Democrats Need to Start Talking About Class

Democrats Need to Start Talking About Class

Democrats Need to Start Talking About Class

With midterms on the horizon, Republicans are making cynical appeals to working Americans. We can’t afford to cede the territory.

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After a year and a half of doomsaying about Democratic prospects for the 2022 midterms, a certain anticipatory hush has come over the sanctums of the center left. The Biden White House has reeled off an impressive and mostly unexpected run of major policy wins—from the passage of the landmark climate change package in the Inflation Reduction Act to a substantive and far-reaching student-debt-relief program. Unemployment is low, inflation is subsiding, and Biden’s approval rating is ticking steadily upward. The fallout from the Supreme Court’s disastrous Dobbs ruling also seems likely to elevate Democratic turnout, particularly among the coveted swing constituency of white suburban women. Meanwhile, Trumpian conspiracy-mongering over bogus election fraud—together with Trump’s latest venal forays into sedition—already appears to be dampening GOP primary turnout and right-wing confidence alike.

Yet this rare outbreak of serious policy-making in combination with squalid Trumpian corruption doesn’t yet add up to a sharply defined Democratic pitch to the midterm electorate. This was, after all, the heart of Hillary Clinton’s homestretch appeal in the 2016 presidential election—her campaign even adopted the internal slogan “Wonks for the Win” to highlight its own sense of unassailable policy sagesse—and we all remain mired in the horror-movie aftermath of those miscues.

The elements of a more potent campaign theme for the midterms are nonetheless hiding in plain sight. Consider a recent news item that starkly clarifies the ultimate stakes of the midterm balloting for ordinary working Americans. Politico reporter Eleanor Mueller noted that a lead item on the GOP congressional caucus’s to-do list—should the party win back the majority—is to aggressively target the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor for legislative hearings and oversight proceedings. The straightforward agenda is to roll back gains in union power and beat back organizing drives in the service sector for the benefit of the GOP’s reactionary donor class.

Virginia Foxx, the hard-right ranking GOP member of the house Education and Labor Committee, told Politico that she plans to maneuver herself into the committee chair via a term-limits waiver, and then unleash the hounds: “I’ve joked with my colleagues that we will probably be holding two oversight hearings a day,” Foxx said, citing as examples of purported conflicts of interest in the federal labor bureaucracy, and examinations of how its officials have intervened in labor disputes. Already, Foxx says, committee Republicans have directed 57 letters of inquiry to the executive branch to lay the groundwork for this grab-bag agenda, setting their sights on organized labor.

Beltway speculation has long held that an incoming GOP majority would be obsessed with oversight, dedicated to base-inciting topics like the misadventures of Hunter Biden’s laptop and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s search of Mar-a-Lago for sensitive classified documents. But ideologically punitive crusades like Foxx’s are the more momentous—if less camera-friendly—side of the GOP’s congressional agenda, as the recent oversight résumés of Representatives Trey Gowdy, Devin Nunes, and Darrell Issa make all too plain. The modern Republican Party has shown a pronounced drive to use its Hill majorities to derail any and all measures from the administrative state that dilute the mandates of oligarchic control of the nation’s political economy. That means it’s up to Democratic strategists to connect the dots—and to mount a robust class-based challenge to Republicans by November.

So far, the party’s grasp of such messaging has been halting, at best. For example, Ohio Democratic Representative Tim Ryan—who’s campaigning as the left populist alternative to hillbilly-for-hire J.D. Vance in the state’s US Senate race—came out in opposition to the Biden student debt plan last week (after initially supporting a version of it). Ryan argued that it failed to grapple with the underlying administrative and tuition costs that have made college education unaffordable to many students. (There is no congressional legislation now in play to enact price controls on higher education; nor does Ryan’s neoliberal policy of choice—a targeted tax cut—do anything all that meaningful on this front.)

A broader structural disorder hampers Democrats’ ability to speak clearly about class—the party’s long-standing reliance on a finance-heavy, New Economy donor base that’s actively hostile to workers’ rights. That’s why, for example, in addition to the many pro-worker advances of the Biden White House, the ultra-regressive Worker Flexibility and Choice Act has enjoyed strong Democratic support—and the cosponsorship of Texas Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar, the nominee handpicked to represent Texas’s 28th Congressional District.

“The Democratic Party as a whole, they need to figure out whose side they’re really on, and commit to that side,” says former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, who campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in the state’s 11th Congressional District. “You know, when you’re double-minded—when you try to please all, you please none.” On the heels of the provisional blow Biden’s White House has struck for student debtors, Turner suggests, the time is ripe for Democrats to go big on the issue of economic inequality. “Since the GOP is using the working class as a pivot point—you know, the truck driver and the farmer—this will be the perfect time to resurrect the $15 minimum wage, and call the bluff of the Republicans.… If they can get off the drug of their owner-donors, the Democratic Party can do so much more materially.”

In a campaign setting, this sort of appeal may extend beyond organizing drives and hours-and-wages accords. “What you want to do is not just talk about your general willingness to fight for workers against their oppressors,” says Jeff Hauser, who heads the executive-branch-oversight group the Revolving Door Project. “I’m not sure that general conceptual language works in American politics when it’s pitted against cynicism. So I think you need to show by doing.” Hauser proposes an administration-wide public-shaming campaign for the most egregious and high-profile offenders. “They shouldn’t be telling the IRS to pick battles, but you can definitely tell the IRS, ‘Let’s go after who owes the most money.’”

Biden and the Democrats can also preemptively fund and publicize the crucial work of the embattled NLRB, which, for all its recent successes, remains grievously overextended—one key reason Foxx is singling it out for administrative paralysis by oversight hearings. Foxx’s prospective crusade “will be diverting the NLRB’s resources from helping workers to drafting letters for these hearings,” says Margaret Poycock, an economist with the union-supported Economic Policy institute. “I definitely think Biden should be increasing the budget for the NLRB in the next continuing resolution. They’ve been chronically underfunded for more than a decade.”

How the NLRB wound up as a prime target for the right in the first place is an instructive class-politics parable in its own right. “Nobody gave a shit about the NLRB two years ago,” says Jonah Furman, a writer with Labor Notes. “The shocking thing about the Starbucks campaign, in particular, was that it turned regular people into thinking that, ‘yes, the National Labor Relations Act is my right, and we more or less trust the state on this. So I’m going to go to the NLRB and get my rights.’ It was like what the federal courts did in the 1960s…. The model of the aggressive administrative state hasn’t really been anywhere else in the Biden administration, and it resonates with the base when the NLRB does this stuff…. This is an example of how politics follows the workers.”

Just as the GOP is poised to employ oversight powers as a political tool to punish the party’s enemies in the wider political economy, so should Democrats embed the principles of worker-first governance in all levels of policy-making. This is more than a question of electoral strategy in a narrowing midterm cycle; it’s a way to defuse bad-faith attacks on social democratic governance from the forces of oligarchy. An imaginative Democratic class politics can also dispel the outmoded white-guy-in-a-hardhat model of working-class citizenry that still dominates our public discourse. “There are different visions for what the modern labor movement means and is,” Hauser notes. “And the fact is that it is majority female and often college graduated.… The political operatives do not necessarily think of labor and student debt issues as even remotely connected, even though the AFL-CIO has a position on the issue.”

It’s also simply smart politics to emphasize the cause of economic justice. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 71 percent of Americans support the union movement—the highest rate since 1965. For a party that hails “popularism” as a first-order principle of policy adjudication, the embrace of worker-driven politics should be a no-brainer. But this is also the party that hosted a boomlet for the presidential nomination of Starbuck’s arch-union-busting CEO Howard Schultz in the 2020 presidential cycle—four years after Hillary Clinton indicated that Schultz would have been her pick to head the Department of Labor in her administration. It behooves party leaders and strategists looking to position the 2022 Democratic field as a pro-worker slate of candidates to hark back to the original meaning of economics—namely, a way of cleaning house.

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