One reason Republicans swept three straight presidential elections back in the 1980s was that they left no one in doubt about their creed. It did not matter much that the three-part gospel of limited government, traditional values, and a strong military preached by Ronald Reagan and his disciples was built on lies and failed to produce fair or competent governance. Until George H.W. Bush weakened and divided his party in the final year of his single administration, the Reaganite package made conservatism seem the ideology most likely to shape the nation’s future. By the end of the decade, far more Americans under 30 identified themselves as Republicans than with the opposition.
Democrats today have plenty of good ideas but seem reluctant to choose which ones to craft into an image that could rival the appeal of Reaganism, for purposes the right-wing icon would have abhorred. Take “The People’s Agenda,” unveiled last December by the nearly 100 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The seven-part program ticks off a long list of worthy left demands, from raising the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour and Medicare for All to the Green New Deal, demilitarizing the police, ending all discrimination against BIPOC and LGBTQ people, and cutting the military budget. It concludes with a ringing call to “End Corporate Greed and Corporate Monopolies.” But like the platform the Democrats ratified at their virtual convention last summer, its length and too much of its language appeal mainly to the already convinced. How many Americans know what BIPOC or “restorative justice” mean? If Democratic reformers stand for so many things, they should not be surprised if millions of Americans with just a casual interest in politics think they stand for almost nothing.
In bygone days when Democrats ran the political system, they robustly declared themselves to be on the side of anyone who earned a wage or ran a small business and against the moneyed elite seeking to deprive them of the rewards they deserved. In 1936, the party platform hailed the “right to collective bargaining and self-organization free from the interference of employers.” To underline that message, FDR delivered a rousing acceptance speech blasting the “economic royalists” who loathed both him and the “organized power of government” that was challenging their “tyranny.” In an explicit nod to labor, he announced, “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living—a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.” This ethic drove the rationale for such landmark programs of the New Deal as public works jobs, the GI Bill, the Wagner Act, Social Security, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (which created the first national minimum wage and overtime pay rule). To win Southern votes in Congress, the last three laws carved out exemptions for jobs held by millions of African Americans in agriculture and other people’s homes. But they laid the foundation of a robust welfare state that, under popular pressure, could also provide greater security and income support to Black people and other minority groups.
The kind of populist rhetoric employed by FDR and his allies had a long history in their party. Democrats won national elections and were competitive in most states when they articulated a broadly egalitarian economic vision and advocated laws intended to fulfill it—just for white Americans until the middle of the twentieth century, and then for everyone. A thread of ideological adherence to what I would call “moral capitalism” stretched from Andrew Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States to Grover Cleveland’s attack on the protective tariff, from William Jennings Bryan’s crusade against the “money power” to FDR’s assault on economic royalists to the full employment promise embedded in the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978. In the 1990s, the pro-corporate centrism of the Democratic Leadership Council muted the traditional message, and Bill Clinton’s two presidential wins made it seem outdated (although he never won a majority of the popular vote).
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