Democrats Are Finally Waking Up

Democrats Are Finally Waking Up

Two new economic agendas are moving the party in a starkly populist direction.


Congressional Democrats rolled out an economic agenda for the 2018 elections this week, and despite its bland title, “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future,” the agenda reflects the growing strength and influence of the populist movement inside the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, Our Revolution, the group that grew out of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, along with the National Nurses Union, Fight for 15, People’s Action, and others launched the “Summer for Progress,” an activist push to get at least half of the Democratic House caucus to endorse the “People’s Platform,” another stab at an economic agenda for Democrats. The contrast between the two documents reveals the both the scope and the limits of the new Democratic consensus.

Both documents assume that resistance is not enough. “Democrats have failed to articulate a strong, bold economic program…. We also failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people, not the special interests. We will not repeat the same mistake,” said the “Better Deal” agenda from Democratic Congressional leadership. The groups pushing the “Summer for Progress” agreed: Democrats “must lay out a bold vision for how we create a country that works for everyone—not just the very wealthy.”

Both the People’s Platform and the Better Deal agenda are designed to offer a small number of bold, clear reforms to put before voters. The Better Deal agenda is focused on the economy; the People’s Platform includes broader issues. Neither is intended to be a comprehensive platform. Foreign-policy and national-security issues are excluded, as are most social issues.

Both documents are framed in the populist language and analysis championed by Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren. “Too many families,” the leadership document argued, believe “the rules of the economy are rigged against them” by “special interests lobbyists and large corporations.”

A background polling memo by Hart Research for the “Better Deal” illustrates how popular this analysis is. It found that “fully 79 percent of voters in Senate battleground states agree that ‘the rules of the economy today are rigged against average Americans, and America’s working families need a better deal.’”

The leadership document’s milquetoast framing could use some work before the midterms. Compared to the destructive, madcap chaos of the Trump White House and a Republican Congress intent on stripping health insurance from millions of people to pay for tax breaks for millionaires, promising simply a “better deal” is clearing a very low bar.

But the substance of the “Better Deal” is better than its framing. Its centerpiece jobs program features public investment of $1 trillion in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. It also pledges to lift the floor under workers by embracing the movement for a $15 hourly minimum wage and phasing out the special minimum wage for workers who collect tips, which has shamefully been mired at $2.13 since 1991. Bernie Sanders made both of these issues central to his 2016 platform.

The “Better Deal” agenda also calls for requiring large employers to provide paid family and sick leave. It reaffirms the standard commitment to defend Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—which is no small matter in these days of Republican rule, and on the heels of a Democratic president who repeatedly proposed cutting Social Security benefits. The “Better Deal” also promises to make college more affordable, though is vague on the details.

The document’s most striking and laudable item is a new initiative to revive antitrust enforcement and break up monopolies: a “21st century trust buster” that would challenge market concentration in areas that hit consumers the most, including food, cable fees, beer, airline tickets, and eyeglasses.

Another key proposal would curb the “outrageous price gouging” of prescription-drug companies, in part by finally empowering Medicare to negotiate bulk discounts on drug prices.

But not everything in the “Better Deal” is wonderful. It spends a lot of time talking about providing workers with the “tools they need” to succeed by giving employers—who are already swimming in record profits—a new tax break to train workers and hiring them at a “good wage.” The embrace of this “charade” is clearly a nod to the still potent New Democrat forces in the party, and contradicts the general thrust of the “Better Deal” platform. It reflects the New Democrats’ unfortunate tendency to assume that globalization is an act of nature rather than a matter of policy and power. This leads too often to blaming workers for not getting the education or skills they need rather than focusing on changing the rules that rig the game against them.

Many popular progressive policies that are not in the “Better Deal” can be found in the “People’s Platform”—like Medicare for all, tuition-free public college for those with family incomes under $125,000 a year, and a financial speculation tax to help pay for it.

One helpful feature of the People’s Platform is that the proposals are attached to a real piece of legislation that has already been introduced, or will be soon. The College for All Act would implement the document’s tuition idea, and the Tax on Wall Street Act outlines the financial-speculation tax.

The People’s Platform includes other reforms that are outside the boundaries of the leadership’s document, including automatic voter registration, elimination of private prisons (Justice is Not for Sale Act), and protection of equal access to abortion in public and private health insurance (the Each Woman Act).

The People’s Platform lacks the “Better Deal”’s initiative on monopoly and antitrust, however. Many of its authors would have surely supported it, but it didn’t make it into the document.

Neither agenda is intended to be comprehensive, but what is omitted is still worth noting. Despite Trump’s ostensible focus on our failed trade policy, neither document includes a clear initiative on fair and balanced trade. The Better Deal authors pledge to address trade and to initiate a crackdown on corporate outsourcing sometime in the future, but that’s about it.

Neither document makes a commitment to full employment with government as the employer of last resort. Democrats increasingly support extension of paid overtime, a crackdown on wage theft and dehumanizing scheduling, but neither document discusses them.

What should be the centerpiece of any progressive economic or political agenda—unions and empowering workers to bargain collectively—is nowhere to be seen in either document. Also omitted is the need to take on plunder by wealthy CEOs by curbing the executive-compensation schemes that are a primary contributor to our massive inequality. The private-debt overhang that impedes growth gets no discussion. Progressive tax reform beyond the financial transaction tax is also absent from both documents.

Pelosi and Schumer hope they have produced a clear agenda that Democratic candidates will champion in the 2018 elections, emulating the infamous “Contract with America” that Newt Gingrich peddled when Republicans took the House in 1994. The movement behind the People’s Platform has launched a mass petition and mobilization seeking to gain the endorsement of a majority of House Democrats.

The contrast between the two documents provides some insight into the fault lines within the Democratic Party. Lifting the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024 is increasingly a consensus position, as is a massive public infrastructure program. “Medicare for all,” tuition-free public college, and the financial-transaction tax are still contested. The leadership’s focus on antitrust and breaking up concentrated economic power is new but has a good chance of becoming a shared position. Sadly, the importance of empowering workers and rebuilding unions and collective bargaining remain on the cutting room floors.

Were Democrats to gain majorities that could fulfill the pledges in either of these documents—and have the temerity to overcome the entrenched interests lined up against them—most Americans would in fact get a far “better deal” than what they will get from Trump and the Republican Congress.

Democrats are moving to address the populist temper of this time. The popular mobilization behind the People’s Platform may yet push Democrats to add “Medicare for all” and tuition-free public college to the broad party’s agenda. The activist base will surely happily embrace the Better Deal’s focus on concentrated economic power and antitrust. The chattering classes fret about Democrats and their “circular firing squads,” but this is a debate that is helping to make Democrats bolder and clearer about where they stand.

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