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 changewitness 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
actsof 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
The question comes down to where agreement is reachedhow much
ground Democrats must concede in order to achieve bipartisanship,
on what issues they actively and visibly seek compromiseor, 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 dangerousmisleading 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
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 groundfollowing 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 workand 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 cycletrends having more
to do with technological change and global trade and investment
than with fiscal and monetary policiescontinue 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 1924seven
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 thembe 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
I do not claim that my samplealthough large and often in-depthwas
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
electionsputting them in a strong position to pillory the White
House for the 22 months leading up to the presidential election
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 2000a not unlikely possibilitythe
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 yearsnotably, 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 companiesculminating
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 executivesgenerated
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 dramaticallyfrom
less than 20 percent of mothers with young children in 1960 to
over 50 percent by the early 1980spublic 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 employmenta highly implausible
outcomeor 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 goalstens of billions of dollars
a yearshould 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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