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Robert Reich: Pragmatists, Ideologues, and Inequality in America

November 12, 2013

The New Jersey gubernatorial election and the New York City mayoral election give a taste of what to expect in the 2016 elections.

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Image from Flickr via Bob Jagendorf

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich

How will the 2016 election be framed? What will be America’s choice?

If the coverage of last week’s two big winners offers a guide, the choice will be between “pragmatism” and “ideology.”

The Washington Post called Chris Christie’s huge gubernatorial victory a “clear signal in favor of pragmatic, as opposed to ideological, governance.”

But the mainstream media used a different adjective to describe Bill de Blasio, last week’s other landslide victor. The New York Times, for example, wrote of “the rise of the left-leaning Mr. de Blasio.”

Given America’s surging inequality, the pragmatist is De Blasio, who proposes to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to fund pre-school and after-school programs for the children of the poor and hard-pressed middle class.

Again and again, Christie is described as the pragmatist; De Blasio, the lefty.

But these appellations ignore what’s happening to an America in which almost all the economic gains are going to the richest 1 percent, median household incomes continues to drop, and the number of Americans in poverty continues to rise.

Given America’s surging inequality, the pragmatist is De Blasio, who proposes to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to fund pre-school and after-school programs for the children of the poor and hard-pressed middle class.

The cost of child care is taking a huge bite out of the paychecks of many working parents, some of whom have been forced to leave their kids alone at home or rely on overburdened neighbors and relatives. A small surcharge on the incomes of the super-rich to pay for well-supervised child care is a practical and long-overdue response.

Apparently Christie isn’t aware that many employers – including Walmart, the largest employer in America – don’t pay their employees enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

Meanwhile, the real ideologue is Christie, who vetoed an increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey. The current minimum of $7.25 is far lower than it was three decades ago in terms of purchasing power, and the typical minimum-wage worker is no longer a teenager but a major breadwinner for his or her family.

Apparently Christie isn’t aware that many employers – including Walmart, the largest employer in America – don’t pay their employees enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Which means the rest of us end up subsidizing these employers indirectly by devoting our tax dollars to Medicaid, food stamps, housing, and other assistance needed to make up for the lousy wages.

In fact, New Jersey voters found a way to circumvent Christie’s ideological opposition to a raise in the minimum wage. They approved an amendment to the state constitution that raises the minimum to $8.25 (still too low) and subsequently indexes it to inflation.

The so-called “pragmatic” Christie also frowns on gay marriage and abortion rights, which puts him in the company of many Tea Partiers. But because Christie himself isn’t a Tea Partier, and had the temerity to be seen in the friendly company of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, he appears pragmatic in comparison to them.

The civil war that’s engulfed the Republican Party – pitting the Tea Party against the establishment GOP – is an admitted headache for Republicans focused on the 2016 presidential contest.

The media is casting Christie as the pragmatist and De Blasio as the ideologue because of what’s happened to their respective parties.

The civil war that’s engulfed the Republican Party – pitting the Tea Party against the establishment GOP – is an admitted headache for Republicans focused on the 2016 presidential contest. For them, the size of Christie’s win is a huge relief.

The Democratic Party, by contrast, has been the very model of civility. Establishment Democrats, mostly funded by big business and Wall Street, have dominated ever since Bill Clinton “triangulated” and moved the Party rightward.

Progressive Democrats and organized labor – those who the late Paul Wellstone described as the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — have been remarkably tractable. Although they forced Obama to pull the nomination of Larry Summers, they’ve been all but ignored on the big stuff having to do with widening inequality.

When progressives wanted Wall Street banks to reduce the mortgages of underwater homeowners as a condition for getting bailed out, the White House and most congressional Democrats turned a deaf ear.

In other words, Christie appears pragmatic and De Blasio ideological only in comparison with their own parties.

Progressives also pushed to go over the fiscal cliff and end the Bush tax cuts, sought a “public option” for health insurance, wanted an Employee Free Choice Act that would make it easier to form unions, tried to resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act as part of financial regulation, objected to the President’s proposed “chain-weighted CPI” for Social Security and cuts in Social Security.

On all these they got nowhere. Yet progressives in the Democratic Party took their lumps without declaring civil war.

Had the President and congressional Democrats reflected the Party’s historic roots and risen to the challenge of widening inequality, De Blasio’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy to finance better schools wouldn’t appear conspicuous or even ideological. It would be another pragmatic attempt to deal with the nation’s challenge of reversing the scourge of inequality.

In other words, Christie appears pragmatic and De Blasio ideological only in comparison with their own parties.

But in terms of where America is and what it needs, now and in the foreseeable future, these two labels should be reversed.

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future and The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. His latest, Beyond Outrage: Expanded Edition: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it, is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His new film, “Inequality for All,” was released on September 27.

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