Yves here. Let me offer two very different sorts of comments on this post. Reich is correct in diagnosing the how the Democratic Party has turned its back on workers, but the origins are earlier than he indicates. It was around the time of the McGovern campaign that a key Democratic party strategist successfully inculcated the notion that the future of the Democratic Party lay in cultivating what was later called the rainbow coalition, and that unions, which were presumed to have nowhere to go, could be neglected.
The second is on Reich himself. As we’ve noted, Reich vigorously promoted Nafta when he was Labor Secretary, claiming it would create over one million jobs. The problem with holding high level political roles is that you regularly have to sell garbage barges, whether or not you opposed them when the policy was being hashed out. But there’s no evidence that, at least until recently, that Reich opposed the “free trade” orthodoxy.
But the flip side is that one of the preconditions for change is splits among the elites. We are seeing them now, with Reich engaged in a vigorous and sustained attack on the Clinton campaign, which means the Democratic Party apparatus, and his clear preference for Sanders. Now admittedly, in this post, Reich makes a cringe-making endorsement of Obamacare, but it is fair to say that Obamacare was a plus for those who benefitted from Medicaid expansion. Nevertheless, he’s pushing the Overton Window to the left by taking positions that are clearly more pro-middle and lower class that the ostensible liberal Paul Krugman, who has historically anchored the left margin of acceptable left-leaning discourse.
So I wonder what it takes for someone who has advanced bad policies to redeem themselves. I gave high marks to Gary Gensler, who appeared to have made a Damascene conversion from being a Rubinite to being a committed reformer, admittedly at a secondary financial regulator, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. But now he’s backslid by joining SS Clinton in a senior role. Jeffrey Sachs is another figure who was deeply involved in implementing labor-crushing neoliberal programs in Bolivia, Poland and the former Soviet Union. He in large measure retreated from his former views, save he is still attached to the idea of budgetary prudence.
In other words, I’m not sure what the litmus test is for viewing a change in position of a current or former policy-maker. I’d be a lot more comfortable with clear renunciations of former positions. Brad DeLong deserves great credit in this regard: he is willing to say flat out that he was wrong and he appears to be genuinely remorseful about it too.
But the flip side is that I may be slipping into the Manichean trap I often call out in readers: that of wanting to see people as all good or all bad. Politics is all about compromise, and sometimes interests you oppose on other issues can be staunch allies on particular cases. And more generally, people who are in a position to have influence are almost of necessity tainted. I’ve previously quoted this passage from a 2001 article by Omer Bartov in a review of a book describing how Bulgaria came to be the one Nazi state that refused to turn its Jews over to Germany for extermination:
But the lesson is not quite so simple or so edifying. For we also learn from such instances that the difference between virtue and vice is far less radical than we would like to believe. Sometimes the most effective kind of goodness – I mean the practical kind, the kind that can actually save lives and not merely alleviate the consciences of the protagonists – is carried out by those who have already compromised themselves with evil, those who are members of the very organizations that set the ball rolling towards the abyss. Hence a strange and frustrating contraction: that absolute goodness is often absolutely ineffective, while compromised, splintered, and ambiguous goodness, one that is touched and stained by evil, is the only kind that may set limits to mass murder. And while absolute evil is indeed defined by its consistent one-dimensionality, this more mundane sort of wickedness, the most prevalent sort, contains within it also seeds of goodness that may be stimulated and encouraged by the example of the few dwellers of these nether regions who have come to recognize their own moral potential. As the great cosmological myth of the Kabbalah has it, the shreds of light that remain from the original divine universe may be collected only from the spheres of evil in which they now reside.
By Robert Reich. Originally published at his website
Why did the white working class abandon the Democrats?
The conventional answer is Republicans skillfully played the race card.
In the wake of the Civil Rights Act, segregationists like Alabama Governor George C. Wallace led southern whites out of the Democratic Party.
Later, Republicans charged Democrats with coddling black “welfare queens,“ being soft on black crime (“Willie Horton”), and trying to give jobs to less-qualified blacks over more-qualified whites (the battle over affirmative action).
The bigotry now spewing forth from Donald Trump and several of his Republican rivals is an extension of this old race card, now applied to Mexicans and Muslims – with much the same effect on the white working class voters, who don’t trust Democrats to be as “tough.”
All true, but this isn’t the whole story. Democrats also abandoned the white working class.
Democrats have occupied the White House for sixteen of the last twenty-four years, and in that time scored some important victories for working families – the Affordable Care Act, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example.
But they’ve done nothing to change the vicious cycle of wealth and power that has rigged the economy for the benefit of those at the top, and undermined the working class. In some respects, Democrats have been complicit in it.
Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ardently pushed for free trade agreements, for example, without providing the millions of blue-collar workers who thereby lost their jobs any means of getting new ones that paid at least as well.
They also stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class. Clinton and Obama failed to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violated them, or enable workers to form unions with a simple up-or-down votes.
I was there. In 1992, Bill Clinton promised such reform but once elected didn’t want to spend political capital on it. In 2008, Barack Obama made the same promise (remember the Employee Free Choice Act?) but never acted on it.
Partly as a result, union membership sunk from 22 percent of all workers when Bill Clinton was elected president to fewer than 12 percent today, and the working class lost bargaining leverage to get a share of the economy’s gains.
In addition, the Obama administration protected Wall Street from the consequences of the Street’s gambling addiction through a giant taxpayer-funded bailout, but let millions of underwater homeowners drown.
Both Clinton and Obama also allowed antitrust enforcement to ossify – with the result that large corporations have grown farlarger, and major industries more concentrated.
Finally, they turned their backs on campaign finance reform. In 2008, Obama was the first presidential nominee since Richard Nixon to reject public financing in his primary and general-election campaigns. And he never followed up on his reelection campaign promise to pursue a constitutional amendment overturning “Citizens United v. FEC,” the 2010 Supreme Court opinion opening the floodgates to big money in politics.
What happens when you combine freer trade, shrinking unions, Wall Street bailouts, growing corporate market power, and the abandonment of campaign finance reform?
You shift political and economic power to the wealthy, and you shaft the working class.
Why haven’t Democrats sought to reverse this power shift? True, they faced increasingly hostile Republican congresses. But they controlled both houses of Congress in the first two years of both Clinton’s and Obama’s administrations.
In part, it’s because Democrats bought the snake oil of the “suburban swing voter” – so-called “soccer moms” in the 1990s and affluent politically-independent professionals in the 2000s – who supposedly determine electoral outcomes.
Meanwhile, as early as the 1980s they began drinking from the same campaign funding trough as the Republicans – big corporations, Wall Street, and the very wealthy.
“Business has to deal with us whether they like it or not, because we’re the majority,” crowed Democratic representative Tony Coelho, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1980s when Democrats assumed they’d continue to run the House for years.
Coelho’s Democrats soon achieved a rough parity with Republicans in contributions from corporate and Wall Street campaign coffers, but the deal proved a Faustian bargain as Democrats become financially dependent on big corporations and the Street.
Nothing in politics is ever final. Democrats could still win back the white working class – putting together a huge coalition of the working class and poor, of whites, blacks, and Latinos, of everyone who has been shafted by the shift in wealth and power to the top.
This would give Democrats the political clout to restructure the economy – rather than merely enact palliatives that papered over the increasing concentration of wealth and power in America.
But to do this Democrats would have to stop obsessing over upper-income suburban swing voters, and end their financial dependence on big corporations, Wall Street, and the wealthy.
Will they? That’s one of the biggest political unknowns in 2016 and beyond.