And Where Were the Lawyers? The White Working Class and the Prospects for a Progressive Resurgence

The inevitable post-election recriminations have begun and a consistent theme on policy blogs is the Democratic Party has sold its soul or at least sold out the white working class base that used to fuel Democratic turnout. A prominent critique came from Thomas Frank, whose new book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People (2016), was published in March as the primaries were still in full swing. Frank is best known for What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), which argued that the Republican Party had strung the working class along with social issues like abortion, while delivering tax cuts for the wealthy and undercutting measures that might have better served Kansas’ economic interests. In this book, he levels his sights at Democrats, recounting the McGovern campaign’s snubbing of union leaders on its way toward losing almost every state in the country, Bill Clinton’s apostasy as he embraced NAFTA, financial deregulation, welfare “reform,” and federal policies that helped launch mass incarceration. Obama fares a bit better, but still failed to take on either Wall Street or Republican intransigence, proposing instead a “Grand Bargain” that progressives labelled the “Great Betrayal” as it would have cut further into working class economic security. And Hillary Clinton, for all she tilted left in this election, tried to get the Republican Party to own Trump’s racism and misogyny, but not to get Trump to own the Republican policies that have so undermined working class and rural prosperity. Frank’s indictment, as far as it goes, seems prophetic.

To that end, Naomi Cahn, Nancy Levit and I have begun an analysis of the relationship between antidiscrimination law and anti-equality efforts and how efforts for economic justice (including the campaign Bernie Sanders led) became separated from the fight for racial and gender justice.  In the era of the “party of the people,” the two were seen as inextricably linked.  A half century ago, John F. Kennedy came to office in the middle of a recession and adopted classic Keynesian measures, which, unlike Barrack Obama, he could get through Congress without implacable Republican opposition.  By 1962, the economy was humming, stocks were up, corporate profits were soaring, yet, the unemployment rate remained stubbornly high.   As Charles Murray shows in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012), white working class male unemployment in those days came down well ahead of the national unemployment rate.  Kennedy saw African-Americans as the key group left out of the general recovery, and in 1963 he proposed as three legs of the same stool: further economic stimulus for the country as whole, antidiscrimination laws that became Title VII, and further investment in minority education and training.  Lyndon Johnson continued these efforts, seeing both antidiscrimination law and the war on poverty, which targeted both white Appalachia and heavily African-American inner cities, as the necessary tools to realize the long standing federal commitment to full employment policies.

All of these measures effectively came to an end with the election of Richard Nixon, the high inflation produced by Arab oil embargo and Vietnam War era spending, and the birth of the Reagan coalition.   With them came a redefinition of Democratic thinking, often led by lawyers.  After all, both Clintons and Obama were not only law school graduates, but for at least brief periods, law professors.  In the seventies and eighties, lawyers, seeing little prospect for a renewed war on poverty, doubled down on antidiscrimination efforts.  Lawsuits succeeded in dismantling all white and all male workplaces, and affirmative action in higher education opened the doors to a new generation of minority professionals.  Within the legal academy, the most exciting new development was law and economics, featuring a math-free-for-lawyers version of Chicago School economics.   By the nineties, the principal alternatives were Critical Race Theory and Feminist Legal Theory, movements that at least initially were more inclined to dismiss economic analysis than to engage it.  Taken together and goaded on by Richard Nixon, who knew these measures would divide Democrats, economic development and antidiscrimination efforts have moved along separate tracks ever since.

Today’s Democrats come to power often committed to racial and gender inclusion, but not to economic transformation, at least not on progressive terms.  Bill Clinton’s New Democrats bought into the need to “reinvent government,” with a principle focus on deregulating financial institutions.   When Barrack Obama became President in 2009, just as the Great Recession was proving how disastrous those policies had been, there was no Cabinet in waiting ready to implement transformational Democratic policies.  Instead, Obama leaned heavily on Republican Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s study of the mistakes of the thirties’ Great Depression.   Where he was ready to act as a progressive was on the principle of universal health care, the result of a half century of Democratic advocacy.  Once Republicans took control of Congress in 2010, Obama knew he could get no further legislation through Congress, and he saw no point in making the case for infrastructure spending, regional economic development (remember the sequester?) or even standard Keynesian theory.  Yet, while Republican obstructionism contributed greatly to economic stagnation in Trump Country, Democrats made no effort to hold Republicans accountable in ways that would resonate with average voters.  In the wake of Trump’s election, the most popular reader’s comment in the New York Times was:  “The G.O.P. obstructed progress for eight years and convinced people government is broken. They broke it. America bought it.”

If Democrats are to regroup, they must create a new identity for Democrats that allows the party to be seen as the champion of the people against a Republican coalition that represents elite economic interests while selling out its base.  Donald Trump, the Manhattan billionaire whose first order of business will be to increase his own wealth, is the perfect foil for these efforts.  The fight requires three steps.

First, once the dust settles, the case to be made against Trump will be the Great Betrayal.  A Republican Congress will push tax cuts for the wealthy and the deregulation of banks, health insurance companies, and polluters who will rip off the Trump base and put Florida under water.  Donald and his cronies will make sure they get their cut, and Paul Ryan will solemnly announce that there is no money left after the giveaways to fund serious infrastructure spending or the even the current level of Social Security and Medicare.

Democrats should lay down the gauntlet for Trump: work with us to enact bipartisan infrastructure spending on a scale bigger than the Obama stimulus or concede that you were lying to the base.  Recognize that regional economic development requires spending tax dollars and that ending Obamacare will eliminate regional hospitals.  The opportunities to claim that Trump is nothing more than the agent of Manhattan billionaires will be endless and they can start with the Supreme Court.  Perhaps the most systematic bias of Republican judges is their pro-business orientation.   The most important Senate confirmation questions should be: do corporations have constitutional rights that allow them to use corporate funds to influence elections?   Do white collar criminal defendants have an enforceable obligation to know when their companies’ books have been rigged in ways that inflate their bonuses or will the Supreme Court let them walk just because they looked the other way?   What is the right response when those who run scams like Trump U attempt to intimidate the judiciary and pressure state attorney generals?  The Trump base has no clue that political calls for “conservative” justices signal efforts to insulate the business class from accountability.  Someone should tell them.

Second, every good movement needs a villain, and progressives need to unite Bernie’s efforts to hold Wall Street accountable with Hillary’s proposals for management reforms.  Both embrace the same notion: the financial incentives that permit Trump-like executives to skew business decisions for their own benefit (remember the Trump bankruptcies that did not bankrupt him) are counterproductive as well as immoral.  The time has come to call for a management revolution that identifies the Republican ideology that drives “secular stagnation” as a system that lines the pockets of those in Manhattan and Malibu and fattens their offshore bank accounts at the expense of investment in the future. The Koch Brothers may own Wichita and pollute Texas, but they live in New York.  The Democratic Party needs to combine understandable villains with legal theories that explain how the system is stacked.

Finally, the left needs to rethink the divide that started in the seventies between the causes of racial and gender justice and policies that advance greater economic equality.   With the help of the press, Trump will end up owning every sixteen year old boy’s racist and misogynist utterances.  Yet, an emphasis on economic justice for all communities must be seen as a necessary complement to racial justice.  After all, the policies that hurt the white working class have been a disaster for African-Americans and Latinos.  For Democrat to once again be the party of the people requires identifying Republican policies as the cause of American economic decline and President Trump as their enthusiastic agent.

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2 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    “First, once the dust settles, the case to be made against Trump will be the Great Betrayal. ”

    From what I can see, the MSM aren’t waiting on the dust to settle to try to make that case. They’re not waiting on a betrayal, either; They’re inventing them as needed.

    The nasty possibility, of course, is that there might not be a betrayal. Trump might, unpolitician-like, try to govern as he campaigned. The Congressional Republicans might have learned something from previous reversals, and decide that they like being in the majority more than the fruits of a quick bait and switch.

    Granted, not a likely development for “The stupid party”, but it might happen. They might not screw up, this time. Then where would you be.

    “With the help of the press, Trump will end up owning every sixteen year old boy’s racist and misogynist utterances. ”

    Even if they’re not uttered! But the press was helping that way during the campaign, and Trump still won. They spent their credibility like water, every last bit of it, and got as little to show for it as it was worth. Now you’re advising them as though they still had it in the bank, and it was worth something.

    This essay reads as though you haven’t come to grasp yet with the current situation. Democrats, minority party. Press, no remaining credibility to abuse. Sure, the odds are that the Republicans will screw up, but that’s what you have to count on, because you’ve got precious few assets left to work with absent their mistakes.

  2. Douglas Levene says:

    “With the help of the press, Trump will end up owning every sixteen year old boy’s racist and misogynist utterances.” This is true. The press will do whatever it can to hurt Trump and help the Democrats, as it has for many years. All that’s surprising is that the author of this piece is willing to admit it and indeed seems proud that the press has fallen to this level.