Here's how Democrats can overcome their key weaknesses with voters
Democrats—and many others—are justifiably exultant because their presidential candidate obtained the largest popular vote total ever and toppled an incumbent. However, the 2020 election results also revealed that the Democratic Party's victory was quite fragile and might not be sustainable in the future. The most glaring problem is that the Democratic Party has failed to address adequately the economic condition of millions of workers. This article will examine the roots of that weakness and what progressives can do to pressure both President-elect Joe Biden and the Democratic Party to adopt policies that directly address the needs of working people. Such a program would enable the Democratic Party to build a sustainable majority by serving the interests of the many millions of workers and small businesses that inhabit Main Street as opposed to the thousands of corporate executives and billionaire donors that inhabit Wall Street.
The 2020 Election Revealed Significant Democratic Party Weaknesses. The most terrifying result was that 74.2 million people were receptive to and voted for a party and a presidential candidate with strong authoritarian tendencies, an increase of 11.2 million over President Donald Trump's showing in 2016. While Biden won 81.3 million votes, exit polls revealed a significant portion of his vote was anti-Trump as opposed to pro-Biden. The importance of the anti-Trump vote also is supported by the fact that Biden had no coattails—Democrats lost ground in the House and many state legislatures. Second, Biden and the Democratic congressional candidates failed to overwhelm Republicans in swing states and districts during a perfect storm of crises: pandemic, economic, climate, and racial and gender inequities. A party that cannot parlay this historically unique set of crises into solid swing state majorities is a party in trouble. Racial and cultural issues help explain the weak showing by Democrats in the swing states. However, this article will focus on another problem that also helps explain what happened: Democrats failed to address adequately the everyday economic concerns of millions of people and basically ceded these issues to Republicans. Indeed, half the voters felt that Trump would handle the economy better than Biden. The economy remains by far, the number one issue among all Americans—even outstripping the pandemic. The Democratic Party will not be able to obtain sustainable majorities in the future until it actually advocates and delivers policies that improve the economic circumstances of working people.
The Lack of Trust on Economic Issues Is Based on 45 years of Corporatist Domination of the Democratic Party. Corporatists have dominated the Democrat Party since President Jimmy Carter. Big Business was a critical source of funding for Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Upon election, each of these presidents appointed corporate-allied officials to key positions and enacted pro-corporate policies. The financial sector illustrates this dynamic. President Carter (not Ronald Reagan) initiated the deregulation of the financial sector. President Clinton not only raked in record contributions from the financial sector, but also appointed Wall Street-allied individuals to key positions in the administration. Clinton became the biggest financial sector deregulator of all, enabling an orgy of financial speculation and instability not seen since the 1920s. And while Wall Street chafed at the mild reforms of Dodd-Frank, the financial sector welcomed the Obama administration's delivery of multi-trillion-dollar bailouts, the refusal to indict any Wall Street officials for fraud, and his appointment of Wall Street connected individuals to key administrative positions.
Meanwhile, each of these Democratic presidents failed to prioritize and pass significant labor reforms which would have benefited millions of workers. To make matters even worse, Clinton literally pushed through the devastating NAFTA and China trade deals that led to the elimination or displacement of 4.4 million jobs while Obama advocated even bigger free trade deals.
Such corporatist policies have been devastating for millions of workers and small businesses but very beneficial to big business and the billionaire donor elite. Consequently, economic inequality has reached historically high levels in terms of income, wealth, gender, and race. The economic situation of most working families is appalling. For example, almost 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, 70% will have difficulty raising a few hundred dollars for an emergency, and the average American now dies with $62,000 of debt. The median net worth (assets minus liabilities) of American families is just $52,700 while the minimum net worth of the top 1% is $10.4 million.
The Democratic Party's adoption of corporatist policies blew apart its façade as a representative of working-class interests; instead, it became a more compassionate champion of corporations and the wealthy. The sense of outrage felt by workers against the Democratic Party for trade deals and a worsening economic situation was palpable and helped to undermine the party's hold over working-class voters, especially in swing states. Unfortunately, the general skepticism about Democrats and the economy was not helped by Biden's ties to Wall Street and support for policies aiding corporations to the detriment of workers including the bankruptcy bill and free trade deals.
Democrats Must Advocate Economic Policies that will Primarily Benefit Working People. Democrats must directly address their weakness on working class economic issues if they want to develop sustainable majorities in future elections. During the campaign, Biden promised to create millions of green jobs, increase wages, and improve working conditions for all working people—as well as address equity issues. The policies contained in the Biden platform would benefit all portions of the working class—regardless of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual identity divisions—and create some movement toward unity where Republicans have sown hate and fragmentation. This was the most progressive, worker-centered platform for a Democratic presidential candidate over the last 45 years. Unfortunately, Biden and the Democrats did not focus on these issues for much of the campaign; instead, they chose to attack Trump and focused on the pandemic. In this way, the Democrats ceded basic economic issues to the Republicans and allowed them to falsely pit pandemic concerns against economic concerns.
Yet, the Democrats should not abandon this progressive platform. The current crisis is profound, and Democrats will not necessarily get another chance. There will be many roadblocks to such a change in policy priorities—the narrow Democratic advantage in the House and a tied or Republican majority in the Senate. But progressives should push Biden to be a bold, strong, and public proponent of pro-worker policies—and at least to follow through on his campaign promises.
- Good Jobs/Full Employment. Biden's platform included massive investments in green infrastructure and Covid-19 relief that would create millions of decent paying jobs. Such job-related programs would set the country on a path to full employment. Conversely, the Biden administration must be prevented from entering devastating, job-killing trade deals that actually reward corporations for offshoring jobs and harming the environment. Democrats should loudly proclaim that there should be a job for everyone who is able to work—and excoriate those who oppose such a principle.
- Fair Wages/Workers Rights. The broadest and most effective way to increase wages is a tight labor market. According to an Economic Policy Institute analysis, wages for the bottom 90% of workers grew the most during the low unemployment years of 1995-2000 and 2013-2019. These 11 years accounted for almost all the wage growth of the bottom 90% from 1979-2019. This is why full employment policies are the broadest way to increase incomes for the mass of working people. Democrats should also champion bills to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour and expand the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain. Democrats should loudly proclaim that all workers receive a fair day's wage for a fair day's work and have the right to organize—and excoriate those who oppose such a principle.
- Healthy and Safe Working Conditions. The Biden administration must overturn all Trump's deregulatory attacks on protections for workers, consumers, and a clean and healthy environment, and introduce legislation to expand the reach and enforcement of such basic protections. Again, Democrats should loudly proclaim that all Americans have a basic right to a clean and healthy environment at work, at home, and in their communities—and excoriate those who oppose such a principle.
These policies would have a material and measurable impact on millions of working families. And would go a long way to counter the perception of Democrats as mouthing support for workers while aiding big business and the billionaire donor elite.
How to Deal with Republican Intransigence—Mobilize Against a Do-Nothing Senate and For Worker Centered Policies. Of course, such a program will be bitterly opposed by Republicans, corporations, and the billionaire donor elite. However, Biden is not powerless. During the 1948 presidential election, President Harry Truman was way behind in the polls. He chose to go on the offensive. He campaigned against the "do-nothing, good for nothing" Republican-dominated 80th Congress. Truman also publicly advocated for civil rights legislation, the repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, and farm aid programs. Through his attacks on the Republicans and support for progressive policies, Truman helped to revive the New Deal coalition of southern blacks, labor unionists, and farmers. He ended up winning in a stunning upset. A similar mobilization campaign that supports pro-worker policies and opposes Republican intransigence during the next two years of Biden's administration and for the 2022 elections would be critical for the Democratic Party's future hopes.
Consequences for Democrats If they Do Not Focus on Working Class Economic Issues. The most likely scenario for the Biden administration is that it will follow a moderately liberal corporatist strategy while attempting to make some inroads on economic and social equity issues. Biden has already indicated that key administration positions will be filled by people with whom he is comfortable—a diverse set of mostly moderate to somewhat liberal corporatists who will be competent but not rock the boat of corporate power. However, he cannot afford to alienate progressives—not because of the power of progressive politicians but because of the power of progressive movements.
Therefore, he will seek a united front by focusing on issues and areas of concern for both corporatists and progressives. Such efforts will include addressing the pandemic through medical and economic policies; limiting corporate excesses through regulations and administrative actions to undo the damage done by Trump; strengthening Obamacare; and advocating some progressive policies such as criminal justice reform and reversing Trump's corporate tax cut. The corporate media will applaud this direction as being pragmatic—especially considering a Republican or tied Senate, a slim Democratic house majority, and an overall conservative judiciary. Of course, these policies are far better than anything offered by Trump. However, such a program will neither fundamentally challenge corporate power nor significantly improve the economic well-being of millions of workers. The Democrats will once again prove that they cannot positively change the economic conditions that matter most to working people. Just as the failures of Carter set the stage for Reagan; Clinton set the stage for Bush; and Obama set the stage for Trump—a failed Biden term could set the stage for someone far worse than Trump. Throughout his long political career, Biden tended to emphasize incremental policy changes and personal political relationships rather than structural change and mass mobilization. But at this point in history such an approach could lead to disaster. Muddling through is not a real option.
What Progressives Can Do—Mobilize. Progressives cannot just sit by and expect Biden or the Democratic Party to do the right thing. We should learn the lessons of past progressive movements—mass mobilization especially by the labor movement pushed Franklin Roosevelt to become FDR and enact the New Deal; mass mobilization especially by the civil rights movement pushed President Lyndon Johnson to become LBJ and enact the Great Society. An insightful analysis by my CWA colleague Bob Master examines the importance of mass mobilization in turning these presidents into transformational figures.
One successful example of mass mobilization and activism is provided by the interaction between FDR and legendary labor and civil rights leader, A. Philip Randolph as related in a RepresentConsumers.org article. In the early stages of WWII, more than 250,000 defense jobs were closed to Blacks regardless of qualifications. They were also denied placement even in unskilled jobs. Only 240 of 107,000 workers in the aircraft industry were Black. A U.S. employment service survey revealed that more than half of the defense companies stated they would not hire Blacks. In response, A. Philip Randolph and other leaders met with FDR who said he sympathized but refused to take any action. Randolph then called for a march that would bring 100,000 Blacks to Washington, D.C. demanding an end to discrimination in the Armed Services and defense industry. "The Roosevelts feared the march would result in a race war in the nation's capital that would prove an embarrassment to a country that held itself up as a model of democracy." Roosevelt finally relented, issuing Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in the defense industries. Randolph and his colleagues then canceled the march. The lesson is clear: "the labor and civil rights leaders accomplished their goals not through benign persuasion but by an unyielding threat" of mass mobilization and activism.
It is unclear that even mass mobilization could make a significant impact on a Biden administration given the opposition of the corporate elite that has dominated both parties. Maybe the Democratic Party is so tied into corporate power that it is not capable of reclaiming the progressive domestic policy legacy of FDR or LBJ. However, there is no other alternative vehicle for progressive policy at this point in time. The failure to address our various crises now could lead to global devastation. There is really no choice. Continued mass education and mobilization can only strengthen the progressive movement and, in this way, possibly save the Democratic Party by forcing it to meet the needs of working families.
Sara Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, made a statement about the labor movement that applies to the progressive movement in general: "Our task, is to build a labor movement that sees itself truly as a labor movement—not just a collection of separate unions. For years we outsourced our power while the bosses were outsourcing our jobs. We spent too much time trying to cut deals with the boss or build favor with politicians and too little time organizing members to fight for what we deserve. People think power is a limited resource but using power builds power."
Kenneth R. Peres retired as chief economist of the Communications Workers of America. Formerly, he served as economist for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Montana House Select Committee on Economic Development, and the Montana Alliance for Progressive Policy. Ken has held teaching positions at the University of Montana, St. John's University, Chief Dull Knife College, and the City University of New York. He obtained a PhD in economics from the New School in New York City.
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