January 2011, Week 5


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Mon, 31 Jan 2011 01:01:28 -0500
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Where's the Protest at Home? 
Robert Kuttner
Huffington Post
Posted: January 30, 2011

On Saturday, I crossed paths with a few hundred
protesters marching from Cambridge to Boston to call for
the resignation of Egyptian President Mubarak. By
appearance, they were a mixture of Arab-Americans,
locals, and people from assorted other backgrounds.

The loud, peaceful march was almost startling, because
you hardly see street protests in America these days,
even in liberal Massachusetts. The Boston Globe quoted
one Egyptian-American woman saying that middle class
anger in Egypt has swelled with unemployment and

"You can't live a fairly decent life without being
rich," she said.

In 2011, you might say the same about downwardly mobile

But where are the protests in our country? Where is the
leadership connecting the dots... between the financial
meltdown, the record profits and bonuses on Wall Street,
the continuing collapse of home equity, the joblessness,
and the assault on public services in the name of
budgetary prudence?

For the moment, the small amount of citizen protest
seems to belong to the Tea Parties. However, the
Republican responses to President Obama's State of the
Union address showed a total vacuum of plausible

Obama's own address was a blend of this president at his
best -- invoking the aspirations that we share as
Americans, some very nimble packaging of progressive
themes in unassailable patriotic language -- but
combined with a fair amount of needless pandering to the

As strategist Drew Westen parsed the speech at a recent
conference of progressive Democratic legislators, some
passages seized the political high ground and then
defined it in a progressive way.

    We are the nation that put cars in driveways and
    computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the
    Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America,
    innovation doesn't just change our lives. It's how
    we make a living.

    Our free-enterprise system is what drives
    innovation. But because it's not always profitable
    for companies to invest in basic research,
    throughout history our government has provided
    cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the
    support that they need. That's what planted the
    seeds for the Internet. That's what helped make
    possible things like computer chips and GPS.

    ..... Our infrastructure used to be the best -- but
    our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have
    greater Internet access than we do. Countries in
    Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and
    railways than we do. China is building faster trains
    and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own
    engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they
    gave us a "D."

    We have to do better. America is the nation that
    built the transcontinental railroad, brought
    electricity to rural communities, and constructed
    the interstate highway system. The jobs created by
    these projects didn't just come from laying down
    tracks or pavement. They came from businesses that
    opened near a town's new train station or the new

Pitch perfect. What logically follows from the
president's invoking of the history of American
prosperity is a call for more public investment in 21st
century infrastructure. This is not in-your-face
partisanship, but the astute marketing of a progressive
message and ideology that contrasts radically with the
conservative one.

But then the president said this:

    Now that the worst of the recession is over, we have
    to confront the fact that our government spends more
    than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every
    day, families sacrifice to live within their means.
    They deserve a government that does the same.

    So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year,
    we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five
    years. This would reduce the deficit by more than
    $400 billion over the next decade and will bring
    discretionary spending to the lowest share of our
    economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

    This freeze will require painful cuts. Already, we
    have frozen the salaries of hard-working federal
    employees for the next two years. I've proposed cuts
    to things I care deeply about, like community action

My friend Westen was incredulous. Why would a Democrat
give aid and comfort to a right wing ideology that is
also wrongheaded economics? Why sacrifice Medicaid and
programs for kids for the sins of the bankers? Why add
fuel to the right's attack on public employees?

People watching the speech rightly wondered: How do you
freeze domestic spending -- and also dramatically
increase outlay on 21st Century infrastructure? How do
you win public support for more desperately needed
public investment when you brag that you will reduce
domestic spending to its lowest share of the economy
since the Eisenhower years?

In the 2008 election, people with incomes of under
$50,000 supported Obama and the Democrats by wide
margins. But the kind of mixed messaging in the
president's State of the Union address reinforces
political anomalies such as the 2010 mid-term election,
where white working class voters supported Republican
House and Senate candidates by a staggering margin of 30

The administration's mixed signals on aid to Wall Street
are so potent that in the 2010 election, a majority of
voters who blamed the collapse on Wall Street
nonetheless voted for a Republican candidate for

On January 17, the New York Times published a letter to
the editor from a woman named Susan Kross, of upstate
New York, praising governors for "reining in labor

The shocker was her concluding paragraph. She wrote, "I
was reared on a family farm where pennies were always
pinched, every day was a workday, and there was no such
thing as a pension or vacations, let alone paid ones."

Such is the state of ideological muddle and confused
self-interest that a hard working rural, middle-class
American could disdain pensions and paid vacations as
unnecessary luxuries too good for working people. This
woman's family farm, if it has truly been in her family
for generations, probably survived thanks to the New
Deal. She gets her crops to market thanks to government-
subsidized highways, and uses modern farming methods
thanks to USDA. Her parents and grandparents, who
benefited from Social Security, most likely did not
share her contempt for pensions and paid vacations.

This moment cries out for a combination of clear
leadership and mass protest.

The protesters shaking the foundations of despotic
regimes in the Middle East are a blend of people who
want radical Islam in temporary coalition with those who
want western-style tolerance, democracy, and a semblance
of honest and competent government. They are united only
by their disgust with the corrupt status quo. But you
have to admire them for acting on their frustrations.

This wave of citizen protest is a reminder that
insurgent moments can break out and spread with little
warning. But you never know whether a genuine revolution
from below leads to a Jefferson, a Mandela, a Havel, a
Roosevelt -- or a Hitler, Mussolini, or in current
circumstances radical Islamists who reject everything
secular, tolerant, and democratic about the

The United States may possess more than half of the
world's arms, but it is powerless to control this kind
of popular uprising. As protest spreads and regimes that
America propped up are toppled, we don't know whether
the successor governments will be pluralist Muslim
democracies like Turkey and Indonesia, radical
fundamentalist states like Iran, or military

But half a century of American investment in strongmen
like Mubarak to contain popular unrest is collapsing
along with his regime, and US influence in the Middle
East is very likely to decline.

President Obama took office with more good will in the
Middle East than any recent president, just as he
kindled a new generation of hope at home. It remains to
be seen whether his administration can credibly identify
the United States with the aspirations of hundreds of
millions of ordinary Arabs, and thereby nudge a
turbulent region in the direction of tolerant democracy
rather than fundamentalist rage.

It also remains to be seen whether Obama can finally be
the ally of drastic reform at home. If not, the domestic
rage about the economy will continue to belong to the
far right.

It's great to see Americans demonstrating in solidarity
with ordinary Egyptians. But the next time I cross paths
with a robust protest march, I'd like to see citizens
protesting the wreckage of American prosperity by Wall
Street and the too feeble response by our government.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and
a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A
Presidency in Peril.


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