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