In a recent op-ed in the Roanoke Times, activist and organic farmer Anthony Flaccavento argues that Democrats must pay a lot more attention to rural America if they hope to rebuild the party. It is a startling proposition, if only because it rarely gets articulated, but one that should be a central part of a progressive agenda in 2018 and beyond. It also takes aim at the stale debate in democratic and progressive circles about whether the party should “lean to the center” to try to appeal to imagined swing voters, including the so-called “white working class,” or aim instead to “energize the base.”
To mark Labor Day, professors WIlliam E. Forbath and Brishen Rogers published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that labor law should be an important political objective in rejuvenating worker activism. Although labor unions overall are in a state of decline, there is significant activism pushing for raising minimum wages–for example Fight for $15–and related efforts to support workers. And in urban areas and some economic sectors, there are still a significant number of unionized workers, while at the same time workers in other industries are attempting to organize. This activity is important for unions of course, but it is also important for working people and the middle class in general because unions have always played crucial roles in progressive movements. That is why business elites and their allies in government have consistently worked to undermine them. Per Forbath and Rogers: “Without a rejuvenated labor movement, it’s almost inconceivable that breakthrough reforms will come to pass.”
The 2016 election cycle seems to have awakened a large number of Americans to the economic stagnation that afflicts much of the US working class, whether in former industrial centers of the Midwest, rural areas, or large cities. This stagnation amounts to a system crisis brought on by de-industrialization, automation, declining real wages, under employment, and growing work insecurity for many middle class Americans. These trends, which go back decades, have led to increasing inequality and diminishing opportunities as well as a politics of extremism. How can we get out of this trap?
One of our problems is that received wisdom–namely the idea that there is no alternative to unregulated markets in a globalized economy–has enjoyed a stranglehold on mainstream economic and political debate. But in the past year, most notably with the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, this monopoly of ideas has started to break down. Recent polling shows that fewer Americans than in the past–especially younger citizens–fear socialism while increasing numbers are critical of capitalism. Further evidence of this opening was seen in the debate about healthcare that accompanied the republican attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Whatever one thinks about Obamacare, it appears to have solidified the idea that affordable healthcare is a right, not something that Americans should only access through what is euphemistically called the “free market.”
For those paying attention to the debate about healthcare options, other countries’ systems are important reference points, because of their success compared with the US in keeping costs down while achieving universal coverage and much better health outcomes overall. But European countries–particularly the Scandinavian countries–are doing much better than the US in other spheres as well, including educational achievement, economic productivity, the maintenance of a vibrant middle class, and the minimization of poverty. How have they achieved this success? George Lakey’s book, Viking Economics, provides some answers.
We hear a lot about “southern heritage” these days, especially with regard to the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and notables that appear in cities and towns all over the country. Given that the vast majority of such monuments were erected several decades after the Civil War at the height of Jim Crow in the South, but also in the heyday of anti-black ordinances in the North, it is clear that this monument-building had aims other than the expression of southern culture. So here’s my question: why are these statues and the Confederacy they represent so important to southern heritage? Given several hundred years of history, why put so much emphasis on the four years of the Confederacy? Why does the removal of Robert E. Lee and other generals from our public squares present such a threat? Do southerners have nothing else to fall back on? Hardly.
For those who like statues and monuments, don’t we still have southerners like George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson? Let’s take it a bit further. What about the great inventors and craftsmen of the South? Do we not have Nashville and country music; New Orleans and jazz–foundations of southern culture beloved by millions around the globe? Lots to be proud of there. What about the unique sub-regional cultures in Appalachia and the Creole regions of Louisiana (and many other places)? How about food? My god, what would America be without southern cuisine of all types? What about the writers and poets, the musicians and novelists and storytellers; the farmers and those who toiled in the fields and factories. Lots to celebrate there and, as far as I can tell, no one wants to suppress any of it. Quite the contrary.
The failed attempts by the republicans in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) have yielded some surprising results. The process itself spurred many Americans to pay close attention to health care policy and to republican shenanigans. In the end, instead of sneaking the legislation through quickly with minimal deliberation, conservative senators and representatives were confronted by firestorms of opposition at town hall meetings. Press coverage and continued protests have kept the issue alive.
Even more consequential, as a result of the awful bills put forward (and passed in the House), there has been a shift in public opinion toward the view that everyone has a right to affordable health insurance. Polling has found increasing support for single payer or Medicare for all laws. In addition, many governors, including republican governors, actively opposed the repeal legislation, because of what it would do to Medicaid and the prospect that large numbers of their constituents would lose insurance. And if we consider GOP claims about the legislation–dishonest as they were–that it would improve healthcare and reduce costs for everyone, it is clear they had no choice but to play this game on a field where healthcare for all was a basic ground rule.
With the election of Donald Trump and the ascendance of a radical republican party, it is a commonplace to assert that the United States is passing through a moment of great uncertainty and great peril. At the same time, there has been a flowering of progressive movements–going back several years in many cases–and political activism. But for many progressives it is not clear how activism translates into political change.
If you are wondering how the power of protest works, Francis Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America offers some answers. Despite the fact that this book was written in 2006–a lifetime ago given the current pace of dizzying events–Piven’s conceptual approach and historical analysis lend many helpful insights about how protest movements can affect political coalitions and electoral politics.
We live in perilous and confusing times. On the one hand, the US government is dominated by a reactionary two-headed regime that is attempting to throw over 20 million citizens off of health insurance, while giving a huge tax break to the wealthiest 1 percent. On the other hand, the idea of universal healthcare appears to be catching on fast in progressive circles and possibly across the political spectrum in the United States. The Kaiser Family Foundation has noticed a shift in attitudes and even conservative commentators George Will and Charles Krauthammer have recently predicted that the US will eventually have a single payer system. Whatever the outcome of the current effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, universal health care will be on the agenda.
But, as we have seen countless times in the past several years, nothing is inevitable and everything is contested. There are extremely powerful forces that find universal healthcare abhorrent. In a “normal’ political system, a bill that had an approval rating of under 20% would have no chance of making it through Congress, but given the power of the insurance industries, the outsized influence of billionaires like the Koch brothers, and the right-wing media and blogosphere cheerleading for cruelty, this awful bill had a good chance of becoming law. The clear implication is that while universal healthcare is catching on as an idea among newly energized progressive groups, there is a very difficult and expensive fight ahead to make it a reality. If progressives are not prepared, they may lose the best chance in decades to pass a law that guarantees health care to all Americans.
After six months of chaos, it has become apparent that we have entered a terrifying political realm where the leader of the country operates in his own reality and constant turbulence is the order of the day. Let’s call it “Trumpworld,” a place where the man and his ill-considered tweets and statements are everywhere, absorbing media attention and distracting everyone else. His outrageous behavior may not be presidential, but it derives from his personality. He is not going to change.
This presents a problem for democrats and other opposition forces who are struggling to find political traction. On the one hand, Trump’s behavior appears to be more-or-less for the benefit of his most ardent supporters. They welcome his brash, offensive style and will likely stick with him for his entire term. On the other hand, there is little value to scrutinizing every Trump misdeed as his support is already very low and is unlikely to fall much farther. To condemn him is only to draw more attention to him; to play on his field. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to ignore outrageous statements and actions by a sitting president. All of this makes it nearly impossible to make political headway in the media storm that Trump kicks up almost every day. What are democrats and progressives to do?
In left-progressive circles the term “intersectionality” has gained a certain currency. To be sure, it is an awkward term that sounds like academic jargon. But it is an important concept because it explains some of the various ways injustice and discrimination work as well as the opposition to injustice. The classic case is of black women workers who face both race and gender discrimination. Race and gender “intersect” to put them in a double bind. And if we add class to the mix, the forces of discrimination and repression only multiply.
Resisting such discrimination and power imbalances could go in two directions. In one, power relations and identities could isolate these women from potential allies such as African American men, non-black women, and other working-class people. The other direction is where broader power imbalances that victimize ethnic minorities, women, and laborers expand the potential for solidarity among them. This second scenario suggests the potential to build alliances across race, class, and other identity lines, a potential, it so happens, that is already being activated.
To date, I have not said much about what progressives should be striving for as opposed to what they may be against. But without articulating a direction, any kind of political strategy is attempting to fly with one wing. As this site develops, I’ll be engaging with many progressive ideas about how to make America a more democratic country–economically and politically–that can work for everyone.
One intriguing vision is provided by the work of the Democracy Collaborative and its Next System Project. Two weeks ago, I attended a book signing at Busboys and Poets in DC for Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealthby Gar Alperovitz, political economist, historian, co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative and co-chair of the Next System Project. Alperovitz studies democratic forms of economic organization as an alternative to the current system of corporate capitalism based on extraction, profit maximization, a skewed distribution of wealth, and the impoverishment–financial and spiritual–of a large majority of Americans, along with other negative results such as climate change and pollution.