Why the Democrats Need to Take Sides in America’s Class–an excerpt

Harold Meyerson has an informative and insightful long-form essay up on The American Prospect.  It is, we think, an important analysis which should be widely read. The theme is “Straddling class divisions so last century. There’s a new base in town, and it includes a lot of people who used to be middle-class but aren’t anymore.” It is too long for a Talking Union post, so we present this excerpt.–Talking Union

by Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

This spring, a prominent Democratic pollster sent a memo to party leaders and Democratic elected officials advising them to speak and think differently. The nation’s economy had deteriorated so drastically, he cautioned, that they needed to abandon their references to the “middle class,” substituting for those hallowed words the phrase “working people.” “In today’s harsh economic reality,” he wrote, “many voters no longer identify as middle class.”

How many voters? In 2008, a Pew poll asked Americans to identify themselves by class. Fifty-three percent said they were middle-class; 25 percent said lower-class. When Pew asked the same question this January, it found that the number who’d called themselves middle-class had shrunk to 44 percent, while those who said they were of the lower class had grown from 25 percent to 40 percent.

Americans’ assessment of their place in the nation’s new economic order is depressingly accurate. Though most of the jobs lost in the 2007–2009 recession were in middle-income industries, the lion’s share of the jobs created in the half-decade since have been in such low-paying sectors as retail and restaurants. Median household income has declined in every year of the recovery. The share of the nation’s income going to wages and salaries, which for decades held steady at two-thirds, has in recent years descended to 58 percent—the lowest level since the government began its measurements.

The Democrats’ ability to improve the economic lives of most Americans has been their primary calling card to the nation’s voters ever since Franklin Roosevelt became president.

The waning of America’s middle class presents a huge challenge to the nation’s oldest political party. The Democrats’ ability to improve the economic lives of most Americans has been their primary calling card to the nation’s voters ever since Franklin Roosevelt became president. Since the 1940s, however, the Democrats’ preferred method of helping working- and middle-class Americans has tilted more toward spurring economic growth than aggressive redistribution. So long as the growth in the nation’s economy registered in the pocketbooks of most Americans, there was little need to adopt policies that put a high priority on, say, redirecting profits into wages.

And that was fine with the Democrats. When John F. Kennedy observed that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” he was not only accurately describing how the highly unionized and not-yet-globalized economy of the 1960s worked; he was also describing how the economy enabled the Democrats to establish a political framework in which they could seek and win support from both business and labor—from both Wall Street and Main Street.

But the kind of economy that once allowed the Democrats to be the world’s leading cross-class party has almost completely disappeared. American economic growth today goes to a relative handful of its wealthiest citizens—indeed, since the recovery began in 2009, 95 percent of the income growth has accrued to the wealthiest 1 percent, as University of California, Berkeley, economist Emmanuel Saez has shown. While the economy has grown by 20 percent since 2000, the median income for households headed by working-age Americans has shrunk by 12 percent. And as wages have sunk to a record-low share of the nation’s economy, the share going to profits has reached a record high.

 Meyerson observes, moreover

Democrats now find themselves in an unfamiliar world—not of their making, exactly, but one whose creation they didn’t do much to retard. It’s a world where they can no longer deliver job-based prosperity—at least, not without radically altering their politics. Rebuilding that middle-class majority requires Democrats to embrace ideas and find a voice as new to them as the cadences of the New Deal were to the Democrats of 1933.

The new base of the Democratic Party appears primed for such a change. The share of liberals in party ranks has swelled. In 2000, Gallup reports, 44 percent of Democrats identified as moderates, and 29 percent as liberals. Today, the share of moderates has dropped to 36 percent, while that of liberals has increased to 43 percent.

There is lots more in the article, we encourage Talking Union readers to read it in its entirety.



Harold Meyerson is a columnist for the Washington Post, editor-at-large for The American Prospect  and a Vice-Chair of Democratic Socialists of America.

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One Response

  1. While Meyerson’s article correctly describes the conditions, the solution to those conditions must lay with workers and unions in America relying on their own actions to change the conditions. Calling on Democrats to do it for us has been a 35 year dead end. Democrats will continue to respond to those who pay their way–i.e. corporations and the rich–while throwing token concessions (less and less) that don’t solve workers’ growing problems. Watch for a debacle for Democrats in the coming 2014 midterms (a repeat of the 2010 midterm debacle). Why? Those who put them in office in 2008 and 2012 will simply not turn out. Who put Obama in office in 2012? Immigrant-Hispanic-Black workers, students and youth, and unions in key great lakes states–all who turned out the vote. But not this time. If Obama in 2010 had acted like FDR in 1934–turned away from business solutions to the crisis and instead turned to bailing out main st. (aka New Deal), none of the current conditions would be the case today. But then that was a different kind of Democratic Party than exists today. Acknowledging that difference says much about Meyerson’s ‘too hopeful’ appeal to Democrats to do something, when after six years since the crisis they’ve done little. Labor needs its own party. It’s that simple.

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