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The Public Sector We Need

To have any chance of implementing popular left-wing ideas, we need to restore the capacity of democratic government to serve working people.

Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan Act on March 11, 2021, Mandel Ngan/AFP // Dissent Magazine

The agenda of the Democratic Party’s left wing has more political support than at any time since the era of the Great Society. Majorities of Americans favor Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a wealth tax on the rich, re-regulating Wall Street, labor unions, a $15 minimum wage, and stopping racism and police brutality. For forty years left economists have argued that centrist Democrats’ corporate-friendly policies of free trade, deregulation, and privatization would exacerbate inequality and social stress. The point is now widely, if grudgingly, acknowledged in the mainstream media and the graduate seminars of the governing class.

But it was not progressive Democrats who first successfully exploited the left’s insights. Reactionary Republicans used them to reinforce and rationalize the racism, xenophobia, and cultural resentment they rode to power. In 2016, while Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, Trump captured the GOP by exploiting populist anger against its conservative establishment. Shuttered factories and deserted main streets were generating “poverty and violence,” he told the cheering crowd at the 2016 Republican National Convention. “And I alone can fix it.” He beat Clinton by taking the Midwestern industrial states whose working class has been devastated by the globalization policies of the Democratic elites.

Four years later, progressives again fell short of their goal to nominate either of their presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The Democratic establishment, unlike the Republican elite, held firm. But faced with the COVID-19 recession, Joe Biden produced the most progressive platform of any Democratic candidate in the last fifty years. Inspired by the popularity of the massive Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, progressive social media pledged to push Biden even further to the left after an anticipated Democratic landslide in November.

There was, of course, no landslide; Biden’s margins in key states were razor thin. Republicans reduced the Democratic majority in the House to ten seats and would have held the Senate if not for Trump’s post-election meltdown, which helped sway the two Georgia Senate races in January. Republicans also maintained their advantage in control of state governments, which will soon draw political district lines for the next ten years. And conservatives have a Supreme Court majority and have flooded the federal courts with young right-wing judges, many with appointments for life. Undergirding it all is a monstrous, well-funded propaganda network, whose influence goes far beyond the hardcore right.

Historically, the party that has just won the White House loses the next midterm election. Given the Democrats’ slim margins, the odds favor a Republican takeover of Congress in 2022. And if Biden goes down, the left goes down with him.

Progressives have correctly argued that Biden must abandon the incrementalism of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and think bigger about fundamental change. If the left is to build the political power needed to secure those changes, it will have to think bigger about political strategy as well. It needs to expand its base.

For years, Democrats have been assuring themselves that they own the future because the fastest growing parts of the population are in groups that historically have voted Democratic. “Demography is destiny” has become conventional wisdom. As establishment mouthpiece Thomas Friedman wrote the week of the election, “sometime in the 2040s, whites will make up 49 percent of the U.S. population, and Latinos, Blacks, Asians and multiracial populations 51 percent.” But Friedman’s figure are wrong. They classify Latino-Americans as nonwhite, when 65 percent tell the Census Bureau they are “white alone.” Adjust the projections according to how people think of themselves, and almost 70 percent of the U.S. population will still be white by 2060.

Racial justice is fundamental to progressive politics. But it alone cannot serve as the basis for majority politics in a country where most consider themselves white, and an increasing number no longer feel so privileged. And the 2020 exit polls, which show gains in Trump’s share of Latino and African-American voters, suggest that Democrats can’t count on continued big margins from minority voters simply by being the party that stands against racism.

There is far more potential for establishing a sustainable electoral majority in becoming the party that stands for economic security. In mainstream discourse, the term “working class” has come to mean “workers with less than a four-year college degree in non-supervisory jobs who are non-Hispanic white.” But it is obvious that the great majority of Black and Latino voters are working class too. Indeed, the share of Black workers in trade unions in slightly higher than the share of white workers. Moreover, education no longer defines economic class as it once did. Colleges and universities are graduating millions of young people loaded with debt, working at jobs that used to go to high school graduates or surviving as freelance professionals desperately networking for the next gig.

The ongoing argument over whether the shift of the white part of the working class to the right is motivated more by racism, cultural resentment, or economic stress is largely academic. Clearly the shift is an explosive mixture of all three. There can be no compromise on racism for the left, and we really don’t know how to bridge deep cultural divisions. But on economic insecurity, we should have the edge.

Yet the post-Trump Republican Party is still picking the pockets of left-wing economic populism. Marco Rubio promotes industrial policy, which most Democratic leaders long ago dismissed as too radical. Josh Hawley joined Bernie Sanders in support of a $2,000 stimulus check. And 53 percent of Republicans now tell Reuters pollsters that they favor a wealth tax. “We’re rural, we’re urban, we’re multiracial,” Hawley says. “But you look at the working people across those different divides, they’ve got a lot of common interests.”

The worst president in U.S. history came so close to being re-elected largely because voters thought he was better at creating jobs. Before the pandemic hit, real wages under Trump had risen 9 percent, and unemployment was below 4 percent. Some Democrats complain that Trump’s economy was a result of the deficits that overflowed from his outrageous tax cuts for the rich. But it is hardly news to working people that in capitalist economies wealth tends to trickle down from the top. The question is who they can trust to be on their side in the struggle over who gets what.

International trade policy was one litmus test. By 2008, it was clear that the NAFTA—supported by the bipartisan elite—had sold out a large chunk of the Democrats’ working-class base. Campaigning that year, Obama and Hillary Clinton both promised to renegotiate the treaty. He became president, she became secretary of state. The promise went right into the trashcan. In 2016, Trump also pledged to renegotiate NAFTA. But unlike the Democrats, he kept his promise. Even the AFL-CIO agrees he got a better deal for American workers.

The Democratic coalition of minorities and affluent liberals has, for now, held the Republican right to a polarized draw. But the stalemate cannot hold. The economic anxiety that nurtures and tolerates the right, far beyond its paranoid racist core, produced 74 million votes for Trump and will keep growing—because without a profound economic restructuring, more and more workers will slip into the downward spiral of dead-end jobs, low pay, and a tattered social safety net.

To have any chance of beating the historical odds in the immediate future, Democrats must sail into the 2022 election on the winds of an economic boom. Suppressing the pandemic and getting people back to work is therefore a shared priority of both left and center. With his $1.9 trillion, debt-financed recovery package, Biden—who once voted for a balanced budget amendment—seems to have learned the simple Keynesian lesson that if no one spends, no one works. “Milton Friedman isn’t running the show anymore,” he said on the campaign trail.

The post-COVID economy will benefit from the spending of pent-up savings by those whose incomes were maintained. And the twenty states that increased their minimum wage on January 1 will help spread the benefits those at the bottom. But the stimulus is a short-term economic boost. Once the immediate crisis is over, the corporate media and the shamelessly hypocritical Republicans will clamor for government austerity. And centrist Democrats, eager to please the big money, will write op-eds on the evils of debt.

The economic argument is bogus: interest rates are low, there’s no hyper-inflation threat, and there are substantial sums to be raised by taxing excess wealth and chopping the bloated military budget. The widespread international use of the dollar currently allows us to borrow from the rest of the world and pay back in our own currency. That advantage is slowly eroding, so this is the time to borrow and invest. The real political conversation-stopper is the argument against “big government.” If progressives are to have a chance to succeed at all, they’ll need to meet that argument head-on.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution says that the program requires “a national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II.” But unlike that four-year mobilization, the current need for national redevelopment will be the work of a generation or more. It will be an expensive, complex, trial-and-error process, involving not only new programs but fundamental changes in both private and public values.

It’s a big job, and it will take a big, competent state to do it. But the necessary instrument—democratic government—is damaged, demoralized, and distrusted. In the 1960s, the last time the left made substantial social progress in America, close to 80 percent of the public trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Even before Trump took office, that figure had shrunk to 18 percent.

For forty years, the right has flooded the public with anti-government narratives, with support from the neoliberal center. Center-right propaganda also blinded the public to the economic reality of their own lives: during the Obama presidency, 40 percent of Americans on Medicare, 53 percent of those with student loans, and 25 percent receiving food stamps thought that they did not receive any government aid.

In a democratic society, distrust of government is a distrust of the people’s capacity to govern themselves collectively. For many on the right, the next logical step is toward Trump’s authoritarian claim that “only I can fix it.” But the relentless denigration of the public sector has also seeped into left-wing culture, as we can see, to take one example, in the overreliance on NGOs financed by foundations controlled by the rich.

It took a long time for the right to destroy confidence in democratic government. And it will take time for the left to develop the language and style to bring it back. There is plenty of material for a popular narrative to break the current ideological hammerlock: what government does now, what it has done in the past, and why we need it to guide our collective future. The COVID-19 experience is easily understood as demonstrating the need for public planning. And the Democrats’ control of the federal government, as shaky as it is, has given progressive leaders access to the bully pulpit.

Restoring confidence in the public sector will also require investment in a revitalized and inspired civil service. The left needs a new generation of progressive scientists, social workers, teachers, engineers, lawyers, healthcare workers, IT people, accountants, labor and meat inspectors, and police and FBI agents committed to justice and prosperity for working Americans. The talent is available: the United States has an oversupply of energetic young people, more educated and trained than previous generations, who face a dismal future in a precarious private labor market of shrinking opportunities. John F. Kennedy famously inaugurated his presidency by challenging Americans to ask “what you can do for your country.” It was a statement laced with Cold War boosterism, but it inspired thousands to choose a career in civilian government. Many who stayed were unsung heroes in resisting the attacks on their social programs by the Republican administrations that followed.

The long arduous task of building a government responsive to working people won’t just come from within the government, however. It requires a strong, progressive multiracial labor movement. For a half-century, Democratic leaders have stood aside while big business launched a campaign to destroy organized labor. Union membership was depleted, and union political power was crippled.

One unsurprising result was a steady shift of national income from workers to investors. Another was that the term “labor union” still conjures up stereotypes of white male breadwinners, even though two-thirds of union members are minorities or women, and over 40 percent of union members have a four-year college degree or higher. If any institution is the face of America, it is organized labor.

On March 9, the Democratic House passed the first significant legislation in support of labor since the 1930s. The PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act removes obstacles to organizing and joining a union, ensures good-faith bargaining, and punishes employers for violations of the law. A Gallup Poll show public approval of unions at 68 percent—including 45 percent of Republicans. But even so, passing the PRO Act in the Senate will be hard.

Wall Street will not fight to protect racist cops, just as in the 1960s it did not resist the Democrats’ civil and voting rights reform. If it provides opportunities for profit, the corporate investor class will support government spending on green infrastructure. It will even grudgingly accept some inevitable claw back of Trump’s tax cuts and deregulation of the environment. But it will fiercely oppose any effort to strengthen independent labor unions precisely because unions threaten corporate and financial power. That is exactly why passing the PRO Act needs to be a major strategic investment for the left.

For all its evocation of a reactionary past, the phrase “Make America Great Again” asserts the right’s claim on the future. The bipartisan center has no alternative vision. The left, however, does: to rebuild the United States on just, green, and prosperous terms. The reactionary right stole and debased this agenda before. We cannot afford to let it happen again.

[Jeff Faux was the founder and is now Distinguished Fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. His books include The Servant Economy and The Global Class War.]