Restoring America: A Democratic platform for the post-Trump era

It's definitely not too early to think big: Democrats must unite around an agenda to reshape American society

Published March 25, 2018 12:00PM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi; Bernie Sanders (Getty/Aaron P. Bernstein/AP/John Minchillo/Salon)
Nancy Pelosi; Bernie Sanders (Getty/Aaron P. Bernstein/AP/John Minchillo/Salon)

Ryan Cooper's latest column for The Week, "How Democrats can wipe out the GOP and fix America" could be criticized as hyperbolic (wipe out the GOP? Really?) and ill thought out in some details. But the main thrust of Cooper's thinking is sound: There's a great deal messed up in America today, and if Dems do regain power, meaning a congressional majority after November and then the White House in 2020, they will have "a brief window to fix multiple screaming policy emergencies," Cooper writes, "and reform American political institutions to prevent a resurgence of the diseased Republican Party."

As my old Open Left blogmate Mike Lux argued in his 2009 book, "The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be," progressives have fundamentally reshaped America in a series of relatively brief “big change moments,” lasting only a few years each, in which the vast majority of significant new laws and constitutional amendments have been passed. It is definitely not too early to think about what progressives should do with our next opportunity. Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.

Just look at what happened last time. Barack Obama came into office with solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and Lux (among many others) hoped that 2009 would begin another such big change moments. But the undersized and timid economic stimulus, and the failure to hold Wall Street accountable for bringing on the Great Recession, significantly limited what could be accomplished. Obama's major achievement — the Affordable Care Act — was surely historic, but had conservative roots and only halved the number of uninsured rather than reducing it to zero. Unified GOP opposition and the threat of filibuster stymied a whole host of progressive ideas, including doing anything at all about climate change, gun control or immigration reform.

The failure on immigration was especially galling, as Obama spent years out-deporting Bush in a vain attempt to gain Republican trust for a “grand bargain.” Another “grand bargain” fantasy — raising taxes in exchange for cutting social spending — fortunately did not materialize, but paved the way for a lot of GOP mischief. And, of course, Obama’s dismantling of Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy left Democrats vulnerable to the GOP’s REDMAP plan to gerrymander their way to entrenched legislative power for most of this decade, as described by former Salon editor David Daley in "Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy" (Salon review here).

I repeat this litany for a reason: to make absolutely clear why it’s not a waste of time or energy to start thinking about a strategic progressive agenda right now. Cooper's column represents a good start, even if it is necessarily vague on some points. Now is the time for generating ideas, recognizing those already out there, and weaving together connections to make them stronger.

Cooper groups his ideas under three headings: political reform, domestic policy and foreign policy. I’d like to consider the first two here, setting aside foreign policy for another time. On political reform, he offers three proposals, starting with statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico and ending the filibuster, both of which strike me as no-brainers. If we don’t ditch the filibuster, there’s not much reason to even try doing anything else. The role it once played as an extraordinary display of congressional power, has been totally perverted over time. There’s no going back. Will Republicans do terrible things as a result, when they get power again? Sure. So don’t let them. Statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico will help with that — as well helping people in those places. (Remember Hurricane Maria? If Puerto Rico had two senators you certainly would!)

But Cooper’s third idea for political reform is where things get more interesting, weaving together several different strands under the heading of resurrecting and strengthening the Voting Rights Act. The combination of policy synergy and a creative response to conservative gains is what strikes me as most significant here. The Roberts Supreme Court effectively struck down the VRA’s "pre-clearance" section, on the grounds that it was unfairly and needlessly targeted, mostly on the South. Pre-clearance forbids a jurisdiction from any changes in voting without federal certification in advance.

Rather than refight old battles, Cooper says, we should apply pre-clearance everywhere, with a broader mandate than protecting minority voting rights: ensuring easy and universal access to voting for all. He also adds two more aspects. First, a federal right to vote for “all citizens and legal residents …including for ex-cons and current prisoners,” and second, a federal template for plans to follow, which could make the whole process much easier. Finally, he says, “Election Day itself should also be moved to a Friday and made a national holiday.”

It’s a bold and comprehensive plan, but it doesn’t address everything that's wrong with our voting system. No federal plan possibly could. Four other ideas would be good for Democrats to run on at all levels, from federal to local: proportional representation, ranked-choice voting, multi-member districts and initiative reform. Concerning the first two, as I’ve noted before:

Proportional representation gives coherent minority views a voice in legislative deliberations. Ranked-choice voting gives coherent groups of voters supporting minority candidates, but collectively constituting a majority of the electorate, a fair procedure to join together and form an electoral majority. Both are ways of making democracy work more effectively and inclusively, using models which have proven their effectiveness over time and across cultures.

The third idea — multi-member districts — lets a combination of the first two reforms deliver better representation of voters' views without sacrificing geographically grounded concerns. For a century, the Illinois lower house was elected this way: three members from each state senate district. It gave representation to downstate Democrats and Chicago Republicans who could never win any representation at all through winner-take-all elections in single-member districts. The more diverse representation helped make government more responsive and more trusted — both of which we could certainly use more of today.

For example, there’s a strong rural progressive tradition that rarely gets heard, as Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, explained in an In These Times interview I quoted here last year. Multi-member districts are the most effective, equitable way for those voices to be heard, and would have an ongoing impact on how Democrats think — which in turn will help in reclaiming electoral lost ground, without sacrificing Democratic base voters' concerns.

The fourth idea is reforming the initiative process. As Richard J. Ellis explained in his book, "Democratic Delusions: The Initiative Process in America," the initiative has rarely worked as promised as a voice of the people, rather than clever special interests, and it’s far removed from the careful Swiss model that supposedly inspired it. There it’s reserved for major constitutional matters, and most initiatives are withdrawn by voters, after legislatures respond to the pressure by crafting legislation that addresses conflicting popular demands, which often get lost in the heat of initiative campaigns. Reforming the initiative process more along the lines of the original Swiss model is a long-overdue corrective to make initiatives actually fulfill the promise that’s always been claimed for them, and still leave room for knowledgeable experts to make things work in the real world.

Moving to domestic policy, Cooper offers six ideas, all touching on important issues, but lacking the level of integration and coherence in his Voting Rights Act proposal. Unaccountably, he says nothing about immigration or gun control. But three ideas he does at least provide ways to start talking about synergistic solutions that could transform what Americans think is possible.

First comes Cooper’s discussion of climate change, where he’s programmatically vague and pragmatically silent, even while noting that “this is by far the most important problem facing American society." He goes on to suggest that a “simple way” of thinking about the best way forward “is to take what China is doing with decarbonization, energy efficiency, and renewables, and aim to beat them by 50 percent. Such a ‘competition’ — in reality, a mutually-beneficial international coordination — would be both excellent policy and a worthy national project.” It’s a splendid idea that glosses over the hard part: How to deal with the pain of the massive social restructuring involved, and how to defeat the political resistance that exploits it.

The cornerstone of an answer to this lies in building on the ideas pioneered by visionary labor leader Tony Mazzocchi about a “Just Transition” for workers and communities involved in industries whose toxic downsides have long been ignored or denied. He explained this in a 2016 article, “A Just Transition for U.S. Fossil Fuel Industry Workers,” which I referenced here last April.

Mazzocchi broached the topic as early as 1993: “Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy to another is not welfare. Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis … in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life.” His 2016 proposal for a Just Transition framework for U.S. workers would cost, at what he calls a "rough high-end estimate," about $500 million per year, or 1 percent of the $50 billion in annual public investment he says will be needed "to advance a successful overall U.S. climate stabilization program." Those funds "would pay for income, retraining, and relocation support for workers facing retrenchments as well as effective transition programs for what are now fossil fuel-dependent communities."

This concept of a "just transition" is not just a way out of a difficult political situation regarding climate change, however. The same principles can and should be applied to workers and communities across the board, in transitioning to whatever the 21st century holds in store. Had the notion of a just transition been an integral part of NAFTA, for example, America today would be a very different, far healthier and more vibrant place than it is today.

Cooper’s next idea with deeper possibilities lies in family policy, where he proposes a range of ideas that other countries take for granted: “Paid family and sick leave, a child allowance, universal pre-K, and some kind of universal daycare would go a great deal towards ensuring parents don't have a near-impossible struggle between raising their children and being forced to go back to work,” he says. “This would further advance the U.S. welfare state and deliver meaningful goods to an important Democratic voting bloc: young people.”

This laundry list, fails to single out child allowances for the transformational role they could play, not just in reducing child and family poverty, but in terms of transforming our common-sense understanding of how the economy works.

I’ve written about child allowances before, citing a working paper based on data from the Luxembourg Income Study, “Policies to Reduce Child Poverty: Child Allowances Versus Tax Exemptions for Children,” by Steven Pressman. As I noted then:

According to the [LIS Data Center] website's summary, “It finds that a $3,000-$4,000 child allowance would reduce child poverty in the US to the level of other developed nations and, due to the costs associated with child poverty, be a cost effective policy change.” In the U.S., conservatives claim that tax credits and tax exemptions are the answer to everything. But Pressman noted, “They reduce child poverty by only 0.7 of a percentage point, well below the poverty‐reducing impact of child allowances for all other countries in our tables. ...

With a $4,000 child allowance, our child poverty rate would fall to 14.8 percent, cutting it almost in half, and putting it around the average of all the nations studied. That would cost $160 billion, but Pressman cites a 2007 research paper by Harry Holzer of Georgetown, and three co-authors, which placed the costs of U.S. childhood poverty at about $500 billion per year, almost 4 percent of GDP, including lost productivity and increased crime and health care costs as primary factors. Taking these costs into account, America would actually come out ahead by spending that money on its children.

This is exactly the sort of idea we need to make central in advancing a progressive agenda: It has broad popular appeal, and implementing it will help people economic policy through a more sophisticated lens — one that helps make progressive economic ideas appear sensible more generally. This is something crucial child allowances have in common with Mazzocchi’s "just transition."

There’s also a powerful idea missing from Cooper's proposals about labor, valuable as they are. On “labor law reform,” as he frames it, Cooper writes that “passing a pro-union legal package — by, for example, banning so-called 'right-to-work' laws at the national level, passing card check, or, most aggressively, mandating what's called sectoral bargaining to unionize whole swathes of the economy at a stroke — would benefit workers and raise wages.”

What’s missing here, perhaps because of Cooper's focus on labor law, is a the idea of a universal job guarantee, which can be a policy game-changer. It would radically transform the balance of worker power vs. capital power, which has gotten far out of whack over the past 50 years.

Universal job guarantees have gotten a burst of attention recently, but the idea goes all the way back to the New Deal era, when it was part of Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth plan, a left-wing populist challenge to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s more center-left approach. The arguments in favor for it go well beyond it’s immediate appeal, which in itself is considerable — from African-Americans, whose unemployment rate is typically twice that of whites, to white Trump voters in coal country whose well-paying jobs are never coming back, no matter what the dissembler in chief may tell them. whose coal jobs are never coming back, no matter what Trump might say.

A Nation article arguing that Democrats should embrace a federal jobs guarantee presented detailed state-level information about its popularity, plus a strong endorsement from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has been thrust into national prominence by the #MeToo movement and is seen as a plausible contender for the party's 2020 presidential nomination.

“Guaranteed jobs programs, creating floors for wages and benefits, and expanding the right to collectively bargain are exactly the type of roles that government must take to shift power back to workers and our communities,” Gillibrand told the Nation. “Corporate interests have controlled the agenda in Washington for decades so we can’t tinker at the margins and expect to rebuild the middle class and stamp out inequality. We need to get back to an economy that rewards workers, not just shareholder value and CEO pay.”

New York magazine followed that up with an article puckishly titled “The Radical Proposal That Moderate Democrats Should Be Running On.” For a robust overview, see “You’re Hired!” by Jeff Spross, published last year in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. “The job guarantee’s ultimate aim is sustained full employment: A job for every American who could conceivably desire to work,” Spross wrote.

The benefits of the guarantee for the formerly jobless should be obvious. But just as crucial is how it would help all already employed Americans. When workers compete with one another over an inadequate supply of jobs, they have no power. Conversely, when employers must compete over an inadequate supply of workers, a subtle but profound shift happens. Freed of the fear that they can be cast off into the unemployed and be unable to find a different job, even the lowest-paid workers can demand higher wages and more generous benefits. They can insist on better working conditions and schedules, and job training on their employers’ dime. They can challenge discrimination, harassment, and mistreatment. Unions and labor organizations are empowered. There’s more family stability, healthier communities, more social trust, and more participation in civic life.

It is, in short, the progressive, left-wing version of tax-cuts for the rich: a panacea. The difference is, this one could actually work. By bringing it into the public conversation, and implementing it, we could radically transform how a large number of Americans see the economy.

Tax cuts for the rich are supposed to create jobs, because the rich are “job creators” who need more money to create them. There are two major problems with this formulation: It’s consumer demand that creates jobs, not CEOs. But the widespread illusion that wealthy people can conjure jobs out of nothing bestows enormous political and economic power upon them. That illusion becomes self-sustaining, as long full employment remains unthinkable:

The crucial thing to remember is that it’s in the capitalists’ interests to never provide enough jobs, and to keep large amounts of the employed in a permanent state of precariousness. …

As Polish economist Michael Kalecki observed, the real issue is that full employment strips business owners and the capital-owning class of power. This is what worries that the job guarantee will displace private employment, or provide mere “make work,” are really about.

With full employment, the capitalists lose their leverage to depress workers’ wages and must give up more profits. But, more than that, when it comes to running endeavors that are ostensibly “theirs,” the capitalists are forced to bargain with and bend to the will of workers “below” them. Their position as the demigods of the economy — granting employment when they are appeased, and taking it away when they are angered — is undone.

Bottom line: the owners of big capital are “job creators” no more. The illusion is undone. The cost, Spross estimates would start around “$670 billion in its first year — or about 3.6 percent of the economy ... roughly the annual cost of the federal government’s various health-care subsidies, and less than Social Security.” That's substantial, but hardly ruinous, and the costs would shrink dramatically, thanks to the demand such a program would create. It would also reduce the costs of existing social services -- Medicaid, SNAP, housing assistance, etc. — as fewer people have need of them. It would also mean less severe future recessions, as laid-off workers take government jobs, softening their income losses and damping down the self-reinforcing tendency of economic downturns.

In the long run, Spross points out, “Preventing mass joblessness would prove far cheaper than eliminating it once it’s set in.” Today, tens of millions of Americans would agree, based on first-hand experience. If we properly valued the loss of well-being (physical, mental, emotional and social) that results from excess unemployment — the externalized costs of how we do business today, in other words — the benefits of avoiding those losses would easily outweigh the costs.

Like the child allowance and the "just transition" concepts, the universal job guarantee provides concrete proof that progressive economic ideas will not only pay for themselves, but vastly improve the lives of millions, well beyond the direct beneficiaries.  They address central problems in our society and serve as powerful exemplars, models of "how things work" that directly contradict the “common sense” of market capitalism that most folks on the bottom of society instinctively despise, whomever they may blame for it.

Of course, these proposals can also appeal to voters across demographic lines that supposedly serve as unbridgeable chasms in Trump’s America. What better way to create a post-Trump America than to build on solidly progressive ideas that can unleash a powerful new vision of our economy and our entire society?

By Paul Rosenberg

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

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