The cluelessness demonstrated by many conservatives regarding the comments made by now former McCain economic adviser and surrogate Phil Gramm has been a revelation of sorts. I have discovered that my own brand of conservatism is probably as irrelevant to the mainstream of conservative thought as classical liberalism is to mainstream thinking on the left. There doesn’t seem to be any room in either ideology these days for much in the way of independent thinking and nuance.
If you stray from the merciless orthodoxy imposed by political necessity and a diseased kind of group-think prevalent on both sides, you leave yourself open to the most withering kind of criticism and the ultimate disapprobation shown by your erstwhile ideological allies; you are accused of being the enemy.
No matter. I realize that my take on the Phil Gramm controversy does not comport with that of most conservatives. And the defense of Gramm’s remarks by the likes of George Will and economic historian Amity Shlaes (in the Washington Post no less) show an even greater divide between what I used to think mainstream conservatism represented and my own views. What this bodes for the future, I cannot say. All I know is that this dust-up over Gramm’s remarks has me at odds with most people I considered my ideological allies.
Forget that Gramm’s remarks about America being in a “mental recession” and that our fellow countrymen are a “nation of whiners” were insensitive, crass, stupid, and abominably ill-timed. They were just plain bad politics and trying to justify them as “true” in any sense whatsoever is the heighth of political ignorance.
To chastise your fellow countrymen who are genuinely worried about the way the world seems to be giving way underneath their feet as change and uncertainty sweeps across the country in the form of ever rising energy costs and a housing crisis to which there doesn’t seem to be any bottoming out bespeaks an obliviousness to the political realities of what is happening beyond your own small corner of the world. Your appeal to an economic Darwinism as a model for the American people to follow is as outmoded as it is despicable.
“Shut up and take it” seems to be the message most conservatives want to send to the American people. That and the fact that “technically” we are not in a recession because we haven’t had two full quarters of negative economic growth. This is not only a suicidal political strategy, it shows conservatives with as much empathy for their fellow countrymen as that of a three toed sloth.
Telling people who are genuinely hurting that they are essentially imagining the fact that they are having problems making ends meet because energy costs have doubled or that the idea that we are bleeding jobs in this country shouldn’t cause them any concern, or that affordable health insurance for them and their families is a pipe dream so you better not get sick, or saving for their kid’s college education is an impossibility so plan to go into hock up to your eyeballs, is idiotic. And then accusing them of being spoiled brats for voicing their concerns is so politically tone deaf as to be beyond belief.
No, we are not in a depression and our economic situation is not as dire as it was in 1980. But consider the following and then tell me that the 80% of people in this country who make up the middle and lower classes are imagining how times are tough.
- Payrolls contracted for the 6th straight month in June despite the unemployment rate holding steady at 5.5%
- Wages have grown only 2.8% this year – below the 4% rate of inflation. And you wonder why people are worried about falling behind?
- We have lost 578,000 non government jobs – down every month – since last November. The rate of job loss has increased each of the last three months.
- Decelerating wage increases coupled with a rising rate of inflation reveal a weak bargaining position not only for unions but for most others who count on that pay raise every year to maintain their standard of living.
- 345,000 jobs lost this year in residential construction with another 51,000 lost among non-residential builders. No one has a clue when or where this housing meltdown will end. With a government bailout of secondary mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac now a foregone conclusion, things may get even tighter in the housing markets.
- Another 33,000 manufacturing jobs lost. That makes 24 straight months of losses in the industrial sector.
- The number of underemployed workers has skyrocketed; 9.9% of the total workforce is now considered underemployed. Most of these people are part timers who would rather be working full time. The total number of underemployed workers has increased over the last year from 4.3 million to 5.4 million.
- “June’s 5.5% unemployment rate represents a 1.1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate since March 2007, and an addition of 1.76 million to the unemployment rolls.”
- “Workers paychecks are under attack from three sides: diminished jobs and hours, slower hourly wage growth, and faster price growth. Moreover, most workers lack the bargaining power necessary to fend off these attacks.”
(Source: Economic Policy Institute. Quotes are direct from this report)
These numbers are not made up by the New York Times. They are not hatched in the basement of the Democratic National Committee. They are available at the Bureau of Labor Statistics to anyone who wishes to delve into the details of our faltering economy.
To have stood on the deck of the Titanic and pointed to the one half of the ship that was still above water and proclaim that the ship had not sunk yet would have, I’m sure, given absolutely no comfort to the passengers. And yet conservatives have rallied around Phil Gramm, clapping him on the back for “telling the truth” regarding our weak kneed countrymen who just don’t know how good they’ve got it.
Perception is what matters in this case. And regardless of where you believe the American people got their ideas about the economy being in trouble – a biased media, the evil Democrats, or even their own personal experience – telling them they are imagining their economic plight and that if they open their mouths to complain about the doubling of gas prices or the slow torture of watching food prices rise every week at the grocery store that they are akin to blubbering babies only shows that Republicans not only deserve to lose, they must lose for the good of the country.
The American people don’t want handouts. They don’t want government to give them a job or secure their futures. They want to know someone is listening to their concerns and understands their problems. The health insurance crisis is real. It keeps real people awake at nights worrying about their loved ones and their future. Now I don’t truck with a purely government solution to this problem and neither does McCain. But unless we understand how fundamental this concern is to the vast majority of the American people, conservatives deserve to be consigned to the back benches of power until they are educated about what affects the real lives of real people.
What defending Gramm shows is that conservatives live in an opaque bubble where they can only see shadows and undefined shapes outside of their little cocoon. They know that the people are out there but they have no insight into what their dreams and desires might be. They don’t have a clue about what moves them, what causes them concern, what worries they have about their children’s future. They are oblivious to their fears. And to top it off, they appear to be uncaring if they suffer.
Does this sound like an ideology you would vote for? Is this the recipe for conservative victory at the polls?
To demonstrate such ignorance and then be proud of it bespeaks a monstrous disconnect between political reality and the way conservatives have taken values like self-reliance, prudence, independence, and thrift and turned them into a club to beat their fellow countrymen over the head. There are ways to encourage people to practice these values without disrespecting their perception of their own personal economic situation.
Gramm and his defenders have failed to do that and have instead substituted a gross economic “survival of the fittest” critique that demonstrates a singular soullessness when it comes to lecturing their fellow citizens about how conservatives have gleaned the “true” economic conditions in the country and that any other theory that contradicts this revealed truth is evidence of mental disease.
This is not the conservatism of Reagan or anyone I am familiar with. One needn’t disconnect the brain from the heart to be a conservative. But for the defenders of Gramm, there appears to be some faulty wiring that has not only led to turgid logic but also a misfiring of the empathy gene.
Not a good combination if you’re a conservative and expect success at the polls.