Why the upcoming presidential election is one of the most important in US history: an interview with Theda Skocpol

This interview conducted at the Kennedy School in Boston was first published in Juncture, the new international journal of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Theda Skocpol
18 May 2012

Theda Skocpol is a self-confessed ‘New Deal Democrat’ who works tirelessly to achieve progressive change, most recently by setting up a Scholars Strategy Network for left-leaning academics to promote and inform debate. Her latest book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (2011), has been described as ‘the definitive study of the Tea Party’. This interview conducted at the Kennedy School in Boston was first published in Juncture, the new international journal of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Juncture: On the face of it, the financial crisis was a crisis of the right and yet the left has not been able to take advantage. Why do you think this is?

Theda Skocpol: Well it helps to keep two things in mind. First, when a crisis strikes, what is already prepared will shape the response and, second, the timing of the crisis matters too. Let me elaborate on both these factors.

The lesson looking back over the modern history of democracies is that a crisis itself doesn’t create the response: a crisis simply creates an opportunity for the well-prepared. History also shows that whatever forces and ideas were in play going into a crisis usually get either intensified or are often successfully adapted during that crisis. The crisis struck in 2008 after a long period of decline of the labour unions, particularly in the private sector, and a long period of intellectual hegemony for free market ideas and the idea that government stands in the way of economic recovery and progress. So it was very difficult to assemble a popular organised coalition that could suddenly present an alternative to the solutions that were being suggested by the financiers who created the crisis in the first place. Essentially, the failure of left forces in many countries to build broad coalitions with democratic roots over time really meant that they weren’t in a position to do that much.

The other issue is timing. The crisis in the US struck just as we were moving from a Republican to an Obama presidency and Democratic majorities in Congress. The Democrats had to get involved in trying to prevent financial meltdown from turning into a 1930s-style crash of the whole US and world economy. So in some ways Obama was holding hands with the old regime to try to prevent things becoming a mass depression. That made it difficult for him to lead a more left-centred response which involved criticising the very institutions which he was trying to shore up. The contrast with Roosevelt in the 1930s is striking. We were several years into the Great Depression when Roosevelt arrived with Democratic majorities in 1933. Things were so bad that both the mass public – with 25 per cent unemployment – and many elites and established institutions understood that things just had to change. Congress passed FDR’s proposals with large bipartisan majorities without the legislation even being fully written out. So the different timing and nature of the economic downturn in relation to the arrival of a reformist Democratic government is really critical.

Obama v Romney

President Obama at the University of North Carolina; Mitt Romney campaigning in Arizona. Demotix/Michael Rushton and Demotix/Parker Haeg.

J: On the point about the left not being prepared – what is your view on the Occupy movement? What are its weaknesses and how might it be improved?

TS: Occupy was initially successful in putting inequality on the media agenda – this success was in some ways comparable to the thematic agenda-setting role the Tea Party achieved in its first year. Occupy helped to change the conversation about inequality. But it has shown no signs of organising for the long run. Setting up tent cities was the kind of tactic that could work for six weeks and then you really had to move on. The tent cities were always going to be moved into by all kinds of strange people who were going to change their image and, to my knowledge, Occupy hasn’t come up with any other strategy for organisation. Unlike the Tea Party, they’re not interested in using the formal political process to achieve their goals. I know for an empirical fact that many involved in Occupy did not vote in the last election even though they consider themselves centre-left. They definitely are not thinking of the Democratic party as something they can remake into an instrument, in the way the Tea Party thinks of the Republican party. This is a major mistake. If you don’t vote and you don’t give money and you don’t affect the chances of these politicians, then they’re not going to pay much attention to you. Why should they?

J: Looking ahead, what could the potential basis for a progressive coalition be?

TS: I have talked about the need for a new ‘national greatness liberalism’, which would mean investment in education, infrastructure and extending our social protections to working-age families. There obviously needs to be a big push on job creation and new industries and we may be able to make some progress on environmental issues by investing in new energy sources. This would respond to Americans' concerns that in the 21st century the US is falling behind the international competition – they worry that a once-leading nation is headed for ‘has been’ status. But the core of this left renaissance has to be around bread and butter issues like living standards, with an understanding that new relationships between the genders and workplace and family are also important.

There are some seeds. Take paid family and medical leave: that’s a policy that is broadly appealing and has the chance of bridging between the needs of the poor and the needs of the middle class that you require to build a strong majority coalition. We need more of these policies that build such coalitions. We must also speak consistently about what it will take to build a strong national economy in the future – the kinds of investments in people, communications facilities and public institutions we require.

J: These coalition-building policies have big implications for public spending. How will they be paid for?

TS: Part of the answer is emphasising job creation and investment in new industries as a way of increasing government revenues – economic growth will help. But there is still a bigger issue of how we create a more sustainable tax system. And it’s not the case that we can only tax the rich to solve these problems. In the US we have to tax the rich because we really have super-duper rich people who keep getting richer, and they use a small fraction of their income to then buy elections. So we have to establish the principle that they need to pay a bit more.

But when all is said and done, we are going to have to have an honest conversation about taxes in general and re-establish the idea, in my view, that broad-based taxes which everybody pays and everybody benefits from are the best way to build a centre-left democracy. We did it with social security in this country – we should be using that payroll tax model for a broader set of needs now. You are hearing this from me, but many on the left would not agree. They don’t like to talk about making anyone but billionaires pay. I’m all for making billionaires pay, but I just do not think they have enough to do the job.

J: How will history judge the first Obama presidency? A missed opportunity, or did he face constraints so strong that he achieved what he could?

TS: We have to talk about Obama and the Democratic party in Congress – they arrived together and that’s what created a chance to change direction in American public policy. I think that they accomplished quite a lot given the enormity of the simultaneous crises they were facing – first the financial crash and then the recession that engulfed Main Street. You can certainly argue that Obama was caught in the trap of trying to save the financial system and did not explain to Americans sufficiently well the need for a bold recovery policy, and he didn’t focus perhaps enough on job creation. But he did get through, with the aid of the Democrats in Congress, a stimulus programme that saved the US economy and probably the world economy from a plunge into a great depression. He saved the American automobile industry, which has really turned out to be quite a triumph and very important to the social and economic fabric of the midwestern states.

He and the Democrats also fashioned an historic and important healthcare reform. It is hugely complicated and yet another one of these things where you send the Congress people off to reach a 1,400-page deal that nobody can understand. And people will make fun of Obama if the Supreme Court – the five right-wing ideologues on the Supreme Court – turns the Affordable Care Act into ashes. But I think that they did a gargantuan job in getting it through in the face of extreme obstruction. They have faced a level of obstruction from the ‘out party’ – the Republicans – that has not existed in American politics since the era before the civil war.

Could Obama have been bolder? Partly yes and partly no. The 2008 campaign was unusually bold for an American Democrat – Obama spoke about the need to raise taxes on the rich and he has never flinched from that. That does not sound like much – it actually isn’t much, given the historic increases in wealth and income inequalities in the US – but by the standards of the US Democratic party, which has been wimpy in the extreme on these issues, he did articulate important themes which he has stuck to. When his efforts to compromise were spurned for the 100th time, and when they squeaked by in that very radical moment in the summer when a significant group of right-wing Republicans were prepared to not raise the debt ceiling – which would have had catastrophic consequences – he began to articulate a clearer contrast with the Republicans. I think he is going to stick with that through to the election, as he gives up on his earlier efforts at bipartisanship. This coming election is going to be one of the most clear on issues of socioeconomic inequality and distribution and taxes of any that we have had in the US in a long time.

J: Lots has been written about the impact of the Tea Party on the Republican primaries, but looking further ahead, what will be the ongoing impact of the Tea Party on US politics?

TS: Well the Republican Presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, who will be the nominee, have all explicitly endorsed both grassroots and elite Tea Party priorities. Getting rid of healthcare reform, or at least eviscerating it if they can’t get the lot off the books; cracking down on immigration: illegal immigrants who are here as well as those who might enter; cutting taxes further on the very wealthy, and privatising social security and Medicare – these have all been signed up to. They are breathtakingly radical stands. If Romney is elected he will probably be there with a Republican majority in both the Senate and the House and in the first three months he will sign bills that destroy healthcare reform, push privatisation of social security and Medicare, and cut taxes. In many ways he is the ideal Tea Party candidate – electable, but someone who will deliver their agenda.

If Obama wins, clearly it’ll be different. Grassroots Tea Partiers are angry and afraid of Obama for all kinds of reasons, which have cultural as well as economic sides to them. The elite Tea Party forces are extremely worried about the survival of any kind of tax or social policies which could appeal to the American middle class and build Democratic party coalitions over time. But if he is re-elected, they will have to deal with him. There may be deals around taxes and the budget, and it is possible that if re-elected Obama’s moderate tendencies will come to the fore again, especially as he’ll have to deal with immediate issues about tax cuts, spending and the debt ceiling. So I expect Tea Party forces, if not necessarily the label, to continue to play a role, but that role will be quite different depending on whether it is a Republican who is elected or Obama.

J: Thinkers like Ruy Teixeira have written about how demographic trends, such as a younger and more diverse electorate, could favour the Democrats. Does this mean that the Tea Party should be understood as a kind of right-wing ‘death rattle’ and that whoever wins the 2012 election, the future is bright for progressive politics?

TS: This is a potentially dangerous way of looking at it. I am not a social or economic determinist of any kind. I don’t believe that economic forces have only one possible political expression. Nor do I believe that demography is destiny in any simple sense. It’s true that at this moment the Republican coalition is old and white; Mitt Romney, if he loses, will lose because he cannot fashion much of an appeal to the Latinos he’s been routinely bashing during the primaries. (I suspect he’ll try to make a wealthy conservative Cuban – Marco Rubio – his running mate, but I don’t think that’ll be enough.)

But let’s just keep in mind that policy watersheds shape politics as well as the other way around. So if healthcare reform survives and if it provides a modicum of health security for lower income people and new regulatory protections to middle class people, then that, along with the survival of even a slightly trimmed-back Medicare and social security, will cement the Democratic party’s appeal to the broader middle class. It will allow a transition to incorporating younger people and a more racially diverse electorate to blow winds into a centre-left Democratic party.

But there are forces on the right who understand that they are close to their last chance – to use an American football analogy, it’s in the final two minutes and they have got to get that ball down the field and score a touchdown. They understand the importance of this election much better than the befuddled people on my side. They understand that if they can destroy or eviscerate healthcare reform, if they can change social security and Medicare for future generations (they will grandfather and grandmother the Tea Partiers, but they want to change them for people 55 and younger) then they can turn afterwards to making an appeal to the growing Latino population and to the younger generation around somewhat more free-market principles.

After this election they’ll have to change – they’ll have to give up some of their ‘dead-endism’ over their opposition to gay marriage for example. Republican elites already understand that. But by winning they could very well buy themselves five to 10 years to make this shift, because they’ll be associated with whatever economic recovery occurs and they will have destroyed policies that could have built political identities and coalitions which they understand would have been a threat.

So this is a turning-point election – this is one of the most important elections in American history coming up, not because Obama is some world-striding superman but because he has slightly turned the direction of the nation and the Democratic party, and if his turn is overturned at a critical juncture there may not come another opportunity for a while, and by then the identities and the interests may not be exactly the same.
I think the 2012 election is going to be one of the most riveting, most hard-fought no-holds-barred elections in US political history – and that says something.

J: Academics like Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have argued recently that growing economic inequality is best explained by the deeply unequal distribution of power – that US government is capture by the interests of a rich clique. Do you share that analysis?

TS: I’ve been one of the least inclined on the American left to buy the idea that things have tipped over into almost complete control from the top – and I still don’t entirely believe that, because I think that there are populist components on the right. But the degree to which you are now getting self-enclosed loops, with the fabulously wealthy using government as a source of subsidies and regulatory breaks and being able to wield not just the spending of money but the threat of spending money to campaign against them, is really striking. Average citizens are very cynical about it and what they see leads to them lose faith in government and the political process, which in turn frees wealthy elites to do what they want even more. I don’t believe that Americans are reflexively anti-government, but I do think that they are very sceptical about complex things they don’t understand, things which look like they are insider deals among elites, which they often are.

Part of what Obama has been trying to do is re-establish some civility and some faith and some sense of participation. But it’s an uphill battle, and he hasn’t paid enough attention to the fact that we are going to need to re-establish the quality of the Democratic party: the people who run for office, what they are prepared to stand for, who they are prepared to stand with, who they are prepared to organise with.

There are some bright spots. Take a look at the courage of the Democrats in Wisconsin where Republican governor Scott Walker is facing a recall election after his assault on the unions. The national Democratic party does not necessarily want this kind of thing, but these are Democrats who came out of the labour movement, who decided they were going to take a stand and who have used every lever at their disposal. They are fighting, and whether they win or not matters a lot.

As for a bigger solution, well, colleagues like Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig argue for a ‘constitutional convention’ to agree constitutional amendments that would overhaul campaign finance. I don’t believe this is the right approach. I don’t think that we either can or should try to rewrite the constitution. I don’t see it as feasible and I’m not sure it is a good idea. If you called a convention, I’m not sure it would turn out well.

And I am also quite certain that money alone is not the problem. Sure, we are going to see up to $1 billion spent trying to smear Obama later this year, but this is not the key to US politics. I think that the key is finding a way to broaden the base of people contributing money and to get people organised and able to communicate and understand. To a degree the Tea Partiers did that among themselves, even if their understandings are not factually anchored in some ways. Something similar has to happen more broadly in and around the Democratic party. It’s going to take a renovation of the Democratic party.

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