Are We Witnessing the Birth of a New Progressive Party?

TR 1902 State of the Union

Princeton Professor Cornel West and some former Bernie Sanders campaign staffers are trying to convince Sanders to lead a third party, a progressive “People’s Party.” Sanders has said he intends to work within the Democratic Party to bring about reform, but he has left open the door just a crack if the Democratic Party doesn’t get its act together.

But that just doesn’t seem to be happening: Lately, we have Hillary Clinton going around saying her loss in the November election was essentially everyone’s fault but her own. Former President Barack Obama may be even more tone deaf than Clinton, accepting a $400,000 “honorarium” for a speech to Wall Street bankers. Other Democrats seem content to simply oppose Donald Trump rather than put forth their own positive vision for moving the country forward.

The leadership of the Democratic Party just doesn’t seem to get it: it is time for real change, not more of the same-old, same-old coalition politics that courts the professional class at big donor fundraisers, but refuses to address (or even acknowledge) the concerns of millions of poor and working class Americans struggling to feed their families and make ends meet.

Perhaps Cornel West is right. A third party may be needed to give the Democrats a much needed wake-up call. The downside is that a third party could potentially split the Democratic vote and result in Republican victories in the short-term. Longer term, however, it might prove to be the only way to jolt the Democrats from their politics-as-usual, middle-of-the-road stupor.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, America had a third party – The Progressive Party – led by Teddy Roosevelt. The Progressives fundamentally altered the direction of American politics, simultaneously taking on the corporate “robber barons” and the corrupt, patronage ridden political machines that ruled the big American cities of the Northeast.

The Progressives sought to radically reform government, to professionalize it; to make it more efficient; to make it work for the people. And they largely succeeded.

Maybe the Democrats need to take a lesson from history and broaden their message: Big government is not evil, as Republicans have argued. Rather it is inefficient government captured by modern day corporate robber barons that is part of what has made American democracy so dysfunctional.

We can and must do better. Taking a lesson from Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives of the early 20th century is not a bad place to start.

Will Progressives Bolt the Democratic Party?

On Saturday, Democrats meet in Atlanta to elect a new chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).  The leadership fight has been taking place largely behind the scenes with two main candidates, Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, vying for the leadership position.

Ellison, a Muslim, has the support of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others in the Progressive wing of the Party.  Perez, who served in the Obama Administration, was the Hillary Clinton supporter and is the more mainstream of the two candidates.

Meanwhile, the U.S economy is in bad shape.  Growth and productivity have slowed significantly since 2000.  We now have a dual economy where the wealthy and highest wage earners are doing quite well, thank you, while average workers have seen their wages stagnate since the Great Recession of 2008.

We need policies that address these issues, including raising the minimum wage and trade and tax measures that encourage investment and job creation in the U.S.

But we also need major tax reform, so that the wealthy pay their fair share.  That will provide the resources needed to invest in infrastructure to create jobs, improve the quality of health care and education, and to end income inequality – in other words, to level the playing field and provide equality of opportunity for all Americans.

We did it in the decades after WW II when the U.S. enjoyed robust economic growth.   We can do it again.  Nickel and dime tweaks to the existing tax code and paltry increases in infrastructure spending, policies championed by Hillary Clinton during her presidential bid, just won’t cut it.

Into this Democratic policy vacuum, the Republican Party is gearing up – yet again – to cut taxes for the wealthy while simultaneously reducing coverage and raising out-of-pocket health care costs for average Americans.

Those in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, including Tom Perez, just don’t seem to get it.    Workers are getting hammered as never before.  But major tax reform, and robust investment in the economy and people, is not on the agenda of the Party they envision.

We suspect that’s because they spend too much time soliciting contributions and cozying up to the same moneyed interests that support Republicans.

Among the privileged in the U.S., policies that favor the wealthy seem to have bipartisan support.

So If moderates, led by Perez, win the race for DNC chair, look for Progressives potentially to bolt the Democratic Party.

A third party may not  be the a long term solution, but it could serve as a wake-up call to those Democrats who were (and continue to be) asleep at the switch, failing to acknowledge the pain felt by American workers, and allowing the likes of Donald Trump to become President.

We have had enough – it is time for real change.

Book Review: Will the American Working Class Rise Again?

Sleeping Giant by Tamara Draut

For too many people in this country, the American Dream is a distant memory, something their parents aspired to, but which is now beyond their reach. Today, if you are working man or woman, you often find yourself toiling long hours for low pay in near poverty.  Even the college educated are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet as they leave school and enter the work world with extremely high debt burdens and facing an anemic job market.

What do you do about it? In “Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America” Tamara Draut provides some useful historical perspective.  Draut is Vice President for Policy and Research at Demos, a progressive “think tank” that advocates for political and economic equality.

Her book, published in the Spring of 2016, just as the presidential election was heating up, recounts a history in which big business launched a counter attack on the liberal activism of the late 1960’s and 1970’s by setting up think tanks and Super Pacs and flooding Washington, DC with high-paid lobbyists

The union movement was eviscerated starting in 1947 with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. The law banned Communists from union leadership positions; established the principle of “right to work;” allowed workers to “opt out” of paying dues; banned secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes, and gave employers the power to hold anti-union meetings in the workplace. In later years, deindustrialization combined with the rise of the service sector made it increasingly difficult for unions to organize.

Meanwhile, what labor protections remained on the books have (and continue to be) largely unenforced.  Draut recounts how big companies in the ever expanding service sector routinely exploit employees by hiring mostly part timers and not paying benefits. Other companies require “on demand” scheduling and encourage off-the- books work to meet unrealistic production quotas.

The decline of the unions was abetted, according to Draut, by a Democratic Party which, beginning in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, began appealing more to college educated whites on high-brow issues such as environmental justice, largely turning its attention away from bread and butter economic concerns of working class voters.

For their part, Republicans cleverly exploited the division by appealing to racism and anti-immigrant prejudice, particularly in the South. The rift caused an historic realignment of the political parties with many working class whites and union members switching their allegiance to the Republican Party.

Draut’s book is well written and thoroughly researched. It contains many personal antidotes illustrating how misguided policies can affect the lives of ordinary Americans struggling to make ends meet. She also offers a number of familiar, common sense policy proposals including raising the minimum wage, revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure and reforming the electoral process.

At times, however, the book seems a little starry-eyed about the potential role of working class Americans and the resurgence of the unions to help turn things around and bring about change. The “Sleeping Giant” (i.e., the working class) awoke alright, but in doing so it seemingly reignited the politics of division and despair, scapegoating immigrants and people of color and electing Donald Trump.

To really bring about change in this country, Progressives must rally Americans of all classes and income groups who understand that an economy that rewards wealth and depresses wages for ordinary Americans is ultimately doomed to fail, and everyone loses, rich and poor alike.

Is the Democratic Party up to the task? Can it reform itself? Can it educate and motivate voters on the inherent dangers of economic injustice, broaden its appeal, transcend class and racial divisions and effect positive change?

Can we tear down the wall of big money donations, entitlement and privilege that so characterizes today’s Democratic Party? Bernie Sanders started to show us the way. He may not have succeeded this time, but he blazed a trail.

This was an election so profoundly negative in tone and substance that tears at the very fabric of American Democracy.  At its core, Draut’s book is a much needed antidote to the post -election blues. It reminds us that after more a half century of struggle, we are in this for the long haul, and that there’s hope for a better future.