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This article appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
“I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me,” Lyndon Johnson once said. “I know where to look for it and how to use it.”
Of all the indictments that can be leveled against the Democratic Party, perhaps the most serious is that it no longer understands power—where to look for it, how to build it, how to hold it, how to use it. It’s not that the values that Democrats express are at odds with those of most Americans. After all, Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. In 2017, however, Republicans will control all branches of the federal government, not to mention the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature in 25 states. The Democrats have comparable control of just six states, all of them, save California, small.
Yes, there are extenuating circumstances. There’s the Constitution, which gives Wyoming the same number of senators it gives California, which has 67 times more residents. There’s the Electoral College, with which our founding fathers, who were both pre- and anti-democratic, saddled us. There’s the gerrymandering that’s given the House, and numerous legislatures, over to the GOP. There’s Democratic clustering in cities, which concentrates Democratic voters in too few congressional and legislative districts. There’s Republicans’ voter suppression. There’s James Comey.
But as Democrats confront the very real menace of a Donald Trump presidency, they need to own up to their own shortcomings and address them as decisively and comprehensively as they can, though some of the needed changes will be the work of many years.
Some can be dealt with more quickly: Democrats need to recognize that the left populism of the Bernie Sanders campaign spoke to millions of voters who wanted the Democrats to take their side in an economy dominated by Thomas Piketty’s one percent. They need to recognize that they can speak to at least some downwardly mobile white workers without jettisoning the party’s concern for racial, religious, immigrant, and gay and lesbian minorities—so long as they have a credible economic message, not just for urban fast-food workers but for the displaced workers of the post-industrial Midwest. The gaping holes in Trump’s and the Republicans’ economic proposals—boosting infrastructure construction via tax credits, for instance, but also repealing the law that required those working on those projects to receive a decent wage—will likely give the Democrats ample opportunity to wrest the pro-worker mantle from Trump’s GOP. Devising policies that can not only raise the minimum wage but also restore meaningful work and decent living standards to American workers, however, is a challenge that the Democrats—like parties of the center-left throughout the advanced democracies—have yet to meet.
Above all, the Democrats need to be as serious about power as Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt were. In an America where ideological wars rage and where traditional sources of information and political orientation have been greatly weakened, the Democrats need not just a 50-state strategy, but a permanent presence throughout the nation’s increasingly diverse working-class neighborhoods. In its long history, the party can claim two such organizational presences: the big city machines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the labor unions of the mid-20th century. Both these groups enjoyed a level of political credibility because they delivered real benefits to their constituents: the machines, dispensing patronage jobs to particular immigrant groups; the unions, winning material gains through strikes and collective bargaining. On what basis the Democrats can build new organizations today, in a far more mobile and fluid economy and society, is a conundrum that progressives need to address.
Minority Right and Class Politics—Solidarity Forever: Martin Luther King, Jr. and UAW President Walter Reuther in 1963.
In recent decades, Republicans have understood the importance of partisan civil society institutions far better than the Democrats have. They have worked assiduously to reduce the power of unions, while Democrats, when they’ve controlled Congress, have been unable to muster the votes to amend federal labor law so that organizing becomes easier. By effectively ending collective bargaining for Wisconsin’s public employees and signing right-to-work legislation for its private-sector workers, Republican Governor Scott Walker understood he was undermining Democratic prospects in state elections for years to come. Since Walker’s election, union membership in Wisconsin has declined by 132,000; Trump’s margin of victory there was 23,000. Exit polls showed Wisconsin voters from union households gave Hillary Clinton an edge over Trump of 53 percent to 43 percent. But there were a lot fewer union households than there’d been just a few years earlier.
Barack Obama is one of the few great men to have occupied the position of president, but his presidency was short-circuited from the start by his failure to recognize and maximize his potential levers of power. By effectively neutering the organization of his campaign supporters, Obama for America (he subordinated it to the Democratic National Committee, where it engaged in few political struggles), he left the Democrats devoid of foot soldiers to oppose the Tea Party and campaign for Obama’s own initiatives.
Obama also tended to look too hard for common ground, long after it was clear that Republicans were determined to destroy him. In many of the budget fights, notably the epic battle of the fiscal cliff, Republicans played a weaker hand far better than Obama played a strong one. It will be a while before Democrats return to exercise the kind of congressional majorities Obama had in his first two years—and they will need to maximize their leverage.
It’s possible that progressives and the party may profit from the failures of Obama’s example. The current efforts to keep the massive organizations of Bernie Sanders supporters intact and at the ready for the battles of the Trump era suggest that Democrats may have learned from Obama’s mistakes.
LIKE THE GREAT POET OF American democracy, the Democratic Party has invariably contained multitudes and has frequently contradicted itself. This hasn’t always worked out well.
In 1860, facing a rising Republican Party opposed to the expansion of slavery, the Democrats nominated two presidential candidates, one for the South and one for the North. Thus was Abraham Lincoln elected.
In the 1920s, a decade of ferocious identity politics, the party’s two wings—the political machines of Northern cities, representing Catholic and Jewish immigrants; and the nativist, racist, Klan-infused party of the white Protestant South—engaged in fierce, prolonged battles, yielding such spectacles as the party’s 1924 national convention, which dragged on for two weeks and 103 ballots before it could settle on a nominee. (He lost.)
The shock of the Depression and the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt brought the party together around the policies that became the New Deal, but to appease the Southern congressmen whose votes he needed to get those policies enacted, Roosevelt had to settle for half a loaf. Minimum-wage standards and the right to form unions didn’t extend to agricultural and domestic workers—chiefly African Americans and women.
Given a new lease on life by the New Deal, labor became a Democratic mainstay, and for much of the postwar boom, business largely backed the Republicans. The rise of the New Right, however, beginning with the Goldwater insurgency, began to nudge more socially liberal business sectors into the Democratic column. As labor’s clout and ability to finance elections weakened under the Reagan administration’s assault in the 1980s, Democrats increasingly turned to Wall Street to finance their campaigns and staff their administrations. While Republican campaign contributions came overwhelmingly from business and the right, by the 1980s, as journalist Thomas Edsall documented, Democratic contributions were split right down the middle: Half from business and more conservative sources; half from labor and liberal groups.
Since then, the party has been a house divided against itself on some key economic issues. Though labor and business agreed on a range of civil and social rights—for racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians—Wall Street in particular had become the leading force for deregulating finance and offshoring industry, in the name of maximizing shareholder value (or, more simply, self-enrichment). Like the parties of the European center-left, the Democrats’ hold on the white working class began to weaken as the old industrial economy eroded and the party’s identification with minority rights grew stronger. Democrats came to rely more and more on support not just from minorities but from professionals as well. Bill Clinton, a campaigner of genius, was able to win the votes of the white working class despite whatever resentment festered over the party’s commitment to racial minorities, but his policies—NAFTA, one-way liberalization of trade relations with China, wholesale financial deregulation that led to financial collapse—were ticking time bombs that exploded electorally this November, shattering not just Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects but much of the Democrats’ remaining hold on the white working class.
In the Democrats’ internal class conflicts, Hillary Clinton never took sides. There was ample precedent for her refusal to go more populist. Every post–New Deal Democratic president, beginning with John F. Kennedy, had mixed support for social welfare programs with a cultivation of business interests. Not since Roosevelt and Harry Truman had a Democratic president viewed class as a fundamental political identity, as the key to understanding how most Americans voted, and the foundation of their own political strategies. No post-Truman Democratic presidential candidate would ever have referred to Wall Street bankers as “deplorables.”
Hillary Clinton certainly didn’t, which was one among many reasons why she lost.
WHAT CLINTON ONLY SLOWLY came to understand was that the foundations of a successful Democratic politics had shifted in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse and the very partial recovery that followed it, just as they had shifted once before in the wake of the 1929 market crash and the ensuing Great Depression.
It wasn’t only the party’s dependence on Wall Street for funding and economic counsel that was no longer politically sustainable. The problem was also that the party’s concern—a morally and politically necessary concern—for the rights and livelihoods of minorities didn’t extend to all the nation’s embattled out-groups.
In combining the sharper focus on economic inequality with the party’s long-standing commitment to the civil and social rights of minorities, the Democrats will need to square that circle by recognizing that class is an identity, too—an identity that Democrats need to champion not simply by securing rights for more people, but also by altering the balance of economic power.
At the 2016 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, the party devoted at least an hour during one afternoon session to a succession of representatives of long-suppressed groups on whom the Democrats were now shining a light. Minority and female delegates; home-care worker delegates; gay, lesbian, and transgender delegates all addressed the convention. There was not a straight white male among them, and a more ringing affirmation of people who’d long been despised and devalued is hard to imagine.
Missing from the convention, however, were presentations from another group that’s only relatively recently been despised and devalued—the white working class. In 2015, progressives had been appalled by the results of a landmark study by Princeton professors Angus Deaton and Anne Case that showed that the life expectancy of working-class whites had actually been falling in recent years, while that of all other groups had been rising. Suicides and deaths by alcohol and drugs had risen notably in communities devastated by decades of deindustrialization and the failures of policymakers to stanch the flow of offshored jobs or create new industries with comparable levels of pay and security.
Above all, the Democrats need to be as serious about power as Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt were. Here, President Roosevelt shakes hands with newly elected Congressman Johnson in 1937.
In recent years, Democrats and progressive organizations have focused much of their energy on improving the lot of devalued low-income and immigrant workers, as the Fight for 15 and the minimum-wage hikes in cities and states amply attest. Other devalued and often discarded workers—those of the Rust Belt—didn’t loom as large in most Democrats’ hierarchy of concerns. Many had long since shifted their allegiance to the Republicans or stopped voting at all; many viewed the very groups that the Democrats were championing, all evidence to the contrary, as more the authors of their woes than the corporations that had cast them aside. Moreover, many had an animus toward minorities that had nothing to do with fears of economic competition or the coming of hard times. During the 1968 presidential election, one United Auto Workers survey of its (almost entirely white) members in five New Jersey locals showed support for the independent candidacy of George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, that ranged from 52 percent in one local to 92 percent in another. The UAW’s campaign among its members to expose Wallace’s anti-worker stands eventually brought those levels down, but it’s important to realize that Wallace claimed significant white worker support in Northern states in 1968—near the apogee of white working-class income and security.
Still, Democrats in 2016 (and the Clinton campaign more particularly) ignored or downplayed the moral and political claim these voters had on them at their own peril. A post-election analysis by The Economist concluded that the two greatest predictors that a county’s vote for Trump would exceed its 2012 vote for Mitt Romney were the percentage of white working-class residents, and the prevalence of residents with declining life expectancy, and who suffered from obesity, diabetes, and alcoholism.
By one metric, however, these voters are not so exceptional. A number of recent studies have documented how the gap between the life expectancies of all working-class Americans and those of more affluent professionals is wide and getting wider. Men in the upper half of the income spectrum who’ve reached age 65 are living six years longer than they did 40 years ago; men in the lower half are living just 1.3 years longer. If that’s not a basis for the Democrats reaching out to working-class Americans of all races, rural and urban both, I don’t know what is.
In the daily life of many Democratic politicians, the need to integrate the concerns of class and the concerns of particular historically or currently devalued groups is now a matter of course. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has made it a priority to have his party’s leading economic progressives, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, speak at as many leadership events as he possibly can. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the labor movement’s most enthusiastic supporter of Clinton’s candidacy, has appeared with Sanders at an event sponsored by Sanders’s post-campaign organization, Our Revolution, to boost the candidacy of Representative Keith Ellison for chair of the Democratic National Committee. In a sense, Ellison combines both strands of Democratic politics: As a Muslim, he belongs to a group Trump has singled out for attack and the Democrats have hastened to defend; as a leading Sanders supporter during the primaries, he also personifies the party’s left turn on economic issues.
In 2018, a host of Democratic senators will stand for re-election in states that voted for Trump and that have a disproportionately white working-class electorate: Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Montana’s Jon Tester, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, to name just a few. As Manchin (who stands at the right wing of the party’s Senate delegation) and Brown (who stands at the left) illustrated in their fight against Mitch McConnell to preserve pension benefits for retired miners, a hard-edged populist politics is an electoral asset today on both wings of the party.
BUT THE INCORPORATION of a class perspective into Democratic politics—and policies that restore a more equitable balance of class power—require more than the coming together of the Clinton and Sanders camps. A look back at some of the paths that the Democrats chose not to take over the past half-century suggests some different orientations the party would do well to adopt.
In 1964 and 1965, under the leadership of Johnson, the Democrats made an epochal pivot. Their new mission was to incorporate those Americans left out of the New Deal’s social compact and excluded from basic civil rights into full civic, social, and economic citizenship. The shift was not merely a long-overdue moral statement, but also a reorientation of American politics, moving the historically Democratic white South into the Republican column and winning greater levels of minority support for the Democrats.
In its War on Poverty, the Johnson administration set up a number of training programs to help the poor acquire the skills they needed in the job market, and welfare programs to help the poor at the margins of the economy. As Vanderbilt professor of history Jefferson Cowie notes in his 2015 volume The Great Exception, Johnson’s program, the Great Society, “was built on the premise that the New Deal generation had solved the [economy’s] major structural problems and that the New Deal order would persist.” The government’s new “focus on limited welfare arrangements was intended simply to fill in the gaps for those outside the well-organized and well-remunerated sectors of the economy.”
“For New Dealers, the problems of poverty and the labor market were structural,” Cowie continues. “[M]ost Great Society liberals saw it differently. Rather than restructuring the economy and redistributing the wealth, the generation of the 1960s believed that labor market problems tended to be individual and personal—the limitations of the poor themselves.”
Among the architects of the War on Poverty, there was one prominent dissident from this perspective. While fully supporting inner-city training and job programs, and lending his staff to help with political organizing in African American neighborhoods, Walter Reuther, the president of the UAW during the postwar boom years, also advanced a more social democratic perspective. “You can’t compartmentalize the problem [of poverty] and say we will just talk about this little piece,” he told a House committee in 1964. The solution was not only increased public spending. Broadly shared prosperity, he continued, required democratizing investment power, by, among other things, dividing corporate boards between shareholder and stakeholder—that is, worker and public—members. Absent that kind of power-sharing, Reuther believed, the New Deal’s more equitable distribution of wealth and income would eventually erode. Economics was at bottom a question not just of skills and rights, but of power.
Since Governor Scott Walker's election, union membership in Wisconsin has declined by 132,000; Trump's margin of victory there was 23,000.
Reuther’s presentiments must have sounded a little apocalyptic to most Democrats in 1964. In 2016, they don’t sound so apocalyptic after all.
The Germans, of course, do have a system of co-determination, of splitting corporate board membership between management and worker representatives. In a globalized and increasingly automated economy, co-determination can’t and shouldn’t stop economic change, but time and again, it has humanized it. Volks-wagen, reeling from its falsified-emissions scandal, recently announced that it would lay off 23,000 of its German employees through attrition, but it also said that it would create 9,000 new jobs for its workers to produce electric cars. That was the decision its half-worker-half-management board arrived at.
Surprisingly, the new British Tory government has shown a keen interest in co-determination. Responding to the working-class discontent that fueled the passage of Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May has not only called for stimulus spending, but also said she wants British corporations to include worker representatives on their boards. She hasn’t called for legislation mandating such a change, but her recommendations—coming from the leader of the Conservative Party in the only nation whose economy is as bank- and shareholder-dominated as our own—are a stunning acknowledgment of the establishment’s need to at least appear to heed worker interests.
If it’s good enough for British Tories, how about for American Democrats, who have a credibility gap with their own country’s workers? Congressional Democrats will have a host of opportunities to oppose Trumpian initiatives, but there is hay to be made on the shortcomings of Trumponomics in particular. At the federal level, advocating for affordable college and opposing the re-privatization of student loans is a good place to start. Championing co-determination would be a good issue as well. As for actually building wage-increasing institutions, and ongoing institutions that can build political power—well, for that, we must turn to the many cities and the few states where Democrats now govern.
CITIES AND STATES HAVE already erected battlements to protect their residents—their immigrants most especially—from Trump’s coming diktats. In recent years, they’ve also enacted a range of progressive initiatives, most prominently minimum-wage hikes and the provision of worker rights and benefits, that could not be more different from Trump’s economic priorities.
Can they also foster institutions that build worker and Democratic power? They’re preempted by federal law from doing anything about collective bargaining in the private sector, and the Supreme Court, once a Trump-appointed successor to Justice Antonin Scalia is confirmed, is likely to strike a debilitating blow to public-sector unions, too.
That doesn’t mean states and cities are powerless in matters of worker organization, however. A number of cities condition their permitting of developments on the developer’s agreeing not to oppose the unionization of workers in his or her project. After passing landmark wage-and-benefit legislation, both Seattle and San Francisco have authorized new organizations of workers to monitor compliance with and violations of the laws.
But states and cities could go further. In Belgium, unions are in charge of administering unemployment benefits, which is one reason why Belgian unions have not shrunk like their counterparts throughout the West. In the United States, unemployment insurance and other job-related programs are administered at the state level. As David Madland has suggested both in talks and in a landmark report for the Center for American Progress, a state like California could foster working-class organization by authorizing a new workers’ group to help state residents navigate and secure pay and benefits in the rapidly changing job market. Such an organization could also spin off a political adjunct.
Building institutions of class power, identity--group power, and party power must become the primary long-term project for Democrats. Some of the organizing will be done digitally; some will involve shoe leather. Such success as the right has achieved in recent decades has come not just from an assault on liberal values, but on liberal organizations. Democrats need to rebuild both.