Where the Democrats Went Wrong:
A Short History Lesson in Triangulation
by Sharon Gillespie, LUTU member
For decades, progressives have supported Democratic candidates that don’t represent us because the alternative has been so repugnant. Believing we have nowhere to go in a rigged, two-party system, the Democrats have ignored us and reviled us while exploiting us for money, labor, and votes. Meanwhile, for 30 hard years, the middle class—always accepting inferior candidates from the Party—has experienced spiraling economic decline under both Republican and Democratic administrations. That’s where time and corruption had brought us when—miraculously—the universe opened up, and there in a rumpled suit stood Bernie. Under the tutelage of his message against income inequality, sleeping voters woke to what would be possible if government were actually fair—only to be held hostage once again to what they didn’t want and, sadly, to a candidate many of them despised.
The Democratic Party used to work for people, not just act like it did. But the social and economic policies of FDR and LBJ (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) have been under constant threat since their passage—an assault that’s most distressing when it comes from Democrats. As recently as 2012, Obama proposed substantial cuts to all three programs under the “Grand Bargain” he’d hoped to strike with Republicans. In a similar vein, during the Great Recession, when a new Works Project Administration (WPA) could have created the jobs and infrastructure this country voted for, Obama turned his back on the working class. How in the world could we have fallen so far? In this case, history holds a damning answer: Democrats were betrayed by a wing of the Party itself, the so-called centrist wing, that purposefully—yes, purposefully—killed the New Deal and dismantled the War on Poverty. As historian Thomas Frank describes it, the carnage against policies that served people began with “the disastrous success” of the Clinton presidency.
When Reagan won a landslide victory in 1984, a group of Democratic politicians decided that, to be viable, the Party had to shift from the left toward the so-called political center. This group formed an unofficial political organization called the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). With Bill Clinton as chair in 1990, the DLC continued to develop and promote the political tactic of triangulation, adopting certain policies of its political opponents as its own. The resulting philosophy, known as the “Third Way”—a brew of left-leaning social tenets with right-leaning economic policies—has dominated the Party, as well as Democratic presidencies, ever since. In other words, the party of the people, while continuing to talk as if it still represents the middle class, abandoned them for an ideology open to the austerity of balanced budgets, deregulation of businesses, privatization of governmental functions, and trade agreements favoring corporations over workers and consumers. As intended, this rightward philosophical shift appealed to moderate Republicans, the pro-choice environmentalists who longed for small government. With newfound conservatism, the party of the trade unions had become the party of Wall Street.
As the first “New Democrat” in the White House, Bill Clinton signed laws that disenfranchised the manufacturing class (e.g., NAFTA), which greased the long, downward slide of unions; others that, under the guise of welfare “reform,” dispossessed poor, single mothers of subsidies; and unconscionably harsh criminal legislation, including “Three Strikes,” responsible for the imprisonment of generations of black men. The repeal of “Glass-Steagall,” with Clinton’s full cooperation, eventually uprooted our economy. (During the tumultuous days of the Great Recession, President Obama, another self-identified New Democrat, presided over the bailout of bankers that left too-big-to-fail banks intact, criminal bankers unprosecuted, and homeowners bellyup, further exposed to the predatory bankers who’d continue to feed upon them.) Clinton, the New Democrat, even plotted with House Speaker Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security—the New Deal’s greatest achievement—which was saved, fortuitously, by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s impeachment. Voters trusted Bill to work for the common man because that’s what Democrats do, and he violated their trust to build a new order.
Barack Obama carried on what Clinton started, talking a good case—with eloquence—but not handing out much equity to correct the inequality that government policies created. His corporatist
approach and flagrant military spending continued to run the middle class, which largely financed his agenda, into the ground.
The more informed the voters became, the less likely they were to coronate Hillary Clinton for a third term of Obama. For her part, Hillary was a deeply flawed, ethically challenged candidate. Her judgment regarding speaking fees, personal servers, and "deplorables" not only lacked in common sense, but also smacked of arrogance. She never renounced the corrupt DNC for colluding with Party operatives to undermine Bernie’s campaign in her favor, rendering her complicit in its venality and further alienating the Party’s progressive base.
Perhaps most damaging of all was Hillary’s blatant dishonesty. In full view of the electorate, she reneged on her agreement to debate Bernie in California, breaking what amounted to a contract, which he, for his part, had satisfied. And, after a private conversation leaked, she admitted to having a “public position” on Wall Street reform while taking a different stance in private. People needed good jobs, and instead they faced losing them under Hillary's “gold-standard” Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement she unconvincingly disavowed when pushed by Bernie to the left. How could the country trust this candidate who flaunted deceit to keep her word on the TPP? Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—each blue in three of the last four presidential elections—didn’t think they could.
Enough people had finally realized that Democrats, despite their rhetoric, had stopped delivering the goods. Enough had become tired of waiting for the promised change that never came and wasn’t coming. Clearly, the New Democrats—the only faction of the Democratic Party in the White House since Carter—had left the people, and it left us (with its thumb in our eye) long before the people left the Democrats. To be clear, expecting the Democratic Party and its candidates to represent people is not a demand for perfection. It’s a belief in the sacredness of government (to paraphrase Lincoln) that is of, by, and for the people. Such a government responds to the desperate cries of its hurting citizens, a concept largely unfamiliar to the New Democrats. Purist thinking by progressives didn’t get us where we are. A quarter century of Clinton Democrats did.
So what will the Party do now? Insider Democrats, too dependent on the Party’s power structure to engage in realistic self-examination (or admit the results if they do), are blaming Bernie, Comey, and Putin for the Party’s own failings. And believing their own spin that the Party doesn’t need progressives (and being unwilling to make substantive change regardless), they refuse to atone for their abuses of the base, where the youthful energy is and the future lies. Despite devastating losses around the country from statehouses to Congress and the White House, the message of New Democrats—the Wall Street wing of the party that’s abandoned the working class and that stands for austerity, rapacious trade deals, and war—is that there will be no progressive voice, president, or DNC chair; that whatever they choose to throw us, however bad, will just have to be good enough.
It’s obvious that the Democratic Party would rather keep its donor class of lobbyists and corporations than share real power with progressives and the spoils of power with the people. Those in power never give it up willingly. If we want it, we’ll have to take it from them.
[Based largely on the author’s own opinions, this article also relies on the facts and analyses of the Clinton and Obama presidencies found in Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People by Thomas Frank.]
San Marcos Demands Living Wage
by Richard Croxdale, LUTU member
$15 an hour x 40 hours a week = $600 a week before deductions, or $31,200 a year before deductions.
In February 2016, the City Council of San Marcos, Texas, passed a law that sets a $15/hour wage as the minimum that a business can pay if it expects to get economic incentives from the City of San Marcos. The law became active this past November, and it is unique—there is no other law of this kind in Texas.
The legislation has received scant attention. The national Fight for $15 movement was not aware of the law and did not participate in the advocacy for it. Fight for $15 is focused on specific companies and broader statewide and nationwide initiatives. For example, in June, the group supported a San Marcos Wendy's workers strike over the lack of air conditioning in the restaurant.
San Marcos is a growing but small city, and the impact of the law may not be widespread. It only applies to companies that do business with the city or ask for economic incentives. It is unclear whether it applies to subcontractors.
But Council Member Lisa Prewitt, the sponsor of the legislation, has made clear in several interviews with news outlets that she wants new businesses in San Marcos to pay a living wage rather than relying on the city to provide their employees with food stamps and subsidies for housing and health insurance. She would like to see a coalition of all cities along the I-35 corridor to create a wage floor.
This strategy takes an intermediate path between Fight for $15's emphasis on labor organizing on one hand and state and national laws on the other, and this approach could be a useful tool in the larger project to increase the minimum wage to a living wage.
Cities already use a similar mechanism to control development: they set height restrictions for commercial buildings lower than necessary and then allow businesses to build taller buildings if they either pay a fee or agree to restrictions on building use.
It is conceivable that Texas cities could create a $15/hour minimum wage by increasing business property taxes across the board and then rebating the increase in exchange for paying a $15/hour wage plus benefits.
It is unclear whether it would pass the legal bar but, as the wise person said, "Don't ask permission, just ask forgiveness." Progressives need to be on the offensive; it’s better to pass a law enacting a $15/hour minimum wage and then defend that law in court than to fail to pass a living wage at all.
by Kacey Thompson, LUTU member
We are citizens, not lobbyists. Do we have a voice in the lawmaking process? We do, and we must use it.
The 85th Texas Legislature convenes on January 10 with a flurry of bills aimed at undermining public services, weakening public education, restricting women’s healthcare choices, and chipping away at our civil rights. The good news: it’s easier than ever to stay informed and get involved. Here are some tools:
1. Know the Bills. Texas Legislature Online (TLO: capitol.state.tx.us) lists every bill filed in the House and Senate. Sign up on the “My TLO” tab to receive alerts for committee assignments, hearings, and other updates related to bills of interest to you. The Texas Tribune (texastribune.org) is also a good resource for filtering and analyzing legislation.
2. Gather your Posse. Plug into groups that are already working on progressive issues (see our list below) or gather friends that are committed to doing research, attending rallies, and making phone calls.
3. Perfect your Pitch. In 60 seconds or less, make your case for why the bill should or should not be passed. Talk from personal experience, and speak to the specific priorities of the lawmaker, focusing especially on how the bill relates to the economy and the lawmaker’s district.
4. Make the Call. If it’s early in the session, call your local representative (see list below). If the bill has been assigned to a committee, call the chair or members of that committee. You can also testify at the capitol during committee hearings, which are required to be open to the public.
Let’s do this together! Sign up with Left Up To US to join our legislative research parties and participate in actions throughout the session. Here are a number of other organizations working on progressive issues at the Texas capitol: