Thomas Frank: Democrats Just Might Have Figured Out How to Save Their Failing Party

News & Politics

At the end of July, the leadership of the Democratic party bestirred themselves from their comfortable Washington haunts and paid a visit to a small town in Virginia, where they assumed a populist guise and announced before the cameras of the world that they were regular folks just like you.

The occasion for this performance was the launch of a Democratic party manifesto that bears the uninspiring name, A Better Deal. Its purpose, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer wrote in the New York Times, was to “show the country that we’re the party on the side of working people”.

Famous for being one of Wall Street’s greatest friends in Washington, Schumer makes for an unlikely populist. Still, reacquainting Democrats with their working-class roots is a worthy goal, and a politically necessary one these days.

Working people have been deserting the Democratic party for decades, making possible numerous Republican triumphs. Furthermore, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out how to appeal to them in the fourth decade of the great race to the bottom.

Adopting some of Bernie Sanders’s proposals would be eminently suitable for such an endeavor: universal healthcare, free college, going after the big banks, to name a few.

Making it easier to form unions is another idea that would pay off hugely for Democrats down the line, as workers discover the power of solidarity and begin to identify once again with the other constituencies of the left. Truth be told, there are dozens if not hundreds of Reagan/Clinton/Bush policies that Democrats could promise to reverse that would open the door to working people.

Faced with this cornucopia of good choices, however, our modern Democrats managed to pluck out a lump of coal. Schumer prefaced the rollout of A Better Deal by saying: “In the past, we were too cautious; we were too namby-pamby. This is sharp and bold.”

Reader, it isn’t. Modern-day Democrats are constitutionally incapable of sharp and bold; Nancy Pelosi’s op-ed announcing the Better Deal in the Washington Post, for example, is swimming in the same sort of ambiguous futurific formulas that Americans are wary of but that Democrats seem to love.

“It is time,” she writes, “to ignite a new era of investment in America’s workers, empowering all Americans with the skills they need to compete in the modern economy.”

Empowering Americans with skills for modernity? If the Democrats mean, workers will be paid more, why not just say it? Even the noncontroversial promise (noncontroversial among liberals, I mean) to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour is clouded on the Better Deal homepage with enough wishy-wash to make one doubt the sincerity of the party’s Solons.

Besides, one can’t help but remember that the liberals have had many opportunities to act on their good ideas. Take their determination to “aggressively crack down on unfair foreign trade” and their many vows to take action against high prescription drug prices. Both would be awesome!

But then recall: just last year, the Democratic administration was aggressively doing exactly the opposite, working hard to pass the wildly unfair Trans Pacific Partnership, which (among other things) would have increased Big Pharma’s power to gouge consumers of prescription drugs.

A Better Deal is not even particularly liberal. Consider the vague promise that I mocked about giving people skills for the “modern economy”. Read Schumer’s op-ed and you discover that what this actually means is giving employers tax cuts to encourage them to “train workers for unfilled jobs”.

That’s right: it’s a reference to the so-called skills gap, one of the most backward but fact-resistant articles of faith in the Washington credo. Accepted by leaders of both parties, it essentially blames unemployment on workers themselves: the reason people don’t have jobs is because they aren’t skilled enough to get those jobs, presumably because they didn’t study the right thing in school.

Everything comes back to education, which makes a lot of sense to an elite that rationalizes its rule by educational credentials. But in truth, what American business leaders need in order to fill those vacant positions is not a tax cut – they need to offer more pay.

Wages need to go up. Then there will be incentives for properly skilled workers to drop what they’re doing and take those jobs, while other people will go and get the training, etc.

But business leaders don’t want to do that, and so here come the Democrats to get them off the hook with a tax cut. This is completely 180-degrees the opposite of a pro-worker solution. 

Now, let us compare the Democrats’ manifesto with one that actually succeeded. For the Many, Not the Few was the title of the Labour party’s proposal to voters as the UK headed for its general election in June, and as you might surmise from the manifesto’s title, it was made of considerably sterner populist stuff than its American counterpart.

Both documents bang away at a “rigged” system; both acknowledge the alienation of ordinary people in these post-recessionary times, but the British iteration is strong where Better Deal is weak; its demands are clear where ours are vague; it is remarkably free from New Economy cant and quite specific about its aims. For example: a national investment bank. Public ownership of public utilities like water and the mail (!).

Though neither document will be remembered for its ringing phrases, the authors of the British one at least know the utility of clean, blunt prose. For example, here is how they address the subject of higher education, always fraught and complicated here in America: “Labour believes education should be free, and we will restore this principle.”

There’s something refreshing about such a direct statement, and indeed the Labour manifesto turned out to be very popular. Combined with a feeble performance from Tory leader Theresa May, these ideas helped Labour to overcome almost overwhelming odds – to build their numbers rather than see themselves decimated, as nearly every British pundit expected.

But there’s also something about A Better Deal that gives me a sharp jolt of optimism for our Democratic party. It is this: the Democrats have committed themselves to a war on monopoly.

Noting the extraordinary stitching together of monopolies in industry after industry over the past 30 years, the online version of the manifesto acknowledges that “the extensive concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations hurts wages, undermines job growth, and threatens to squeeze out small businesses...”

This is a remarkable and even a wonderful thing. Since the Reagan years, both American parties have come together, DC consensus-style, to suppress antitrust enforcement, and the results are a thousand awful transformations of this country in favor of concentrated wealth.

That bipartisan consensus has permitted the destruction of small-town America, the wasting of family farmers, the suppression of small business, and the rise of an all-powerful industry – Silicon Valley – where the business model is, simply, snuffing out competition. The apparent ambitions of outfits like Google and Amazon make John D Rockefeller look like a conniving child.

Now the Democrats have withdrawn from the consensus that allowed it all to happen. This is huge. What’s more, anti-monopoly has a tendency to catch fire politically.

Once upon a time, outrage at manipulative corporate power was a basic element of populist protest, and with the right leadership it can be again. True, today’s contented, professional-class Democrats are just about the last people on earth you would choose to lead such a movement, but at least they’re pointed in the right direction.

A second awesome thing about the Democratic manifesto: it is a tacit admission by the party that it needs to change course. This might seem unremarkable or even obvious to outside observers – they can plainly see that the Democrats have been trounced nationwide – but here in America it represents something of a breakthrough.

After all, liberals in this country inhabit a 24/7 echo chamber that constantly reassures them of their righteousness and insists that all their defeats have been orchestrated by devious outside forces they are powerless to combat: the Russians, the FBI, the media, the gerrymandering state legislatures.

A Better Deal invites Democrats instead to look in the mirror. “When you lose to somebody who has 40% popularity,” Schumer recently told the Washington Post, “you don’t blame other things – Comey, Russia – you blame yourself.”

Of course, this is only the first glimmering of the larger sort of self-appraisal that must happen before Democrats turn things around. Building a real populist movement is going to require them to ditch not only their squishy prose but also their bankerly image, their love affair with Silicon Valley, and their summers hobnobbing with the billionaires on Martha’s Vineyard.

The Democrats will have to question the direction they have been traveling for decades. And there is every reason to expect the whole thing will quickly be forgotten amid the anti-Trump hysteria that saturates the culture of Washington, DC – every reason to expect that Democrats will find it easier to relax into the lazy assumption that they need do nothing more to defeat Donald Trump’s horrifying Republicans than show up.

But we have here a real crack in the wall. Let’s hope it spreads.

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