Either A Defense Or Else An Attack On Barbara Ehrenreich

Henry Farrell and Kevin Drum defend Barbara Ehrenreich against Brad Delong’s attacks. I’m not sure whether my thoughts on this controversy constitute a defense or an attack, but here they are. The 2000 Nation piece Brad quotes from is by far the most coherent case for Ralph Nader that I’ve ever read.

Her point is that if you think the US political system is fundamentally broken, which she does, then it makes no real sense to be voting for the Democrats just because they’re better in some ways. If a system is broken, the system needs to be fixed, and the Democratic Party as an institution is one of the system’s key pillars and isn’t going to do it. The would-be system-fixers need to start a new movement somewhere out there on the grassroots and they’re more likely to do it with the Republicans in power. This is correct as a general analysis, and her empirical predictions have been largely born out — the Bush administration has led to a resurgence of interest in organization and institution-building on the left. In particular, Bush’s proclivity for taking the imperial tendencies in American foreign policy to extremes has started to give fundamental criticism of the entire post-Coldwar national security posture its first mainstream hearing ever, as far-left critics find that they have unexpected friends in the CATO Institute and can make hit documentary films. (Lenin — an absolutely brilliant political strategist if someone lacking in morals and capacity for good governance — had this all figured out long ago).

So that’s the defense. The attack, though, is this: What on earth could have led a person to believe in the late 1990s that something was fundamentally broken with the American political system?

This is the same system that was for a long time marred by chattel slavery, after all, and for a hundred years after that by a period in which one major region was groaning under the yoke of a one-party apartheid state (to say nothing of racial problems in the north). That system proved amenable to incremental reform from within by major stakeholders. And despite much moaning by folks on the left, it simply isn’t the case that since 1981 the United States has moved backwards to its pre-Great Society state. Instead, a rising tide of conservatism has succeeded in rolling back a few of the Great Society’s innovations, while leaving its most important monuments (Medicare, Medicaid, Civil Rights) untouched and allowing a few further steps forward (gay rights, EITC, the Americans with Disabilities Act, CHIP and S-CHIP, and some new environmental rules, to name a few). Ehrenreich’s big complaint seems to be that Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Restoration Act (PWORA, a.k.a. “welfare reform”) in 1996, abolishing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and establishing instead Temporary Assistance to Needy Familiies (TANF). I would say that TANF, for all its flaws, is something of an improvement over AFDC, but if people want to disagree I’ll respect that. What is not at all a respectable belief, however, is the notion that AFDC was either so fabulous (the poor weren’t actually doing so hot in the Reagan years, as you’ll recall) or, frankly, so important (both are very small programs) that its abandonment in favor of TANF is reasonable grounds for this sort of radical dissilusionment with conventional politics.


You had people in contemporary Iran who thought for a while that they could pursue reform from within the existing system and who have now mostly concluded that this was wrong — the system was too resistant to change — and it was time to take a radical stance. That’s a fine and proper thing to do — radicalism has its place — but it’s Iran. I don’t want to be too rose-tinted here, but to look back across the breadth of American history and then look again at the past ten years and decide that now — now — is the time to abandon our faith in the slow-but-steady gruntwork of two-party politics and incremental reform is just perverse.

But Ehrenreich should be praised for having a much better understanding (or, at least, a much better capacity to articulate her understanding) of what the purpose of a Nader vote is and for appreciating the general logic of her views. But where did she come by these views? The reporting in Nickle and Dimed struck me as an excellent case for sticking to it, and realizing that little things like a small boost in the EITC or the minimum wage or minor decreases in housing hosts or slightly better enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act or somewhat more energetic union organizing campaigns could make a big difference in the lives of people who have things pretty rough right now. Ehrenreich thinks they’ll have to wait until after the Revolution. But why would she think that?

UPDATE: Epistemology’s comment (see below) to the effect that this time it’s okay to vote for Nader because Kerry’s ahead right now and he’ll win comfortably has me very afraid. Very. In re: the Civil War point, what I would say is this. Abraham Lincoln secured election under the normal procedure heading up a party that was basically the old Whigs under a new name. It was the reactionaries of the Confederacy who decided that the system was broken and they tried to seceed. In the course of preserving the union — the system — the system was reformed and slavery brought to an end. Indeed, it was even brought to an end in an incremental way — manumission with compensation in the District of Columbia followed by emancipation of slaves behind enemy lines as economic warfare followed, finally, by the emancipation of the rest.