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Families Protest

On November 24, Iris Martinez, 6, whose family is facing eviction, protests outside a home that is being foreclosed on in Long Beach, Calif.

A Three-Point Plan to Save Democrats

The party must reconnect to its populist roots.

BY Roger Bybee

President Obama and his advisors should notice that free trade policies have become such a huge liability to nearly all Americans that they virtually foreclose his re-election prospects.

If the Democrats are to regain power, they must first wage an elemental battle over their party’s fundamental identity and strategy.

To briefly recap: The long-predicted Republican tidal wave arrived with the mid-term electorate–whiter, wealthier, older and more conservative than the mass of voters who elected Obama in 2008–evicting some 63 House Democrats and handing the Republicans six Senate seats.

Progressives hoping to move Democrats toward policies promoting shared prosperity must understand the reasons for this “shellacking” and the transformation necessary to get the party back on course.

The punditocracy almost universally pronounced that November 2 proved the nation wants to fundamentally change course. But this superficial analysis both overstates the Republicans’ non-existent mandate and understates the magnitude of the Democrats’ loss of connection to their base. Polling data clearly suggest that the majority of 2010 voters may have pulled the Republican lever, but they nonetheless decisively reject the pro-wealthy Republican program.

The divergence between the vote for Republican candidates and support for their policies was dramatized in polling by Peter D. Hart in the 100 congressional races that swung the election. By a margin of 77 to 21 percent, the voting public as a whole favored job creation through investment in public roads, schools and other facilities. (Continuing the tax cuts for those earning $250,000 or more–which the Republicans depict as a central route to economic rejuvenation–was opposed by 63 percent of all voters.)

In a very different way, the Democrats also experienced their own gulf between the approach of their leadership and the sentiments of key portions of the 2008 pro-Obama coalition. Youth, people of color, and blue-collar workers all have suffered especially sharp losses in pay and jobs during the recession.

In Wisconsin, for example, the blue-collar vote for Democrats sank from 52 percent in 2008 to 40 percent, which more than accounts for the loss of outspoken progressive Sen. Russ Feingold and the northwoods House seats held by staunch liberal Rep. Steve Kagen and the seat vacated by longtime progressive Rep. David Obey.

The main achievements touted by the Democrats–enacting a healthcare plan whose main features do not kick in until 2014 and halting the huge cascade of job losses that marked late 2008 and early 2009–failed to dent the day-to-day misery and anxieties about jobs, pay and security still being experienced by tens of millions of Americans.

The Great Recession continues to persist in large part because, as Carl Rosen of the United Electrical (UE) workers union puts it, “Workers can’t afford to buy what they make.” With earnings and savings falling for average families, the richest 1 percent of Americans command 23.5 percent of all annual income, up from 9 percent in the 1970s.

The remarkable plummet in public enthusiasm for the Democrats over the past two years indicates that the party of Roosevelt desperately needs a progressive transformation. It needs to re-connect with the people most victimized by the increasing inequality that is coming to define our country. But this will only happen if three things occur:

1. The Democratic Party must clearly represent the interests of working families and the poor.

In 2006, pollsters and political analysts John Halpin and Ruy Texeira analyzed Democracy Corps polling data and concluded: “A majority of Americans do not believe progressives or Democrats stand for anything.” In other words, it is unclear which values the Democratic Party would find worthy of fighting for.

They must become clear. The Democratic Party must become the party of the people shut out from the record profits and share of income enjoyed by Corporate America and the richest 1 percent. Just as the Republicans incessantly define themselves in simple, memorable terms like “smaller government and lower taxes,” the Democrats must become known as “the party of decent jobs, a fair shot for all, and dignity for everyone.”

2. Strong grassroots movements must force President Obama to rediscover his progressive side.

Obama’s rightward slide and unwillingness to act decisively has been the result of unwavering pressure from the Right–from his coterie of Wall Street advisors to CEOs to the Right’s massive media apparatus.

Even the most atrocious displays of corporate greed have little visible or audible mobilization on the Left. BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the death of 11 workers offered a clear lesson on what happens when corporate power becomes too big to regulate. No left-wing version of the Tea Party emerged during the last two years–and we need one badly.

There are endless problems facing working families, but none more critical than a daily volume of foreclosures 10 times higher than during the Great Depression, according to It Takes a Pillage author Nomi Prins. Why don’t the country’s two large labor federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, picket the giant banks foreclosing on homes across the country?

3. Democratic politicians must recognize “free trade” for what it is: economic poison for the country, and political poison for the party.

Since 1994, deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the admission of China into the World Trade Organization have contributed to the loss of 4.9 million U.S. jobs and the closing of 43,000 U.S. factories.

A September poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC revealed that 86 percent of the public opposed the export of jobs. On October 2, the Journal observed: “In the recent WSJ/NBC poll, 83 percent of blue-collar workers agreed that outsourcing of manufacturing to foreign countries with lower wages was a reason the U.S. economy was struggling and more people weren’t being hired; no other factor was so often cited for current economic ills.”

CNBC cited a finding that suggested a possible political alliance: “While 65 percent of union members say free trade has hurt the U.S., so do 61 percent of Tea Party sympathizers.”

These latest figures should remind President Obama and his advisors that free trade policies have become such a huge liability to nearly 90 percent of Americans that they virtually foreclose his re-election prospects. An analysis by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch of the impact that “free trade” had on 182 competitive election indicated that opposition to “free trade” and the offshoring of jobs served as a firewall for Democratic congressional candidates, with opponents of these policies three times more likely to win compared to Democrats who supported them.

Lori Wallach, the group’s director, warned in a November 3 Common Dreams interview: “In 2008, Obama only won the election because he won the critical states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by differentiating himself from McCain on trade. It is pretty obvious with Dems and GOP nationwide running against the trade status quo and its job offshoring damage, that if Obama flip-flops now in favor of more job-killing NAFTA agreements, he will lose those states and end up a one-term president.”

A different future could be charted by the Democrats, however. But it will depend on them adopting a clearly defined identity, embracing grassroots activism and abandoning the “free trade” track to job destruction and community devastation.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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