The billionaires may be trying to hijack the presidential election, but they have failed to stifle the creative ambitions of progressive leaders. Amid the toxic fumes of big-money politics, the people Paul Wellstone once identified as the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” are pursuing an audacious goal with characteristic optimism: to re-elect Barack Obama, then reset his priorities.
The challenge is forbidding and doubtless sounds naïve to establishment politicians. But the risks of failure are huge. Faced with the growing fear that Obama will pursue a “grand bargain” with conservatives after the election, further compromising core principles, leading liberal-labor forces are toughening up their tactics. They see the prospect of re-election as a great opportunity to coax or push the president toward the fundamental economic reforms he ducked in his first term— a source of great disappointment on the left.
Cynics may sneer at part of the strategy for renewal, but it’s a novel approach, and I think it may represent a meaningful turn in the road. Instead of bombing voters with hyped-up TV messages, progressive leaders are going for big ideas. They are rolling out a meaty agenda of economic reforms, giving voters a firm grasp of the issues that affect their lives and charting a path toward a prosperous, more secure future. The ultimate goal is long-term and larger than Obama: reviving small-d democracy and rebuilding the left by helping ordinary people regain their power as citizens. Is that still possible in our dysfunctional system? We are going to find out.
Organizers say Americans are hungry for liberal alternatives to the austerity agenda. People everywhere are tired of manipulative rhetoric. They want to hear serious proposals for how to restore prosperity and an equitable society. Trouble is, neither the president nor the Democratic Party much wants to talk about solutions that sound suspiciously liberal. Mitt Romney is mocked for not having a coherent plan for economic recovery, but Obama doesn’t have much of one either. “Fairness” is not a governing strategy. Frequent factory visits are not going to bring back manufacturing jobs.
So a cluster of progressive organizations, notably including the AFL-CIO, decided to launch a more meaningful conversation. To that end, they encouraged Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, co-author of Winner-Take-All Politics, to produce a comprehensive blueprint that, they hope, will stimulate broader discussion and mobilize working people to advocate for their interests. The seminal document, titled “Prosperity Economics: Building an Economy for All” and written with Nate Loewentheil, was released on July 31. It was simultaneously endorsed by the labor federation’s executive council, the Service Employees International Union, the Center for Community Change, the Economic Policy Institute, the National Council of La Raza, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Strong on clarity and free of rhetorical excess, the paper dismantles the key myths of austerity economics and lays out an alternative agenda based on what Hacker calls “the three pillars of shared prosperity”: growth, security and democracy. “Prosperity doesn’t just ‘trickle down’ from the top,” Hacker writes in the introduction. “It depends on the common investments and sources of security we agree on as members of a democracy, on institutions—especially unions—that ensure that gains are broadly shared, and on a healthy democracy that can sustain sound economic policies and prevent today’s economic winners from undermining the openness and dynamism of the economy.”
The sixty-page text includes an impressive compendium of policy proposals covering everything from job creation to trade law to “environmental security,” a concept that demolishes the anti-environmentalism of know-nothing Republicans. Reforming democracy, Hacker argues, requires restoring labor rights for workers and taking down the Senate filibuster. A section on regulatory reform identifies the true goal: freeing our government from “industry capture.” If these recommendations are put into action, Hacker concludes, they “will set us on a virtuous cycle of public investment, rising productivity and wages, a stronger and more secure middle class, increased aggregate demand, and in turn sustained growth.”
As he develops his argument, Hacker lays out the principal steps for restoring progressive taxation, re-regulating the financial system and breaking up the mega-banks. He does not pause to note that the Democratic Party has been deeply complicit in these scandals. But his report could be read as a “shadow platform” for a party that has drifted rightward and lost its way.
“This campaign is basically the choice between austerity—more pain for working people—or an economy of growth and jobs and prosperity,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka explains. “Our president is campaigning for that future. Professor Hacker’s agenda spells out how to get there—the ideas and actions that deliver what people want and need in their lives.”
The paper can also be seen as an early warning shot aimed at wobbly Democrats (including the president), who may be considering a bipartisan compromise in the lame-duck session that would eviscerate programs like Social Security and Medicare, protect business and the wealthy from higher taxes, and deepen the injuries for working people.
“Our agenda is about governing solutions that work, that can heal our wounded country,” Trumka adds. “The conservative corporate machine will oppose nearly everything we propose. But we know from polls that people are overwhelmingly for these propositions—typically with 75 to 90 percent support.” By arming people with the truth about debt reduction and who gets hurt, Trumka thinks, Hacker’s blueprint should have an immediate impact on postelection decisions.
Deepak Bhargava, the veteran organizer who is executive director of the Center for Community Change, nourishes a more distant ambition. “In my view, the only thing that’s going to save us is a mass movement with a different vision,” Bhargava says. “The Hacker paper will be critical in the raw material we use in teaching and organizing involvement by people. What we need is an independent economic justice movement that is unafraid to challenge members of either party on these core principles.”
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As the election season heats up, organized labor and allied groups are trying to walk a delicate line. On the one hand, they intend to push these comprehensive reform proposals aggressively on Congress and the White House, no matter who wins in November. On the other hand, they are committed to Obama’s re-election and anxious to avoid making problems for him. After the election, however, all bets are off. Liberals and labor will be ready to play hardball. Or so they say.
Progressive leaders think they have figured out how to get the president’s attention and compel him to take their agenda seriously. The familiar pattern in Obama’s first term was serial disappointment and occasional anger. The cautious president kept his distance on major decisions while vaguely expressing sympathy with liberal aspirations. He seemed more worried about upsetting independents in the ambivalent middle. He worked especially hard at courting corporate and financial titans.
Looking back, many liberal activists realize they were much too deferential when the White House seemed to take them for granted. Because the GOP was savaging and slandering Obama, trying to block everything he proposed, faithful supporters were reluctant to add to his grief. But they have belatedly concluded that Obama, like most politicians, sometimes needs a poke in the chest from his friends.
The pattern of Obama’s encounters with frustrated supporters suggests what succeeds is a smartly focused strategy of tactical pressuring—a willingness to get in his face, up the ante with direct action, and withhold affection until you get a meaningful response. The president and White House staffers insisted that impatient agitators would only hurt their cause, since Obama had already declared his sympathy for their goals. Overzealous pressure campaigns would make it harder for him to act.
Obama’s track record indicates the opposite: he doesn’t like to be pushed, and he resents it especially when the pressure comes from allies. But if they keep the heat on, he is more likely to address their grievances. On at least four notable issues of great concern to Democratic constituencies—immigration reform, gays in the military, the Keystone pipeline and same-sex marriage—the pattern of sustained pressure and protest aimed at the president led him to “evolve” in his views. Instead of offering mere rhetoric, he responded concretely to their demands.
Two years ago, immigration advocates lost patience with the administration’s aggressive approach to deportation and its foot-dragging on the DREAM Act. They escalated the terms of their complaints in harsh and highly visible ways and started marching en masse. Bhargava, a leading organizer of the pro-immigration forces, told the president face-to-face at a White House meeting that the administration was presiding over a “moral catastrophe.” The president rebuked Bhargava for exaggeration and ingratitude and became “pissy” with immigration advocates in other meetings.
In June, nonetheless, Obama announced a great victory for immigrants’ rights. At the president’s command, the Department of Homeland Security stopped deporting DREAM Act–eligible young people—as many as 1.5 million—and arranged to provide work permits for them. This was a very big deal: the largest legalization of undocumented immigrants since Ronald Reagan’s sweeping amnesty in 1986. Certainly the approaching election had something to do with Obama’s change of heart. (That is what elections are for.) But it was the advocates’ persistence that persuaded the nervous White House to go for it. As the Obama team discovered, good policy can also be good politics.
Similar tactics produced similar victories—or at least forward motion—on the other issues. Liberal-labor forces intend to adapt these lessons as they push for the fundamental reforms enumerated in the Hacker blueprint. They recognize that they cannot easily emulate the model unless they go to work at the grassroots, building a popular base of citizens who are mobilized to demand action. Right now, the economic reformers lack the level of sophistication and solidarity that helped deliver results for gays, Latinos and environmentalists in recent years. Americans do not need to be told about their pain and insecurity. They need to learn how to do something about it.
This is what Bhargava means when he talks about creating a mass movement for economic justice. Building serious power over economic issues will be very difficult. But there are dynamic organizing projects devoting time and resources to help lay the groundwork. Some are joint ventures between labor unions and community groups that have active memberships at the local level but are not so well connected to broader political strategies.
Despite the obstacles, the long-term outlook is quite promising for a sea change that could bring the issues in Hacker’s paper to the fore. Unless the economy miraculously recovers its former vigor, what Hacker calls the “hollow promises” of the austerity agenda will be exposed. It may take one or two election cycles to make the point clear, but voters are going to become increasingly impatient for effective action. The government will be compelled by events to intrude more deeply into the private sector—that is, to turn leftward—in an effort to relieve the growing pain and social unrest.
Demographic changes should further empower advocates of liberal economic reform. The nation is approaching a generational shift in electoral politics, as newly assimilated immigrants and minority populations grow in numbers and self-confidence. A similar shift in the 1920s helped energize the New Deal. The maturing immigrant ranks then were Irish, Italian and Polish. Today they are Latino, Asian and African. Sooner or later, these groups will assert their self-interest and make their rightful claim to power.
Republicans, hostile to immigrants and racial minorities, are on the wrong side of both historic trends. If the GOP does not change its social values and ideology, it may find itself reduced to permanent minority status, much like what has already happened to the Republican Party in California.
The Democratic Party holds the high ground on this beckoning frontier, though it doesn’t look that way in the close contest of 2012. The party’s open-armed support for diversity and social tolerance appeals to younger voters weary of small-minded prejudice. And despite cozying up to business in recent decades, the Democrats are basically still the party of working people. That core constituency is regarded as unfashionable in sophisticated circles, but it is sure to gain influence, because the growing ranks of racial minorities and newly arrived immigrants are mostly working-class.
The Democratic Party may not hold on to these advantages, however, if it does not change in big ways. The contradiction for Democrats is obvious: a party that relies so heavily on working-class voters will have to do something more substantial for them eventually. As its sponsors argue, Hacker’s blueprint for “shared prosperity” would be a great place to start.
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But will labor and other mediating organizations actually follow through with the plan? Can they establish enough distance from the Democrats and the White House to advance an effective pressure campaign? Skeptics doubt it. They recall earlier moments of crisis when similar declarations of independence were voiced but nothing much changed. This time is different, and for important reasons I think the results will be different too.
For one thing, the economic crisis has severely altered the political context. The new circumstances are especially adverse for working people, but an adequate response from government has not been forthcoming. As the broad middle class festered in desperation and bitterness in the wake of the crash, Democrats, including the president, were surprisingly restrained. The White House seemed reluctant to advocate aggressive measures that might alienate independents or upset financial interests and other malefactors.
Then Occupy Wall Street came along and blew away Obama’s soft talk. Now, candidate Obama has wisely adapted Occupy’s brilliantly succinct message as his own. He does not have the nerve to invoke “the 99 percent,” but his rhetoric of fairness plays to the same music. Occupy likewise became a wake-up call for labor liberals. When people in the streets began shouting what the left had been too shy to broadcast forcefully, unions got a welcome jolt. Soon enough, they began shouting too.
With any luck, this surge of energy and enthusiasm—and the attendant rejection of 1 percent politics, as embodied by Mitt Romney—will propel Obama to a second term. But some activists are already worried about what will happen if Obama wins. Will he abandon his “inner liberal” again and opt for a grand bargain with Republicans that will do brutal damage to the liberal legacy and long-loyal constituencies?
These enduring suspicions reveal the fraught nature of the marriage between organized labor and the Democratic Party. Unless the party renews its vows and honors them, this marriage may be headed for a trial separation.
For more than three decades, the union movement has faithfully turned out labor votes and raised many millions to finance Democratic campaigns. But as its membership shrank, it gradually became weaker and more dependent on the Democratic Party. Union membership was decimated by globalized production and the business campaign to destroy workers’ rights. But the Democrats became less reliable as the defenders of labor at precisely the moment labor really needed them.
Dissident union leaders and rank-and-file workers repeatedly complained that labor was getting the worse end of the bargain. Unions should put aside party loyalty, they argued, and free themselves to pursue more combative and radical strategies in both politics and the workplace. Labor leaders mostly resisted the demands—partly out of inertia, but also because they understood how vulnerable union members would be if they lost their political allies.
This dilemma has finally reached the breaking point: labor and its liberal allies must chart a new course or face extinction. Given their weakened condition, it is especially difficult to imagine a reinvigorated labor movement or a more independent approach to politics. But the status quo looks like a loser for sure.
A different strategy might start with people on the ground who have no voice at all, represented by neither unions nor politicians. In order to launch a mass movement for economic justice, organized labor would have to relearn some of the things it used to know, including how to wage a campaign to address large economic grievances and speak for working people everywhere.
Jacob Hacker makes the basic point that securing shared prosperity necessarily requires the restoration of democracy. A strategy that gives voice to the people who cannot be heard amid the clamor of big-money politics would not just be about winning elections; it would apply as well to the workplace and financial markets, to corporations and governing institutions. The excluded who need to gain a voice and power might not add up to 99 percent, but they surely represent a majority large enough to change the country.