Beware the Pied Piper of Progressive Populism
Local NEA agitator Patrick Crowley recently had a piece in the ProJo in which he piggybacks a call for a popular uprising within a book review (The Uprising by David Sirota). I haven’t read the book, but I’m familiar with Sirota’s progressive populist leanings and take them for what they are (ie; I don’t dig the class-warfare aspects, but I’m sympathetic to workers losing jobs overseas to places like China, which engages in all sorts of unfair trade practices). However, while Sirota’s Uprising is a work of non-fiction, I’m not so sure that Crowley’s review can be considered entirely the same, particularly when he tries to marry some of the points made in Sirota’s book to the current political and economic climate here in Rhode Island.
Here’s what I mean. According to Crowley
For more than a decade, the one-party Democratic monopoly in Rhode Island’s General Assembly and weak leadership at the executive level have created a conservative consensus on tax and economic issues — a consensus creating, perhaps deliberately, the economic crisis we now face in the state. A $450 billion deficit doesn’t happen overnight.
Apparently, Rhode Island’s “conservative consensus on tax and economic issues” continues to saddle us with some of the highest tax rates in the country. Yup, that’s right in line with accepted conservative tax policy. (Unless RI unknowingly has been engaging in one of those “new conservatism”‘s we’ve been hearing about). I do agree with Crowley that a $450 billion deficit doesn’t happen overnight: it happens when more is spent on government programs and handouts than is collected in “revenue” (taxes). But those of us familiar with Crowley’s rhetoric know that any sort of broad-based cutting–either in taxes or in spending on most government programs–don’t figure into his plans. This is indicated by what he leaves out of his explanation of an economic populist platform:
Politicians across America, such as [Montana Governor Brian] Schweitzer, or U.S. Senators Sherwood Brow [sic ~ Sherrod Brown] of Ohio, Jon Tester of Montana and Bernie Sanders of Vermont (all of whom Sirota interviews for the book), have learned that economic populism — beating back corporate tax-break give-aways, fighting tax breaks for the wealthy at the expense of popular programs, and demanding that tax cheats pay up — are planks in successful election platforms.
No one likes a tax cheat and I’m not big on corporate welfare myself (though one man’s corporate welfare is another’s economic–or environmental–development), but those are only some of the planks of broad floor that is economic populism. I’m pretty sure that low tax rates across the board–income, sales, property–would be welcomed by most Rhode Island workers. Yet, lower taxes, much less reduced spending, rarely seem to make it into the progressive argument, even when a less onerous tax policy is something that Montana’s Schweitzer, to use one of Crowley’s examples, champions and promotes as a crucial part of making his state successful:
* Montana now has the one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, with more people working at higher wages than any time in history.
* More taxes have been cut for more Montanans than at any other time in history.
* $1.6 million in new funds for economic development committed in Indian country
* Our state’s wages and income are growing 3rd fastest in the United States.
* Montana has one of the top ten fastest growing economies in the nation.
* Montana has the ninth lowest combined state and local tax burden and the eighth best business tax climate in the country.
Unfortunately, Crowley can’t promote tax cuts because those “popular programs” he cites need to be “financed” and, like most progressives, Crowley is ideologically unable to believe that lower tax rates don’t automatically lead to less revenue. Instead, the answer is always to tax the rich, regardless of the fact that higher taxes on anyone contributes to the overall image of RI being a high tax state. I don’t think that Schweitzer’s Montana lowered taxes only after they managed to attract business and workers. Instead, they had a business and worker friendly tax climate in place. Even the small step of holding the line on the state budget is too much for Crowley, who thinks we’ve already been down this path for too long.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island’s leadership seems intent on following the same path it has been on since the Lincoln Almond days. If Rhode Island is going to make progress, the economic populism energizing other parts of America needs to continue to bubble up from the bottom here at home.
Where Crowley sees “the same path”, most of us would say that, finally–with this year’s reduced state budget and holding the line on taxes–the Democrats in the General Assembly are going down a new path. Or at least they’ve stopped in their tracks.
But Crowley and his fellow progressives in the unions and advocacy groups have had a rough year and I suppose that losing one budget battle out of the last 30 or so is a major shock to the system when you’ve come to view increased spending on your favorite programs as a birthright. In reaction, according to Crowley, he and his progressive populists are channeling their inner Alinsky and taking it to the streets.
Sirota repeatedly refers to Alinsky’s admonition to young organizers to “start where the world is, not where [they] want it to be.” It is a cogent reminder for those of us engaged in the uprising here in Rhode Island, and I believe it truly is an uprising. Teachers are organizing against the economic chaos of our state’s refusal to enact a funding formula while passing the tax cap Paiva-Weed bill. Such non-traditional labor organizations as Jobs with Justice and Fuerza Laboral are linking with such community groups as DARE, and Immigrants United to engage in direct-action events.
Funny thing is, to most of us, “where the world is” in Rhode Island is a heavily taxed state with too much money going into government. This exacerbates the business unfriendly image of RI. Crowley’s idea of an uprising, which includes calls for higher taxes on “the rich” and businesses for the sake of expanding government programs, is neither revolutionary nor different from what has been business as usual in Rhode Island for the past several years. And if the current Democratic leadership is so bad, why not promote the good-government/clean elections reform of doing away with the straight-party vote option?
Make no mistake, Crowley’s goal is to re-brand boilerplate union- and community organizational tactics by calling it something else. (Sounds like someone has been reading their George Lakoff). Crowley’s program is in the tradition of Saul Alinsky-style community organization, which urges the organizer to let people know just how bad they have it and then direct them to take action against those whom the organizer says is to blame. Cleverly, Crowley is trying to co-opt the anger and disgust felt by the average Rhode Islander towards our state government into his progressive brand of economic populism, heavy on the class-envy, hold the tax- and spending cuts please.
This is not to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons for a push back against real economic injustice. Our politicians have implemented policies and programs that have done well by the unions and advocacy groups and it is this undisciplined fiscal behavior that is the real economic injustice being perpetrated against tax-paying Rhode Islanders. It would be a shame if Rhode Islanders mistook Crowley’s call to action as anything other than what it really is: an attempt to maintain the failed tax and spend policies that led Rhode Island down this path of fiscal ruin in the first place. Rhode Islanders should heed the spirit of Crowley’s call, but vote according to their own, not Crowley’s, self-interest.