Do working people have any reliable friends on the political field? We’re long past the point where Democrats can claim to be the party of workers. Republicans have never been sympathetic, except in their most mendacious flights of campaign rhetoric.
The spectacular victory of the public school teachers’ strike in West Virginia, in which they won all their demands, occurred without major-party support. (The West Virginia Mountain Party, affiliated with the Green Party, endorsed it on Feb. 18.)
The record of mainstream Democrats isn’t much better than Republicans on supporting public sector workers. In 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York tried to impose an austerity budget on the state’s employees and insisted they owed $450 million in annual givebacks, while refusing to renew a millionaires’ tax that would have produced $5 billion. Gov. Cuomo got a pass while liberals focused their outrage on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for similar actions.
Ralph Nader, in an excerpt from his forthcoming book “To the Ramparts: How Bush and Obama Paved the Way for the Trump Presidency, and Why It Isn’t Too Late to Repair the Damage” (Seven Stories Press), describes the retreat of Democrats from raising the minimum wage when they had the chance during President Obama’s first term:
“Riding in on a progressive wave, the Democrats seemed primed to boost the wage minimum wage after Obama’s election. The minimum wage did rise in 2009, but this was no thanks to the people in power — it was part of a previous graduated increase that had started in 2007, led by the late senator Ted Kennedy. Since that time no movement has been seen, although Obama had eight years to fight for it.”
President Trump’s election and the GOP capture of both houses of Congress makes raising the minimum to a livable wage even more remote.
That’s just fine with the Democratic establishment. The $15 minimum wage made it into the 2016 Democratic platform thanks to Bernie Sanders’ influence. But there’s a gap between a platform plank and action. In 1948, Democrats added national health care to their platform on President Truman’s insistance. In 1993 they abandoned the idea in favor of the Clintons’ managed-care plan, a gift to the major insurance companies that helped write it.
The Dem mainstream has no intention of budging to the left. It intends to continue taking the party’s traditional labor constituency for granted, on the rationale that the latter has nowhere else to go. This attitude has persisted ever since the 1990s, when the Clintons and the Democratic Leadership Council steered the party to the right to compete more aggressively with Republicans for checks from the corporate sector and the One Percent, a realignment that led to President Bill Clinton’s signatures on NAFTA, the Welfare Reform Act, and bills deregulating Wall Street.
On October 24, 2017, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution with the following language:
“Therefore, be it resolved, in addition to the traditional supporting for electoral candidates who are friends and allies of workers, the AFL-CIO also pursues a strategy of advancing our core issues through referenda and ballot initiatives and propositions at the statewide and local level; studies the viability of independent and third-party politics; and explores other reasonable means of advancing the interests of labor in electoral politics.”
The AFL-CIO intends to “stud[y] the viability of independent and third-party politics.” Are unions finally ready to look beyond the Democratic Party?
The time for doing so is overdue. The collapse of left alternative parties in the last quarter of the 20th century coincides with the reduction — we might say suppression — of labor power and shrinking union membership. This isn’t a coincidence.
One hundred years ago, five parties were seated in Congress. Third-party elected officials were common. In Indiana, Eugene Debs’ home state, dozens of Socialist Party members held seats in municipal councils and mayors’ offices.
Mr. Debs and his fellow labor activists and socialists led an independent movement against corporate oligarchy with a strong and equally independent electoral component. The parties they organized didn’t survive ballot-access laws designed by Democratic and Republican state legislators to weaken alternative parties and Cold War hostility towards parties on the left.
The New Deal was based on ideas advocated decades earlier by socialists and others outside the two-party establishment. President Franklin Roosevelt knew he had to enact them during the Depression or he’d see a mass exodus of working people from the Democratic Party. He didn’t take labor for granted.
The legacy of alternative parties in the U.S. includes abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the eight-hour workday, workers’ benefits, public schools, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, child labor laws, direct election of senators, and programs like Social Security and Medicare.
All these reforms were introduced by alternative parties, most with the backing of labor unions, and adopted decades later by one or both of the major parties.
Alternative parties also endorsed civil rights guarantees, equality, and desegregation long before the majors, which were unwilling to risk the support of white constituents. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were leaders in unions and in socialist parties.
The virtual disappearance of big progressive ideas comparable to those listed above is one of the unmentioned big reasons for the triumph of the bipartisan right wing in U.S. politics in recent decades. When the two corporate-money parties were left alone on the field to duke it out as each other’s sole competition, it was inevitable they’d slide to the right.
While sharp differences exist between Ds and Rs, their leaders tend to converge on basic premises. The mainstream of the two parties agree that “free trade” (globalized corporate power), deregulation, and privatization are good for America; that the correction for economic instability is austerity shouldered by working people; that too-big-to-fail banks must never suffer punishment for their criminal recklessness or even face adequate restraints; that remedies like foreclosure relief and raising the inadequate legal minimum to a wage families can live on are either off the table or to be watered down; that no health-care reform is permissable unless insurance companies help draft the legislation. Neither party supports a repeal of Taft-Hartley or restoration of Glass-Steagall.
The AFL-CIO’s resolution was announced roughly the same time (late 2017) that allegations and insinuations meant to discredit progressives inside and outside the Democratic Party were intensifying. Support for Mr. Sanders in the 2016 primary season was associated with ads placed by Russians in social media. Green presidential nominee Jill Stein was smeared by Howard Dean, Rachel Maddow, and other pro-Democratic liberals as a dupe for Putin and blamed for siphoning votes away from Ms. Clinton. (Confidential to Democrats: votes are earned, not owned by or owed to Dem politicians.)
Margaret Kimberley sums up the ongoing dynamic: “The beat down of Sanders and Stein is a lot more troubling than mere blame shifting and finger pointing. The goal of vilifying them is to clear the field for a rightwing Democrat in 2020 and to silence all dissent. The Democrats are making sure there will be no voice for even the incremental and minimal reforms championed by Sanders. As for the Green Party, the Democrats intend to put them out of business altogether.”
Dem leaders, whether or not they admit it, are keenly aware of deep discontent and growing interest in politics outside of the Two-Party Racket. Their reactions and the focus on scapegoats for Ms. Clinton’s defeat tell us they have no intention of reorienting the party to the left.
It’s not only a matter of unwillingness to risk the loss of fat campaign checks from corporate PACs and billionaires. Democratic leaders are too immersed in their own neoliberal ideology to revive the party’s earlier dedication (as limited as it was) to working people. Ms. Clinton’s recent rehearsal of her “deplorables” contempt for déclassé Trump voters suggests that she hasn’t learned much since 2016.
The result of Dems’ realignment since the early 1990s is a warped definition of progressivism that admits stand-alone positions like support for abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and gun control but dismisses substantial challenges to corporate power, the weakening of unions, the prison-industrial complex, and U.S. belligerence around the world. One can now oppose universal health care, sneer at blue-collar workers, and favor more military spending and still be labeled progressive.
Meanwhile, parties like the Greens and Socialist Alternative, which accept no corporate funding, advocate deep structural changes to make workers’ financial security and rights, democratic workplaces, and aid for the poor permanent. When their candidates have been elected, they’ve acted on these goals.
Bernie Sanders, a socialist independent, has done the same, at least on the domestic scene. His foreign policy positions, unfortunately, tend to mimic those of the Dems he’s surrounded by in the Senate.
On March 14, 16 Democrats in the U.S. Senate joined the GOP to roll back of the Dodd-Frank Act’s already inadequate financial-sector reforms. Passage of such legislation goes to the heart of why we need more than two parties in Congress. As long as the establishment parties are only competing with each other for support from the One Percent, Dems believe they can take voters for granted.
If Democrats — and Republicans too — knew they had to compete with strong third parties for votes, they’d be drawn to the left. That’s why countries with multi-party political fields tend to be more progressive, with fairer wages and more generous benefits, universal health care, free college tuition, more affordable housing, extensive public transportation systems, and vigorous efforts to reduce fossil-fuel consumption.
Under the two-party status quo in the U.S., legislators from the two ruling parties face no repercussions when they abandon working Americans to appease Big Business.
The success of the public-school teachers’ strike in West Virginia, which might be repeated soon in Oklahoma and Kentucky, should force a confrontation with the failure of the Wall Street parties to support working people — and a realization that the long-term struggle for economic justice needs an electoral component that’s independent of the Wall Street parties. Otherwise we’re participating in our own defeat.
Scott McLarty is former media director of the Green Party of the United States. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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