The Democrats’ New Agenda Is Everything That’s Wrong With the Party

More bland messaging and populist posturing won’t save the Democrats. The party needs to take a bold stand against corporate power.

Miles Kampf-Lassin July 27, 2017

The Democrats need far more than a shiny, poll-tested new messaging campaign. They need new ideas. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

The sto­ry of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in 2017 has been one of timid­i­ty and stub­born resis­tance to real change.

There’s no shortage of ambitious programs waiting for the Democrats to embrace.

In the imme­di­ate after­math of the party’s pre­ferred can­di­date fac­ing a humil­i­at­ing defeat in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, ques­tions swirled over what direc­tion the par­ty would take to respond to the new polit­i­cal real­i­ty. With Democ­rats at their weak­est posi­tion in decades, hav­ing lost over 1,000 seats in states and Con­gress over the pre­vi­ous eight years, it appeared that a dras­tic shift in how the par­ty oper­at­ed was in store.

And the par­ty was offered an ear­ly oppor­tu­ni­ty to embark on such a shift, with the cam­paign by Kei­th Elli­son for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee chair. Elli­son sport­ed a resume as a bold pro­gres­sive with pop­u­lar sup­port from rank-and-file Democ­rats and par­ty activists alike. And he pre­sent­ed a clear break with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s tra­di­tion­al establishment.

But rather than embrace the new direc­tion pre­sent­ed by Ellison’s bid, par­ty insid­ers con­spired to instead elect Tom Perez, a can­di­date with much stronger con­nec­tions to the party’s estab­lish­ment wing. The result came as a dispir­it­ing blow to many in the party’s base who hoped for a clear break in Demo­c­ra­t­ic leadership.

In the ensu­ing months, the Democ­rats have turned to neolib­er­al archi­tects such as Rahm Emanuel for advice, invest­ed a his­toric amount of fund­ing in cen­trist Jon Ossoff’s failed con­gres­sion­al cam­paign in Geor­gia and returned to the strat­e­gy of recruit­ing mod­er­ate Blue Dogs” to run in the upcom­ing 2018 midterm elections.

And this week, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty announced its new slo­gan and plat­form: A Bet­ter Deal: Bet­ter Jobs, Bet­ter Wages, Bet­ter Future.” Besides its pos­si­ble pla­gia­rism from Papa John’s tagline, the plan includes a repack­ag­ing of a num­ber of long­time Demo­c­ra­t­ic ideas, with some poten­tial pro­gres­sive offer­ings sprin­kled in. But much like a piz­za from Papa John’s, A Bet­ter Deal” most­ly amounts to an unin­spired, stale and cheesy agglom­er­a­tion stuffed neat­ly into a box.

Lack of imagination

One of the main poli­cies includ­ed in A Bet­ter Deal,” laud­ed by both Chuck Schumer and Nan­cy Pelosi in their respec­tive op-eds announc­ing the agen­da, is a tax cred­it for com­pa­nies to train work­ers in new skills. On its face, this ini­tia­tive may come across as smart and sound pol­i­cy aimed at retrain­ing work­ers and incen­tiviz­ing busi­ness­es at the same time. Except their plan has one prob­lem: It doesn’t work.

As has been doc­u­ment­ed time and again, sim­ply hand­ing mon­ey to the pri­vate sec­tor is an inef­fec­tive way to make sure that work­ers become retrained with new skills. In fact, as Corey Robin notes, when such pro­grams have been insti­tut­ed in the past, data and research over decades has shown that over­all they’ve per­formed poorly.

In an In These Times arti­cle pub­lished in 1994, John B. Jud­is explained why job retrain­ing, then tout­ed by the Bill Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, failed to lead to wage increas­es for work­ers or growth in employ­ment. To prove his case, Jud­is cit­ed the Labor Department’s own studies.

What didn’t work in 1994 and in the inter­ven­ing decades is not any more like­ly to work in 2017. And yet the plan sits as one of the cen­ter­pieces of the Democ­rats’ new strat­e­gy. Why?

This goes back to the issue of timid­i­ty. Schumer has called the plan a strong, bold eco­nom­ic agen­da.” In real­i­ty, promis­ing more cash to com­pa­nies is not bold at all: It is the plan least like­ly to offend or chal­lenge the prof­it-max­i­miz­ing mod­el of cor­po­rate America. 

The same holds true regard­ing the issue of jobs. A Bet­ter Deal” sets a goal of cre­at­ing jobs for 10 mil­lion more Amer­i­cans over the next five years. This is a good start, but why stop there? Rather than set­ting its sights on a sim­ple, round num­ber of jobs, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty could take an actu­al bold step and announce a goal of full employ­ment across the coun­try, with every­one who wants a job being offered one.

This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky fan­ta­sy. A fed­er­al job guar­an­tee has been part of the nation­al con­ver­sa­tion going back to at least 1934 when Louisiana’s pop­ulist gov­er­nor Huey Long called for it in his Share the Wealth” plan. Franklin Roo­sevelt includ­ed a fed­er­al job guar­an­tee in his famous sec­ond bill of rights. Mar­tin Luther King Jr. spoke out in favor of such a plan. George McGov­ern ran on it in 1972, and some form of full employ­ment was fea­tured in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty plat­form from 1944 up until 1992, the year Bill Clin­ton won the presidency.

And today, it’s not just social­ists and far-left econ­o­mists call­ing for a jobs guar­an­tee: Even the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can progress is push­ing the pro­pos­al. What’s more, it’s pop­u­lar. And as schol­ars such as Dar­rick Hamil­ton, Mark Paul and William Dar­i­ty Jr. have point­ed out, such a plan could help stem the tide of income inequal­i­ty, as well as the racial wealth gap, while increas­ing the pow­er of work­ers to orga­nize and win fair­er wages and con­di­tions on the job.

If the Democ­rats want to prove they’re fight­ing for work­ing peo­ple and offer­ing dynam­ic lead­er­ship on jobs and the econ­o­my, a jobs guar­an­tee for every­one is a much clear­er posi­tion to stake out than a promise of 10 mil­lion more over five years.

Pop­ulist echoes? 

The area where A Bet­ter Deal” breaks the most with recent Demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­cy­mak­ing is the call for real action on enforc­ing and bol­ster­ing anti-trust laws to help peel back cor­po­rate con­trol over the economy.

Con­sol­i­da­tion of major busi­ness­es in recent decades has led to mas­sive merg­ers and cor­po­rate monop­o­lies which wield incred­i­ble pow­er over eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty in the Unit­ed States. In 2015, glob­al activ­i­ty in merg­ers and acqui­si­tions exceed­ed $5 tril­lion. Near­ly half of this activ­i­ty took place in the Unit­ed States, mak­ing it the high­est amount ever in a sin­gle year.

With merg­er activ­i­ty at an all-time high, the econ­o­my is being left with few­er, larg­er firms and far less com­pe­ti­tion. Just look at the cur­rent bid by Ama­zon to pur­chase Whole Foods for $13.7 bil­lion. If this acqui­si­tion goes through, con­sumers will have even less choice in their abil­i­ty to pur­chase gro­ceries and oth­er goods, and Ama­zon will tight­en its firm grip over the com­mod­i­ty market.

Since the 1970s, Democ­rats have large­ly stood on the side­lines as these types of merg­ers have tak­en place. As Matt Stoller explained in The Atlantic last year, this has large­ly been due to the par­ty mov­ing away from its pop­ulist roots toward a more friend­ly rela­tion­ship with pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions, which in return make hefty con­tri­bu­tions to Demo­c­ra­t­ic campaigns.

If Democ­rats are now com­mit­ting to revers­ing this trend and tak­ing an aggres­sive stand against cor­po­rate pow­er, with the poten­tial to break up large insti­tu­tions such as banks and oth­er con­glom­er­ates, this would indeed sig­nal a stark shift for the party.

How­ev­er, when such a plan is being sold by the likes of Chuck Schumer, who has ben­e­fit­ed enor­mous­ly from his cozy rela­tion­ship to Wall Street through­out his career, there is every rea­son to demand more details — and action — before cel­e­brat­ing this pop­ulist invocation. 

Miss­ing out

There are some oth­er glim­mers of pro­gres­sive hope in the plan, includ­ing calls for a $15 min­i­mum wage and paid fam­i­ly and sick leave for workers. 

But A Bet­ter Deal” is also notable for what it leaves out, espe­cial­ly when it comes to healthcare.

At a time when Repub­li­cans are attempt­ing to jam their bar­barous Oba­macare repeal bill through Con­gress, poten­tial­ly strip­ping cov­er­age from tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, the lack of a health­care plank in this new plan is striking. 

This is espe­cial­ly true when you con­sid­er the grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of a clear alter­na­tive among the party’s base: Medicare for All, sin­gle-pay­er healthcare.

A new poll from Kaiser shows pub­lic sup­port for a sin­gle-pay­er sys­tem now at 53 per­cent — an all-time high. Among Democ­rats, sup­port has grown by 19 points over the past three years.

In recent weeks, a num­ber of Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors have joined Bernie Sanders in speak­ing out in favor of sin­gle pay­er, from Eliz­a­beth War­ren to Jeff Merkley to Kirsten Gilli­brand. Even par­ty up-and-com­ers Kamala Har­ris and Cory Book­er have offered tepid sup­port for such a program.

John Cony­ers’ Medicare-for-all bill in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives now has the sup­port of over half the Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus — the most since he began intro­duc­ing it in 2003

If there was ever a time for Democ­rats to get behind a bold plan on health­care, this is it. Even if Repub­li­cans are unable to suc­cess­ful­ly repeal and replace Oba­macare with their vicious counter offer, the ACA’s many prob­lems are sure to increase in the com­ing years.

Rather than sim­ply defend­ing a sta­tus quo that mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are already frus­trat­ed with, Democ­rats can draw a clear line in the sand by stat­ing that they believe health­care should be guar­an­teed as a right to all Americans.

The same holds true on the issue of cli­mate change: Now is the per­fect moment to demand bold action as part of a broad­er strat­e­gy to achieve eco­nom­ic justice.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has proven time and again its inten­tion to dig for — and burn through — as much fos­sil fuels as pos­si­ble dur­ing its time in office, with zero con­cern for the destruc­tive effects this will have on the climate.

At the same time, the costs of renew­able ener­gy sources are drop­ping at a pre­cip­i­tous rate, encour­ag­ing demand for tech­nolo­gies such as solar and wind. Democ­rats could take advan­tage of this dire moment in his­to­ry to com­mit to a mas­sive invest­ment in renew­ables, both to stave off envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion and pro­vide employ­ment and a bet­ter stan­dard of liv­ing for all Americans.

This list of areas where A Bet­ter Deal” comes up short goes on. The plat­form is bereft of plans to improve hous­ing and edu­ca­tion, tack­le insti­tu­tion­al racism and sex­ism or build up a belea­guered labor move­ment — his­tor­i­cal­ly a core con­stituen­cy of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

A bet­ter agenda

There’s no short­age of ambi­tious pro­grams wait­ing for the Democ­rats to embrace. The par­ty could pledge to break up big banks, offer free pub­lic col­lege, tax the wealthy and finan­cial trans­ac­tions, pro­vide a uni­ver­sal basic income and fight for uni­ver­sal col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. Add these ideas to sin­gle-pay­er health­care, a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee and sweep­ing cli­mate action and you have the mak­ings of the kind of bold eco­nom­ic agen­da that Schumer claims is key to the par­ty reclaim­ing its man­tel as an unabashed advo­cate for the work­ing class.

Such an agen­da would require the Democ­rats to shed their timid­i­ty and prove that they are not behold­en to cor­po­rate inter­ests. And it would cer­tain­ly mean pro­vid­ing more than a shiny, poll-test­ed new mes­sag­ing campaign.

If Democ­rats are wor­ried about the effi­ca­cy of adopt­ing a broad-left plat­form in 2017, all they need to do is peer across the pond. Labour was able to score stun­ning advances in Britain’s June elec­tion run­ning on the most left-wing plat­form the par­ty had put for­ward in more than three decades. The man­i­festo that leaked before the elec­tion called for nation­al­iz­ing util­i­ties such as water, rail and elec­tric­i­ty, elim­i­nat­ing tuition fees, insti­tut­ing free child­care, expand­ing pub­lic hous­ing, tax­ing the wealthy and cor­po­ra­tions and tran­si­tion­ing to 60 per­cent low-car­bon fuels by 2030.

Rather than sab­o­tag­ing the party’s chances, the man­i­festo was huge­ly pop­u­lar and was cred­it­ed in boost­ing Labour’s late rise in the polls, lead­ing to the shock out­come with Jere­my Cor­byn and the par­ty mak­ing huge gains and threat­en­ing There­sa May’s Con­ser­v­a­tive government. 

The rhetoric used by Schumer is his New York Times op-ed announc­ing A Bet­ter Deal” echoes that of Bernie Sanders, cas­ti­gat­ing the pow­er of cor­po­ra­tions over our econ­o­my and fight­ing for the rights of work­ing peo­ple. Amer­i­cans believe they’re get­ting a raw deal from both the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal sys­tems in our coun­try,” he writes. And they are right.”

It’s impor­tant for the par­ty to become com­fort­able nam­ing the ene­my and open­ly call­ing for a realign­ment of eco­nom­ic pow­er to break the stran­gle­hold of neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism over the poor and work­ing class. 

But rhetoric on its own will nev­er solve our country’s eco­nom­ic prob­lems or change the Democ­rats’ for­tunes. To accom­plish this, the par­ty must prove its will­ing­ness to stand up to entrenched cor­po­rate pow­er through its actions. In this regard, the recent track record of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has been abysmal. This is their chance to offer not more drab lay­ers of paint, but real, fun­da­men­tal change.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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