Back to the progressive future: It's not too late to overcome the mistakes of the Clinton era

Progressives had great ideas on trade, the environment and democracy — until Clinton threw them under the bus

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published August 20, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Bill Clinton   (Getty/Stephen Jaffe)
Bill Clinton (Getty/Stephen Jaffe)

Much of the internal strife inside the Democratic Party today hearkens back to policy choices made in the 1990s, as the Clinton administration firmly wedded the party to a neoliberal policy agenda — on trade, deregulation, welfare reform, mass incarceration, and so on — much of which is finally getting the sort of sustained critical scrutiny it escaped at the time. While neoliberal ideas from the 1990s have been the source of significant strife, some problems facing us have solutions rooted in that decade as well.

The same intellectually restricted environment that made those Clinton-era compromises seem sensible also excluded insights, ideas and perspectives that could have served us far better at the time, and — more importantly — can still help us get a handle on some of the most challenging problems we face today. They are well worth re-examining and integrating into any progressive to-do-list for the years ahead.

Progressive ideas about trade from labor and environmental activists, for example, are echoed in the most recent speech by Canada's foreign affairs minister about how our northern neighbor want to make NAFTA more progressive. Lani Guinier's ideas about proportional representation — which got her demonized as a “quota queen” by conservatives, and were quickly abandoned by liberals — can help resolve gerrymandering problems, decrease urban-rural animosity, reduce electoral polarization and enable problem-solving politics. More broadly, a combination of democracy-enhancing innovations, which had super-majority support in long-overlooked 1990s polls, can make democracy work better in the public interest across a wide of issues, rather than crippling government further, as conservatives have long advocated.

Restoring Lost Voices on Trade

Because the issue of trade is so concrete, and so central to Donald Trump's xenophobic nationalism, let's examine it first. On Aug. 14, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said:

In particular, we can make NAFTA more progressive first by bringing strong labour safeguards into the core of the agreement; second by integrating enhanced environmental provisions to ensure no NAFTA country weakens environmental protection to attract investment, for example, and that fully supports efforts to address climate change; third by adding a new chapter on gender rights, in keeping with our commitment to gender equality; fourth, in line with our commitment to improving our relationship with Indigenous peoples, by adding an Indigenous chapter; and finally by reforming the Investor-State Dispute Settlement process, to ensure that governments have an unassailable right to regulate in the public interest.

The idea of making labor and environmental protections an integral part of trade deals was central to the position of progressive activists throughout the Reagan-Bush era. That was when of the groundwork was laid for NAFTA, which George H.W. Bush signed just before Clinton took office. Clinton attempted to mollify critics by adding toothless side agreements on labor and the environment, which threw conservatives into fits, but did virtually nothing on the ground. As the Institute for Policy Analysis reported in 1997:

Complaints have been filed under the labor side pact regarding violations at four plants (three in Mexico and one in the U.S.), but not a single worker involved has benefited. A major flaw of the pact allows trade sanctions only in the case of violations related to minimum wage, health and safety, and child labor. Violations of core labor rights, including freedom of association, collective bargaining, and strikes, can only lead to consultation. Moreover, complaints can only be filed against a government for failing to enforce its own laws, while the corporate lawbreakers face no sanctions whatsoever. ...

Both the environmental and labor side agreements need serious revision. First, they must become part of the main body of a new trade agreement rather than tacked on as weak side pacts. Second, penalties for violations of labor and environmental laws need to be much more severe and designed so that both the negligent governments and the corporate violators feel the pain. So far, the most serious outcome of complaints filed under the side agreements has been consultation among government officials.

In short, the side agreements were meaningless camouflage for what NAFTA was actually about. This deception went to the heart of why progressives felt betrayed by the Clinton administration, and contributed to the dynamic that swept Republicans into power in Congress in 1994. Rewriting the rules now, along the lines called for by labor and environmental activists at the time, would go a long way toward making trade what it promises to be — a win-win arrangement for all.

That's only part of the problem, as economist Dean Baker argues in his (free) book, "Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer," which explains how the rules were all designed to benefit the wealthy — rules on trade, patents, copyrights, corporate governance and macroeconomic policy. “The upward redistribution was not an accidental outcome of a process of economic integration: it was the purpose of this process,” Baker wrote in a recent blog post.

But the exclusion of labor and environmental advocates from the entire process — from crafting the rules to how they're enforced — was an integral aspect of that rigging process that continues to this day. Reversing that exclusion and unrigging the system should be a crucial element in any progressive to-do list confronting the globalized world today.

Fixing Our Dysfunctional Democracy

Opposition to NAFTA was a key element in the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, but more than that there was seismic discontent with politics as usual, reflected in the historic strength of Perot's showing. As happened with NAFTA, however, the progressive side of this discontent has almost thoroughly been forgotten, even more than it was submerged at the time. Perot's 19 percent share of the popular vote was the strongest challenge to the two-party system since Theodore Roosevelt got 27 percent in 1912, relegating the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, to third place.

As described in "Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence," Republicans took calculated advantage of Clinton's rebuff of Perot over NAFTA, adopting some of Perot's platform into their “Contract With America.” But the widespread perception that politics was broken could have led in two different directions: Either take power away from the political establishment, or infuse power into the people as a whole. Conservatives naturally gravitated toward the first alternative, pressing for term limits, a balanced budget and cuts to congressional committees and staff. The second alternative — that of reinvigorating our democracy, was not just the road not taken, but the that has largely been forgotten. It's time for that to change.

I've written before about some of what this entails. In 1986, Alan F. Kay launched his model of “public interest polling,” in collaboration with pollsters who worked with both George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in the 1988 campaign. As Kay later explained the concept, “Public-interest polling is about issues — resolving community, regional, state, national and international problems. What is needed is governance that will help make the world, or our part of it, work with consensus support as easily realizable as a small town-meeting can find a consensus should it wish to.”

Kay repeatedly found such consensus in ideas that were well outside the mainstream of elite politics. His Americans Talk Issues Foundation produced a series of more than 30 polls over the next decade and a half, documented in his 1999 book, "Locating Consensus for Democracy – A Ten-Year U.S. Experiment." It's worth reviewing some examples of consensus he found in different issue areas, before turning to the over-arching issue of reinvigorating democracy.

ATI began with a series of polls focused on national security issues. Perhaps the most striking finding from this first series was the emergence of a strong, durable public consensus favoring the abolition of nuclear weapons — a position virtually never expressed in elite political discourse at the time. An early ATI poll included a sequence of questions, proposed by Bob Teeter, a top Bush advisor "who was trying to figure out how to 'crack' the public," undermining their support for nuclear abolition. The series of questions he designed did manage to reduce support for abolition slightly, from 56 to 53 percent — but that was without any questions presenting arguments in support of abolition. The resilience of this popular consensus, at odds with elite opinion, was not an anomaly, Kay discovered over the course of the next few years.

In the area of energy policy, in 1991, Kay found a strong consensus favoring “new renewable-energy electric generating systems based on wind, solar and hydro or water power,” “cars meeting new high fuel efficiency standards,” “new high fuel efficiency trains and planes,” adopting “some new fuel — like hydrogen or alcohol fuels — to begin to replace gasoline,” and installing “new efficient systems for lighting, for pumping and mechanical processes and for air conditioning, refrigeration and heating” both in homes and commercial buildings.

This forward-looking agenda was completely out of sync with the political elite, Kay noted:

The Johnston-Wallop National Energy Strategy bill, S. 2166, passed the Senate by an overwhelming 94-4 vote in Feb. 1992, with provisions almost diametrically opposed to the public’s preferences … the Senate bill favored energy proposals that the public had turned down: build new safer nuclear power stations, allow oil development in coastal regions off-shore previously banned and streamline the approval process for new nuclear power plants.

It's telling that where we are today is much more in line with what the public overwhelmingly supported than with what Congress chose to do in the early 1990s. Given how much time has been lost in combating global warming, and the enormous future costs of that delay, the practical benefits of Kay's approach to public-interest policy-making are enormous.

Following that, Kay went on to find strong support for an internationalist approach in dealing with specific problems where the logic of doing so was particularly compelling. One such problem was toxic waste cleanup. Given a choice between three national-level options — cleanup at taxpayer expense (to prevent industrial flight), partial cleanup (limited to what industry can afford), full cleanup (risking industrial flight) — and an international agreement requiring the same standards in all countries, 66 percent favored the international approach. Another was the problem of international aggression. In three different polls from 1991 to 1995, there was super-majority support for the United Nations taking the lead, ranging from 69 percent to 85 percent. Strikingly, a 72 percent majority was willing to give up U.S. sovereignty in favor of U.N. resolutions protecting the environment, at least when the question was framed this way: 

In order to protect and preserve the world’s environment, United Nations resolutions on polluting the atmosphere and dumping toxic wastes in the ocean should have the FORCE OF LAW and rule over the actions and laws of individual countries with weaker environmental laws, even the laws of the United States when our environmental protection laws are weaker.

Given the rise of xenophobia and conspiracy theory on the right in America since then — epitomized by the election of Donald Trump — there is no assurance that majority sentiment on these three issues is still intact. Even if it did exist latently, it would still be quite challenging to organize around. One key reason why this is so is the failed elite political response to Perot’s candidacy in 1992. Republicans saw Perot as providing astrategic opening, and adopted some Perot-friendly positions, at least superficially. But neither party took seriously the need to develop consensus around government reform as ATI did.

First, ATI polled to identify the nature of those concerns — and found them much more widespread than the 19 percent of the vote that voted for Perot. They found that super-majorities (two-thirds of voters or more — over 80 percent in some cases) felt that people in government waste a lot of tax money, that the government in Washington can only be trusted to do what is right “some of the time or never,” and that it is dominated “by a few big interests looking out for themselves.”

ATI then examined 38 potential policy responses, with the first set described as “Punitive Cut, Limit, and Reform Proposals.” High support (80 percent) was found for cutting congressional pay and benefits to set an example for the whole government. Other measures polled included term limits, limiting contributions from lobbyists and special interests and passing a balanced budget amendment.

But ATI also asked about a second, more pro-active set of reform proposals. One of them — making voter registration easier via the motor-voter plan, registering voters when they apply for a drivers license — did become law in the '90s. But the rest were virtually ignored. These included:

  • A voluntary questionnaire with IRS tax forms, to inform the government of principal budget priorities.
  • Develop and use new indicators (similar to the GDP) to hold politicians responsible for progress toward other national goals, like improving education and health care, etc.
  • Scientific, nonpartisan, large sample surveys of public opinion on all important national issues.

The last of those suggestions would, ideally, uncover the same kinds of potentially hidden consensus that ATI discovered, which would allow politicians to craft policies much more in tune with what substantial majorities of citizens actually want. The IRS surveys could provide general budget priority guidance, and the new indicators could provide more objective guidance for adjusting and revising policies. These proposals would all work together in synergy to produce a much more effective way of translating public will into effective public policy. As Kay wrote at the time

Many of the proposals in group two are positive, pro-active and capable of opening up the government to the people as a whole. Many are as strongly supported by the public as most of the highly supported but punitive cut, limit and reform proposals. They should be quite palatable to, even welcomed by, Congress, as truly improving the quality of democracy in America, strengthening the republic, costing little, not interfering with any legitimate government function and, most important, not curtailing useful, reasonable means, support, prerogatives or rewards for the good service to the country that most Members of Congress do, in fact, supply.

The failure to act on this array of democracy-enhancing proposals represents a terrible lost opportunity. Without these ideas even circulating widely, the more punitive alternatives have come to dominate in most discussions criticizing the status quo — discussions that have only grown more heated and acrimonious over time. In order to escape from the false dichotomy of supporting the status quo or Trump-style destruction of our institutions down, this kind of proactive approach is crucial.

Proportional Representation — Fixing Our Election System

This brings us to our last subject, proportional representation. In the 1990s, it was most prominently proposed by Lani Guinier, who was demonized by conservatives as a “quota queen” when Bill Clinton nominated her to head the civil rights division at the Department of Justice. (Her major writings on the subject were collected in "Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy.") The conservative canard implied that Guinier wanted to impose racial quotas on political bodies from above, but her goals were actually the opposite: empowering voters, from below, to form political communities of “like minds, not like bodies,” as she herself had already written. But the Democrats — most notably Senate Judiciary Committee chair Joe Biden and Clinton himself — never bothered to hear her out, and instead threw her overboard reflexively.

In doing so, they severely damaged the prospects for making our democracy more robust and inclusive. Beyond that they opened the door for Republicans to use the Voting Rights Act to pit black politicians against white inside the Democratic Party, using a candidate-centered model of voting rights rather than the community-based model Guinier had argued for. Conceiving of black electoral success in terms of who gets elected was a mistake, Guinier argued — the real goal was empowering black votes, whoever they choose to represent them. Indeed, she put a premium on doing so in ways that encouraged cross-racial collaboration rather than driving increased polarization.

All this was far too subtle for Clinton, Biden and the D.C. punditocracy to fathom. In the post-1990 redistricting cycle, Republicans started using the Voting Rights Act to advance majority-minority districts in the South, increasing the number of African-Americans elected to Congress at the expense of white Southern Democrats -- which in turn drove more white voters to abandon the Democratic Party, weakening African-Americans' political prospects in terms of legislative goals.

Democrats were clueless about how to respond. They didn't even begin to have an analytic language to describe what the Republicans were doing, and why the minority empowerment it promised was cynical at best, if not downright diabolical. Guinier did. But Democrats, spooked by conservatives' racist name-calling, had thrown her under the bus, and have still not rediscovered their way, a quarter century later.

It really wasn't that hard to understand. Although Guinier came to her ideas in a civil rights context, they would actually benefit all citizens, making politics far less of a zero-sum (or even negative-sum) game. On election day in 1994, the Christian Science Monitor ran an op-ed I wrote on the subject, in which I explained:

In the United States, district-based, geographical systems represent us together with our neighbors -- those who live near us. Proportional representation would represent us together with our friends -- those who think like us. That is its simple genius.

Representatives for a geographical district face an impossible task: representing many conflicting interests and points of view. Representatives for a self-selecting portion of the population represent a shared point of view or set of interests, giving new resonance to the term ``representative'' democracy. Important differences are then deliberated in the legislative body with able and articulate advocates representing a wide range of views and interests.

As an illustative hypothetical, I pointed out that in California's 80-seat assembly, each winner represents roughly 1/160 of the state's population and votes cast. Every extra vote they get above that level -- and every vote for their defeated opponents -- is wasted. Thus, a 41-seat majority represents barely more than one-quarter of the votes cast. With statewide proportional representation using ranked-choice voting, on the other hand, each winner would represent just over 1/81 of the total California vote, almost twice as much winners do now.

As a result, the number of voters not voting for any winning candidate would drop to about 2 percent of the total, and a 41-seat majority would represent a majority of voters. Combining such a reduction of wasted votes with the democracy-enhancing ideas highlighted by ATI would put even more power into the hands of average voters.

Of course, there's value in local representation as well. A mixed system — proportional representation within multi-member districts — would sharply reduce the number of wasted votes while retaining the integrity of geographically distinct polities. Three-member districts would waste just under one-fourth of the votes, while five-member districts would waste just under one-sixth. The state of Illinois used three-member districts in its lower house for almost a century, allowing Republicans to elect representatives from Chicago and Democrats to elect representatives from more conservative downstate regions — as Guinier herself pointed out several times. It's a powerful antidote to the alienating experience of having no representation in state government, and a sensible, bottom-up way of letting Democratic voters themselves shape a more cohesive politics, allowing rural Democrats to express their priorities without forcing urban Democrats to compromise.

Proportional representation with transferable votes creates the same sort of electoral logic as ranked-choice voting for a single seat — the same incentives to steer away from polarizing, attack-centered politics and toward bridge-building, solution-oriented politics. Multi-member districts also make it much easier to combat both partisan and racial gerrymandering. Larger districts make it easier to maintain cohesive communities within district lines, and make things more difficult for those who want to gerrymander for nefarious purposes.

All these ideas have been forgotten or at best misremembered through the prism of poor choices made after they were shoved aside. We would all be well served to see them in a different light: as a progressive to-do list that could have helped us avoid a great deal of what's gone wrong with American politics and democracy, and is urgently necessary today. 

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg