democratic balancing act can be maintained politically only when masses of nonrich [isn't that redundant?] voters remain in a high state of political mobilization, and institutions of mass participation and social democratic values remain in good working order." For the Democrats, "the pragmatic, constructive use of the state is its essence. When Democrats lose the bonds linking state, constituency, and party, they lose everything."
Much of his strategy is based on the need to rebuild the strength of the Democratic Party, per se, not just to elect Democrats. Individual candidates, not bound by party organization, now think for themselves; in Kuttner's Future America, it's the party that does the thinking, with its elected members voting the party line. Revealing a (perhaps not so surprising) disdain for the "masses," this social democrat writes: "It is inconceivable to expect the average citizen to become conversant with the views of all of these candidates as individuals, or with every ballot question.…lower-income and lower-status people, when they vote, tend to be Democrats. Such voters need the short-hand of a party label more, because they are less inclined to bone up on electoral details."
Being the party of the proletariat has even more problems than unwillingness on the part of the little people to bone up on their electoral details. It turns out that the populist core of this constituency has a tendency to be, well, racist. Thus, Kuttner writes, let's downplay all that civil rights stuff, because blacks and white liberals are going to vote Democratic anyway. The redneck vote, though, is up for grabs.
But there are even more problems: blue-collar and low-income types are frequently strongly anticommunist. What's a social democrat to do? Drop foreign policy from the agenda, too. There are in the Democratic Party, Kuttner warns darkly, "latent social and foreign policy schisms." "The only Democratic issue which unites all these sometime Democratic voters," he informs us, "is populist economics."
All of which increases the importance of the insights of crackpopulist Robert Kuttner. To the truly pragmatic in the Democratic Party, Kuttner's policy prescriptions must seem irrelevant and annoying. To the more sophisticated collectivist ideologues in pragmatist clothing, Kuttner must be an embarrassment who doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut. Some things are better left unsaid.
Numerous social programs, for instance, are viewed as successes by Kuttner, not primarily because they "deliver the goods," but because they have a leveling, egalitarian effect. Socialized medicine would be "a net gain for efficiency" (he says) but, better, it "would be an immense gain for our sense of public space." In a like manner, vouchers may be as efficient as the Public Health Service but would reduce a doctor's sense of "social solidarity." Means-testing social security may have the same impact as taxing benefits, but doing the former rather than the latter "defeats the political logic" of social security. All privatization efforts, of course, undermine "solidarity." He loves the public schools because "for most of us, nothing, with the possible exception of military service, is so egalitarian."
There is much more to this book, unfortunately. Kuttner rails against neoliberals ("wishfully post-ideological") and neoconservatives (divisive focus on foreign policy) alike. He is slavishly prounion and xenophobically anti-Japan. A chapter is devoted to the evils of money in campaigns, which, he thinks, tends to go to candidates who support private property and, worse, undermine party control. He has an absurdly overblown notion of the importance of polling and is a great champion of direct-mail fundraising.
Kuttner hates free trade because it makes it tougher to justify above-market union wages. He thinks Sweden is a model of enlightened public policy and is especially keen on the Value Added Tax. He would increase the income tax and thinks Wall Street's inside-trader scandal presents a great opportunity to impose stock transfer taxes. Several times he claims Walter Mondale's pathetic showing in 1984 resulted from the candidate being too conservative. But you get the idea.
The Life of the Party is chock-full of such wrong-headed notions and just plain silliness. Its importance lies in Robert Kuttner's frank description of the collectivist, egalitarian soul of the Democratic Party.
Edward H. Crane is president of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Crackpopulist Democrats, Unite!".