“It’s Inequality, Stupid.” Let’s Point Hillary toward Economic Populism

There’s an eerie silence at the center of recent clamorous speculation over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects. No one is asking what she actually stands for. What positions she takes. What she  wants to achieve.

This silence is hardly an accident. The news and opinion machinery now in high gear has been designed to keep substantive matters off the table.  As long as people are obsessed with the “will she/won’t she” question, they can be distracted from wondering what Hillary actually would do if she were president.

The fantasies of voters are best projected onto a blank screen. Hillary’s handlers are going to keep her as blank as possible for as long as possible.

What progressive media must do, then, is ignore the purely speculative question of Hillary ‘s presidential future and focus instead on the substantive question of Hillary’s concrete political commitments. Above all, they should hammer on whether Hillary will work hard to reduce wealth and income inequality – nationally and globally.

Like it or not, Hillary is now the weathervane atop the Democratic Party.  If she can be pointed toward more populist economics, most of the Party and its apparatus will follow her. See David Freedlander’s very interesting piece in The Daily Beast on the fight over economic populism now being waged within the Party.

Now is the time. Hillary is much more vulnerable to pressure from progressives now — while Joe Biden and  Elizabeth Warren are still imaginable alternatives.

So let’s all reach out to Hillary  and let her know:  “It’s Inequality!”

Democracy’s Dignity Deficit

I am starting to think that US democracy has a dignity deficit. We talk endlessly about freedom, we talk a lot about equality, but we almost never talk about dignity.  Why not?

The answer  has a lot to do with the way we imagine the meaning of “equality.” But before I explain why, I want to spend a moment establishing the premise – that democracy has a great deal to do with dignity whether we talk about it or not.

If we imagine a democracy functioning effectively, don’t we assume that its citizens will have dignity? Conversely, if we try to imagine a democracy in which most citizens lack a sense of dignity, don’t we immediately feel a self-contradiction?  Why should all persons be free and equal if they are not all worth something? Why would each of us care about our own personal freedom and equality  if we did not feel that we – each of us – had value? Conversely, if we took a deeply cynical view of humans and human nature, wouldn’t we be indifferent to the matter of how people are governed?

So, if democracy is bound up with the idea of dignity (as I think it is) why do we hardly ever talk about it?

Why Not Dignity?

Why Not Dignity?

The answer is that we take dignity for granted. And the main reason we do so is that we suppose it comes along automatically with freedom and equality – but especially, I would argue, with equality. For we can imagine a free people refusing to concede each other’s dignity. But it’s much harder to imagine a people who have agreed to see themselves as equal not agreeing also to consider themselves being equal in dignity.

Equality seems to entail dignity. But for that very reason we are tempted to assume that equality guarantees dignity. And that’s a mistake.

Many marriage vows are imbued with the belief that marriage has a lot to do with love. But we know (after a while) that those vows don’t guarantee love. Likewise (a subtler analogy here), most of us imagine that “justice” also means “fairness.” But in actual practice, justice is not always fair. And as legal philosophers know, some systems of justice are much more explicitly and deliberately concerned with fairness than others.

So if you want your marriage to nurture and be nurtured by love, you have to work to make it do so. If you want a just system of justice to produce fairness, you have to work to make it do so.

And if we – “we the people” —  really want democratic equality to produce democratic dignity, we have to do something. But what?

The answer will have everything to do with what we take  “equality” and “dignity” to mean. And that’s a long conversation. But for the moment it’s fair to say that we should simply talk more about dignity when we talk about democracy. Look at the contemporary political scene: isn’t one of our main problems that we frame policy issues exclusively in terms of freedom and equality? What if the debates over health care were explicitly about citizens’ and patients’ dignity? What if the debates over Voter ID laws were not just about  equality and freedom, but about the ways such laws jeopardize citizens’ dignity? What if the debates over wealth inequality hinged not just on the tension between equality and freedom but on an agreed commitment to value each others’ dignity?

Personally, I think this is a word progressives in general, and the Democratic Party in particular,  need to grab hold of and “own” – now.

Meanwhile, we should at least spend some time thinking about dignity and its relation to equality in democracy. I’ll take these matter up in later blog postings, and  any thoughts and comments you might have would be most welcome. (See “Leave a Comment” below.)