Imperatives for Democrats

Imperatives for Democrats

For all their differences, House Democrats need to unite around a pro-worker agenda. The party also needs a smart way to winnow its immense field of presidential prospects.

December 19, 2018

This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of The American Prospect. Subscribe here

Of all the dogs that did not bark in the night during the 2018 midterm-election campaigns—the anticipated attack ads that never got aired—the loudest silence came out of Wisconsin. There, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, running for re-election, had authored a bill that would substantially alter American capitalism, not in a way that most American capitalists would particularly like. Her bill required corporations to set aside one-third of the seats on their boards for members elected by their employees. If enacted, the days of pure shareholder governance—and the shoveling of nearly all profits to shareholders rather than to workers—would be over. 

Surely, this was raw meat for the Republican attack whippets.

Baldwin wasn’t out on this limb by herself. Her Democratic colleague, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, also up for re-election, followed her lead with a similar bill, which went Baldwin’s one better by raising the share of worker representatives to 40 percent. (The term for such corporate-board splitting is co-determination.) But Warren was on the ballot in a solidly Democratic state, while Baldwin was running in purple Wisconsin. Moreover, the attack ads against Baldwin were already coming fast and furious by the time she introduced her bill. By February, groups funded by the Koch brothers had already spent $4.5 million on ads accusing her of all manner of misdeeds (ranging from misstated to fictitious). Undoubtedly, an ad accusing her of undermining the American economy would be next.

It never came. That was hardly for lack of resources; outside groups would drop another $10 million on attacks on Baldwin in the months before Election Day. Rather, the reason for the Republicans’ silence was simply that Baldwin’s proposal resonated with a hell of a lot of Americans.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Senator Sherrod Brown leaves the stage following a speech after winning his re-election bid during the Ohio Democratic Party election night watch party. 

How many? Civis Analytics, a firm formed by data analysts who’d worked on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, polled on the proposal for the group Data for Progress and found that 52 percent of Americans supported it while just 23 percent opposed it. Even more decisively, a plurality supported it in every congressional district in the nation. Within Wisconsin, it commanded support not just in ultra-liberal Madison and but also in rock-ribbed Republican small towns and farms. 

Americans, it seemed, have seen shareholder capitalism and concluded it doesn’t work. Putting workers on corporate boards was so clearly a no-brainer that attacking it would only raise issues the Koch brothers and their ilk didn’t want discussed.

For her part, Baldwin attacked her Republican challenger, State Senator Leah Vukmir, as a stooge of corporate interests, citing her participation in and award from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the right-wing business consortium backed (as Baldwin’s ads pointed out) by such concerns as Pfizer, Exxon, and the Kochs. 

On Election Day, Baldwin won with an 11-point margin over Vukmir. The exit polls showed that Baldwin even won 12 percent of the voters who’d cast their gubernatorial ballots for Republican Governor Scott Walker. 

This isn’t to say that Baldwin had run on her proposal to upend corporate governance. Like most Democrats, she ran on her support for health-care protections, and like her Democratic senatorial colleague Sherrod Brown, who won re-election this November in Ohio, she ran on her record of championing local industry and opposing the trade deals that had undermined it. Her campaign, like Brown’s, certainly provides a model for Democrats as they seek to retake the once-industrial Midwest in the 2020 presidential election. 

But the larger lesson for Democrats is found in the silence of the Republicans when confronted with a proposal to reshape some fundamentals of American capitalism. The lesson is that there are a number of policies that would redistribute wealth and power from the few to the many that are broadly popular, and that should unite Democrats—particularly Democrats in the new Congress—at a moment when, despite their differences, they need to demonstrate some unity of purpose and embrace a politics that the nation’s progressives and centrists both support. 


THE DEMOCRATS HAVE moved left in recent years—remarkably left, but that doesn’t mean they all occupy the same political space. A 2018 Gallup Poll showed that 57 percent of self-identified Democrats held favorable views of socialism, while just 47 percent felt that way about capitalism. Still, the party is shifting left at two different speeds. Where minorities and millennials congregate (that is, in cities), the Democrats sent some radicals to Congress in 2018, including, but hardly limited to, socialists Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Detroit. Given the demographics and economics of cities, there’s every reason to think that urban America will send more social democrats to Congress in coming elections and adopt a host of social democratic policies themselves. The urban shift left—though not universally toward social democracy—has become stunningly ubiquitous. Even in such historically conservative cities as Charleston, South Carolina; Salt Lake City; and Oklahoma City, Democratic challengers unseated Republican members of Congress in November’s elections.

Democrats also prevailed in legendarily Republican suburbs, picking up seats outside Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, and sweeping California’s Orange County. It’s not the case that all those Democrats ran as relative moderates. In the Orange County district represented by Republican Mimi Walters—which includes the epicenter of the county’s conservatism, Newport Beach, where John Wayne docked his yacht—Democrat Katie Porter, a progressive attorney who is a protégé of Elizabeth Warren and who supported Medicare for All (to be sure, more vocally in the primary than in her fall campaign), handily defeated Walters. And, of course, while progressive Democratic gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida narrowly lost their races, they ran well ahead of the more moderate Democrats who’d run for those offices in years past.

Still, it’s clear that there are and will be differences among Democrats from different political terrains. When the new Congress convenes, House Democrats will almost certainly come together to pass campaign-finance reforms, raise the minimum wage, and vote for some kind of rollback in drug prices. Most of those actions are so widely popular that they’d put Republican House members on the spot: After all, in November’s elections, voters in the Republican bastions of Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska elected to expand Medicaid, while voters in Arkansas and Missouri elected to raise their states’ minimum wage. 

But is that all? Other than investigating and possibly impeaching Donald Trump, will the rest of the congressional session be given over to intra-party disputes over how far to extend Medicare and how green a New Deal to promote? Or will the Democrats heed the lesson of the non-attack on Baldwin’s co-determination proposal and realize that they can support legislation that begins to shift the balance of power in the economy, and win widespread support in the process? Will they realize they can come together around an agenda that directly benefits America’s workers?


DEMOCRATS CAN BEGIN by reconceptualizing corporate taxes. Yet another dog that didn’t bark in the 2018 night was the support Republicans expected for enacting their new income tax law. By mid-year, the polling showed that Americans understood the law delivered the lion’s share of its reductions to corporations and the wealthy, while expanding deficits that menaced Social Security and Medicare. It signally failed to turn out more Republicans to the polls, while adding one more reason for Trump opponents to go out and vote.

Over the course of 2018, a number of Democrats in addition to Baldwin and Warren authored bills to compel corporations to change the way they do business. In November, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and California Representative Ro Khanna introduced legislation that would forbid corporations from buying back their shares (the main way corporate executives reward major shareholders, very much including themselves) unless they paid their workers at least $15 an hour, afforded them seven days of sick leave per year, and maintained a ratio of CEOpay to median worker pay no greater than 150 to 1. Ohio’s Sherrod Brown has laid out a similar proposal, only it also rewards corporations for good behavior in meeting such metrics.

AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

The Democrats have moved left in recent years—remarkably left, but that doesn’t mean they all occupy the same political space. Here, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks during a rally against Judge Brett Kavanaugh at City Hall in Boston. 

It wouldn’t be hard to mix and match the particulars of these and kindred proposals, in bills that either mandate changes, like the co-determination legislation, or that punish corporations for violating standards of decency (or reward them for meeting them). As a fallback, Democrats could scale corporate taxes to compliance with such standards. At a time of high public awareness of wage stagnation and the upward redistribution of income and wealth during recent decades, a linkage of corporate taxes to corporate behavior should command widespread Democratic support. Introducing such legislation as part of a package including campaign-finance reform proposals would highlight Democrats’ opposition to plutocracy’s eclipse of democracy (or, if you will, prompt the Democrats to move their opposition beyond the rhetorical). It would also compel Republican House members to take some exquisitely awkward votes. 

Many Democrats in the incoming House have pledged themselves to support Medicare for All. Despite that, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made clear this is not the direction in which she wants her party’s legislating to move, for fear that Republicans will pounce on the tax increases that such a measure entails, and on the prospect many Americans will face of losing their current employer-provided insurance. 

One way to square this circle is to move to Medicare for All incrementally. Both political scientist Jacob Hacker and the Prospect’s Paul Starr have outlined proposals to expand the universe of Medicare recipients in such a way. Starr’s proposal, which he terms “Midlife Medicare,” would bring down the age of eligibility for the program to 55 or even 50. Recipients could either choose Medicare coverage for an affordable fee, or the expanded program, like the current one, could be publicly funded, financed in part by savings from mandated reductions in drug and procedure costs, and from dedicated corporate tax revenues that partially offset their savings from having to cover fewer employees. This latter proposal is one that might win the support of single-payer backers (it’s Medicare for, if not All, then A Lot More Americans) and of more hesitant moderates as well.


A THIRD SET OF INITIATIVES on which the various sets of House Democrats could and should agree combines proposals for a Green New Deal (which Ocasio-Cortez has championed), government-backed full employment, infrastructure renewal, and regional development. Substantial numbers of House Democrats are committed to each of these four priorities, none of which has gone beyond the drawing-board phase—if that. This creates the possibility—indeed, it’s a necessity—of crafting programs that address all four of these priorities simultaneously. 

Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP File

Senator Tammy Baldwin celebrates her re-election victory in Madison, Wisconsin. 

The problem that has given rise to the need for each of these policies is decades-long underinvestment, both private and public. In the realm of private capital, corporate America has downsized its presence in nonmetropolitan regions, preferring instead to offshore manufacturing and funnel money to shareholders. Government has failed to fill that gap, its leaders apparently forgetting that during the New Deal, it was government that brought affordable electric power to rural America and that during the Cold War, it spread its armament factories all across the land. For that matter, government has done precious little to introduce more clean and efficient transportation systems, or even shore up the existing ones. 

The evidence of this joint public and private neglect is apparent in both geographic and demographic statistics. A Brookings Institution study released this November documents the extent of the economic decline of nonmetropolitan areas. Since 2008, Brookings shows, the number of jobs has increased by 9 percent in large metropolitan areas, 5 percent in medium-sized metropolitan areas, 3 percent in small metropolitan areas, and 0 percent in small towns, while declining by 2 percent in rural areas adjacent to metropolitan areas and by 4 percent in rural areas not adjacent to them at all.

The concomitant decline in manufacturing jobs and the underinvestment in construction is also registered in the steadily declining rate of prime-age male participation in the labor market. Currently, the percentage of men aged 25 to 54 not working full-time—even with official unemployment at a low 3.7 percent—is 19 percent. In 2007, before the crash, the rate was 16.6 percent; in 2000, 14.4 percent; and in 1989, 13.6 percent. 

These two sets of statistics, taken either separately or combined, point to some of the reasons for the stunning decline in life expectancy for the nation’s white working class, and to the rise therein of “deaths of despair.” Major targeted public investments in infrastructure, broadband, and green public power can help counter some of these grim developments. A green power public employment program, like a latter-day Civilian Conservation Corps, could be one way to meet these needs. These are policies with which Democrats across the ideological spectrum (more precisely, their ideological spectrum) could champion. 

Even within rural America—by every account the one terrain Donald Trump can claim as his own—there’s likely considerable receptivity to such policies. The results of the 2018 midterm elections have been depicted as a triumph for Democrats in the cities and suburbs, while Republicans held their own in rural areas. But according to an analysis from Catalist, a Democratic voter data firm, rural America, which gave Republicans a 35-point advantage over Democrats in 2016, saw that margin decline to 28 points in 2018. That was largely due to younger rural voters, age 18 through 29, who gave Republicans a 17-point advantage in 2016, and gave Democrats an 8-point advantage in 2018—a shift of 25 points. 

Clearly, the opportunity to develop a combination of programs to create meaningful employment and combat catastrophic climate change should be a focus of both the Democratic House and the various left and center-left think tanks. At the same time, Democrats should not be lulled by the relative prosperity of metropolitan areas. It’s precisely in those areas where income inequality is at its highest, since their job markets are divided between a relatively small professional class and tech sector on one side, and a massive service and retail sector, disproportionately staffed by people of color, on the other. Indeed, in the current focus on the ravages that deindustrialization has inflicted on the white working class, most commentators have forgotten that the big-city deindustrialization of the 1960s through the 1980s wreaked havoc on black manufacturing workers—a development that sociologist William Julius Wilson documented in When Work Disappears, his landmark 1996 study of post-industrial urban black communities. And it is the particular misfortune of the Latino immigrants of the past 35 years that they have come to the United States just as the kinds of factory jobs that offered decent-paying, sometimes unionized, employment—the immigrants’ economic ladder—vanished, stranding them in the low-wage service-sector and non-union construction jobs of America’s cities.  

So the Democrats need two types of regional economic strategies, one for the small towns and rural areas where capital has taken flight, the other for cities where capital abounds but is concentrated in the wealthiest tenth. For the latter, there’s a need for jobs programs that make cities greener, for more job training and apprenticeships (as there is in rural America). But there are tens of millions of city folk in distinctly urban and suburban service, retail, and hospitality sectors whose basic needs won’t be met absent a higher minimum wage, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, and changes in labor law that would enable them to form unions. There are also millions of contingent and independent contract workers who need a reworking of laws so they can receive adequate income and the kind of job-related benefits now reserved for a shrinking subset of direct employees. 

Which is to say, Democrats need a worker-centered economic policy for both town and country, and one that shifts the economy away from its deadly dependence on fossil fuels. That’s not the work of a single session of Congress, even a single session in which the Democrats control both houses and the White House as well. But developing that policy, albeit in fits and starts, is not only one more thing that the incoming House Democrats should be about, but something that both the left and center-left should embrace—though they will differ, surely, on the speed of the turn to green.


A PRO-WORKER DEMOCRATIC House over the next two years is a crucial precondition for Democratic success in 2020. The more important precondition, of course, is a Democratic presidential nominee who can unseat Donald Trump—for which the same centrality of pro-worker policies and politics is no less essential.

Many of the Democrats’ prospective candidates reflect in their positions their understanding that the energy in the party is on the left, while a few (Sanders, Warren, and Brown, at minimum) were on the left before that energy was evident. The problem for Democrats is the sheer number of prospective candidates. The party—and the American electoral process generally—has no good way to select a nominee when so many aspirants split the vote.

In 2016, this was the Republicans’ problem, and the process produced the most appalling nominee—and then, president—in the nation’s history. A field of seven or eight establishment candidates split the vote in the early primaries and caucuses, allowing the one glaringly non-establishment candidate to rack up victories without ever winning more than a third of the votes. While the Democrats in 2020 won’t choose a nominee one one-thousandth as repellent as Trump, the prospect of, say, 15 candidates running in the first set of primaries and caucuses could produce a front-runner—or worse, two front-runners—without wide appeal in the party’s ranks. 

The way people vote, of course, is seldom determined solely by neat ideological criteria, but it’s certainly possible that progressives could split their vote between, say, Warren and Sanders, allowing other candidates to surge to the fore. If those Democrats who want an African American nominee divide their vote between Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, a similar dynamic could play out. There is also the surge of Beto O’Rourke, whose ideological orientation remains obscure. The next nominee needs to be a unifier, but one who reflects and optimizes the increasing support in the party (and the country) for progressive economics.

The one way to ensure that Democrats select a nominee whose victory reflects not just intensity of support but also breadth of support is for the party to change its rules to mandate ranked-choice voting. Giving primary voters the option of voting for, say, their top three or top five choices, in order of preference, would enable the party to avoid the pitfalls that come with an absurdly large field of candidates. It would also, I readily acknowledge, be a hellaciously complicated process. The counting would take some time, frustrating the media, the candidates, and the voters. And if the party decided to shift to ranked-choice voting, states would have to alter their vote-counting procedures, which would entail some public expense. Some states would probably resist, and the courts would have to decide the winner of any state-versus-party conflicts.  

Unlike the Republicans, who have been shedding moderates for years and have, under Trump, become a massive cult, the Democrats contain distinct multitudes. For all their differences, however, it’s clear that virtually the entire party is moving leftward, if at varying speeds, in response to the profound imbalance of wealth and power that has overtaken the nation in recent decades—under Democratic as well as Republican rule. If they can use their House majority to make clear that their purpose is to create a more equal polity and economy, if they can select a presidential nominee with that same purpose (which may require altering the way they go about the selecting), they’ll be in good shape to retake the government in 2020 and begin this necessary work. 

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