SINCE THE ELECTION OF RONALD REAGAN IN 1980, Democrats passed NAFTA, neglected the Employee Free Choice Act and all but abandoned progressive taxation of incomes. They have, more or less, abandoned the idea that an important function of government is to balance society by keeping the gap between rich and poor from becoming too great.
They have forgotten that the income tax system, support for labor and
wealth redistribution have proven to be the most effective ways to
accomplish these objectives. These sins of omission and commission, in
tandem with the destruction inflicted by Republican Party economic
policies, have devastated the working class.
During his administration, President Clinton made some pious noise
about sending all those former assembly line workers from our devastated
manufacturing sector to college so they could be “knowledge workers,”
or something to that effect, which sounds nice but is actually kind of
ridiculous. But for the most part the Democratic Party has stood by for
the last 30-plus years and barely raised their voices to help the middle
and working classes.
Someone once asked Sherrod Brown, the Ohio senator, why people in
economically ravaged southeastern Ohio had begun voting for Republicans.
His answer: “Because the Democrats stopped talking to them.” I think
the problem is more that the Democratic Party, when it bothers to cast a
glance their way at all, offers words (often tinged with condescension)
but precious little else. And the Republican Party uses the resentment
of the people abandoned by Democrats to push an agenda whose real
purpose is to increase the power and wealth of the people who’ve been
doing most of the prospering in the last 30 years.
The policy focus of the center-left in this country — its animating
passion in those times when it has been most ascendant — has been
economic in character. Every day on my television, I see ginned-up,
phony controversies as economic royalists on the Republican “right” and
social libertarians on the Democratic “left” pretend to care about the
legal status of fetuses and gay people, and gee, sorry, there never
seems to be any time left after discussing those issues to talk about
how the economic lives of ordinary working people are getting steadily
worse, under both Democrats and Republicans.
Almost 25 percent of American children are on food stamps. The
combined number of un- and underemployment, even after four years of
“recovery,” is still almost 16 percent. Half of all Americans struggle
to feed themselves. People whose collars are blue and whose hands are
callused are staring every day into a continuing economic abyss that is
killing their friends and making their neighbors homeless.
But the thing is, even people who have jobs are staring into that
abyss. People’s jobs (including, these days, those of so-called
white-collar workers) are being offshored by companies whose only agenda
is making sure stockholders are happy with the next quarterly report.
From a long-term perspective, this is an almost comically stupid thing
to do at the macro level. If every company did this, eventually no one
in the U.S. could afford to buy their products except a few thousand
people in upper management or those lucky few who have inherited wealth.
In short, the elitism of global capital destroys the golden goose —
it deprives the economy of customers. But then, given the ruthless
character of the world’s globalized capitalists, from their perspective
this may not be a problem: After all, there’s a billion Chinese to make a
buck off of. (Until they, too, are used up in a few decades, and then
these global magnates can decamp for the next populations to exploit and
bleed dry … )
I’ve got a new name for this trend: Locust Capitalism.
The only way to halt the debasement of this country’s (and the
world’s) non-rich by the rich is to intervene; to stop it. History
suggests that the only entity big enough to do that is the United States
government — but our government will only do it if we citizens insist
in unmistakable terms that it do so. And it will only do so if there is a
governing majority of people who agree that a core function of
government is defending the interests of working people.
The most important question to ask of any political party is not what it stands for, it is WHO it stands WITH.
The people who have prospered under the rightist economic regime of
the last 30 years have been the top 20 percent of earners. These people
are who the Republicans stand with.
Everyone else has either stood still or actually gotten worse off —
and inexcusably, the Democratic Party has let it happen, largely by
forgetting who they’re supposed to stand with: the other 80 percent of
What does all this mean? Where do we go from here? The way forward is
not easy, but it is simple in concept: The Democratic Party needs to
commit itself to undoing the damage done by 30 years of laissez-faire
The Democrats need a clear and public “to-do” list of specific,
concrete ways to help that neglected 80 percent (more on that in a
future column), and their only task should be selling and implementing
that agenda. Undoing the damage done to Americans by capitalism run amok
will be the foundation of a powerful governing majority.
Of course, if the Democratic Party is at all successful in this
effort, it will result in unending howls of protest from the usual
suspects on the right — and if it gets bad enough, maybe even
ridiculous, badly written polemical novels featuring wooden prose and
characters named John Galt.
History suggests that failing to get it done, on the other hand, will
result eventually in social unrest, and if it gets bad enough, armed
revolution — and don’t ever think the United States is exempted by
history from such events.