For those of you not keeping a close watch on the U.S. Senate race in New York, liberal Democratic incumbent Charles E. Schumer is campaigning as a tax cutter - that is, if you are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to make less than $160,000 a year. Quite a laugher.
Mr. Schumer's reinvention is less a matter of economic policy than the consequence of the latest awkward Democratic "pivot" in response to the Tea Party threat to the Democrats' congressional majorities. First, they tried belittling condescension. Don't forget that former President Bill Clinton and leading Democratic senators (including Mr. Schumer) joined the liberal bottom feeders of cable TV in their nasty name-calling toward Tea Partiers (including "tea baggers"). When those words didn't hurt, they upped the ante: "racist." It turned out, however, that there were lots of different colors in the Tea Party rainbow - and the epithets people said they heard coming from Tea Party supporters no one actually had spoken. Next up: "AstroTurf." But then hundreds of thousands of regular folks turned out for a series of real grass-roots events on Washington's Capitol lawn.
What was a poor ruling class to do? One option left: Put a new coat of shine on the old class-warfare clunker. This has turned out to be more challenging than anticipated. In the old days, Franklin D. Roosevelt could summon all the righteous indignation of a nation suffering from the Great Depression in his great philippics against American plutocrats:
"I believe that the recent course of our history has demonstrated that, while we may utilize their expert knowledge of certain problems and the special facilities with which they are familiar, we cannot allow our economic life to be controlled by that small group of men whose chief outlook upon the social welfare is tinctured by the fact that they can make huge profits from the lending of money and the marketing of securities - an outlook which deserves the adjectives 'selfish' and 'opportunist.' "
Arguing that "equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists," FDR suggested that "bold and persistent experimentation" would bring politics and the American economy into balance to the benefit of the "have nots" at an expense the "haves" were able to afford. Attempting to "try something" throughout his first term, he attacked the "unscrupulous money changers ... who steal the livery of great national constitutional ideals to serve discredited special interests."
The same speech might turn to ashes in Democratic mouths today because the very group FDR attacked is the class of men (the stakeholders "too big to fail") who sit around President Obama's table when he makes important policy decisions. Thus, while FDR aimed to "return the control of the federal government to the city of Washington," most plutocrats today have set up shop there to suck off the trillions collected from the American taxpayer.
Because the class-warfare demagoguery of the New Dealers won't work, Democrats have anointed themselves the "champions of the middle class" - language more suitable for co-opting a movement filled with five-figure earners. But will the Tea Partiers bite (or drink)? Don't count on it. First, they know that the ruling class thinks of them more as its clients than its captains and as useful idiots of flyover America who have to be appeased in even-numbered years. More than that, they know that middle-class politics is still special-interest politics. They get what the president and his acolytes never understood about Joe the Plumber: You don't have to be rich, have delusions of grandeur or suffer from a false class consciousness to think that it is right for everyone to keep more of their income. If the Tea Party folk prove themselves the heirs of Joe in 2010 and beyond, the whole political establishment will be surprised again to learn that James Madison still has something on Karl Marx in matches played on American soil.
David Corbin is chairman of the program in politics, philosophy and economics and Matthew Parks the assistant provost at the King's College in New York City. They are the co-authors of the forthcoming "Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation" (Resource Publications).
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