There has been talk, in the pages of the New York Times and elsewhere, that the two political parties may be in the process of reversing their traditional demographics. The Republican Party, it is said, may become the party of the working class, while the Democratic Party may become the party of the college educated and the coastal elites.
Frankly, I don’t believe it. Not that the Democratic Party has done a great job representing the working class in recent elections. Aside from Bernie Sanders and the progressive wing of the Party, the Democrats have more often thrown in with the interests of moneyed elites than with their traditional constituencies, especially labor.
But I simply cannot see how the Republican Party fills that vacuum. Some conservative writers — I am thinking of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam — have suggested that the Republican Party appeal to the working class through adjustments to the tax code to allow for greater take-home pay, or guaranteeing, in a convincing way, that conservative efforts to “reform” Social Security will not harm their interests.
These are welcome steps, but they amount to little more than very modest tinkering. So, what does a party of the working class look like?
It would begin with the premise that the interests of capital can no longer reign supreme. This does not mean, of course, that the state must own the means of production. That would be ridiculous. State socialism is a proven failure.
What it does mean is a return to the kind of coexistence among the interests of capital, labor, and humanity that occurred in the New Deal settlement of the 1930’s. What the architects of the New Deal inherited from Herbert Hoover was an economy in collapse. Unrestrained capitalism had failed catastrophically, and there were even calls in some quarters to junk it altogether.
The New Dealers wisely resisted this temptation and instead put in place a regulatory and welfare state meant to keep capitalism from consuming itself and to protect the nation as a whole from the negative effects of economic upheaval.
The last three and a half decades have seen a steady erosion of the terms of this settlement. A real party of the working class would aim to restore and update the protections of the New Deal. It would ask whether deregulation and privatization have gone too far. It would impose sensible regulations on industries whose failure would pose grave risks of injuring the nation’s vital economic interests. And it would seek to tax activities that have little social utility, such as high-frequency trading. It would protect the real human interests that the economy is meant to serve — ensuring a living wage, time away from work, family leave, and an opportunity for every person to thrive.
A real party of the working class would acknowledge as a second premise the urgency of balancing bargaining power most especially between capital and labor. Most contracts are the result of unequal bargaining power. And most of the time it does not greatly matter.
Still, every contract that is the product of an unequal exchange has inherent within it at least the possibility, quite often remote, sometimes very real, of oppressiveness. And this is frequently true in the labor setting. A large business enterprise views workers as fungible. The business is motivated, indeed, it is incentivized by market forces, to drive as hard a bargain as possible with its employees.
A party of the working class would demand that this situation be corrected. Such a party would seek to give teeth to labor laws. It would aim to make it easier for workers to organize labor unions and to protect workers in the event of job actions. It would aim to revitalize the labor movement by seeking to organize the many temporary and part-time workers of the so-called “gig” economy. Properly nurtured, the labor movement would enjoy a renaissance. And a party of the working class could lead that revival.
A party of the working class would also update and re-conceptualize our understanding of economic freedom. Economic freedom, after all, is nothing but a cruel hoax where one is vulnerable to being wiped out by an unexpected crisis. Economic freedom in today’s world, in other words, is only truly possible where one is given an assurance of a basic level of protection from market forces.
Consider health care. Even with the Affordable Health Care Act, health costs remain a leading cause of personal bankruptcy. That is an outrageous circumstance, given that health care is a basic human right and a right that is zealously defended in the rest of the developed world.
Single-payer health coverage would be an important step in protecting economic freedom, properly understood. After all, consumers who are not bankrupted by unexpected crises, can continue to do the things they were doing to keep the economy thriving — like putting gas in the car, shopping at the mall, doing home renovation. Other nations take all this for granted. Single-payer health coverage might even unleash a wave of entrepreneurship, since individuals might be more willing to start their own businesses if they didn’t have to worry about health insurance.
A party that truly protected this essential human right would not only enjoy political success. It would guarantee a stronger measure of economic security and freedom for everyone, and contribute significantly to keeping the economy on a sound footing.
Finally, a party of the working class must ensure opportunity for all. This means many things. Comprehensive immigration reform is mandatory. Undocumented aliens and their families must be put on a path to citizenship as swiftly as possible. We would thereby help to move millions of people away from the shadow economy and allow them to fulfill the American dream.
Our inner cities must be rebuilt. Millions of men and women languish in these urban centers, victims of inadequately funded public schools and decades of official neglect. The so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline must be broken.
And access to affordable college must be guaranteed to all Americans. A half-century ago, some of America’s great university systems — the University of Wisconsin system, the University of California, and other colleges and universities — offered students free or nearly-free higher education. Equal opportunity can only be made a reality when all Americans have the chance to participate in the American dream.
Which party will become the party of the working class? I cannot imagine the Republican Party embracing these ideals. The Democrats, for their part, have been pretty halfhearted. Still, Bernie Sanders enjoyed the kind of success he had for a reason. And the Democratic platform upon which Hillary Clinton is running is the right kind of platform and offers great future promise.
While the Democratic Party is far from perfect, it represents the only viable vehicle by which to pursue these reforms. And while many Democrats may not yet appreciate it, the more fully they vocalize this set of ideas, the greater their chance of electoral success, not only this fall, but in years to come.
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