The Ghost of Democratic Agenda

Echoes of another liberal turning point were felt at last week's Thinking Big conference.

After surviving one of the worst presidencies in American history, liberals -- both emboldened and frustrated by the new Democratic president -- came to Washington for a conference where they laid out their visions and formulated strategies to push the new president in a more liberal direction.

I'm not talking about this week's Thinking Big, Thinking Forward conference at the Capital Hilton, which was sponsored by the Prospect, Demos, the Institute for America's Future and the Economic Policy Institute. I'm referring to the Democratic Agenda conference held two blocks away at the Mayflower Hotel in 1977, the first year of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Richard Nixon had been banished to San Clemente, a huge Democratic majority controlled Congress, and hopes were high that two long-sought liberal goals -- national health insurance and a government guarantee of full employment -- could soon be enacted. But doubts about Carter's economic policies were rising, too. His economic team had begun work on the deregulation of trucking and airlines, and his commitment to national health insurance and full employment were in question as well.

So liberals -- about 2,000 of them -- came to the Mayflower. They heard a keynote address from Michael Harrington, a top liberal strategist and leader of a democratic socialist organization that worked openly within the Democratic Party. A brilliant and spellbinding speaker, Harrington made a strategic case for planned full employment. He argued that it would ease the path for environmental legislation, render racial tensions less acute, and make generous foreign aid a political possibility.

In fact, the conference was a landmark in American liberalism chiefly because of the strategic reconciliations it signified. The conference marked a coming together of leaders of the left movements that had emerged in the 1930s -- that is, the progressive unions -- with the leaders of the left movements that had emerged in the '60s -- feminist, civil rights, and environmental.

Democratic Agenda was funded chiefly by the three unions: the United Auto Workers (UAW), the Machinists, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Each had more than a million members, and were deeply at odds with the Cold War politics and ongoing hostility to newer social movements that characterized George Meany's AFL-CIO. There were sizable delegations from the three unions, and their presidents - the UAW's Doug Fraser, the Machinists' William Winpisinger, and AFSCME's Jerry Wurf - all spoke. They also met, I believe for the first time, such 1960s movement leaders as Gloria Steinem, Tom Hayden and Ron Dellums. At the Mayflower, the rifts between the '30s and '60s left movements began to be interred, and a political perspective shared by both began to emerge.

The comparisons between Democratic Agenda and Thinking Big are instructive. Each sounded themes of liberal rebirth; speakers at both conferences combined long-range visions with legislative specifics; both conferences issued a call to arms. But the Democratic Agenda conference, unbeknown to its participants, came at the end of the New Deal era. Reaganism was already abroad in the land, and Carter's deregulatory initiatives were a taste of the laissez-faire policies to come. The full employment bill sponsored by Hubert Humphrey in the Senate and Augustus Hawkins in the House was never enacted. (Full employment legislation was a key demand of American liberals at two points after World War II: First, immediately following the war, when liberals feared a return of the Depression, and then in the mid-1970s, as the broadly shared prosperity of the postwar decades began to wane.) Despite the huge Democratic congressional majorities, national health insurance wasn't established, either. Worse yet, Carter's appointee to head the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, took arms against inflation by tightening credit and, as Jeff Madrick noted at Thinking Big, raising the dollar so high that cheaper foreign imports began to swamp the American marketplace. The transformation of the industrial Midwest into America's Rust Belt began during, and was partly caused by, the Carter presidency.

Over the next two years, groups convened by Democratic Agenda organized opposition to Carter's rightward drift on economics. At the Democratic Midterm Convention in Memphis in December of 1978, 40 percent of the delegates opposed resolutions supporting Carter's economic policies. (In response, the Democratic National Committee promptly abolished midterm conventions -- there had been two, in 1974 and 1978.) At Democratic Agenda's rally at that convention, Ted Kennedy broke with Carter over national health care in a memorable speech that had delegates shouting their support for Kennedy's stance. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy embarked on his primary challenge to Carter.

In its attitude towards the new Democratic president, Thinking Big was as different from Democratic Agenda as Barack Obama is from Jimmy Carter, or as the end of the Reagan Age is from its beginning. At this moment, liberal hope looks to be more grounded than it was in 1977. Not only is Obama himself a liberal, which Carter was not, but the urgency of the economic situation is expanding what Harrington called "the limits of the possible" in restructuring the American economy. On one hand, the triumph of radical capitalism over the past three decades means that many of the public policies that progressives envisioned in the mid-1970s, such as a universal governmental health system, are barely spoken of today. That Democrats have to deal with the Blue Dogs in their ranks attests to the power that the Reaganite narrative still wields. On the other hand, the unification of the various parts of the liberal family -- something that Democratic Agenda tried to hasten -- has largely been achieved, and the current economic meltdown has solidified it even further.

Still, as we were reminded by conference organizer and Prospect co-founder Robert Kuttner, Obama's economic advisers are nowhere near as radical as the times demand. (Ironically, the most progressive heavyweight on Obama's economic team may well be Paul Volcker.) But it is early yet. Obama has been president for just over three weeks, and the tone that Thinking Big took toward the president ranged from critical support to, well, just plain support. The doubts that liberals entertain about Obama aren't about the fundamental direction of his presidency, but whether he is moving the nation leftward as far and as fast as it needs to be moved. The doubts liberals entertained about Carter were that he was actually moving the nation rightward.

Thinking Big convened at a more urgent moment in the nation's history than Democratic Agenda did. But in 1977, Harrington conveyed an urgency about the course the nation had charted. He understood that unless liberalism won new victories -- creating universal health care and a greater level of economic security -- that racial divisions and an unchecked capitalism would destroy not just the Democrats' decades-old political majority but also the mixed economy and the broadly shared prosperity that that majority had created.

"We have to go as far beyond Roosevelt as Roosevelt went beyond Hoover," Harrington said at Democratic Agenda, "or we're going back to Hoover." Thirty-two years later, that looks like pretty fair prophecy.

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