Democrats have let Republicans chip away at the Democratic brand as the working people’s party. When Democrats increased opportunities for women, LGBT and minorities during President Barack Obama’s administration, Republicans claimed these gains for others showed Democrats were not interested in helping straight white men. Frankly, Democrats have dropped the ball in explaining how their policies also helped white men — and that’s probably a major reason Hillary Clinton lost the critical states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (along with Republican-engineered voter suppression, particularly in black precincts).
Democrats should reclaim the heritage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who put together a working-class coalition in the 1930s that enabled his New Deal reforms that helped working people and farmers survive the Great Depression by placing much-needed regulation on capitalism, giving millions of unemployed men jobs in public works projects and granting working people rights in the workplace, including the right to organize a labor union. The Democratic Congress established Social Security, unemployment compensation, a minimum wage that increased pay for millions of Americans, and agricultural policies that helped stabilize farm production and prices.
The economy was recovering when the US entered World War II, but Roosevelt knew more reforms were needed, so in his 1944 State of the Union address, he called for an expansion of the Bill of Rights to recognize economic rights as well.
“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” Roosevelt said. Quoting an “old English judge,” FDR said, ”Necessitous men are not free men.” He added, “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
FDR proposed “a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.” They include:
1. The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.
2. The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
3. The right of every family to a decent home.
4. The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
5. The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
6. The right to a good education.
Roosevelt died in April 1945 before he could promote the Economic Bill of Rights, although he did gain passage of the GI Bill of Rights in June 1944, which provided for education and training of returning veterans, as well as low-cost loans for housing and to start businesses. The program was credited with helping fuel the economic boom in the 1950s that created the world’s largest middle class.
Plutocrats finally got their opportunity to counterattack against the New Deal after Roosevelt’s death in 1945. New President Harry S Truman tried to continue Roosevelt’s policies, but his popularity dropped over his handling of post-war labor strikes and his hesitation to lift wartime price controls to prevent food shortages. In the 1946 mid-term election, Republicans picked up 12 Senate seats and took control of the Senate. Dems held the House, but Republicans worked with conservative Southern Democrats to pass, over Truman’s veto, the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which restricted the power of labor unions.
The next major domestic policy gains came under Lyndon B. Johnson, who got his political start during the New Deal. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the new president launched a War on Poverty in 1964 as part of his Great Society. His administration helped to create the Job Corps, the Community Action Program, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Head Start, food stamps and work study programs. He also used his mastery of congressional procedures to get a civil rights bill past the Southern segregationists in the House and Senate, although after he signed the bill, he wistfully predicted it would deliver the South to the Republican Party for a generation.
Johnson ended up losing five states in the Deep South, as well as Arizona, home of GOP nominee Barry Goldwater, but the 44 other states gave LBJ a landslide and the largest Democratic majority in Congress since FDR’s re-election in 1936. LBJ put that majority to use, passing the Voting Rights Act, an immigration bill that removed national-origin quotas dating from the 1920s, and education bills that doubled federal spending on education and provided funding for grants, work-study money and student loans for college students.
But Johnson’s greatest accomplishment was expanding Social Security to include Medicare, to provide hospital insurance for seniors, as well as a voluntary insurance program for doctor visits and an expanded medical program for the poor, now known as Medicaid.
Johnson’s War on Poverty helped millions of Americans rise from poverty as the national poverty rate declined nearly by half, from 23% of Americans living below the poverty line when he took office to 12% in January 1969, when Johnson left office.
Ronald Reagan led the counterattack against the War on Poverty, saying in a February 1986 radio address the nation’s welfare system made the problem worse. Without citing statistics, which appear to contradict him, he said, “I guess you could say, poverty won the war.”
Since then, Republicans have sought to reduce or eliminate many New Deal and Great Society programs and bust unions. The poverty rate edged back up to 15% in the administrations of Reagan and George H.W. Bush, though it fell back to 12.7% (40.6 million people) in 2016 as the economy grew under President Obama. But the wealth gap has continued to increase as unions lost negotiating power.
Now is the time, as Mark Paul, William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton wrote in “An Economic Bill of Rights for the 21st Century” in The American Prospect March 5, to revive the six rights outlined by FDR and update them for the 21st century with three more rights. The proposed additions:
7. The right to sound banking and financial services. They propose a public option, such as the Bank of North Dakota, or revival of postal savings banks to provide banking services, particularly in underserved low-income neighborhoods.
8. The right to a safe and clean environment.
9. The right to a meaningful endowment of resources as a birthright. For example, an endowment for every newborn child.
Democratic leaders have unveiled a populist agenda called “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future,” which is good as far as they go, but Democrats should push for more.
As Paul, Darity and Hamilton conclude, “Many may question in this time of ‘resistance,’ if this is the right time to fight for an expansion of economics rights, but no one wins anything of consequence by simply playing defense. Maintaining the highly unequal and unjust status quo is neither sufficient nor sustainable. We need to take aggressive measures to achieve economic justice.” — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2018
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