Neoliberalism, the broad set of ideas positing the market and market-centered values as the ultimate “civilizing” agent at home and abroad, has now structured our society for forty years. Ever since it began its gradual ascendance in 1973, we have experienced a marked increase in income inequality, witnessed the slow death of the labor union movement, and keenly felt a growing sense of anxiety. The task of the American Left has never been simpler and clearer—it’s to reconstitute the very idea of the public, in the hope that this reconstitution will generate a large-scale movement against neoliberalism.
As they seek to put flesh on the bones of this anti-neoliberal project, some point to the worsening of economic inequalities following Obama’s election (and re-election) in arguing we should turn away from identity politics and back to class politics, this time with a spiritually informed base.
I disagree. Race plays a prominent role in two aspects of the neoliberal turn—the rollback of progressive taxes and the rollback of welfare. We do need a more spiritually informed politics, but given how important the local terrain is in our political struggle, we need to understand the way “identity” and “class” politics come together.
Neoliberal Attacks on Taxes and Welfare
The modern anti-tax movement began in California in 1978 with the passage of Prop 13. The proposition capped property taxes and made it impossible to pass tax increases in the state legislature without the support of a supermajority of state legislators. Prop 13 significantly reduced the revenue local governments need to provide public services and to educate public school students from kindergarten to graduate school. Two scholars, David Sears and Jack Citrin, studied the Prop 13 vote. In Tax Revolt: Something for Nothing in California, they report that the best predictors of support were neither class-based, nor party-based, nor even ideologically based. The best predictor was racial attitudes. The more “racially resentful” an individual was, the more likely he or she was to vote for Prop 13.
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