Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bitterness: What bitterness?

Obama, Bitterness, Meet the Press, and the Old Politics

By Robert Reich

April 15, 2008


I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, 61 years ago. My
father sold $1.98 cotton blouses to blue-collar women
and women whose husbands worked in factories. Years
later, I was secretary of labor of the United States,
and I tried the best I could - which wasn't nearly good
enough - to help reverse one of the most troublesome
trends America has faced: The stagnation of middle-
class wages and the expansion of poverty. Male hourly
wages began to drop in the early 1970s, adjusted for
inflation. The average man in his 30s is earning less
than his father did thirty years ago. Yet America is
far richer. Where did the money go? To the top.

Are Americans who have been left behind frustrated? Of
course. And their frustrations, their anger and, yes,
sometimes their bitterness, have been used since then -
by demagogues, by nationalists and xenophobes, by
radical conservatives, by political nuts and fanatical
fruitcakes - to blame immigrants and foreign traders,
to blame blacks and the poor, to blame 'liberal
elites,' to blame anyone and anything.

Rather than counter all this, the American media have
wallowed in it. Some, like Fox News and talk radio,
have given the haters and blamers their very own
megaphones. The rest have merely 'reported on' it.
Instead of focusing on how to get Americans good jobs
again; instead of admitting too many of our schools are
failing and our kids are falling behind their
contemporaries in Europe, Japan, and even China;
instead of showing why we need a more progressive tax
system to finance better schools and access to health
care, and green technologies that might create new
manufacturing jobs, our national discussion has been
mired in the old politics.

Listen to this morning's 'Meet the Press' if you want
an example. Tim Russert, one of the smartest guys on
television, interviewed four political consultants -
Carville and Matalin, Bob Schrum, and Michael Murphy.
Political consultants are paid huge sums to help
politicians spin words and avoid real talk. They're
part of the problem. And what do Russert and these four
consultants talk about? The potential damage to Barack
Obama from saying that lots of people in Pennsylvania
are bitter that the economy has left them behind; about
HRC's spin on Obama's words (he's an 'elitist,' she
said); and John McCain's similarly puerile attack.

Does Russert really believe he's doing the nation a
service for this parade of spin doctors talking about
potential spins and the spin-offs from the words Obama
used to state what everyone knows is true? Or is
Russert merely in the business of selling TV airtime
for a network that doesn't give a hoot about its
supposed commitment to the public interest but wants to
up its ratings by pandering to the nation's ongoing
desire for gladiator entertainment instead of real talk
about real problems.

We're heading into the worst economic crisis in a half
century or more. Many of the Americans who have been
getting nowhere for decades are in even deeper trouble.
Large numbers of people in Pennsylvania and across the
nation are losing their homes and losing their jobs,
and the situation is likely to grow worse. Consumers
are at the end of their ropes, fuel and food costs are
skyrocketing, they can't go deeper into debt, they
can't pay their bills. They aren't buying, which means
every business from the auto industry to housing to
even giant GE is hurting. Which means they'll begin
laying off more people, and as they do, we will
experience an even more dangerous downward spiral.

Bitter? You ain't seen nothing yet. And as much as
people like Russert, Carville, Matalin, Schrum, and
Murphy want to divert our attention from what's really
happening; as much as HRC and McCain seek to make
political hay out of choices of words that can be spun
cynically by the mindless spinners of the old politics;
as much as demagogues on the right and left continue to
try to channel the cumulative frustrations of Americans
into a politics of resentment - all these attempts
will, I hope, prove futile. Eighty percent of Americans
know the nation is on the wrong track. The old
politics, and the old media that feeds it, are
irrelevant now.

[Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the
Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of
California at Berkeley. He has served in three national
administrations, most recently as secretary of labor
under President Bill Clinton. He has written ten books,
including The Work of Nations, which has been
translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The
Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his
most recent book, Reason. His articles have appeared in
the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times,
Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is
co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine.]
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