Sunday, November 16, 2014

NY Times On Democrats And The Working Class

Note: Katrina vandenHeuvel, editor of The Nation magazine, longtime mouthpiece of the Democratic Party's left wing, tweeted out this article from Friday's New York Times about whether Democrats should be a party of the working class or something else. I say "something else." Some of the people who've turned the party into what I refer to as 'Republicans who are liberal on social issues', a Wall Street friendly, free trade friendly, Reaganomics friendly party that's willing to cut social spending including Social Security and Medicare, and who want the party to keep going down that road, are quoted here, but aren't very clear about what they mean. Out of political considerations they don't want to admit what they've done, for one thing, but it's not even clear they know what they mean, as when centrist Democrat Kenneth Baer says "...the future of the coalition is among growing parts of the electorate which are neither white nor working class.” Which is an odd statement to make. It sounds like he wants to abandon the working class and cater to Wall Street and maybe well to do feminists and gays, but he still somehow expects these "neither white" voters, by which he means Latinos and Blacks, to just automatically vote Democratic.

Of course this is one article in a wide ranging debate about the Democratic Party and the nation's political system, and the discussion here is limited to political insiders, but the fact that these people are talking on the record to the New York Times about it is an acknowledgment that there's an actual debate going on over the "soul" of the party, or at least that there should be. Incidentally, the term "working class" isn't defined here. When I use it I mean the 99 percent. Us. The masses in the Marxist sense. Many people still divide the working class into the "middle class" and some undefined group of "other" people, although since at least Occupy the term is being used more in its traditional sense, partly because Occupy made people realize how much income inequality there is in this country -- that his, they raised class consciousness -- and partly because the so called middle class is disappearing as more people lose good jobs and have to take crappy ones, which has its own way of raising ones class consciousness.

The links are from the original article.

After Losses, Liberal and Centrist Democrats Square Off on Strategy

WASHINGTON — The Democrats’ widespread losses last week have revived a debate inside the party about its fundamental identity, a long-running feud between center and left that has taken on new urgency in the aftermath of a disastrous election and in a time of deeply felt economic anxiety.

The discussion is taking place in postelection meetings, conference calls and dueling memos from liberals and moderates. But it will soon grow louder, shaping the actions of congressional Democrats in President Obama’s final two years and, more notably, defining the party’s presidential primaries in 2016.

“The debate will ultimately play out in a battle for the soul of the Clinton campaign,” said Matt Bennett, a senior official at Third Way, the centrist political group.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, should she run, will face tension between the business-friendly wing of the party, which was ascendant in the economic boom during her husband’s administration, and the populism of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, which has gained currency of late.

“I want her to run on a raising-wages agenda and not cater to Wall Street, but to everyday people,” Richard L. Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said of his expectations for Mrs. Clinton.

Straddling the two blocs could prove difficult. Progressives have been emboldened to criticize party leaders since the Republican rout, particularly given the lack of a coherent Democratic message to address the problem of stagnant wages.

Sifting through returns showing that lower-income voters either supported Republicans or did not vote, liberals argue that without a more robust message about economic fairness, the party will continue to suffer among working-class voters, particularly in the South and Midwest.

Mr. Obama’s wide popularity among activists and his attempt to transcend the traditional moderate-versus-liberal divide have largely papered over Democratic divisions on economic policy for the last six years. The party was also brought together by the passage of the health care law. But with Mr. Obama’s popularity flagging and the economic recovery largely benefiting the affluent, Democrats are clashing anew.

Unlike in the 1980s, when heavy losses prompted moderates to plead with the party to move away from liberal interest groups and toward the middle, it is now progressives who are the most outspoken.

“Too many Democrats are too close to Wall Street,” said Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. “Too many Democrats support trade agreements that outsource jobs, and too many Democrats are too willing to cut Social Security — and that’s why we lose elections.”

Mr. Brown said he had talked to over 60 Ohio Democratic leaders and activists since they were trounced in every statewide election. “The message I heard from all of them was: The Democratic Party should fight for the little guy,” he said.

To help provide a bridge to liberals, Senate Democrats on Thursday named Ms. Warren as part of their leadership.

While in sync on the substance of cultural issues, some of the populists believe that Democrats placed too much emphasis on such matters and not enough on economic fairness, depressing voter turnout.
“Gay marriage, abortion and birth control are important,” said Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. “But people join our organization for their livelihood, and that’s what our people vote on: their economic self-interest.”

Labor is having its own struggles, with Republican-controlled states moving to limit union power. Democrats lost crucial races in part because of their candidates’ struggles in traditional union enclaves like eastern Iowa, suburban Detroit and parts of Wisconsin.

For example, in losing to the Republican they perhaps most wanted to beat, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, unions saw their members’ turnout slip. After making up 32 percent of all voters in the 2012 recall attempt against Mr. Walker, union households made up just 21 percent of the Wisconsin electorate last week.

Part of that drop was a result of Mr. Walker’s pushing through changes to collective bargaining laws that reduced the state’s union membership. But some labor leaders were upset that Mary Burke, the Democratic challenger, would not commit to undoing those changes.

Steve Rosenthal, a longtime Democratic strategist with ties to labor, said progressive organizations and unions should become more engaged in primaries and push candidates to stand for their agenda, as the right does with Republican candidates.

“I think it’s critical for folks on the left to do more of the same,” Mr. Rosenthal said.
Progressives pointed to three Democrats who ran as populists as models for success: Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Senator-elect Gary Peters of Michigan.

Mr. Merkley, who focused on the loss of well-paying jobs, the cost of college tuition and opposition to trade deals that he said sent jobs overseas, won by 19 percentage points. While Democrats nationally lost whites without a college degree by 30 percentage points, Mr. Merkley narrowly carried that bloc.

“We didn’t lose them here in Oregon because we talked about what they care about,” Mr. Merkley said.

But some center-left Democrats said that those races were exceptions, and that the party should give up on winning a majority of such voters.

“Slowly and steadily since 1968, culture has trumped economics with voting and the white working class,” said Kenneth S. Baer, a former Obama administration official who has written a book on modern liberalism. “It’s become the great white whale for a ship full of Democratic strategists. 

Obama proved that while we cannot get wiped out with that demographic, the future of the coalition is among growing parts of the electorate which are neither white nor working class.”

But not all agree — centrists say the party did not win enough moderate and middle-class voters — and that captures the party’s broader debate about its agenda.

“We talk about policies helping the middle class, but the ones we promote the most are ones that don’t speak to the middle class, like raising the minimum wage,” said Al From, who founded the moderate Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s to counter the party’s move to the left.

Many liberals believe that the disconnect between the politics of the party’s grass roots and the message coming from Democratic administrations has left blue-collar voters unenthused. “We do not have to struggle for an agenda that connects with working-class voters,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut. “We have an agenda that does that, but it does not get vocalized at the top.”

Yet many say that simply pushing for an increase in the minimum wage is inadequate. Liberals want tougher restrictions on banks, more generous federal student loan aid, enhanced collective bargaining rights and a reassessment of the country’s trade policy.

Mr. Obama has made it clear that he intends to work with congressional Republicans to push for fewer restrictions on trade. Some union leaders said they planned to fight those efforts and would be looking for an ally in Mrs. Clinton.

“The next six months, we’re going to be relentless on trade,” vowed Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America. “I hope she comes to our side on this fight. The president is not starting out there.”


  1. The upper echelons of the Democratic Party has been taken over by ultra liberals comprised of folks like the gay marriage, environmental, and drug legalization groups much the same way that the Republican Party have been taken over by the ultra right wing of their party. This lends itself to politics of "hot button" issues by both sides.

    Personally I think that there are more right wing Christians, racists and quasi racists for the Republicans than gays wanting to get married or folks wanting to protect this or that spider or lizard associated with Democrats.

    The Democratic Party has few popular "hot button" issues, the Republicans on the other hand are loaded with them and use them for maximum impact.

    Another problem I see that fails to get mentioned is that the working poor and poor do not want to admit to that status, they will never admit to being the lower class in America, as a worst case scenario they see themselves as lower middle class. The Republicans take full advantage of this.

    The folks in the middle, the middle of anything, are left disgusted with the issues being discussed in political campaigns The parties focus on the shock value to the extremes of their base. And voters know who the extremes of either party are.

    Sometimes it is best to stay home rather than have to take ownership in the victory of one candidate or the other.

    Maybe someone will come along to help the middle class out of the horrible slide they find themselves in. If I were a right wing Christian I would advise folks to "pray" for deliverance. You know what they say, pray and pray and pray some more. With a little salt and pepper the prayer will taste a bit better.

    1. Thanks for the comment, NM.

      I was thinking as I read the Times article that it doesn't account for all the people who didn't vote. They presume they're talking about and accounting for the entire population but they aren't. But your analysis does, if the people who voted are the people who respond to hot button issues. One of the things I like about you is that you often don't adhere to "conventional wisdom." Your take on it also accounts for what they say about primaries, which is that to win a primary you have to appeal to the extreme wing of your party, Republican or Democrat, and then to win the general you have to move toward the center.

      I agree with you about poor people not thinking of themselves as poor. Once in awhile people on the Left will use a quote from John Steinbeck; “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

      Democrats don't see that. But they scratch their heads and wonder why people vote against their economic self interest.

  2. Most interesting post and comment. My father was a banker. At an early age I sided with his brothers who were staunch member of the Brotherhood of Railroad Workers. And I joined my first union at age 15. The Retails Clerks. I was a carry out boy in St. Pauls first supermarket.... :)

    1. Very interesting! 15 years old!. You definitely have street cred.

      Both the Railroad Workers and Retail Clerks have histories as fightin' unions. Thanks for the comment TB.