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FDL Book Salon: “The Great Risk Shift”


(Today's guest poster is Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber.  He and author Jacob Hacker join us to chat today. This is quite an important work and I urge everyone to read Henry's post and spend some time with the two of them in the comments, it is no doubt a book we're going to be referring to again and again here — JH)

Jacob Hacker has written a very important book. One of the biggest problems that progressives face in American politics is that the game is rigged against them. Over the last thirty years, right wing think tanks and pundits have succeeded in changing the center of gravity of American politics. Ideas such as gutting social protection used to belong to the Birchers and other flat earthers at the fringes of debate. They’re now received wisdom among the chattering classes. Jacob Hacker wants to reverse this. He’s a political scientist; much of his previous work has shown how the right has worked under the radar to undermine basic social protections. This book, however, isn’t a standard piece of political science commentary. It’s an attempt to change politics by reshaping the collective wisdom closer to what progressives want.

This is a highly ambitious project. Hacker wants to push back some of the ideological gains that the right wing has made over the last thirty years. A diffuse coalition of conservatives, libertarians and business interests has sought to get rid of broadly based social security and medical benefits and to push for ever lower taxes. They haven’t done everything that they set out to do, but they’ve succeeded in changing the language that policy makers use to think about these issues. The result has been that politicians have been unwilling to protect people from the new risks caused by globalization and market pressures. Indeed, instead of protecting ordinary people, government has helped pile more risks on their heads.

Some examples. Medical costs are growing ever higher, and the health insurance industry is a mess. The result is that people, especially those with no insurance or limited coverage, face ever more financial risks. According to a recent study a quarter of families affected by cancer had to spend all their savings to pay for treatment; one in ten had skimp on food, heat or housing to bear the burden, and 13% went into major debt. As Hacker documents, instead of proper health insurance reform, we’re being given individual Health Savings Accounts, which transfer the risks and hard tradeoffs to individuals. Employment is becoming ever more unstable in a globalized world, but government doesn’t seem very interested in protecting vulnerable workers. Ordinary families who are faced with these pressures can’t easily seek refuge in bankruptcy any more thanks to recent legislation which drastically weakens bankruptcy protections. Finally, traditional defined benefits pension plans have been replaced over time by defined contribution plans, in which individuals bear the risk of stock market slumps. Now, conservatives and libertarians want to get rid of Social Security and replace it with so called ‘personalized’ accounts, regardless of the massive transition costs that this would involve.

The right has been so successful in getting these changes through because it has redefined the middle ground of American politics. By relentlessly pushing mantras like “personal responsibility” and “increased choice,” it has reshaped the boundaries of the politically possible, making some options available which were previously impossible, while taking others off the table. This has in turn paved the way for major political changes weakening social protections that already exist, and making sure that new protective measures aren’t created to address new risks. While the right has managed to disarm some of the opposition to these changes, it hasn’t been able to make them popular. Despite the boosterism of the business press, middle class Americans aren’t very happy in the modern economy. They have very good reason to feel insecure. Hacker shows how economic risk has increased dramatically over the last few decades. However, politicians in both the Democratic and Republican party have mostly ignored this problem, where they haven’t actively made it worse. Because the space for allowable political argument is so conservative-friendly, real, far-reaching policies haven’t been able to get off the ground.

This is what Hacker wants to change. He wants to redefine the terms of debate, showing how Americans are far more vulnerable to economic risk than in the past, and how politics has worsened the problem. Everywhere that right wing pundits talk about “personal responsibility,” he wants to highlight the real and profound risks that ‘responsibility enhancing’ measures involve for ordinary families. Not only that – he wants to show how these risks would be far lower if government was doing its job properly. Government could do a lot more to make people’s lives less risky if it reformed social insurance and expanded Medicare. There isn’t any necessary reason why it can’t do this. Governments in other countries have been far more active than the US in protecting their citizens. The real problem has been one of political will. Politicians aren’t responding to ordinary people’s needs, at least partly because it’s hard to articulate these needs in a political language that has been reshaped by the right wing.

This imbalance of debate reflects a broader problem that the netroots are increasingly coming to focus on. As Digby said a couple of weeks ago, one of the reasons that Democrats are repeatedly sucker-punched by the right is because they are working within intellectual limits that have been set by right wing foundations and pundits over the last few decades.

The conservative consensus says that low taxes, limited government, individual rights, strong national defense and family values equals a better life. Many people, including many liberals, have absorbed that message into their worldview and it's going to take some work to unravel it. It won't happen through issue advocacy. People already favor all the government programs they depend on (and some they that don't even exist, yet.) But they have been disconnected from government itself — their ownership of it and their obligation to keep it working. Until we successfully challenge the conservative consensus with new language and new ways of thinking about government and politics, it's going to remain in place. And it's going to be very difficult to successfully advance the progressive agenda until that changes.

Progressives have had difficulty even beginning to conceptualize how they might create a coherent agenda, because they think with concepts developed by people whom they fundamentally disagree. George Lakoff and others who claim that progressives just need to repackage their arguments are missing this point. Democrats need to reframe their agenda. Progressives don’t need to work on how they use maternal and paternal imagery. They need to develop basic concepts that allow them to change the ways in which they think about politics.

This is exactly why Hacker wants to reshape the way in which Americans debate and think about economic issues. He has laid out the beginnings of a very ambitious project. But it’s the right kind of ambitious. If the mid-term elections demonstrated anything, it’s that ordinary Americans want politicians to address the real uncertainties and worries that they feel when they think about their economic future. Hacker provides some of the intellectual foundations for a smart economic populism that would help provide answers for these Americans

There are a lot of points for discussion in this book; I haven’t even begun to touch on some of Hacker’s major arguments (you’ll have to buy the book yourself to find out more). Here are three points for starters.

(1) Kos wrote back in June about how John Edwards’ speech about the “Working Society” provides the kind of “big ideas” that the Democratic party needed. However, Kos was unsure about whether Edwards’ plan would appeal to the middle class. Can Hacker’s emphasis on risk and insecurity help bring these ideas home to middle class voters? (I suspect that Edwards himself thinks so; he describes Hacker’s book as an important book for anyone concerned about the continuing vitality of the American dream).

(2) Is there a trade-off between focusing on risk and focusing on inequality? Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein have argued that Hacker doesn’t pay enough attention to growing economic inequality, and the need to enhance the bargaining power of workers. Both Mark Schmitt (on the same page) and Hacker disagree in different ways. Schmitt argues that fighting risk isn’t quite the same thing as trying to redistribute resources, and Hacker claims that fighting insecurity is an important initial step in tackling inequality too. Which of these positions is right, and what does that mean for the political priorities that progressives should adopt?

(3) Could this agenda be hijacked by the right? Two conservatives, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have recently argued in the Weekly Standard that the Republicans need to respond to liberals like Hacker by focusing on health care and income volatility themselves. Does this suggest that if Democrats don’t start providing answers to these problems – and soon – their lunch will be eaten by the Republicans?

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Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell