Sunday, March 14, 2010

Populism: Michael Moore vs. the Tea Party Movement

Watching Capitalism: A Love Story last night has made me think seriously about populism. Michael Moore is often so over the top and ridiculous in his claims and even more in his jusxtaposition of imagery, that I find it hard to take him seriously. However, he does always make an argument, and at the end of the day he's an activist. The effectiveness of his activism is that he is entertaining as well as confrontational. He reaches a lot of people this way and makes his points in a persuasive way. He seems to me to be the only real left-wing force working against the likes of Fox News and right-wing talk radio-- which is no less ridiculous and over the top.

I've been really interested in the Tea Party Movement, particularly from one angle. How is it that this movement has managed to get so many people to advocate for policies that are against their own best interest? How have a group of politicians who are clearly aligned with the interests of big business and Wall Street managed to convince people that attempting to stop the spiraling costs of health care and provide health insurance to all Americans is a form of socialism? That regulating the banks we've purchased with taxpayer money to try to get the bailout money back through regulation is wrong and the stimulous package was unsuccessful and an attempt to cripple the country with debt?

At the end of the day, capitalism and democracy are only compatible if people are virtuous. People have to have a sense of "enough," and not seek profit as their only goal. They have to be committed to the common good and not increase their own wealth on the backs of middle-class people and retired people. The loans made to people who owned their homes and who could actually pay back the loans-- until the hidden terms kicked in and the interest rates doubled and even tripled their payments-- is nothing short of robbery. And the goal of this robbery was to make more money for the lenders.  If banks are motivated by offering a means to wealth for all their customers and are interested in building stable communities, stable businesses and lots of home ownership (the promise of capitalism), then they will behave equitably and ethically. If they do so, everyone will make money. Not a lot of money, but over a lifetime a little money and a property to pass along to the next generation.

The Tea Party believes in capitalism and freedom, and does not make any allowances for the corruptibility of the system because of greed and a disconnect from the common good. They don't see a need for regulation, because regulation diminishes real capitalism. And they believe capitalism is democratic and allows access to all and provides a level playing field (perhaps the most preposterous claim) so that anyone in America can move up and achieve wealth.

Michael Moore thinks that capitalism and democracy are by their nature incompatible. He thinks to have democracy, we need to get rid of capitalism, because capitalism rewards only the wealthy and not the people. If only the 80% of people who possess 15% of the country's wealth would stand up and "vote" against the 20% of people who control 85% of the country's wealth, we could have change-- the kind of change that Obama represented though in many ways has not delivered.

How can he deliver, however, when so many of those 85% are lured by the populism of the Tea Party Movement? How, I wonder, are we going to defeat Michelle Bachmann in my district when she can make hundreds of thousands of dollars in one night by inviting Sarah Palin to speak in Minnesota? And no, I don't think those contributors are the hard-working middle class people of my district. So that's one problem-- wealth begets wealth, and the genie is out of the bottle. The political system is controlled by the wealthy who use fear and corrupted appeals to "freedom" to control the middle class.

The best thing we could probably do to combat our current debt in this country would be to roll back the Reagan tax cuts. Increasing the taxes on the wealthiest 10% in our country by 10% would wipe out billions of dollars of debt in one year. But that genie is also out of the bottle, and it isn't going back in.

Michael Moore's populism is rooted in a deep belief in the goodness of working class and middle class people. He believes they share his values and understand fairness and justice. He believes their aspirations are reasonable and good. The film shows that these beliefs are further rooted-- and confirmed-- by his experience as a Christian, through interviews with Catholic priests and a bishop, and scenes about what his Catholic faith instilled in him. It is perhaps the Christian face of the Tea Party Movement that is most distressing to me.

Michael Moore believes that the working people of our country are our hope, and he believes that if they were given the chance, they'd choose socialism over capitalism. But socialism seems to be the biggest bogeyman in this country-- perhaps even bigger than terrorism. Somehow, it seems, Hitler was a socialist, if you read the Tea Party demonstrators' signs. No majority is going to vote for socialism in America.

The only real hope, I believe, is to work toward a progressive tax system and keep trying to regulate banking and business practices, outlawing the blatantly unfair derivitaves and hedge fund markets and certain types of home loans. And while we're doing that, we had better work even harder toward building real community and a commitment to the common good. Because in the end, only those values will save us.


Anonymous said...

Hi Susan, interesting post. Regarding:

"How is it that this movement has managed to get so many people to advocate for policies that are against their own best interest? How have a group of politicians who are clearly aligned with the interests of big business and Wall Street managed to convince people that attempting to stop the spiraling costs of health care and provide health insurance to all Americans is a form of socialism?"

you may be interested in reading Thomas Franks's "What's the Matter with Kansas?" which tries to answer those very questions. The book is several years old but the analysis hasn't changed. (And my apologies if I'm recommending a book you've already read!)

---Barry V.

Anonymous said...

OBAMA and Bernanke are featured in a movie-- about short selling and hedge funds called "Stock Shock." Even though the movie mostly focuses on Sirius XM stock being naked short sold nearly into bankruptcy (5 cents/share), I liked it because it exposes the dark side of Wall Street and revealed some of their secrets. DVD is everywhere but cheaper at

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan:

Love the blog and couldn't agree more. I've been saying it since I was in college - more than 2 decades ago. It is almost impossible to maintain a "free market" & support a capitalistic market without Darwin's Theory kicking in. Free market and capitalism, without ethical guideline and humane oversight would be like an individual screaming FIRE in the middle of a crowded movie theare. It is inevitable, in a capitalistic environment, that Darwin's Theory of "survial of the fittest" and the American culture of "finishing first" takes over and breeds greed. I'll take it a step further, bring religion into the mix and make the bold statement that in my mind you cannot have a capitalistic market without making "money" an individuals key motivator.

Susan Sink said...

Thanks all for the comments. Barry, I haven't read the book but have heard Frank on NPR. I'm going to read it. Also, I put Stock Shock in my Netflix queue! I love this stuff, and also recommend another anti-capitalist (in this case anti WTO activist film, "The Yes Men."

Anonymous 2--I'm not sure what you mean about religion. It seems to me that Christianity at its best advocates and is full of people who advocate for justice and the public good and simple living. Can't it be possible to profit without huge disparities in wealth, and to have a belief in good, fruitful work that meets needs and contributes to individual and collective wealth?

like you, however, i have been saying the entrance of the middle class into the stock market was a recipe for disaster, personal and collective, since the 1980s... in no time at all, it seems, we turned the whole country, our houses and all, into a slot machine.