Are the Economic Policies of the Democratic Party Immoral?


The current intensification of social and political hierarchies is fueled by a Republican ideology which celebrates the hoarding of resources by a few, and worships inequality as the 11th Commandment. Proposals such as taking food away from the elderly or health care from the sickest have faced charges not merely of injustice but of outright immorality.

But what about the Democrats? As a party, they offer programs and policies that make some peoples’ lives better in the short run. But at the same time they are unwilling to eradicate the economic structures which trap people into needing those programs in the first place. Democrats are proficient at hurling charges of immorality at Republicans; but should they face the same charges for their own (in)actions?

The latest Democratic promises are being sold under the slogan ‘A Better Deal.’ The Democratic Party is now explicit that its standards for a just society are highly relativistic. The deal doesn’t aim to bring about actual social or economic equality; its objective is just to be better than the other guys. This seems like a very low bar. The slogan speaks the language of a brighter future while simultaneously dimming any expectations for what that future will be.

“A Better Deal” points in two directions. It is an ostensibly sympathetic attempt to improve the lives of the most needy; while it ignores, and therefore reinforces, existing structures of inequality. There is no singular metaphysical principle which can judge the (im)morality of these combined actions. We’ll need a different way of approaching the question.

Consider the following analogy:

Imagine there exists a huge mansion which, despite its already enormous size, continues to grow exponentially. Dozens of rooms are added even as you watch; a steady stream of Italian hand-chiseled marble, enough wood to destroy a small forest, and gleaming golden toilets as far as the eye can see.

Surprisingly, there are only a few people partying in a handful of the mansion’s endless rooms. The vast majority of the building remains unused, even as it continuously doubles in size. Standing next to one of the many overly-laden tables in the lavish banquet hall are Republicans and Democrats; both on their phones talking to the same brokerage houses, all focused on increasing the same investment portfolios.

Down three flights of stairs, crammed into a small sub-basement room behind a well-bolted steel door, are all the rest of us. Those who work hard but receive the least. There is no way of leaving the basement other than through the steel door, and we spend most of our time blaming each other for our inability to break out.

The Republicans are certainly aware that we are down there. But they are the ones who pressed for the original basement excavation and the newly installed locks on the thickened steel door. They see nothing wrong with the situation and lack any ameliorative impulse.  

Eventually, one of the Democrats – we’ll call her Demos – looks sadly at the door leading to the basement, experiencing a fleeting moment of guilt. Demos moves to the door, walking down the many stairs carrying a plate of her meager leftovers. Approaching the sub-basement, she loudly announces her arrival, proclaiming that food crumbs are now being shoved under the door. When someone cries out to her to open the door she glances quickly at the lock, and continues to feed the narrow slit between door and floor. Completing her task, Demos turns away, exclaiming over her shoulder “remember, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t even have crumbs!” She runs back up the stairs, convinced she is a far superior person to those still attending the party she is so very eager to rejoin.

There are a number of factors involved in Demos’ actions. There is the overall upstairs/downstairs division, there is the refusal to break the lock, and there is the thrusting of food under the door. As strongly as some might believe that the immorality of the locked door is obvious – and thus Demos’ inactions are clearly immoral – it is difficult to apply a singular metaphysical certainty to her mixed responses. We want, instead, to stay within Demos’ own thought processes.

Demos demonstrates that the partitioning of people is wrong –
to her – when she carries her crumb-laden plate down the stairs in an attempt to ameliorate the situation. This “wrongness” does not necessarily bring with it a moral judgment on her part. Demos might feel that locking people in the basement is unjust, but does not rise to the level of immorality.

Demos pushes food under the door because she believes that the peoples’ deprivation is, at the very least, unfair. But when she is called upon to destroy the lock, she turns away from the door, and her convictions. This is where the question of immorality arises.

The Democrats do not deserve condemnation because they refuse to see our current economic and social inequality as necessitating an urgent moral response. Their failure lies in the contradictions between their belief in the wrongness– call it unfairness, call it an injustice – of our economic hierarchy, and their unwillingness to substantially transform it.

‘To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.’
Protest by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Claims of moral “truths” are inherently subjective assessments. But one doesn’t need an external “truth” to question the morality of the Democrats. Their potential immorality is internal; it occurs the moment Demos refuses to alter the inequalities she regards as wrong.

Demos surmises that the situation is unfair, has the ability to fight it, but chooses perpetuation instead. Shoving food over the threshold, calling it “a better deal,” becomes the alternative to smashing down the door and freeing those trapped in the basement.

Republicans are convinced they are on a divine mission to expose an underbelly of “unworthies.” Their possible immorality is tied directly to the construction and advancement of inequalities. Democrats aim at ameliorating the effects of what they perceive to be Republican immorality; but they refuse to address the underlying causes.

For the trapped, there is little difference. We remain behind the bolted door, listening to floating bits of music from a party of Democrats and Republicans we will never be allowed to attend.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

An Apthorp Story

When your childhood home becomes an object of desire for the wealthy

Ozier Muhammad/New York Times

Years ago, my family fled the hinterlands of New Jersey and rediscovered civilization on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We lived in the Apthorp, an architecturally grand building which, at that time, had suffered from years of neglect – most visible in its soot-streaked façade and the accumulated layers of paint which cloaked its interior wood surfaces. But rents were very reasonable and my mother, who worked as a legal secretary, was able to afford an apartment.

The Upper West Side B.R. (Before Reagan) was a welcome escape from the unrelenting homogeneity of the suburbs. The neighborhood was a mixture of economic classes, all sharing the same public spaces and shopping at the same local stores. Weekday mornings I rode the 79th street crosstown bus to school; a route through the affluent apartment buildings of Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, past the Woolworth’s and its second-story pool hall on Broadway, the run-down brownstones of Amsterdam and Columbus, and into wealth once again and the pre-war apartments of Central Park West.

Due to its affordability, the Apthorp was home to a variety of tenants. My mother often told me of conversations she’d had on the elevator with the author Joseph Heller as he was taking his dog out for a walk. My mother was always surprised and delighted by these encounters; for me this crossing of paths came to represent the essence of a “city.”

Decades after moving away from New York City, I was recently again on the crosstown bus, retracing the familiar route to the Apthorp. The dilapidated facades of Columbus and Amsterdam were gone, as were the poorer people who had lived behind them. The pool hall had vanished along with the Woolworth’s. Each street flowed undifferentiated into the next. Neighborhood stores had been replaced by those peddling corporatized symbols of wealth.

The Apthorp had been converted to condominiums in 2008; formerly affordable rental apartments were now multi-million dollar investments. In my memory, the building’s courtyard had always been a place of serenity during weekday afternoons. Parents were still at work; kids not yet back from school. But now, as I stood outside the gate, the courtyard buzzed with a frenetic movement of aides, assistants and various hangers-on.

Severed from its history as an affordable home, the Apthorp had been “born again” as a timeless object of desire for the wealthy. The millions of dollars necessary to live there are on constant display; gleaming marble, walls of wood, and an overall aesthetic of opulence typical of a Las Vegas hotel shopping mall.

The transformation of the Apthorp is an effect of the wealthy deciding where to live based on which neighborhoods best function as signifiers of a lofty economic status. The Upper West Side had once been anathema to the moneyed canyons of the Upper East Side. Back then, the desirability of the Apthorp – its pre-war details, large rooms and high ceilings – was negated by its lack of an appropriate affluence-indicating location. But once the West Side was deemed acceptable by the wealthy, a wave of money flowed across Central Park. The Apthorp was suddenly re-discovered and could assume its current role as an object of admiration and longing.

The Apthorp is now a shiny bauble. You no longer buy a home there; you purchase the envy of others. This is one of the little-discussed effects of gentrification. Great wealth transforms objects which are of utility for many into highly-desirable representations of privilege for the few. The Apthorp is just such a representation; the functionality of living there has mutated from the usefulness of a home, to an ostentatious, and highly restrictive, sign of financial supremacy.

‘An object’s functionality is the very thing that enables it to transcend its main ‘function’…to become…an adjustable item within a universe of signs.’
Jean Baudrillard

As I stood at the gated entrance, peering into the central courtyard, I realized that if I shifted my weight to my left leg, dropped my shoulder and tilted my head, I could partially see the windows of what had been our apartment. How many others, I wondered, had stood here, like ghosts, contorting themselves for a glimpse of something which no longer exists?

The Apthorp – the New York City – I remember, has disappeared. But it endures in the shared stories of what was and what has been lost. In mine, the Apthorp is a bit dirty and dingy. Across the street, people are shopping at the Woolworth’s and playing pool late into the night; and my mother is having an engaging conversation with Joseph Heller while his dog waits patiently for the elevator doors to open.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

Professors in Charge: The Lessons for Progressive Politics

At the heart of the progressive movement is the firm belief that, if given power and a degree of control over others, progressives would never replicate the kinds of social and economic inequalities exalted in by the Right. A large-scale test of that claim has been ongoing in our universities for the last twenty years. The results are an illuminating account of the intransigence of inequality and a disturbing demonstration of what actually happens when you give a small group of highly educated, self-identified progressives power over the lives and well-being of others.

Within academia, one of the supposedly most liberal groups in America – tenured university professors – maintain and enforce a strict hierarchy over part-time, contingent faculty known as adjuncts. This is a form of inequality which has become so normalized in universities that those who perpetuate it truly believe they are the kind of people who would never do such a thing. The workings of this academic hierarchy reveal progressivism’s fundamental misunderstanding of how inequalities are continuously constructed, justified and enforced – even by those who are unwaveringly attached to their own progressives convictions.

For the last few decades, university administrations have been replacing the majority of tenured faculty positions with lowly paid adjuncts. As a result, an economic division emerged within faculties between a small number of well-paid tenured professors and a larger class of poorly-paid, contingent, part-time adjuncts who are not eligible for tenure, have little to no job security, and no opportunity for advancement.

Tenured faculty didn’t create the original division; they were handed an existing financial inequality which they then had the ability to either ameliorate or exacerbate within the boundaries of departmental discretion. What has emerged is a highly stratified, highly rationalized, hierarchy within departments in which adjuncts are viewed as naturally deserving less than tenured faculty and are given virtually no input or consideration in the decisions which directly affect their lives. The continuing rationalization of this hierarchy of individual value and worth undercuts a basic progressive belief that the tendencies to construct and maintain inequalities are mitigated by education, income and liberal self-identification.

‘[The] success [of power] is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.’
Michel Foucault

The rationalization of the faculty class structure is indicative of the cultures of inequality which persist at all social and economic levels. The more a constructed power relation is allowed to morph into normalcy the more insidious the inequalities it generates. The philosopher Michel Foucault claimed that “the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” Without a complete exposure and fracturing of cultures of inequality – wherever they occur – a progressive political movement aiming for large-scale social change runs the risk of ultimately reinforcing inequalities which have become naturalized and rendered invisible.

During the 2016 presidential campaign Senator Bernie Sanders spoke passionately about the role of government in providing free college tuition for all. However, the Senator never denounced the impoverishment and marginalization of adjuncts even though challenging those kinds of constructed social and economic hierarchies formed the basis of much of his campaign. The effect would have been a highly progressive program which validated and reinforced the very kinds of inequalities it was designed to undermine.

An effective progressive politics must aim to expose and deconstruct all cultures of inequality, whatever the economic class or political identification of those who perpetuate them. To allow the rationalization of inequality anywhere is to validate it everywhere.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;