THE LONG VIEW
25 August 2011
Clarence Thomas was right.
As a nominee to the Supreme Court in 1991, he scolded his critics for conducting a “high-tech lynching.” At the time, it was a poor choice of words no matter how angry he was. The national institutions of American society were not guilty of his charge nearly thirty years after the passage of the most influential civil rights legislation in the nation’s history. Twenty years after nominee Thomas’ assertion, however, the political polarization among the global banking and investment elites has caused precisely the thinking of the mob in an attempt to derail the Presidency of Barack Obama. While Thomas used hyperbole to cow his critics into enough silence to assure his successful nomination, President Obama has avoided any discussion of the ways his opponents foster a racially-charged climate where compromise means surrender.
When he first proposed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, President Obama crafted a moderate piece of legislation that included tax cuts, infrastructure spending, and unprecedented transparency. While his supporters and critics often battled over the size of the stimulus package, the absence of a direct employment program to provide jobs until the private sector began to recover crippled the legislation. Instead, President Obama gambled that he could appeal to Wall Street and our national impulse to grow economically. In theory, that partnership would hold him in good stead against the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party in Congress. He believed in the spirit of compromise that brought Ted Kennedy and John Boehner together on education reform, that brought Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton together on welfare reform, and Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan together on tax reform. None of that bipartisanship survived the political process of destruction the Congress adopted leading up to the Congressional elections of 2010.
With the departure of Deven Sharma (architect of the downgrade of American credit for the first time in history), even Standard and Poors has recognized that those politics of intolerance must not destabilize the world economy. The wild swings in the stock market reflect two fundamentally different views about the nature of corporate growth over the next generation. One vision holds that human beings thrive in communities and that government is a partner to commerce that builds infrastructure and educational opportunities based on values (like faith and equality) that the market cannot promote in its pursuit of profit. The other vision maintains that the idea of human community stifles competitiveness, that taxation is synonymous with oppression, and that high wages, health care, and worker security are unjustifiable expenses on a balance sheet. Austerity is the answer for the second group, while generosity (especially from the banks and corporations that benefitted disproportionately from the recovery of the last two years) fills the former prescription.
In a society where lynchings like the attacks on James Byrd in 1998 and James Craig Anderson this summer horrify nearly all Americans (in contrast to the acceptance of racial violence for much of the nation’s history), the reality of Justice Thomas’ idea of a ‘high-tech lynching’ comes dangerously close to fruition in the scorched earth, rhetorical attacks on President Obama that have occurred since the stimulus debate. We muddle the philosophical discussion over economic policy in Europe, Asia, and the United States by focusing on the personalities of political leaders when it is the institutional behaviors of our banks and business leaders that deserve the headlines and public attention. Over the next fifteen months leading to a new election, the choice between austerity and generosity hinges on whether the financial institutions of the world economy overcome mob-driven fears and embrace new confidence in families and communities around the globe.