Earth to Democrats:
What About an Agenda? 

This piece originally appeared on IntellectualCapital.com.

April 22, 1999

Once upon a time, our political parties stood for something. To be a Republican meant embracing a commitment to individual liberties, free-market capitalism, legislative restraint and the fight against communism. Those called Democrats were presumed to pledge themselves to workplace protections for average Americans, social support for the poor, and a commitment to social equality for women and members of minority groups. Amid our current political confusion, neither definition holds true anymore.

In the Republican Party today, various factions are duking it out, engaged in a battle that will determine the ideological shape of the party in the next century. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the early stages of presidential campaign 2000, in which a host of potential candidates who represent a range of ideological viewpoints -- from Gary Bauer to Elizabeth Dole -- are already jockeying for position. In the Democratic Party, alas, no such debate is taking place -- at least not in public view. The Democratic agenda for the next presidential race appears to be: "We're not the other guys." Oh, yeah, and, "Hey, how 'bout that economy, huh?"

Old ideas
In their zeal to take credit for the exponential growth in the stock market over the last decade, Democrats have reduced consideration of economic forces to a discussion of size and employment figures, as if it was only the size of the economy that had changed in the 1990s. But with the change in size has come a profound change in the shape of the economy, and that has placed enormous stresses even on families that enjoy prosperous levels of income, never mind those in the low-income brackets.

When "liberal" became a dirty word in the late 1980s, many Democrats replaced it with the word "progressive" when asked to describe their place on the political spectrum. "Progressive" was also the autonom chosen by reformers early in this century who sought to create a more humane workplace through government regulation. Their success was extraordinary. Despite opposition from the supercapitalists of the day, the progressives prevailed with the introduction of the 40-hour work week, occupational safety regulations, the right to organize, minimum-wage requirements and an end to child labor. Today, except for child labor, nearly all of their gains have been undone -- not by legislation or illegal activity by employers -- but simply because the old rules do not apply in an economy that has changed its shape so radically.

For whom does it boom?
Unskilled workers who once worked in unionized manufacturing plants now occupy customer-service positions in office buildings. Though the move for such workers from blue- to white-collar positions has resulted in little or no improvement in their wages, it has yielded a loss of protections they once enjoyed.

Despite soaring workplace injury statistics for people who work at computers, the government has done little to protect them. (When is the last time you saw an OSHA sweep of your office?) If the worker is on salary, she has effectively lost her right to a 40-hour work week. If she is working on contract, as many support staff do these days, she has lost her right to organize, along with paid leave, health insurance and other benefits.

Middle managers, too, are facing new strains on their personal economies. Much of the initial growth in the stock market was credited to the downsizing of bloated companies and increased commitment to productivity. In the name of downsizing, companies such as Pacific Bell have laid off hundreds of experienced middle managers and replaced them with independent contractors without health insurance, pension plans and unemployment coverage.

The turn to contract workers helps keep unemployment figures low, because unemployment figures reflect only those who are drawing unemployment insurance. In the meantime, real families face the strains of having to fend for themselves in the increasingly brutal health-care market.

These and other economic realities virtually demand dual-income households for people who have children. Such stresses also place enormous strains on marriages. The United States remains one of the few Western nations to deny its citizens subsidized day care. Members of both parties like to talk about education reform. But raising standards for academic achievement will be meaningless for children whose supervision by qualified adults ends with the closing school bell.

Put up or shut up
As real wages for average Americans continue their decline, the compensation packages for CEOs of major corporations have exploded. Would regulation of such compensation -- and more equitable distribution of corporate income -- really be so obscene?

When Bill Clinton took office, he was fond of telling us that more than 30 million Americans lacked health insurance. Many Americans voted for him first time around because of his promise to fix the problem. Today 40 million Americans live without health insurance. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1996, 50 percent fewer low-wage workers enjoyed employer-provided health-care coverage than did workers occupying that category in 1982. For middle-class workers, there has been a 6 percent drop, but that does not include those forced to become independent contractors. Can we revisit this issue before none of us have health coverage?

Salaried workers and independent contractors also need some protection from being required to work excessive numbers of hours. Though you cannot legislate how many hours a contractor works in his or her home, you can set standards for what a company has a right to expect from its workers and independent contractors. This can be achieved through a carrot-and-stick approach: tax incentives from the creation of "family friendly" work environments, encouragement for companies to adopt statements on the ethical treatment of employees and independent contractors, and public shaming of those that refuse. A promise to repeal the federal legislation that currently forbids independent contractors to organize would also help.

The Democrats' presidential front-runner, Vice President Al Gore, seems to be selling himself on a promise of protection of the environment and his role in the creation of the so-called information superhighway. While the superhighway has yielded many riches, it has also played a significant role in reshaping the economy. For instance, our ability to "telecommute" has helped create the 18-hour workday. If Gore offers no agenda for tempering the influence of the new technologies on the lives of workers, he is basically touting a Superhighway to Hell for many Americans.

Gore's challenger, former Sen. Bill Bradley (NJ), is crafting his campaign around the themes of a more racially tolerant, child-friendly America. But if economic stresses on lower-income workers continue to increase, rhetoric about tolerance will do no good. A scarcity mentality, time and time again, has always exacerbated the scapegoating that leads to racial, ethnic and gender tensions.

What the Democrats lack is conviction -- the conviction to take real risks with new ideas. In the last presidential election, pundits and pols alike were awed by the ability of the divisive, iconoclastic pundit-turned-contender Pat Buchanan to do so well in the early running. He did so by sticking his neck out, by putting out ideas to an exasperated middle class steeped in anxiety about its place in the world. Unless the Democrats emerge with some bold answers to America's fears for her future, the culture war that progressives seek to quell will no doubt continue to rage.

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