ROBERT REICH

Pragmatism, ideology and inequality in America

Updated: 2013-11-13T01:37:00Z

By ROBERT REICH

Tribune Content Agency

The Washington Post called Chris Christie’s huge gubernatorial victory a “clear signal in favor of pragmatic, as opposed to ideological, governance.” But the mainstream media used a different adjective to describe Bill de Blasio, Election Day’s other landslide victor. The New York Times, for example, wrote of “the rise of the left-leaning Mr. de Blasio.”

Again and again, Christie is being described as the pragmatist; de Blasio, as the lefty. But in light of America’s surging inequality, the labels should be reversed.

The real pragmatist is de Blasio, who proposes to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to fund preschool and after-school programs.

The cost of child care is taking a huge bite out of the paychecks of many working parents, some of whom have been forced to leave their kids alone at home or rely on overburdened neighbors and relatives. A small surcharge on the incomes of the super-rich to pay for well-supervised child care is a practical and long-overdue response.

The real ideologue is Christie, who vetoed an increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey. The current minimum of $7.25 is far lower than it was three decades ago in terms of purchasing power, and the typical minimum-wage worker is no longer a teenager but a major breadwinner for his or her family.

The so-called “pragmatic” Christie also frowns on gay marriage and abortion rights, which puts him in the company of many tea partiers. But because Christie himself isn’t a tea partier, and had the temerity to be seen in the friendly company of President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, he appears pragmatic in comparison.

The civil war that’s engulfed the Republican Party is a headache for Republicans focused on the 2016 presidential contest.

The Democratic Party, by contrast, has been the very model of civility. Establishment Democrats have dominated ever since Bill Clinton “triangulated” and moved the party rightward.

Meanwhile, progressive Democrats and organized labor — those who the late Paul Wellstone described as the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — have been remarkably tractable. Although they forced Obama to pull the nomination of Larry Summers, they’ve been all but ignored on the big stuff having to do with widening inequality.

When progressives wanted Wall Street banks to reduce the mortgages of underwater homeowners as a condition for getting bailed out, the White House and most congressional Democrats turned a deaf ear.

Progressives also got nowhere trying to end the Bush tax cuts (even if that meant going over the “fiscal cliff”); seeking a “public option” for health insurance, an Employee Free Choice Act that would make it easier to form unions, and a resurrected Glass-Steagall Act as part of financial regulation; and objecting to the president’s proposed “chain-weighted CPI” for Social Security and cuts in Medicare.

Yet progressives in the Democratic Party took their lumps without declaring civil war.

If the president and congressional Democrats had done more to reverse the scourge of widening inequality, de Blasio would seem more mainstream, and his proposal to raise taxes on the rich to finance better schools would be understood as another practical response to the overriding challenge of our time.

Had the tea party not declared war on the establishment GOP, Christie would be seen as a right-winger, and his opposition to raising the minimum wage as well as to abortion and gay marriage would be understood as ideological.

The biggest irony of the last three decades is that the football field of American politics has tilted to the right just as most Americans have been losing ground. The ideologues continue to move rightward. The true pragmatists are trying to level the playing field.

Robert Reich, a former U.S. labor secretary, is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

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