THE DEMOCRATIC PROMISE
THREE MONTHS INTO 1988, a funny thing is happening to the Democratic presidential candidates.
They're starting to sound like Democrats.
It seems like an eternity ago--even though it was only early in 1986 that the Democrats' response to President Reagan's State of the Union Address virtually apologized for the party's traditional advocacy of activist government. Indeed, even at the beginning of this campaign season, the leading Democratic contenders seemed eager to run away from the party's concerns and constituencies, presenting themselves as cool technocrats of unblemished personal character and centrist political positions.
But something happened once the Democratic candidates actually had to start facing Democratic voters, from anxious farmers and industrial workers in Iowa, to the environmentalists of New Hampshire, to the cross-section of Americans who are voting on Super Tuesday. The candidates found themselves going back to basics: discussing the bread-and-butter issues that have been the core of the party's appeal since the New Deal and addressing the needs of middle and low income people.
It was Jesse Jackson, not the technocrats or the trimmers, who set the new terms of the debate for the Democrats. Jackson first defined the central issue of American politics as how to get U.S.-based corporations to re-invest in America and focused public attention on the wastefulness of speculative investments and corporate "mergermania." Jackson's own campaign centered on bringing together the despairing poor, the displaced workers, the dispossessed farmers and the disillusioned middle class. When it comes to the victims of Reaganomics, Jackson has literally stood with them--often on picket lines--from striking meatpackers in Minnesota, to laid-off auto workers in Wisconsin, to home care workers for New York City's elderly poor who have had to settle for wages near the poverty level.
While Jackson looms as the party's conscience, if not its likely candidate, other candidates have also caught fire by sounding like bread-and-butter Democrats. For much of 1987, Paul Simon attracted attention and support by proclaiming himself "not a neo-anything" but a traditional Democrat. Indeed, Simon's campaign began to founder when he failed to follow up on his populist appeal and began emphasizing his own personal character.
Meanwhile, Richard Gephardt raced to the head of the pack in Iowa by adopting a populist rhetoric similar to Jackson's and Simon's. While the media have stressed Gephardt's attacks on South Korea's restrictive trade practices, he has also called for "getting tough" on U.S. corporations as well when they squander their resources on corporate buyouts or invest in low- wage countries overseas.
And although he has avoided attacks upon corporate America, Michael Dukakis has based his campaign on the premise that activist government is essential to economic growth.
Thus, as the candidates headed South for Super Tuesday--which was originally supposed to push the Democrats toward a more hawkish and business-oriented "center"--the debate has taken a progressive turn: how to provide security for the middle class, opportunity for the poor, and economic growth for every region of the country. Even the most conservative contender, Albert Gore, has attacked a leading rival, Richard Gephardt, for having failed to support an increase in the minimum wage and, therefore, not being populist enough.
All of this is enough to make one wonder whether the candidates- -or at least their staffers--haven't been studying a new book that should be required reading for progressives, The Life of the Party: Democratic Prospects in 1988 and Beyond by Robert Kuttner (Viking, New York, 1987, $18.95).
Kuttner provides a road-map for restoring "the Democratic Party's great unifying strength: the use of government to advance the economic condition of broad numbers of ordinary Americans." That was the party's achievement from the 1930s through the early '60s, but, as Kuttner explains, for the past two decades, the Democrats have failed to replicate the New Deal's success at building a winning coalition of the middle class and the poor.
Comparing the life experiences of Americans in their 20s, 30s, and 40s with those of their parents, Kuttner shows why many younger members of the middle class rejected the Democrats in the last two national elections. For people who came of age during the Depression and World War II, the Democrats provided nothing less than a new way of life for working people entering the middle class. Social Security, the minimum wage, unemployment compensation, college education under the GI Bill of Rights and low-cost mortgage loans supported by the Veterans Administration and the FHA all were provided by Democratic administrations.
These programs, Kuttner maintains, did more than trade tangible benefits for votes. They amounted to a new social contract between citizens and their government, fostering a sense of national community among the have-nots, the have-littles and the enlightened haves. As Kuttner writes, the New Deal programs "provided redistribution and social justice via inclusion and "engendered a sense of egalitarianism and empathy without being terribly radical about it."
But, since the enactment of Medicare almost a quarter century ago, the Democrats, for the most part, stopped proposing programs designed to benefit the majority of Americans and became increasingly identified with special interest groups. By 1984, the Democratic ticket was perceived as offering middle class voters, including traditionally Democratic union members, little more than appeals to ancient loyalties, prophecies of bad times to come, calls for compassion for the least fortunate, and only one easily understandable promise a tax increase. No wonder the Democrats lost not only in the Sunbelt but also in the industrial Midwest and Northeast.
When it comes to discussing policies rather than politics, Kuttner is savvy but less specific, suggesting job retraining programs, universal health insurance, progressive tax reforms, and restrictions on corporate mergers that swallow up funds that might otherwise be used for productive investments.
Will the Democratic Party campaign this year on a progressive populist program, as well as a progressive populist rhetoric? Probably not--and for two reasons Kuttner identifies. First, there's the growing influence within the Democratic Party of special interests hostile to economic progressivism. As Kuttner notes, from the 1930s through the 1960s, much of the "big money" behind the Democratic Party was not opposed to activist government. While the wealthy and the corporations overwhelmingly supported the Republicans, the Democrats' large donors included business interests linked to the big-city political machines and involved in government programs such as housing construction, maverick millionaires such as Averill Harriman who supported the New Deal, and self-made tycoons, frequently Catholic or Jewish, who had emerged from modest origins and hadn't forgotten where they came from. For the Democrats, the most substantial regressive business influence came from Southwestern oil money which contributed to political figures like Lyndon Johnson and the influential Oklahoma Senator Robert Kerr and distorted the Democrats policies on energy and tax issues. However, from the era of FDR to the Humphrey campaign of 1968, big oil's influence was partly counterbalanced by the fact that a large share of the Democrats' war chest, as well as its political shock troops, came from organized labor.
As labor's political clout has declined, big business has started hedging its bets politically, continuing to favor the Republicans but also making substantial donations to the Democratic Party in order to influence the Democratic majority in Congress and obtain access should a Democratic administration come to power. Meanwhile, the number of large Democratic donors who supported New Deal programs is shrinking and they're being replaced by younger contributors who are liberal on social issues but conservative on economics. In short, more than ever before, there are powerful pressures on Democratic officeholders not to translate populist rhetoric into progressive programs.
Second, as Kuttner discusses at some length, the United States remains the only advanced industrial democracy without a coordinated national movement for progressive economic policies. Where other nations have politically active labor movements, allied political parties, and networks of policy intellectuals, their counterparts in the United States lack funding, coordination, political influence, and media visibility. Only recently are American progressives reassembling the political coalitions, the grassroots clout, and the intellectual resources that they had during the eras of the New Deal and Fair Deal, and later during the New Frontier and Great Society. Always a political powerhouse although its actual and perceived strength waned somewhat during the 70s and 80s, the AFL-CIO has recharged its political mechanism and built a new media operation in its Labor Institute for Public Affairs (See Multinational Monitor, September, 1987). Meanwhile, labor has funded a new Economic Policy Institute, headed by progressive economist Jeff Faux, to provide intellectual support for progressive economic policies. New grassroots movements, such as ACORN, the Industrial Areas Foundation, National Peoples Action, Freeze Voters, Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and the Citizen Action network, also provide new political muscle for progressive causes and candidates.
But now, even as the Reagan Era stumbles to its conclusion, American
progressives are relatively weaker--politically, programmatically, and
certainly financially--than the Right was before it took power seven years
ago. For progressives seeking new strategies and programs, Kuttner's The
Life of the Party is indispensable reading.
On the Pension Front
For hundreds of thousands of American workers, pensions have been "the trust betrayed." After spending their entire working lives sweating for a company, assured all the while that their retirement income is secure, they've found themselves retired-- or, worse yet, laid off--without any pension benefits.
In one such human tragedy, more than 3,500 workers at the Wisconsin Steel mill in Southeast Chicago were laid off when the company went out of business eight years ago. Their grief turned to rage, however, when they discovered that not only had they lost their jobs but also much of their promised pension benefits as well (See Multinational Monitor, June, 1987).
Founded by the old International Harvester Company to provide a dependable supply of steel products, Wisconsin Steel had recently been sold to a firm called Envirodyne, which had meager financial resources and no experience in the steel industry. Having unloaded the steel mill, Harvester--which changed its name to Navistar and got out of the farm equipment business entirely--failed to live up to its pension commitments. Wisconsin steel employees found themselves betrayed or abandoned by virtually every institution they had trusted: Harvester, Envirodyne, the independent union at their plant, and its allies in the local Democratic Party organization headed by the notorious Edward ("Fast Eddie") Vrdolyak, who switched to the Republican Party after losing last year's Chicago mayoral race to the late Harold Washington.
Undaunted, a group of Wisconsin Steel workers sued Navistar for their pensions, obtaining legal representation from a young Chicago labor lawyer, Tom Geoghegan. Eight years after the plant closing, Navistar has agreed to pay $14.8 million to the laid- off workers and their families. For the former steelworkers, many of whom have had to settle for low-wage jobs and some of whom still remain unemployed, the pension settlement is the best news in a long time.
David Kusnet directed publicity in organizing campaigns for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He was a speechwriter for the late AFSCME President Jerry Wurf and for Water Mondale during the 1984 campaign.