A Place at the Table—Some Reflections on the Political Discussion in this Election Season

by Carolyn Prescott

This essay is intended as a contribution to our ongoing discussion of issues.

In this opening season of the 2020 elections, with the entry of Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker into the Democratic race, with Howard Schultz lurking as a potential third-party candidate, a lot is being written and spoken about the Democrats possibly moving “too far left.” Some warnings are implicit in journalists’ questions: “Is the Democratic Party losing its centrist base?” Others are more explicit and clearly intended to make discussion of the issues appear irresponsible or worse; witness Howard Schultz’s recent out-of-hand dismissal of Kamala Harris’s embrace of a Medicare-for-all type plan as “unaffordable” and even “not American.” Similar strategies have been employed to exclude discussions about climate change solutions: they have been preemptively labeled as economically infeasible, and numerous attempts have been made to discredit proponents as privileged elitists or unrealistic idealists.

Based on our recent reading we offer a few reflections on the question of what should be included in the public discussion. (Citations and URLs appear at the end of this post.)

In an article called “Law and Neoliberalism,” David Singh Grewal and Jedediah Purdy identify one of the major conflicts of our time as “the struggle between democratic claims on economic life, usually on behalf of the security and autonomy of workers and other ‘ordinary people,’ and the claims of capital and management: for higher profit, greater capital mobility, the subjection of non-market practices to market logic . . . and ‘freedom to manage’ through ‘labor flexibility.’” To use the term “neoliberalism,” they say, is to acknowledge the lines of conflict here and often to take sides. 

Grewal and Purdy identify four typical neoliberal claims: 1) an efficiency-based view of the market that emphasizes property rights and private contracting as the best means of increasing overall welfare; 2) the belief that markets offer the best protection of individual freedom; 3) the denial that democratic politics can ever discipline and shape economic life; and 4) finally and perhaps most instructively for us in this election season, they note the last line of argument—”the outright exclusion of certain ideas and proposals from any place at the table.”

This fourth claim is reminiscent of the Greek debt crisis as it unfolded in 2015. Yanis Varoufakis, the finance minister of Greece at the time, has written that the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble and other Eurozone finance ministers, even as they insisted that austerity measures be imposed on the Greek population, refused to allow any discussion of debt restructuring or a broader discussion of the nature of the crisis. The real experiences of the Greek people as well as certain economic ideas were simply disallowed.

The young Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, the author of Utopia for Realists, recently exposed a clear example of the kind of neoliberal exclusion cited by Grewal and Purdy. In attendance at Davos to participate in a panel on inequality, Bregman noted the pushback he received whenever he mentioned taxes and decided to address this omission during his turn to speak. Bregman “told his audience that people in Davos talked about participation, justice, equality and transparency, but ‘nobody raises the issue of tax avoidance and the rich not paying their share. It’s like going to a firefighters’ conference and not talking about water.’”

It’s instructive to note when the goal seems to be not to offer counter-arguments or evidence, but to keep the serious examination of an issue off the table altogether. Not only Republicans but also many Democrats are loathe to question certain economic dogma, such as the often cited equations: lower taxes = more investment = job creation = trickle-down wealth. Certain economic theories, such as rational choice theory, may be treated as sacrosanct, although they fail to account for a noticeable amount of data and don’t seem to allow for a range of human values and behaviors. Other exclusions are inherent in the way we are taught to think about issues: we seem to readily accept that jobs come mostly from big companies, especially industrial ones. We tend to think about environmental concerns quite separately from economic issues.

Of course there are thoughtful challengers to these prevailing political orthodoxies. Some of these thinkers investigate the meaning of “value” within ethics, human ecology, economics, law and politics; some examine the way that these disciplines function in relation to the problems we face in society. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller writes about philosopher Elizabeth Anderson. He describes her first book, Value in Ethics and Economics, as “unseating the premises of rational-choice theory.” Anderson’s recent work examines the typical contrast drawn between equality and freedom, calling into question the idea that we cannot approach the first without damaging the second. Moreover, in her own approach to philosophy, Anderson seeks “to work empirically, using information gathered from the world . . . through the experienced problems of real people.”

The environmental lawyer and scholar Jedediah Purdy appeals to us to recognize the exclusions inherent in the divisions that we take for granted: the treatment of politics, economics and ecology as separate spheres. He looks at how these disciplines in isolation are inadequate to the tasks we face in an era in which humans are shaping our planet, the age of the Anthropocene. In his 2015 book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Purdy urges us to a more encompassing and imaginative politics rather than a segregated environmentalism.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson addresses the exclusion of particular ideas and values from the public discussion in her essay, “Austerity as Ideology.” Austerity is invoked, she tells us, “in the face of common sense and painful experience,” somehow evading true discussion. Meanwhile, market economics, in her words, “has shown itself very ready to devour what we hold dear—if the list can be taken to include culture, education, the environment and the sciences, as well as the peace and well-being of our fellow citizens.” Robinson upends the concept of “value” as it is often used in public discussions of austerity when she says, “Our wealth is finally neither more nor less than human well-being,” and, “. . . there is no value except what we value.”

All these thinkers suggest that our politics should be inclusive of the real world we inhabit, that assumptions should be probed, that dogma can be questioned. In this election season, then, let us be canny about appeals for conciliation if they rely on the exclusion of our experiences and values from the public discussion. In a recent interview, David Axelrod talked about the labeling of certain issues as radical within the context of the 2020 election campaign. Commenting on the issue of inequality, the “aggregation of enormous wealth at the very top and stagnation below,” he said, “I don’t accept this notion that discussions about it, about what we do about it, are radical, are dangerous. I think the danger is to be timid. The danger is not to engage.”

David Singh Grewal and Jedediah Purdy, “Law and Neoliberalism,” in Law and Political Economy (Blog originating at Yale Law School, started in 2017)

“ ‘This is about saving capitalism’: the Dutch historian [Rutger Bregman] who savaged Davos elite,” The Guardian (online), February 1, 2019

Nathan Heller, “The Philosopher Redefining Equality,” The New Yorker, January 7, 2019

Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, 2015, Harvard University Press

Marilynne Robinson, “Austerity as Ideology,” When I Was a Child I Read Books, 2012, Picador Books, FSG

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