Remaking the Message: Blueprint for a Progressive Economic Populism in 2018

First posted at Occupy.com

2018 promises to be a fateful year in the United States. If the Republicans can hold on to their majorities in Congress and maintain power in state legislatures, they will have weathered an intense storm created by the backlash to Donald Trump’s presidency and their own extremely narrow legislative agenda. On the other hand, if current projections of a Democratic wave hold true, there may be a chance for a new beginning and a reversal of the decades-long neoliberal agenda.

What is immensely helpful for Democrats and progressives is that the Republicans have outed themselves more clearly than ever as the party of the 1 percent. This gives Democrats a golden opportunity to take back the House and possibly the Senate. But they need to run solid campaigns that maximize progressive and liberal turnout, while working with independent groups on the ground to build power.

In the economic sphere, the campaign should be all about creating an economy that works for everyone. This means not just going back to the way things were under Obama, but seeking major transformations that empower workers and average people whose livelihoods have been deteriorating for more than a generation. It is past time for Democrats to offer real solutions to the crises of corporate capitalism, rather than the gradualist reforms they’ve advocated since the 1970s. This is what the country needs and this is how they will win in 2018.

Guidance on the Path Toward Change

In his latest book, Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot talks about the importance of offering a compelling story to promote a political agenda. While one may have ample facts and strong arguments at one’s fingertips (read: Hillary Clinton), s/he isn’t likely to undermine an opponent’s story if that story is the accepted wisdom among a certain constituency. Instead, Monbiot observes, “[T]he only thing that can displace a story is a story.” So, Democrats and progressives need to present their policy proposals in the context of a compelling story. That story should relate to the values progressives want to articulate and support. It should also be easy to grasp and be familiar to voters.

The overarching story – we can also use the word “narrative” – is suggested by the question: Who is the government supposed to serve? Is it the extremely wealthy 1 percent or is it everyone else?

It’s a great question because it goes to the heart of the Republican economic agenda to transfer immense wealth to the already immensely wealthy through massive tax cuts (as they did in December) and further cut the already tattered safety net, including Social Security and Medicaid, programs that appear to be on Paul Ryan’s chopping block in 2018. In response, Democrats and progressives must talk about basic fairness and the need for major progressive changes in order to boost the opportunities and livelihoods of the large number of Americans who are having trouble scraping by. In terms of the narrative, economic policy should work for ordinary people, working folks, and stressed communities.

These basic goals cannot be met without first reversing the damaging tax bill just passed by the Republican Congress and signed into law by President Trump before the New Year. Corporate taxes need to go back up to where they were, if not higher. The advantages to large pass-through businesses should be eliminated by treating them as the corporations they are. And the inheritance tax on everything above $5 million should be reinstated. This is just a start.

Sharpening the Rural Message

Economic fairness means creating opportunities for people in former industrial areas and in rural communities, both of which are in steep decline. It also means increasing the minimum wage and making it easier for workers to organize. Massive infrastructure investments as proposed by Bernie Sanders and others could provide such employment, by rebuilding roads, bridges, railways, etc., as well as creating new types of infrastructure like local clean energy generation and providing affordable broadband service to communities that need it. New industrial jobs can be added by encouraging the manufacturing of many more solar and wind energy components than are currently made in the U.S.

At the same time, people must be protected from the ravages of corporate capitalism. Our largest banks must be re-regulated to prevent them from gambling with the health of the economy while they achieve massive speculative gains. And foremost, the rich and corporations need to pay their fair share of taxes. This includes taxing all profits made from sales in the U.S., even if they are held offshore. Establishing public banks along the lines of the Bank of North Dakota would benefit many states and communities. Such banks, if run right, keep wealth local and provide for additional investments in the community.

Democrats and progressives should also be thinking about legislation that can build strength among their core constituencies. Republicans have done this quite deliberately for the past generation. Their union-busting actions and legislation limiting the ability of workers to organize (so-called “right to work” laws) have been aimed at undermining traditional Democratic constituencies. Democrats have to start doing the opposite by proposing legislation – and making it a high priority – that allows unions to organize more easily and supports workers in other ways. A progressive economy requires a more even relationship between capital and labor.

In rural areas, Democrats should be talking about supporting family farmers by enforcing anti-trust regulations against corporate farms that use their size and market dominance to control access to markets and impose high prices for seeds, fertilizers and other inputs. The Farmers Bill of Rights, as articulated by the group Family Farm Action, calls for other government measures to minimize the large, unfair advantages enjoyed by corporate farms that hurt farmers, hollow out rural communities, and despoil local environments. Democrats should be working with such groups on policies that help restore family farms and invigorate rural communities.

Politically this should be easy. Republicans have nothing to offer rural America and small towns other than the “free market” which is responsible for victimizing these communities. Big Ag has swooped in to buy family farms, while big box stores and malls have put local eateries and other shops out of business in many small towns.

Helping farming communities and small towns is not normally high on the progressive agenda, but if Democrats hope to create a strong, working coalition in government that can actually move the country in a progressive direction, they need to compete in all 50 states and all 435 congressional districts. As The Nation’s John Nichols wrote a few months ago, “It would be political malpractice of the worst sort to think that Democrats can retake the Senate and the House, much less prevail in state houses across the country, without a bold plan for renewing their party’s fortunes in small cities, towns, and farm country.”

But leaving aside the political importance of rural America, if Democrats and progressives are to put forward an agenda to replace the neoliberal economy, the economics of all major geographical parts of the country are important. If progressives can’t find solutions for family farms, small towns, and former industrial regions, it means they’re not being very creative – or progressive.

Empowering Women

Another crucial economic issue for progressives and Democrats is women’s empowerment. It should be clear by now that we are in the midst of a women’s uprising, which started January 21, 2017, with the Women’s March, although the antecedents go back much farther. That uprising was also seen in the hugely important role women played in the November elections in Virginia and across the country, and ended up with the #MeToo movement of the past few months. Women are clearly energized and leading the way to a new politics and an economy that values their work equally, while providing safe, dignified workplaces for all. A populist economic message, then, needs to have a strong feminist component.

Healthcare also plays into the progressive story of a government that works for everyone, not just the rich. And, just as with the tax bill, Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act make it very clear whose side they are on. Democrats, helped by the enormous outpouring of activism opposing the ACA repeal attempts, are now in position to advocate for universal insurance of one sort or another. Along with the tax bills, healthcare is a subject the Democrats should never tire in bringing up because it so clearly illustrates the contrast between the two parties’ agendas. As a result of the ACA debates in 2017, there is now a clear majority of Americans who think that affordable health care is a right that everyone should have.

Universal healthcare would also yield significant economic gains. It would provide individuals and small businesses with a layer of security that allows them to be innovative and pursue economic opportunities without being tied to a job because of its healthcare benefits. From a macro perspective, the U.S. needs to find a way to reduce the costs of healthcare, which is far more expensive in this country than anywhere else, even while U.S. healthcare outcomes rank near the bottom of industrialized countries.

There are many other issues that should be part of progressive campaigns, many of which play into the narrative about government being for everyone. For example, Democrats and progressives should place significant emphasis on restoring democracy. Thanks to the surge of activism and news coverage, there is increasing general knowledge about voter suppression, the weakening of the Voting Rights amendment, Citizens United and the influence of dark money, and gerrymandering. All of these should be emphasized on the campaign trail along with criminal justice reform and other issues.

How should Democratic candidates run against Donald Trump? The danger here is that any attention devoted to Trump can take away from the local or statewide issues that a candidate is focusing on, and confuse the main storyline. This seems to be what happened to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016. In 2018, however, there is little need to mention Trump. His presence looms large and will be on everyone’s mind for the rest of the year whether or not Democrats draw attention to it. This was the case in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election, which saw a mainstream – and somewhat lackluster – Democrat decisively defeat a Republican running as a “Trumpist.”

In other words, for the 60 to 65 percent of Americans who disapprove of what Trump is doing, there is absolutely no need to run against him. Voters have already internalized their opposition. No doubt, in some places and at times during any given campaign, it will be useful to talk about checking his authoritarianism and investigating possible collusion with Russia as a way to induce support for Democratic Congressional candidates. But for most campaigns, Trump is already “on the ballot.” People will need no encouragement to come out and vote against him.

If progressives and Democrats want to run against someone, or something, Congress is a better target – particularly those numerous representatives and senators who voted to repeal the ACA and give massive tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy. They are the primary targets in 2018 and that targeting aligns perfectly with Democratic messaging as described above.

Finally, it is important to stress that the progressive Democratic victories across the country in November, along with the Senate victory in Alabama in December, were due in large part to the hard organizing work of many, many activists. Messaging is important, but given the disappointing results of 2016 across the board, compared with the tremendous successes of 2017, Democrats and progressives appear, finally, to have recognized that organizing, meeting people face-to-face, registering voters, and getting them to the polls is how you really win elections.

What is particularly powerful about progressive populist issues is that they tie in directly with campaigns to register new voters, monitor dirty tricks by Republican officials, wage battles in the courts to create fairer electoral districts, and put restrictions on unlimited, secret campaign contributions that only benefit the 1 percent. Local and national organizations are working on all of these fronts across the country. Democratic and progressive candidates can easily align themselves with these activist groups to canvas, build organizations and get out the vote on election day.

The foundation for strong election campaigns based on progressive populist issues and on-the-ground organizing is already in place and appears to be growing in strength. Now, it is up to Democrats and progressives to run bold campaigns that motivate the voters who have already been engaged, and support the many activists who, by November 2018, will have devoted the better part of a year to electing strong progressives who can start to turn the country around. Transformative changes are needed to make the American economy work for everyone. It is up to Democrats and progressives to deliver. This means running on a strong progressive agenda and being fearless about moving it forward once they are in power.

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