Deficits are killing us

Now that I have your attention, no this is not my slogan. It was/is the slogan of the tea baggers, the Republicans and the corporate far right. And it did play a big role in killing us in the 2010 elections.

"Deficit spending is killing jobs and the economy," they screamed. Let's face it: it worked for the right. It doesn't have to be true. It doesn't have to make economic sense. But it did give millions of people, including working-class people, a simple sloganeered way of understanding the crisis.

It's also true that millions did not buy the deficit argument. Millions of working people, particularly union members who listened to their unions, rejected it. Still, if you not only count those who voted for the deficit hawk candidates, but also those who stayed home, then it's clear that the deficit hawks won the argument.

Some of the arguments oft repeated in the election battles against the "deficits are killing us" line plainly don't work. "The tea baggers are nuts," didn't work with too many who were concerned or confused about the deficit. Three paragraph long explanations of stimulus and Keynesian theory didn't work. Changing the subject and talking about jobs, jobs, jobs didn't work. Citing the work of dozens of award winning economist who valiantly fought the deficit hawk ideas and promoted stimulus didn't work either.

My main point is that the left and progressive forces failed to come up with a convincing narrative to counter the deficit argument. Counter narratives are always hard. For narratives to be useful they can't be too defensive, and they can't be too complicated. And narratives are more than slogans - more like a series of linked slogans that relate, but can all stand on their own: like "deficits are killing us" and "heaping debt on our children" and "just like you have to balance your family budget."

Program is at the heart of a useful narrative. Left and progressive forces have a basic economic program for the crisis. Public works and stimulus to put people back to work. Invest in green energy and production infrastructure. Invest in education and training. Restore the pre-Bush tax rates on the rich. Close corporate tax loopholes on foreign investment and profits and enact a stock transaction and speculation tax. Fight for relief for the unemployed and the poor, with special measures for the communities of color hardest hit by the economic crisis. Stop foreclosures and evictions. Enact the Employee Free Choice Act and labor law reform so workers can raise their living standards and economic growth. These are all elements.

Of course, some are going to look at the current balance of power in Congress and argue that none of this is possible now. Still, like the tea baggers and their corporate sponsors after President Obama's election, we have to fight to popularize our program. We have to fight for a broader united movement, maybe along the lines of the One Nation effort, only broader.

But most of all we have to build grassroots activism around this kind of program. Labor has already signaled this direction in response to the election. African American, Latino, women, youth, seniors, LGBT, peace, green and immigrant rights movements and the unemployed are also responding this way.

It is out of specific struggles on the ground, in communities and work places that a convincing narrative will develop. In particular we have to dig into the immediate impact of the crisis on working-class people. Stuff like unemployed- and union-led demonstrations for implementing President Obama's infrastructure plans for high speed rail and airport modernization - not in general but in our own specific communities - to put people to work.

Critical to this exact moment is that unemployment compensation extension funding will run out in a few weeks for millions. We need a loud and angry narrative and action for continued funding.

It is in struggle that ideas and narratives become the property of millions and a material force for change. We have to start somewhere and we have to start now.

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  • The Teabaggers ignore the fact, that the U.S. isn't even in the top 50 largest deficits as a percentage of the GDP and the fact that the deficit doubled during the Bush Administration. Also, the largest public expenditure is the military and we can't seriously tackle the deficit without cuts in the military.

    Obama's stimulus would have been more effective if it had been larger and had contained fewer of the tax cuts Obama inserted in order to attract Republican votes which, never came. Robert Kuttners new book The Presidency in Peril does a good job of examining that issue.

    Posted by , 11/15/2010 10:25pm (5 years ago)

  • so, how does running a deficit every single year benefit us again? can the communist party usa pay out more than it takes in every year and expect to survive? who pays for this deficit? who says how much we they pay?

    what job program do the progressives have? the desire or statement that they 'have a plan' is NOT a plan.

    how do they intend to create jobs? by wishing it to be so? do they intend to create jobs by seizing factories from evil industrialists?

    in short, my mistaken friends in humanity, communism or socialism are not the ways to do this. don't view the value of your work as something others have a RIGHT to.

    Posted by johnWgalt, 11/12/2010 11:31am (5 years ago)

  • Great article, and Scott's recommendations are spot-on as the Brits say. We need to recognize, though, that to fight for these things we will run into resistance among some, though not all, of the leadership in the Democratic Party. This is why organizing the independent base, with the working class at its center, is so important.
    We do need to discuss further why the "jobs, jobs, jobs" slogan did not produce the results we hoped for. In fact the issue of jobs was captured by the GOP. I think while labor and people like ourselves called for emphasizing the jobs issue, not all the Democratic Party candidates picked up on this in an effective way, i.e. with specific policy proposals that people could relate to and believe in. I live in the tenth Congressional District in Northern Virginia, which is now represented by a reactionary Republican named Frank Wolf. His Democratic opponent, Jeff Barnett, a pretty decent man from what I gather, did NOT stress the jobs issue in his campaign literature and announcements (in his flyers he did not even mention the Democratic Party). As it happens, Northern Virginia has not been hit as hard by unemployment as have other parts of the country, but people are certainly worried about the issue. Pushing the Local Jobs for America bill would not have been a bad idea, but nobody around here did it except Congressman Moran to the east of Wolf's district, who won by his usual landslide.
    Those Democrats who appealed to youth, workers, minorities and other heavily impacted sectors mostly were re-elected. Those who aped the Republicans went down to defeat, including more than half the Blue Dog Coalition in the House. This is partly because the Blue Dogs mostly are found in conservative districts, but also because no effort was made to appeal to those sectors who, if they turn out, will support the Democrats. And turnout was low.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 11/06/2010 10:02pm (5 years ago)

  • In addressing the deficits issue thought and care have to be given to the racist sub theme that too much has been being spent on them and we can't afford it anymore, especially now!

    Posted by Rosalio Munoz, 11/06/2010 12:27pm (5 years ago)

  • @Nathan: if the shoe fits...

    Posted by Smarter-than-a-teabagger, 11/05/2010 3:27pm (5 years ago)

  • You are on time. Next week in Philadelphia activists will gather to discuss how to move forward and echoes of your article are in the call and preparation. In the course of the campaign the attraction to the right was clearly in their oft repeated "deficits are killing" us slogan. It appeals to working class families who can't borrow and often have too much month left over at the end of the money. I also think it resonates without calling on experience to counter it. Clearly that's why over 120,000 Delaware voters voted for Christine O'Donnell. No she didn't win but it was about 40% of the vote. A careful look at how the Tea Party's political appeal was constructed was around the notion that government is spending too much and borrowing too much endangering us, our future and blocking private creation of jobs. This idea stood out this year bringing denials from spokesmen that other traditional wedge issues were on their agenda as well. I do believe that it's possible to develop a narrative that's both popular and adequate to the task.

    Posted by Beth Edelman, 11/04/2010 5:45pm (5 years ago)

  • Mr. Marshall, when you begin your article with slurs, it makes it seem doubtful that you're about to offer anything reasonable. When you speak like a bigot people will be less likely to consider your points.

    Posted by Nathan, 11/04/2010 5:43pm (5 years ago)

  • This is a bullseye Scotty,urging more and more real unity on bread and butter issues,but it seems both Citizens v Federal Trade and Holder v Humanitarian Law Project and other right and "center" threats to workers'voting and human rights have to be covered analyzing this election and national and international working class issues,including international solidarity.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 11/04/2010 4:53pm (5 years ago)

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