Conventional political opinion holds that Democrats should henceforth engage in an orgy of bipartisanship. According to this view, Americans are converging at a new center somewhat right of the old center; they want their leaders to work constructively together; and they desire only incremental change—witness the rejection of health care in 1994 and the Contract with America in 1995. The President successfully co-opted the issues of crime, welfare, and fiscal responsibility, leaving Republicans with little to say. Now, it is supposed, Democrats should cement their claim on the center. They should agree with Republicans on a plan to balance the budget, extend NAFTA to Latin America and Asia, ensure the short-term solvency of the Medicare trust fund, make a respectable start on reforming Medicare and Social Security for the long term (which may entail "privatizing" part or all of either one), adjust the Consumer Price Index so that it no longer overstates inflation (a move that helps balance the budget and eases the pressure on Social Security); cut capital gains taxes somewhat; and provide tax breaks for post-secondary education. When necessary to assuage particularly vocal constituencies on any of these issues, they should create bipartisan commissions or panels that will make expert recommendations with which "opinion leaders" and pundits in Washington and New York will agree. All the while, they should do symbolic things that cost very little but exhort the private sector to take action. Hold bipartisan conferences with business leaders. Engage in bipartisan praise of charitable acts—of companies hiring former welfare recipients, of religious and civic groups cleaning up their communities, of individuals who "make a difference." In short, Democrats should become moderate Republicans.
This conventional view does reflect a public weariness with partisan wrangling and ideological posturing. Party affiliation is waning. Washington "gridlock" has bred cynicism. Agreements reached at the end of the 104th Congress to raise the minimum wage, to ensure the continued eligibility for health insurance of workers who had lost theirs when they lost their job, and to "reform" welfare improved the public image of both Congress and the President, and contributed to the victories of incumbents last November at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And it is axiomatic that when the federal government is in the hands of a Democratic president and a Republican Congress in which Democrats have enough votes to sustain a veto or to block legislation in the Senate, some agreement ultimately must be reached if anything is to get done.
The question comes down to where agreement is reached—how much ground Democrats must concede in order to achieve bipartisanship, on what issues they actively and visibly seek compromise—or, alternatively, where and how hard Democrats fight, and how willing they are to hold their ground. The conventional view that bipartisanship is good in and of itself, especially if it congeals around moderate Republicanism, is misleading and dangerous—misleading because it ignores a large and growing portion of the potential electorate who are economically stressed and politically disaffected, dangerous because in so doing it could render the Democratic Party irrelevant and leave this segment of the American population even more disaffected, economically isolated, and susceptible to demagoguery.
When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote his book, The Vital Center, in 1949, the center was resolutely liberal. Today, the supposed national consensus is on terms dictated by the center-right. Half a century ago, Schlesinger could write that since Roosevelt, "One has been able to feel that liberal ideas had access to power in the United States, that liberal purposes were dominating national policy." The vital center, Schlesinger observed, was a liberal center, because it not only empowered the individual both by providing opportunity but also by shielding the individual from brutal social forces.
For all the magnificent triumphs of individualism, we survive only as we remain members of one another. The individual requires a social context, not one imposed by coercion, but one freely emerging in response to his own needs and initiatives. Industrialism has inflicted savage wounds on the human sensibility; the cuts and gashes are to be healed only by a conviction of trust and solidarity with other human beings.
This was the liberal center of a half century ago, not today.
Begin with the economic stress. The national economy is growing at a healthy clip, and we are currently blessed by a combination of low unemployment and low inflation. The so-called "misery index," a combination of both measures, is at its lowest level in 30 years. But it is important to note the unevenness of this benign picture. Most of the growth is going to people at the top, whose incomes have soared. Average wages are rising, but the median wage is barely inching upward, and even this measure hides the fact that a substantial portion of the workforce is still losing ground—following a trend that began in the late 1970s.
Nor do wages tell the whole story. Employer-provided health and pension benefits are declining or disappearing at a rapid rate, particularly for lower-income workers with only high school degrees. Job insecurity is high, especially among those with low or no special skills. Overall levels of unemployment may be low relative to recent history, but more than 10 percent of the adult population of the United States remain either unemployed, or working in part-time jobs when they would prefer full-time jobs, or too discouraged even to look for work—and this percentage reaches 14 percent among those whose formal educations end with high school.
The long-term trend toward income inequality has slowed, largely because labor markets have tightened and a larger portion of the poor or near-poor have found jobs. Such is to be expected at this stage of an economic expansion. But, according to data from the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earnings inequality among people who have jobs continued to widen through the fourth quarter of 1996 (the last date for which we have data). This is not a statistical fluke; it has nothing to do with how we measure productivity improvements or changes in the cost of living. Every rung on the economic ladder is farther apart than it was 4, 8, or 16 years ago. On few other economic issues is there as much unanimity among researchers. The enduring expansion is surely helping those in the bottom half of the workforce, but the structural trends lying just behind the business cycle—trends having more to do with technological change and global trade and investment than with fiscal and monetary policies—continue to exert powerful centrifugal forces. Unless these deeper trends are addressed, America will maintain its course toward a two-tiered society of have-mores and have-lesses.
Consider now the political dimension. Those in the bottom half of the income distribution are voting less. Data comparing the midterm elections of 1994 with 1990, and the presidential elections of 1992 with 1996, confirm the trend. According to the Census, fully 60 percent of Americans with family incomes over $50,000 voted in the 1994 midterm elections, marking a very slight increase in participation of this group from the previous midterm election in 1990, in which 59 percent voted. By contrast, just 27 percent of those with incomes under $15,000 turned out in 1994, markedly lower than the 34 percent of them who voted in 1990. In the presidential election of 1996, a lower percentage of the voting population turned out than at any time since 1924—seven million fewer people than in the presidential election of 1992. Preliminary evidence suggests that almost all of the new nonvoters were from households earning less than $50,000 a year; three-quarters of them had ended their formal education with high school.
When lower-income people do vote, they tend to vote for Democratic candidates. Those who failed to vote in 1994 but were lured back to the voting booths in 1996 comprised fully a fifth of the electorate last November, and they voted three to one for Clinton. If the same portion of the electorate that voted in the 1992 presidential election had been lured back in 1996, there is a high probability that Democrats would have reclaimed the House of Representatives, if not Congress as a whole.
The telling point is that Democrats did not lure them back. I am not aware of any surveys explaining unambiguously why the nonvoters of 1996 stayed away from the voting booths, but it seems a fair guess that they refrained from voting because they assumed it would make little or no difference to their lives. Lower-wage Americans, in particular, are voting less because they see less reason to vote. Their disconnection from politics and government became vividly apparent to me over the four years I was Secretary of Labor, during the first Clinton administration, when I undertook a kind of free-floating "focus group" across America. I spoke with thousands of people working in factories, hospitals, offices, retail shops, coal mines, telemarketing centers, and in the fields. The vast majority of these people earned below the median wage, and were under significant economic stress. Many were struggling to keep themselves and their families out of poverty. Most worked more than 40 hours a week, whether at one job or several. Only a minority of the people I met had health insurance or an employer-provided pension. Their concerns were almost always the same: having enough money to pay the rent or mortgage, meet the car payments, and buy clothes and food (prices were rising faster than their wages, they often said); coping with the possibility that a member of their family would require hospitalization or otherwise become seriously ill; finding safe and affordable child care services for their younger children when they had to be at work, or taking care of their children when they became sick; and getting their children a good education, which they understood was the necessary prerequisite to a good job. A large majority worried about themselves and their spouses keeping their jobs.
As the economy improved during the four years, fewer people told me there were "no jobs" to be had, but in every other respect the stories I heard did not change. The people I met were "coping," but they felt they were on the verge of adversity. Almost always they asserted they were managing on their own and without help; many were proud of what they were achieving against high odds. They did not think they were entitled to handouts. Nor did they trust large institutions to help them—be they companies, unions, political parties, or state and federal governments. Sometimes they blamed corporations or government for their predicament; occasionally they blamed immigrants, welfare recipients, or foreign trade. But for the most part, they did not impute blame. The stresses they felt were, in their view, the result of impersonal forces over which they had no control, and with which they had to deal on their own. Politics was irrelevant to their lives. They saw no connection between the actions (or inactions) of Washington leaders or their representatives in state capitols, and these mounting stresses. They perceived little difference between the parties.
I do not claim that my sample—although large and often in-depth—was either representative or necessarily sincere. After all, the people with whom I spoke usually knew I was the Secretary of Labor. But what I heard bore strong resemblance to the results of polls and focus groups that political consultants shared with me during these four years. Moreover, the fact that so many low-income Americans would tell me, in my official capacity, that they did not feel that government was helping them deal with the daily challenges they faced, suggests that my sample may, if anything, have understated the actual extent of their disconnection from political life.
One conclusion that can safely be drawn is that the party of nonvoters is larger than either the Democratic or the Republican parties. Another conclusion, almost as safe, is that if Democrats move toward bipartisanship in pursuit of traditionally moderate-Republican goals, the party of nonvoters will continue to gain converts from erstwhile Democrats who see even less reason to go to the polls. The political consequences are not difficult to predict: The major beneficiaries of this continuing erosion will be congressional Republicans, whose majorities would swell after the 1998 midterm elections—putting them in a strong position to pillory the White House for the 22 months leading up to the presidential election of 2000.
Meanwhile, the rightward drift of the White House will have further eroded support among traditional Democrats. Al Gore will not stand a chance. The formidable bloc of lower-wage nonvoters will attract the attention of political opportunists hailing from the extreme right or left, who sense possibilities for mobilizing these potential voters by stirring latent resentments. Pat Buchanan tried with some degree of success, even as the economy was expanding. Should the economy turn sour between now and 2000—a not unlikely possibility—the resulting stresses on lower-wage workers could well invite a combustible mix of xenophobia, nativism, and racism, unless these disaffected voters have a more constructive alternative toward which to turn.
The only way to begin to win them back is to address their everyday problems, and do so in a manner that distinguishes Democrats from Republicans. This does not mean Democrats must abandon the center, or disavow moderation. To the contrary, the new progressive strategy must maintain the center ground while reclaiming the traditional Democratic base of lower-wage workers. It should not require choices between "new" Democrat and old, between the suburban middle class and the downscale, between "family values" and the economy, or between the "free market" and government. These distinctions are lost on most working people. Any successful progressive coalition must embrace both the middle class as well as those below it, address economic stresses that are inextricably related to stresses on family life, and shift the conversation away from the size of government and away from false choices between central planning and free markets, which are Republican obsessions that have only distracted attention from the practical problems of ordinary people. The strategy must instead contain a few bold initiatives that will clearly reduce economic stresses on working families.
Importantly, the new progressive strategy should be based not in ideology or class but in common morality. Here too, I draw on my informal focus groups. Again and again, average working people talked to me about the economy and their families in moral terms. The two central responsibilities of adulthood, they asserted, were working and parenting, and the two are closely related. A willingness to work hard in order to support one's family and a desire to be a good parent are the preconditions upon which all else depends. To the extent that the rest of society has a responsibility as well, it is to help people achieve these two ends. Even though most of those with whom I spoke felt that they could not count on the rest of society to adequately support them in these ways, they readily agreed that society should be supportive. Indeed, they asserted that they owed such support to others less fortunate than they.
A NEW PROGRESSIVE CENTER
This moral core of American capitalism is seldom if ever articulated, but I felt its force in many of the controversies of the last few years—notably, the struggle to raise the minimum wage, the debate over the Family and Medical Leave Act, the campaign to eradicate sweatshops within our borders, the movement against child labor abroad, the public response to mass layoffs by profitable companies, and the 1996 budget battle over education and training. In each of these instances, a large majority of Americans supported public action, not because they would personally benefit from it but because they were morally offended by the consequences of inaction. Raising the minimum wage was the clearest case in point. In poll after poll, between 75 and 85 percent of Americans consistently were in favor. Only a tiny fraction of these supporters would directly or indirectly benefit from the proposed raise; in fact, were it to go into effect, many would end up paying marginally higher prices for certain goods or services. Yet there was a strong consensus that people who work full-time should receive a wage sufficient to lift them and their families out of poverty. A higher minimum wage was a step toward this goal. A similar broad majority supported the Family and Medical Leave Act, on the ground that someone should not lose a job because a sick child or elderly parent requires their attention.
Others of the issues I listed ignited public indignation, which in turn compelled remedial action by the private sector. And here too, public concern was rooted in morality rather than self-interest. Our discovery of sweatshops in Los Angeles and New York in which immigrants (legal and illegal) were paid pennies an hour and subjected to dangerous working conditions precipitated a consumer movement against sweatshops, and forced mass retailers and large manufacturers to establish monitoring systems to inspect the cutting and sewing shops with which they dealt. The revelations about the employment of very young children in South Asia had a similar effect. The spate of large-scale layoffs by profitable companies—culminating in AT&T's stunning announcement in January 1996 that it would lay off 40,000 workers despite its positive balance sheet and the bonuses it subsequently awarded its top executives—generated sufficient outrage as to briefly make "corporate irresponsibility" a political issue even in the Republican primaries, perhaps slowing the downsizing trend. (By the spring of 1996 I was regularly receiving phone calls from chief executives seeking to reassure the administration that the large "restructuring" they were contemplating would result in few if any job losses.) And the frantic eagerness of Republican appropriators to add funding for education and job training, just before the November elections, reflected polls evincing sharp public disapproval of Republican-sponsored cuts in this area.
Behind the struggle over welfare "reform" lurked the same core ideas about work and responsibility. Most people around the country with whom I spoke expressed opposition to the very idea of welfare, and polls underscored the deep-seated antipathy. Welfare recipients are considered "undeserving" poor, in contrast to the working poor (whose wages should be raised) or to people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and receive unemployment compensation. Some of the distinction may reflect racism and the false assumption that most welfare recipients are young black women. But my conversations, confirmed by a number of polls, suggested that the major reason for the public's negative view of welfare is that it conflicts with the moral premise that able-bodied people should be working. That premise now applies even to mothers with young children, which marks something of a change in attitudes. As the proportion of working mothers with children under age six rose dramatically—from less than 20 percent of mothers with young children in 1960 to over 50 percent by the early 1980s—public expectations seem to have shifted. If a majority of mothers with young children worked, the public seemed to be saying, what was the moral justification for giving welfare to some who apparently chose not to?
I stress this core set of beliefs about the morality of work, and the reciprocal social obligations it generates, because I think it offers a way for Democrats both to talk convincingly about where we need to move as a society and also to focus on several issues that will engage the party of nonvoters. For starters, begin where the minimum wage and Family and Medical Leave Act ended, and consider the next set of minimum standards at work. One might require from employers a minimum level of health insurance for an employee and a dependant. No large bureaucracy would be needed to implement such a requirement. Government would need only to specify the contents of the minimum health insurance, just as government specifies the minimum wage. No single business would be put in competitive jeopardy because all businesses would bear the same minimum cost per employee, as is true of the minimum wage. Much of the cost would be passed on to consumers in any event. Even if the minimum health insurance package ended up adding another two dollars an hour to payrolls, the effective minimum wage plus minimum health would still be lower than the real minimum wage of the late 1960s (in 1997 dollars).
A related step might be to assure safe and affordable day care for preschoolers, along with meaningful family medical leave from work for parents of school-age children bedridden with common childhood infirmities like the flu, a bad cold, or the chickenpox. Working parents in my free-floating focus group returned to these problems again and again. It is simply not true that working parents easily can rely on extended families or their own parents to provide child care. They worry that the only child care they can afford is neither safe nor adequate. Democrats should press for a refundable child care tax credit, providing lower-wage working parents with up to $2,000 per year in child care expenses, and middle-income working parents a direct credit off their taxes up to $2,000. Moreover, the Family and Medical Leave Act, as currently designed, covers only "serious" health conditions requiring medical treatment and visits to the doctor. In more common situations, parents now have no protection against job loss. Yet recent studies show that one in six working parents with young children stays home with a sick child for an average of four weeks or more per year, often thereby jeopardizing their jobs. Expand the FMLA to cover common child ailments keeping parents home. Expand it also to provide for paid maternity leave of up to six weeks. Most women executives or professionals already receive paid maternity leave; the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not extend this benefit to all working women.
Move now to welfare, and to the implicit societal obligation lying behind its "reform"—which must be to ensure that anyone who loses welfare benefits and who needs a job can find one. The moral logic here extends beyond the welfare population, to all people who want and need work in our society. On this point, the vast majority of the public agree: It is not enough that someone be ready and willing to work. There should be a job. That monetary policy is now engineered to lift short-term interest rates when the official rate of unemployment sinks much lower than 5.5 percent presents a logical inconsistency with this principle that has not deeply permeated the public's consciousness. And that is precisely the point. Democrats should use welfare reform as a way to revive the debate over the best means of assuring "full employment."
If the Federal Reserve Board is certain that long-term interest rates will soar if it cuts short-term rates any more than it already has, then we are left with only two choices. Either the private sector voluntarily must create additional private-sector jobs for all those who cannot find other employment—a highly implausible outcome—or government must create public-service jobs for them. Spotty "workfare" programs for former welfare recipients will not be adequate, because the pool of unemployed adults extends far beyond those on welfare. Ultimately, we will need a new Works Progress Administration, the cost of which might plausibly be borne by businesses in the form of a very small (1 percent) corporate tax earmarked for public-service jobs where no private-sector jobs are available.
Another minimum requirement: Profitable companies intent on shedding workers should be required to provide six months of severance pay, so that employees can find and train for new jobs. Few events are as traumatic to working families as the sudden loss of a job. Unemployment insurance covers only about a third of job losers. And here too, my "focus group" spoke repeatedly in moral terms: Common decency demands that loyal workers not be treated like disposable pieces of machinery.
The third moral principle at the core of American capitalism is that people should be able to make the most of their talents and abilities. Public support for education has been a feature of American life since the early nineteenth century, culminating in the great "high school" movement of the early decades of the twentieth century and the vast extension of state-supported higher education in the two decades after the Second World War. But not since the GI Bill and the National Defense Education Act in the 1950s has the federal government taken a bold lead. The President recently stated that education and training will be the central focuses of his second administration, but the problem is one of scale. The federal government is still a bit player in elementary and secondary education, providing only 8 cents of every dollar devoted to it. The federal share of elementary and secondary education costs has actually declined in the last quarter century. Half of the revenues supporting K-12 education come from local property taxes, the distribution of which has become ever more skewed toward affluent townships. The start of another demographic wave is further straining state and local resources. During the next decade an additional three million children will enter our nation's primary schools, and high school enrollments will increase 15 percent. Simply to maintain current levels of services will require an estimated 190,000 additional teachers, 6,000 more schools, and approximately $15 billion in additional operating expenditures. Nothing so far proposed in the federal budget comes close to dealing with this challenge.
Voluntary national standards are a starting place, not an ending place. Significant resources are needed, and the federal government must step into the breach. Democrats must also talk straightforwardly about what to do with schools that don't measure up. Putting them under "state receivership" will not necessarily guarantee improvements. School "choice" is a fine concept so long as the poorest children or those who are the most difficult to teach or to discipline do not end up dumped together in the worst schools. Parents are clearly worried about their schools, and lower-income parents have the most to worry about. One possibility: In return for sharp increases in federal assistance, the states, school districts, principals, and teachers should agree to achieve specific improvements in performance. A second possibility, which also deals with the problem of finding safe and affordable child care for school-age children of parents who work: Extend the school day to 5:30 p.m. The conventional school day ending at 3 p.m. is a vestige of an agrarian economy in which children were needed in the afternoon on the farm. But it has become a major burden to working families. Federal funding should be conditioned on all-day operations. A third possibility, rendered only marginally more possible by the President's proposed $1,500-a-year educational tax credit: A thirteenth and fourteenth year of education for all, centered on computer literacy, problem solving, and basic work skills. The new economy demands it. The extra federal funds needed to accomplish these three goals—tens of billions of dollars a year—should come directly out of "corporate welfare" in the federal budget. Eliminate the tax loopholes and spending subsidies going to specific companies and industries, and earmark the savings for education.
In sum, build on the three moral principles at the core of American capitalism: Someone who works diligently should have a minimally decent job including minimum health care, child care, and severance pay in the event of a layoff; anyone who wants and needs a job should get one, including a public-service job if none is available in the private sector; anyone who wants to get ahead or give their children an opportunity to get ahead should have a good school, meeting national standards, which operates full-day, and extends through fourteenth grade.
This is hardly a radical or even a terribly liberal agenda. It is not particularly redistributionist, nor does it rely heavily on the state. Nor does it challenge values that most Americans hold dear. On the contrary, it helps make them a reality. It holds companies accountable to employees and communities, not by exhortation, but through minimum standards and contributions which improve the odds that prosperity will be widely shared.
Most Americans value a society whose ground rules allow ordinary people to work hard and to parent well, without having to sacrifice the one for the other, or to worry that their loyalty to their job will not be reciprocated. Alas, that ideal is far from today's prevailing social reality and far from today's political center, with its simple celebration of entrepreneurship, fiscal balance, and small government. With the right so squarely in the saddle, this is the wrong moment to seek a bipartisan consensus for its own sake. To combine the best of the liberal legacy with a new progressivism, we need nothing so much as a new partisanship.
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