Wither the Democrats

WORKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:

  • Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968
    (Cornell University Press, 1995).

  • Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of
    the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics
    (Simon
    & Schuster, 1995).

  • E.J. Dionne, Jr., They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate
    the Next Political Era
    (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

  • Stanley B. Greenberg, Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of
    the New American Majority
    (Times Books, 1995).

  • Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History
    (Basic Books, 1995).

  • Michael Lind, The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the
    Fourth American Revolution
    (The Free Press, 1995).

  • Wilson Carey McWilliams, The Politics of Disappointment: American
    Elections, 1976-94
    (Chatham House, 1995).


In the 1940 presidential election, pollster Samuel Lubell developed a
simple formula for charting the Roosevelt vote. In each city he surveyed,
Lubell later wrote, Roosevelt swept every neighborhood where the monthly rent
was $45 or less, and was swept away in those neighborhoods where the rent
exceeded $60.

Fifty-four years later, a stroll through downscale America-- more particularly,
downscale white America--turned up no such Democratic groundswell. In the 1994
vote, as Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers showed in TAP's Fall 1995 issue
(Who Deserted the Democrats in 1994?), the Democrats' support among
college graduates and voters with rising incomes held steady at the level of
their 1992 victory; but among white voters with less education, among voters
whose income had been declining, their support collapsed.

The scrambling--in bad years, the reversal--of Lubell's calculus is by now a
given of American politics: There is no longer a Democratic tilt within the
white working class. At one level, this hardly qualifies as news; Kevin
Phillips was proclaiming this transformation as far back as the late 1960s.
What made the verdict of 1994 so devastating was that it was levied against an
administration that had come to power precisely because it had courted white
workers more successfully than any national Democratic campaign in years, and
that had tried, albeit sporadically, to deliver for them once in office.

The key elements of Clintonism--the repudiation of cultural and race-specific
liberalism, the promotion of universal rather than narrowly remedial government
programs, the downsizing of government, and the renewal of public investment
--were crafted with these lapsed or lapsing Democrats uppermost in mind. By the
mid-1980s, as Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg noted in his research on
Michigan's Macomb County, the Detroit suburb that has become emblematic of
white flight from the Democrats, "these voters wondered why they weren't the
central drama of the Democratic Party." The strategic object of the Clinton
campaign --and to a lesser degree, the Clinton White House--was to convince
them that they stood center stage once more.

By the evidence of the 1994 vote, though, the downscale whites felt they were
still relegated to the wings. The government was still doing too much, and not
enough. Welfare was still throwing money away, while programs to make health
care more secure and college more affordable remained either small or
unenacted. The rich were getting richer and the middle class was getting poorer
(and NAFTA exacerbated both trends). The Democrats were just not there for
downscale whites.

The Democratic failure during the first two years of the Clinton presidency
wasn't simply a function of the difficulty of disengaging from a race-based
liberalism whose supporters were a critical part of the Democratic coalition.
Clintonians who came to power with the intent of making a multiracial working-
and middle-class coalition "the central drama of the Democratic Party" found
the bond market and the deficit, and global capital and declining wages hogging
the spotlight. Even as it was decoupling itself from the policies of the 1960s,
the administration was at a loss as to how to deliver in the 1990s. If the
latest State of the Union address is any indication, the administration
currently feels surer affirming the values of Middle America than defending its
interests. The lesson of the books discussed in this essay is that it needs to
do both.

But with the White House misplacing its populism, it should come as no surprise
that angry white men are not only finding their cultural champions on the
right; they're finding their economic champions there, too. In an age of
layoffs galore and mergers amok, the loudest and hardest-hitting critics of
corporate America aren't Democrats at all; they're Pat Buchanan and Kevin
Phillips. Genuine fury at the corporate abandonment of American workers is hard
to find on the Democratic side. What keeps economic populism going in America
today, apparently, is Richard Nixon's rage at the old-money eastern elites,
which Buchanan and Phillips are faithfully channeling.

The growing Democratic estrangement from the white working class has
been a staple of political analysis and commentary at least as far back as
1970, when Phillips's The Emer ging Repub lican Majority and Rich ard
Scammon and Ben Watten berg's The Real Majority first appeared. By the
early 1990s, though, the genre had been taken over by such avowedly progressive
commentators as E.J. Dionne, Jr., and Thomas B. Edsall, both of whom argued for
a more populist economics and against at least some of the cultural and racial
liberalism that they saw impeding any Demo cratic reconstruction of a
bottom-up, multi-racial majority.

As the books under discussion here indicate, the output of the progressive
revisionists has grown into a cottage industry, if not quite a distinct
ideology. The histories focus on postwar liberal ism's subordination of the
claims of class; the works of current analysis make those claims anew.

In The Populist Persuasion, American University historian and
Tikkun book editor Michael Kazin charts the left-to-right odyssey of the
populist style in American politics from the 1890s through the 1990s. The
style--extolling the virtues of workers and their sometimes provincial cultures
against the decadence of nonproducers and their sometimes cosmopolitan
cultures--has proved indispensable to the American left, Kazin argues. "It is
only when leftists and liberals themselves talked in populist ways," he
contends, ". . . that they were able to lend their politics a majoritarian cast
and helped markedly to improve the common welfare."

During its mo ments of relative success, Kazin asserts, the left has also
accommodated itself to all manner of traditional cultures. The populists of
1892 avoided a Protes tant-Catholic split by declining to take positions on
women's suffrage and prohibition; the Congress of Indus trial Organizations
(CIO) repeatedly sought to cloak itself with the sanctifications of the
Catholic Church. (The invocations and benedictions at CIO conventions, he
notes, were almost invariably delivered by priests and bishops.)



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By virtue of his emphasis on the need for a populist vocabulary, Kazin at times
almost seems to be arguing that the American left has been smashed on the reefs
of insufficiently popular symbolism. Political crises are cast as linguistic
ones: Debsian socialists were trapped in a "linguistic bind" between an
alienating Marxist argot and a more comprehensible tongue that was
indistinguishable from the populists'; the CIO by the late 1940s was facing "a
linguistic dilemma." In fact, as Kazin acknowledges elsewhere, the binds and
dilemmas of the socialists and the CIO resulted from shifting political
currents; there was no populist vocabulary that could have reversed the CIO's
organizing setbacks of 1946, the failure of that year's GMstrike, or labor's
growing estrangement from those sectors of the Catholic working class that gave
credence to Joseph McCarthy.

But Kazin is surely right to note that after the CIO, the majority of postwar
liberals--from "vital centrists" to New Leftists--shunned the populist style
and, more fundamentally, grew disdainful of the white working class. For the
generation of social scientists who helped define the liberal mainstream of the
1950s, Richard Hofstadter above all, the rise of postwar right-wing
populism--that is, McCarthyism--served to discredit the entirety of American
populism. The standard-bearer of 1950s liberalism, Adlai Stevenson, was really
a premature neoliberal, unenthused by national health and the rest of Truman's
Fair Deal, and distinctly cool to unions (not to mention cold on civil rights).
And while the 1960s New Leftists rejected virtually all of the 1950s liberal
consensus, they nonetheless felt just as alienated from and even more
contemptuous of the beliefs and traditionalist ethnic subcultures of the white
working class than the Stevensons and Hofstadters had. The New Left might have
empathized with the CIO's militance, but it couldn't comprehend the CIO's
strategic reliance on the church.

The neoliberals of the 1970s and 1980s were just as distanced from the
working-class perspective as 1950s liberals and 1960s New Leftists had been. In
effect, every wing of American liberalism granted the right a virtual monopoly
on invocations of the value and dignity of work and workers. More recently, as
income stagnation has settled over the land, the populist style has reappeared,
fleetingly, on the left. Jesse Jackson uses it brilliantly, Kazin notes, but
often in the service of causes, such as affirmative action and welfare, that
divide working America rather than unite it. It was a steady drumbeat in
Clinton's presidential campaign, if only an intermittent one after the
election. And since Kazin's book has appeared, one of the precious few
virtuosos of left-wing populism, the Mine Workers' Richard Trumka, has become
Secretary-Treasurer of the new model AFL-CIO. Under Trumka's leadership, the
UMW managed to rebuild a culture of militant unionism among the very sorts of
folks who elsewhere were galloping rightward; it offered a left-wing version,
as UMW Communications Director Jim Grossfeld put it, of "one-stop shopping for
angry white men."

But Trumka remains an exceptional figure in contemporary liberalism. Since
George Wallace, angry white men have done their shopping on the right.

Wallace's epochal achievement, Lee Atwater once noted, was to invent an
entirely new elite for American populist demonology. Before Wallace, the
primary objects of populist ire were the wealthy, particularly the wealthy who
were far from the process of production: bankers, speculators, heirs to great
fortunes. Wallace conjured up a new governing class, just as intrusive, just as
far removed from the world of small business and the production worker, and
every bit as effete as their wealthy predecessors. They were the "communists,
socialists, beatniks, and atheists" inside the government; the "bearded
Washington bureaucrats who can't even park a bicycle straight." At times, the
two elites were merged into a single stream of vilification: One of his hapless
gubernatorial opponents was supported, Wallace alleged, by a "spotted alliance"
of blacks and "sissy britches from Harvard who spend most of their time in a
country club drinking tea with their finger stuck up." To read the transcripts
of Wallace's rallies is to see that a generation of Republican speechwriters
have been doing pale knockoffs of his material ("effete snobs," "Harvard
boutique").

Part of the considerable charm of Dan Carter's biography of Wallace is his
ability to convey the mood of suppressed violence that Wallace brought to the
podium when he was really on. "Many of his listeners," Carter writes of
Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign, "responded with the wary thrill of
middle- class southern girls drawn to, and yet terrified by, the ducktailed,
T-shirt-wearing macho rednecks who ambled down the hallways of their high
school." Pat Buchanan may be a Wallace for the 1990s--a champion of white
workers and small businessmen against global corporations and liberal
elites--but for all his pugnaciousness, Buchanan cannot approach Wallace's
ability to give voice to his supporters' rage, to become the avenging angel of
an entire subculture. Compare Buchanan's attack on Steve Forbes and the "boys
down at the yacht club" to Wallace's wild riff against "Huntley and Chinkley
and Walter Contrite." The first is your standard Populism 101; the second
translates the inchoate fury of a collective subconscious into a weird folk
poetry. (For anyone doing a study of Fisticuffs and the Populist Right: Wallace
and his brothers and Buchanan and his brothers all spent the better part of
their adolescence boxing at their respective fathers' insistence, though
Buchanan brawled socially while Wallace saved it for the ring--and the
soapbox.)

Wallace not only had white rage on tap; he had it on staff. His infamous vow at
his first inaugural as Alabama governor in 1963--"Segregation today,
segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"--was penned by Klan leader Asa
Carter, who, when not busy writing for Wallace, was leading his Klavern in
attacks on such notorious radicals as Nat King Cole. Carter offers a stunning
depiction of the lumpen netherworld into which Wallace would descend when in
need of a vicious line or a vicious cop. He also unearths new material on the
Nixon administration's investigation of Wallace's brother Gerald, and how its
decision not to file charges coincided with Wallace's deci sion to wage his
1972 presidential campaign within the Democratic Party rather than draw off
votes from Nixon that November.

Most importantly, Carter discovers in Wallace's career the portents of
realignments yet to come. In his 1968 campaign, Wallace relied on Billy James
Hargis's Christian Anti-Com munist Crusade to build both a national network of
coordinators and a direct-mail fundraising base, much as a later generation of
Republicans would use the Christian right. And in 1964, Carter documents,
Wallace was already inclined to lead the white South into Republican ranks,
quietly informing GOP presidential nominee-to-be Barry Goldwater that he was
eager to serve as his vice-presidential running mate. (Extremism in the pursuit
of marginality apparently had its limits; Goldwater declined the offer.)

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Samuel Lubell, still walking
through swing precincts, found the largest concentration of northern
Wallaceites in those white neighborhoods that abutted black ones. In 1972,
Wallace was the only Democratic presidential candidate to campaign against
integrational school busing. In a state like Michigan, where a court had just
ordered cross-district busing from Detroit into its almost entirely white
suburbs, Wallace's was a hugely popular position (and one shared by most local
liberal office holders, such as Dearborn's John Dingell). He won 51 percent in
Michigan's Democratic primary, the same day that his shooting in Maryland
effectively ended his national political career. That fall, in his contest
against George McGovern, Richard Nixon took Wallace's two constituencies--
southern whites and northern Catholics--and moved them into the Republican
column.

In a sense, as Wilson Carey McWilliams notes in The Politics of
Disappointment
, his collection of elegant postelection essays, the
scrambling of the Demo cratic base marked a perverse kind of Democratic
triumph. "[T]he New Deal strategy," McWilliams wrote after Ronald Reagan's 1980
victory, "is ex hausted because it has succeeded: the groups the New Deal
courted and cultivated have been won. The periphery of the New Deal coalition
[progressives, blacks, and Jews] has become the heart of the Democratic Party,
and the historic Demo cratic Party--Northern Catholics and Southern whites--has
been moved to the periphery . . . . The Democrats need a new strategy."

McWilliams is right: Under neath the party of Franklin Roosevelt was the party
of John Nance Garner and Al Smith, the ethno-cultural and not-all-that-liberal
historic Democratic Party. And yet, the allegiance of Catholics and southerners
to Roosevelt's party wasn't only ethno-cultural. Roosevelt far outpolled Smith
in Catholic America; and in places like western Pennsylvania, the CIO
politicized Catholic steel and mine towns where in earlier years the Democrats
had barely been able to set up shop. Similarly, the intensity of southern white
Democratic support was greater in the time of the Tennessee Valley Authority
and Works Progress Administration than in earlier years. The public investment
and universal social programs cooked up by New Deal bureaucrats greatly
strengthen ed the Democrats not just among ideological liberals, but in the
dankest backwaters of social traditionalism, not to mention white racism.

When the specter of court-ordered busing loomed over Michigan in 1971,
it was Macomb County, just across the line from Detroit, that led the
resistance. Just a decade earlier, Macomb had been the most Democratic suburban
county in the nation, giving John Kennedy 63 percent of its vote in 1960 and
Lyndon Johnson 74 percent four years later. But Macomb gave Wallace 66 percent
of the vote in the 1972 Democratic primary; and by 1984, Ronald Reagan took 67
percent of Macomb's vote over Walter Mondale. Short ly thereafter, pollster
Stan Green berg began traveling to Macomb to conduct focus groups there. What
he found there over the next seven years, and what he concluded from his
findings, pushed the Democrats in general and Bill Clinton in particular toward
a reworking of the party's positions on race and class during the 1992
campaign.

By the time Greenberg got to Macomb, he found a county that defined virtually
all social reality in terms of race. A nice neighborhood meant a neighborhood
without blacks; being middle class meant not being black; almost all the
participants in his focus groups, Greenberg writes, "perceived the special
status of blacks as a serious obstacle to their personal advancement." These
were Reagan Democrats, not Republicans; they were no fans of corporations or
the market. But the economic programs of the Democrats were largely beside
the point. The Demo crats had become the party of black people, the party of
Detroit.

The turning point had been the war on poverty and other 1960s urban and
race-oriented programs--the Great Society, excluding Medicare, and the Civil
Rights and Voting Rights Acts. "Johnson's bold initiatives," writes Greenberg,
"ended up changing the Democrats' bottom-up vision, making it into something
constricted and racial. Johnson's expansive moral formula rallied the country
at a time of crisis, but as a political formula it could not embrace the middle
class. This attempt at renewal crashed in 1968." In that year, Greenberg notes,
only 17 percent of whites thought the War on Poverty was doing a good job.

Actually, the Macomb whites and their forebears had been regularly deserting
the Democrats over racial issues decades before the Great Society ever took
shape--only they hadn't made the move from Detroit to Macomb yet. From the
1930s through the 1950s, the white working class of Detroit was one of the
marvels of American politics. More than any other Amer ican metropolis, Detroit
was home to both of McWilliams's key Demo cratic constituencies, Catholics and
(transplanted) southern whites. They helped create a city that was the base for
the most militant and effective union in the nation--and one of the most
substantial Klan operations as well. White Detroit voted overwhelmingly for
UAW-supported Democratic liberals for state and national office. And the very
same voters rejected virtually every UAW-backed Demo cratic liberal for
municipal office (to the point where the Detroit UAW finally took a walk on a
number of local liberals). The difference was that the national and state
candidates routinely ignored racially charged issues, while the municipal
liberals typically campaigned for more and better public housing and a less
racist and less brutal police force.

What Greenberg found in Macomb, then, were white Detroit ers who had toted
their politics across the county line; they hadn't changed. What had changed
were the politics of state and national Democrats: Begin ning in the 1960s,
they championed many of the same policies that had doomed Detroit's liberals,
with the same electoral consequences.

Throughout the writing of those progressive critics who assert that Democratic
doctrine went off the track during the Johnson years, there lurks-- implicitly
in Edsall, explicitly in Greenberg, screamingly in Michael Lind--a desire to
rewind the clock to the fateful years of 1964-65 and steer the Great Society
away from the political debacle of its emphasis on the poor and nonwhites
toward a more politically sustainable universal program. What exactly, or even
approximately, that program should have been is almost never elaborated,
however. One of the many virtues of Kevin Boyle's brilliant and important
history, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, is that it
provides a clear picture of the road not taken.

For Walter Reuther and his social democratic lieutenants, Lyndon Johnson's move
toward the left was the opportunity they'd been anticipating for two decades.
As Boyle meticulously documents, the Reutherites had argued at every
opportunity (i.e., every shift to a wartime economy or election of a new
Democratic president) for an expanded welfare state, a national incomes policy,
joint management-labor-government planning of production in key industries, the
conversion of the American economy along the lines of Swedish social democracy,
or at least German social corporatism. And at every turn, they had been
rebuffed. They settled, reluctantly, for winning a privatized welfare state and
incomes policy at the bargaining table. Prodded by their black members, and
over the objections of their southern white locals, they also provided crucial
support to the early civil rights movement, bankrolled the NAACP and the march
on Washington, and led the efforts to diminish the power of the Dixiecrats who
still governed Capitol Hill in the early 1960s.

But the Reutherites understood--perhaps more programatically than
politically--that a narrow-gauge war on poverty wouldn't work. "You can't
compartmentalize the problem and say, `We will just talk about this little
piece,'" Reuther told a congressional committee in 1964. An effective poverty
war, he continued, would necessarily entail the democratic control of
investment and democratic planning for production. Otherwise, ran the UAW
critique, the war would split the working class: "It redistributed wealth not
from the wealthy to the working class," Boyle summarizes the position, "but
rather from the middle and working classes to the poor." The emphasis on
inner-city poverty, UAW research director Nat Weinberg noted, would mean
bypassing the considerable pockets of nonminority poverty in suburban,
small-town, and rural America. If full-bore democratic "planning" was
implausibly radical, at least full employment was thinkable.

An explicitly class-based alternative to the Great Society did exist, then. And
while it didn't exactly die for lack of a second --the UAW's proposal was
complemented by other programs from social democrats such as A. Phillip
Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington, and their allies in other
unions--it languished at the margins of liberalism, never winning a serious
hearing from the Johnson White House. A universalist Great Society entailed too
great a restructuring of economic pow er; its only powerful champions were
progressive unions, and it probably would have required a northern Euro pean
level of unionization to muster sufficient support to enact it. Then as now,
the class-based liberalism for which the progressive revisionists pine required
an organized class base.

By the time Bill Clinton began campaigning in Macomb in early 1992, he
was well on his way to mastering the progressive revisionist two-step. On the
one hand, he would call for an end to welfare as we know it, support the death
penalty, and denounce Sister Souljah (a stratagem that Greenberg in particular
urged upon him); on the other, he called for a working-class tax cut, for
national health insurance and, late in the campaign, for a semi-managed,
semi-free trade policy that paid at least some heed to worker rights.

It was part Democratic Leadership Council, part Economic Policy Institute,
and all Greenberg. The two-step worked--sort of. In 1988, George Bush had
defeated Michael Dukakis by 63,000 votes in Macomb; his 1992 margin over
Clinton was just 17,000. Nonetheless, Clinton's performance among downscale
whites was distinctly sub-Rooseveltian. Nationally, as pollster Ruy Teixeira
has shown, whites earning $15,000 to $30,000 a year gave Clinton just 40
percent of their vote; indeed, Teixeira demonstrates, the greater the voter's
decline in wages, the greater the likelihood he'd vote for Ross Perot (a
foretelling of the Democrats' collapse among downscale whites two years later).
Still, as Greenberg contended at that time and again in Middle Class
Dreams
, the possibility that Clinton could build a bottom-up multiracial
majority, joining Perot's supporters to his own, was--and remains--a real
one.

Perhaps even more than Greenberg, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne,
Jr., can take credit for formulating the clearest statement of the
de-racialized progressivism that infused the 1992 Clinton campaign. Why
Americans Hate Politics
, Dionne's 1991 argument in favor of a renewed,
slightly social democratic vital center, provided the analytic underpinning for
Clinton's 1992 campaign.

Dionne's new volume, They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate
the Next Political Era
, a surprisingly up beat assessment of the Demo
crats' and progressives' prospects, begins with a postmortem on Clinton's
program, and moves on to a devastating dissection of Gingrichism. It's the
Gingrich part, not the Clinton, that's responsible for the upbeat outlook; the
current period in Amer ican history is one in which partisans take hope chiefly
from the performance of their adversaries.

The autopsy Dionne conducts on Clinton's program adduces all the usual
suspects--the budgetary constraints, the administration's flight from populism
both left (managed trade and campaign finance reform) and right (the
middle-class tax cut and welfare reform)--but places its main emphasis,
rightly, on the party's internal divisions, chiefly as they impacted the fight
for national health insurance. Dionne clearly agrees with William Kristol's
assessment (which appeared in his famous memo advising Republicans to oppose
health insurance flat out) that enactment of the measure would "revive the
reputation of . . . the Democrats as the generous protector of middle-class
interests."

What Kristol saw clear ly, though, various Demo cratic members of Congress saw
not at all. Trolling for insurance in dustry or small-business campaign
donations, fearing a public backlash, they turned against Clinton's proposal.
In fact, on some crucial questions, the backlash never came: Despite the
onslaught from organizations like the National Federation of Independent
Businesses, the public always supported funding the program through employer
mandates. But the intensity of opposition like the NFIB's blew away the largely
disorganized backing for the Clinton proposal.

On their most critical proposal in a generation, the Democrats discovered they
had no means to gather support. "The only thing the Democratic Party needs,"
one White House adviser moaned to Dionne as the bill was going down, "is a
Party." Not only didn't the Democrats have a party, they didn't have the kind
of functional equivalent they had enjoyed the last time they brought major
proposals before the nation. In the years since the 1960s, they had seen the
labor movement shrink by more than half, and more and more districts drawn in
regions where labor was a negligible presence. They had seen the demise of such
legislative giants as Lyndon Johnson and Phil Burton, who frequently controlled
campaign money and committee assignments and the flow of legislation to the
point where their colleagues felt obliged to vote for their priorities.
(Today's Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt, is acknowledged to be a great
listener; Johnson and Burton were better known as great intimidators. The
difference isn't simply characterological: Johnson and Burton reigned at a time
when power--that is, legislative control and access to campaign funding--was
more centralized.) The ideological recentering of the Democrats had returned
them to power, but it would take more institutional cohesion than they could
muster for them to deliver on their promises.

And yet, just when every last political scientist in America had
despaired of seeing that cohesion in his or her lifetime, Newt Gingrich
demonstrated that with enough money, ideology, foot soldiers, and freshman
legislators, a coherent party could be resurrected. It is Gingrich's ascent
that Dionne believes will return the Democrats to first principles. "For two
decades," he writes, "Progressives have been timid in defending their project,
and distracted by cultural politics. The Gingrich Revolution gives them no
choice but to battle to preserve Progressivism's achievements and renew its
program."

In a brilliant discussion of the Republican revolution, Dionne sees Gingrich as
a latter-day Mark Hanna, the political boss behind the McKinley campaign, who
in 1896 transformed the Republicans into the party of industrial America,
relegating William Jennings Bryan's Democrats to the agrarian hinterlands of
the South and West. In a like manner, Gingrich wants to align today's
Republicans with the market forces pushing the economy into a globalized,
information age. "Beneath the high-tech jargon lies a sophisticated strategy
that seeks to transform the Republican Party into the advance guard of the
economy, and leave the Democrats to defend the `obsolete' sectors." Industrial
transformation, of course, is not the same thing as successful social
transformation. The problem with the Gingrich program, Dionne asserts, is that
"it has been tried before [that is, from 1896 to 1932] and found wanting." Now
as then, the public will turn to government to seek relief from the social
dislocations of this economic change.

Whether government will be up to the challenge is another matter. "Much
as local governments saw their influence crumble in the 1880s and 1890s," he
writes, "so now do national leaders feel constrained and, in some ways,
helpless" before a transnational financial and industrial order. For the
popular will and popular interests to reassert themselves, Dionne argues,
government must expand to the scale of the economy. In the 1930s, that meant
going national. In the 1990s, nations that wish "to maintain democratic
influence on the economy . . . [must] reach agreements among themselves." The
model for such an agreement, Dionne contends, is the social charter of the
European Union (EU).

Throughout this provocative book, as in much of his writing, Dionne admirably
attempts to formulate progressive policy in a way that can win broad support
across the Democratic spectrum. But on this last suggestion, which is nothing
less than his sine qua non for maintaining effective democracy, I'm not sure
any formulation can unify the Demo crats. After all, the proposal, made by
Richard Gephardt and supported by a number of unions, that the U.S. enter into
a trade arrangement with the EU, has found no takers in the administration or
within the Democratic wing of business. There is nothing close to consensus in
the party on the necessity, or even the desirability, of a global mixed
economy. The Democrats' dilemma, even after they've repositioned themselves to
become more acceptable on cultural and racial matters, isn't just that they
have no institutional center. It is also that they are torn, as the Republicans
are not, by class differences that have been exacerbated by the economic and
political transformations of recent decades. It is one thing to be the party of
Averill Harriman and Walter Reuther in a time of shared prosperity; quite
another to be the party of Robert Rubin and Richard Trumka at a time of soaring
profits due in part to wage decline.

To say that E.J. Dionne and Michael Lind both advocated a liberalism
with a diminished emphasis on race and an increased emphasis on class is to
state the truth and obscure a world of difference. Dionne chooses to write more
or less within the confines of actual existing politics. Lind, by contrast,
means to blow up the whole damn thing.

In Lind, the progressive revisionist two-step has found its most zealous
performer. There are many who share Lind's intense antipathy to affirmative
action and racial preferences, but they are all well to his right on economics.
There are many-- well, someshare Lind's militant advocacy of working-class
interests and social market capitalism, but they tend to be well to his left on
cultural politics. And to stake his terrain, he has written not just a
political tract, but an entire counter-history and counter-mythology of
America, and just when you think he's done, he appends a counter-pantheon of
American heroes. It's immensely learned, overdone, occasionally wrong, and at
times a little loopy; the overall effect is like being cornered in a bar and
harangued by a MacArthur fellow who's had too much to drink.

As Lind tells it, the U.S. has gone through three distinct incarnations:
Anglo-America, from 1789 to 1861; Euro-America, which lasted from 1875 to 1957;
and Multicultural America, which commenced with the end of the second
Reconstruction in 1972 and exists to this day. Euro-America perpetuated
Anglo-America's subordination of non-whites; but as a consequence of the New
Deal, it was characterized by an unprecedented prosperity among white workers.
That prosperity--for white workers and nonwhites, too--has eroded badly in
recent decades; Multicultural America, he asserts, is characterized by a
"proliferation of racial preferences and decline in average wages and
benefits--both in the interests of the white overclass."

Lind's assertion that an economic war has been waged by the American elite on
the American masses is plainly accurate; the busting of unions, the destruction
of manufacturing, and the erosion of wages and benefits were the result not of
blind market forces but of policies undertaken on a scale unseen in any other
industrialized nation. He is equally right to assert--with Dionne, Greenberg,
McWilliams et al.--that racial preferences have divided American workers,
eroded class solidarity, and weakened support for government programs and
government itself. But to flirt, as he occasionally does, with the suggestion
that the overclass cooked up this affirmative action thing as a way to shore up
its offensive is a bit much. He does document how Richard Nixon came up with
racial set-asides on construction sites in part to create political divisions,
but we're not talking overclass when we're talking Nixon. One can easily
imagine the one-sided class war of the past two decades proceeding unimpeded if
affirmative action had never been devised. On the other hand, Lind is on surer
ground when he notes the effect of open immigration on falling wages (a
glaringly obvious fact in my own hometown, Los Angeles), and on surer ground
still when he notes that it was only during the one period in American history
when immigration was almost shut off--1923 through 1965--that industrial
workers were able to organize themselves.

Ultimately, Lind is attacking both the cause and the consequence of
American exceptionalism. The American left has long struggled with what it
would term an underdeveloped level of working-class consciousness and
organization, due in large part to the ethnic and racial divisions within that
class. Lind's solution is to end those divisions. With enough miscegenation, we
can become a little more like a European nation--one people indivisible by
race, hence, divisible by class. In fact, the example of Hawaii suggests he's
on to something--our most racially mixed state is also our only state with
universal health insurance. Correspondingly, the cultural pluralism of the
mainland leaves Lind utterly cold. He sees ethnic enclaves chiefly as
impediments to a broader solidarity; the fact that the Germans of Milwaukee,
the Jews of the Lower East Side, and the Salvadorans of downtown Los Angeles
have at different times espoused an ethnically specific but militant class
politics has not made it onto his radar screen.

Lind's take on affirmative action is equally without nuance. He follows (as do
most of the writers discussed here) in the footsteps of William Julius Wilson
in noting that affirmative action has done little to nothing for the nonwhite
poor while eroding white support for government generally. But Lind conveys no
sense of the terribly constricted choices presented to civil rights activists
30 years ago; that in the absence of a universal economic program along
Reutherian lines, their choice was between racial preferences or nothing at
all. (This is the unforgiving prism through which he views onetime CORE
president James Farmer, whom he designates the father of the racial set-aside.
But like most civil rights leaders of his generation, Farmer displayed an
on-again, off-again seminationalism that was all mixed up with a social
democratic universalism with which he felt far more comfortable.) Lind shows no
sense that affirmative action may be politically problematic while at the same
time helping deserving people who otherwise would never have gotten that help.
And he conveys no sense that until the advent of universalist policies, some
affirmative action may be the only way to significantly integrate particular
campuses and corporations. Lind's America may be a place of interracial mating;
but in that sure-to-be lengthy interval between the repeal of racially based
admission policies and the advent of effective social integration, it's not
going to be a place of much interracial meeting.

Even as Lind is racial liberalism's most avid critic among the progressive
revisionists, so is he, among the writers considered here, social democracy's
most enthusiastic defender. He supports imposing social tariffs on imports from
low-wage nations and nations that deny rights to their workers, legislating an
end to the corporate ability to hire temps, decoupling benefits from jobs and
assigning them to the state. He criticizes Labor Secretary Robert Reich for the
emphasis Reich placed on training; in the global hiring hall, Lind notes, it's
now possible to underpay highly skilled as well as less-skilled workers.

Since Lind wrote The Next American Nation, however, Reich has evinced a
new appreciation for the role of unions in maintaining or raising the levels of
wages and skills. Lind offers no such assessment; indeed, his book conveys
almost no sense whatever of how to get from the here and now to anything even
approximating his vision. Briefly, he suggests two Archimedean points on which
to change the nation: Congress and the military. But the military has been a
color-blind meritocracy for a number of years now, during which time, as he
sees it, the civilian society has been moving only farther away from both those
ideals. And Congress (and particularly the House, in which Lind invests greater
hopes) is hardly a movement for social change. It is a reflection, for better
or worse, of what's going on in the broader society.

Indeed, a silence stalks the books of advocacy here--Lind's and
Greenberg's in particular--as it stalks American liberalism generally. The
progressive revisionists have a strategy that's sound--a deracialized, more
class-based liberalism. They do not have a theory of agency: Who builds this
class-based liberalism? There is a missing link in this scenario-- some
institution that could promote greater racial solidarity among American workers
and jump-start their incomes, that could challenge the power of business in
Congress, that could help put the party back in the party. For the sake of
argument, let's call these institutions unions.

In fairness, this is an understandable omission. Unions have been in decline
for decades; many have been complicit in their own demise. All of these books
(except Dionne's) appeared before the revolution at the AFL-CIO (and Dionne
does indeed acknowledge the change and its potential for reshaping the
landscape). And what has changed at the AFL-CIO is only the subjective side of
the union equation: The movement is now led by people with a passion and the
smarts to endeavor to save it. But the objective side of the equation, the
weakness of unions in the new world economy, remains unaltered.

Still, the inadequacy of unions past to the challenges of the last 30 years,
and the uncertain prospects of unions present in facing the challenges of
global capital, do not gainsay the fact that unions are the indispensable
agents of the neoprogressives' strategic vision. The story of white
working-class estrangement from the Democrats coincides and overlaps with--and
in many ways is the same story as--the decline of unions. And for all their
imperfections, unions consistently remain the only way to alter white
working-class voting. Amid the wreckage of the '94 elections, white male
unionists still voted 18 percent more Democratic than their white male nonunion
counterparts. But unionists comprised a mere 14 percent of the electorate--down
from 25 percent just a decade earlier. At that level of unionization, the
progressive resurgence will be a long time coming.

Dionne argues that we are in a period like the end of the nineteenth century,
when the coming of a new industrial order called a progressive response into
being. But while the Progressives indeed arose during this period, they didn't
truly prevail until some time later. The national corporation and the economy
it created appeared on a large scale in the 1890s, and it was not until the
1930s that Progressives were able to create around it the national state and
national unions that brought with them a more humane industrial order. The
multinational corporation appeared on a large scale in the 1970s; the creation
of the multinational mixed economy, for which the rebirth of a vibrant American
union movement is an absolute prerequisite, is anything but imminent. But the
strategies to which these books point put us firmly on that path.



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