Can the Democrats Break Through These 7 Debilitating Myths?

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Can the Democrats Break Through These 7 Debilitating Myths?

Following his election to becomen the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, can Tom Perez (right) and the Democrats break through some of these debilitating myths? (Photo: CNN)

The Democratic Party, with Thomas Perez as its new chair, vows to seek unity, transparency, Trump resistance, grassroots participation, and most importantly, “make sure we talk about our positive message of inclusion and opportunity... to that big tent of the Democratic Party.”

But this message is shrouded with myths that must be challenged if we are to take back the country from financial and corporate elites... and from Trump.

Myth #1: Party unity

For the Clinton Democrats, party unity means that the Sanders forces recognize that they lost. For the sake of unity, the Sanders rebels should moderate their relentless attacks on the super-rich and runaway inequality so that the party can concentrate its fire on Trump.

The goal must be to win back the moderate suburban Trump voters who may soon suffer from buyers’ remorse. Now is not the time to scare voters with anti-corporate rhetoric and broad social democratic programs like free higher education and Medicare for all. Uniting against Trump is all that matters.

Not quite.

The energy of the Democratic party comes precisely from those who cherish the hard-hitting vision that Sanders put forth. There is a reason why the Sanders’ rallies were ten times the size of Hillary’s campaign events. Sanders and his followers want to take on the corporate elites both inside and outside the Democratic Party. It would be a disaster to bury that battle under the milk-toast mantra of party unity.

Myth #2: The moderate middle is the key to victory

The party establishment is still clinging to the triangulation model perfected by Bill Clinton as he cuddled up to the Wall Street. Ever since, the Democratic Party has tried to tailor its program to independent suburban voters and wealthy donors.

That model no longer works.

The Tea Party turned the Republican Party to the right by totally obliterating moderate Republicans. The 2016 election further shows that the battle for the center is history. Instead elections are won by reaching those who reject the established order that has left them behind. Sanders expressed that revolt from the left and Trump rode that revolt from the right to win Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

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Myth #3: Economic empowerment

The mantra of the corporate Democrats is economic empowerment ― making sure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. Their position is based on the following assumptions, all of which are wrong:

  • There is no essential tension between corporate/financial elites and working people. All boats will rise when we come together. Unfortunately, for 40 years this has failed spectacularly. Financial/corporate elites have strip-mined the economy at the expense of the rest of society.
  • We should create more opportunities so that everyone can succeed ―break all barriers, smash glass ceilings, remove all educational handicaps. Not good enough. Our real goal must focus on outcomes, not just process. Everyone should have the right to a job at a decent wage along with essential services like universal health care, free higher education and a healthy environment. Equal opportunity will not reduce our massive prison population or eliminate poverty in the richest country on Earth.
  • Working people are being left behind because they don’t have the skills needed to compete in the new globalized economy. Germany proves this is not the case. Their manufacturing sector is more than twice as large as ours, and their wages are higher that those of their American counterparts (see here). Somehow the skills mismatch is not a problem in northern Europe. But here, Wall Street-friendly policies, not skill mismatches, are the real problem.
  • Extreme Inequality is inevitable: It is the outcome of the insurmountable forces of automation and globalization. This may be a convenient justification for corporate elites, but it’s not true. The best counter example is France which has the same technologies as we do and faces even more global competition. Their income gap is far more constrained than ours. In France every income group has gained over the past 40 years. But in the U.S the bottom has dropped out according to Thomas Piketty:
We observe a complete collapse of the bottom 50% income share in the US between 1978 and 2015, from 20% to 12% of total income, while the top 1% income share rose from 11% to 20%.

Myth #4: The Sanders Program is too radical for America

Sanders-style socialism will not be accepted in America. It will be red-baited to death, leading to the defeat of any politician who supports such programs. So the Democratic Party should not promote the Sanders agenda.

The Cold War is over. Young voters could care less about the socialist label. The Sanders campaign out-polled Hillary among every shade and color of under-30 voters. Free higher education sounds pretty good to those loaded with student debt.

Similarly, the time has passed for merely defending Obamacare and its dependence on private insurance companies. Medicare for All is a much sounder and cheaper program. Does anyone care about their private insurance company? Only those who work for them.

Even the Clinton wing understands the attraction of the Sanders agenda. But they waddle up to it with so many qualifications that the appeal is lost.

Myth #5 Americans really don’t care about income inequality

Americans cherish the idea of getting rich, admire those who become so, and therefore don’t want to upset the income ladder.

It’s certainly true that most people hold conflicting opinions about wealth in America. However, it is also true that most Americans just don’t have access to information about how extreme inequality really is.

For example, surveys show that the typical American thinks the CEO/average worker wage gap is about 45 to 1. That means if the average worker could afford one home and one car, a CEO could afford 45 cars and 45 homes. Not bad.

Well, the 45 to 1 ratio is true....for 1970. Today the ratio is an incomprehensible 844 to 1 (844 homes to your one!).

Once Americans understand the depth of the runaway inequality problem, they want to reverse these obscene gaps. (If you want to help spread the word see here.)

Myth #6: The Party needs donations from the wealthy

To compete with the well-healed Republicans it is imperative that the Democrats curry favor with wealthy donors. They have no choice.

Yes they do.

The Sanders campaign raised more money than the Clinton machine by relying on an enthusiastic army of small donors. To do so again would require having the party and its candidates take on runaway inequality rather than wishing it away.

Myth #7: Write-off the white working class

The path to victory no longer depends on white working class voters and their declining unions. While white working people won’t be ignored entirely, U.S. demographics are trending to people of color. Besides, there’s an inherent nationalistic/racist streak that runs through white working people that makes them prone to Trumpism.

Arguably, this is the most pernicious myth. The white working class is far from monolithic. To use the term as a blanket phrase (as liberal columnist Paul Krugman does regularly. see here) is just plain wrong.

While some white working people are indeed anti-immigrant and prone to racism, most are not. In fact millions of these voters supported Obama twice, voted for Bernie in the primaries and then voted for Trump out of sheer frustration. Those Obama-to-Sanders-to-Trump voters are why Hillary lost so much of the Rust Belt (see here.)

These voters can be reached ― but only if the Democrats break away from their corporate backers and adopt a Sanders-like program. Rather than writing them off, the Party should develop a vast educational effort to engage these disaffected voters in discussion. TV ads and vacuous platform proposals won’t work. We need live discussions in educational settings to open up a real dialogue. (If you’d like to join in such efforts, see here.)

Will Tom Perez and the Democrats break through these debilitating myths? The jury is out.

Les Leopold

Les Leopold

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute in New York is working with unions, worker centers and community organization to build a national economics educational campaign. His latest book, Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice (Oct 2015), is a text for that effort. All proceeds go to support this educational campaign. (Please like the Runaway Inequality page on Facebook.) His previous book is The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green/2009).

(Join Us! at Runaway Inequality: Resistance is breaking out all over. Millions are eager to help take back our country from the hard right. To get there, we need educators — thousands of them — to spread the word.)

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