When there's no cost to them, Olympia's liberals stand strong

On gay marriage and other social issues, they are all in. And that's good. But what about paying for education, social services, investing in our future? Leave that to ... Bill Gates Sr.

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Gov. Chris Gregoire at a Langley rally during the 2008 campaign, when political winds were blowing in favor of Democrats.

On gay marriage and other social issues, they are all in. And that's good. But what about paying for education, social services, investing in our future? Leave that to ... Bill Gates Sr.

In their ground-breaking 2010 book Winner Take All Politics, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson tell the story of the politics and policies of the 30-year period from 1977 to 2007 that led to vast income inequality between the rich and everyone else. Last fall the Occupy movement popularized that story, wrapping it in their 99 percent and 1 percent narrative.

But a little-noted subplot of Winner Take All Politics  concerned the way political liberalism and liberals in America shifted, during these same years, to an agenda of “post-material issues.”

During the 30-year period when America morphed, in Hacker and Pierson’s terms, from “Broadistan” to “Richistan,” liberals shifted their focus from traditional bread-and-butter issues of labor, the working class, and wages to what Hacker and Pierson see as the post-material agenda. That agenda has been focused on things like environmental issues, gender equality, multicultural awareness, and gay rights. Nothing wrong with these concerns, but they don’t have much direct effect on growing jeopardy of the working and middle classes.

The many advocacy groups that proliferated in this era, comment Hacker and Pierson, “Almost never focused their attention on the economic issues that most powerfully affected the working and middle classes. The result was a boon for the post-materialist causes of the more affluent liberals, but it left traditional material causes with only a handful of energetic backers.”

I recalled Hacker and Pierson’s observations during this current legislative session in which non-material issues have captured our attention, despite the fact that material issues are very real and at least equally, if not more, urgent. The proverbial visitor from outer space could be forgiven for not suspecting that the Washington has made draconian cuts to the state’s budget.

Marriage equality for gays and lesbians has dominated the headlines. This is a significant issue and marriage equality is an important step. Not as significant but also worthy issues making the news out of Olympia: a coming referendum on the legalization of marajuana; death penalty legislation; and bills to outlaw plastic shopping bags.

The front page of the Feb. 2 Seattle Times provided an illustration. Five columns, the front page photo, and the banner headline were devoted to “Historic vote clears way for same-sex marriage.” The remaining 1/6th of the above-the-fold page featured a story about the decline of institutions of higher education in Washington, “University presidents lament cuts, brain drain.”

The story notes that in the past four years funding for state universities has been cut by 50 pecent. In my book, that’s a shocking statistic.

And here’s another shocking statistic. Last year state universities turned away 27,000 students who qualified for financial aid. This year that number is estimated to be 35,000.

“Washington is now known as a place to go headhunting” for out-of-state universities hiring new faculty, said Western Washington University President Bruce Shephard.

So we can look forward to a referendum on marajuana legalization and monitor bills to outlaw plastic shopping bags, while the state budget, and higher education, can expect further cuts from the Legislature and K- 12 education can expect no relief despite a court decision against the state for insufficient funding.

This seems a pretty fair illustration of Hacker and Pierson’s contention of the shift to a post-material agenda. We’re “can-do” on some things--post-material things — but we’re “cannot do” on those that have anything to do with money, taxes, or funding of our most important social institutions. Why is that?

I supppose for many the answer would be, “Duh, there’s a recession.” True enough. At the same time, the war on taxation and thus on public institutions like K-12 and higher education has been going on for far longer than this recession.

I can think of a handful of reasons for this “can-do,” “can’t-do” split.

One, we’ve become sentimental. We’re all for equal rights, equity, and progressivism just so long as it doesn’t actually cost us anything. Where I come from we used to call the folks that fit this profile “limousine liberals.” Another way to put this, is that the various bills and referenda emerging from Olympia this year don’t cost people of privilege anything. They can say, “here, here!” without feeling it in their pocketbook.

Second, it is a matter of leadership. Gov. Chris Gregoire came out strongly for marriage equality. Great. She came out only tepidly for a small sales tax increase. I don’t recall many elected or unelected leaders who went to the barricades two years ago on behalf of the effort to create an income tax for the wealthiest Washingtonians, except maybe Bill Gates Sr. We prefer our liberalism without a price tag.

Third, these days we don’t seem much disposed to “pay it forward,” or to invest in the future. The Broadistan generation, 1947 to 1977, was all about investing in public institutions like schools and universities and public infrastructure, like bridges and transportation, to build for the next and future generations. Today, that kind of capacity for sacrifice and long-term thinking on behalf of future generations has been lost.

I’m waiting for some political leaders, some liberal leaders in particular, in Washington to stand up and say, “At least sometimes, our liberal convictions ought to cost us something."


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.