Reconnecting with America

EYES RIGHT!: Reflections on the November 8th Elections

In the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton preached: “The rich get the gold mine and middle-class gets the shaft. It’s wrong and it’s going to ruin the country,” and won.

After his election, it seemed we were on the verge of building a populist coalition that would help the middle class and provide real opportunities for the poor. But the Democrats failed to build on the Clinton victory and, in 1994, the poor and minorities stayed home, while the middle class, goaded by an elitist, arrogant Democratic Party and issues like crime and big bureaucratic government, kicked the Democrats out.

Is it possible to ignite a new, pro-government, progressive populism in which the middle class joins the poor seeking relief from the economic consequences of the financial elites? The answer is yes, but only if activist liberals and progressives develop a coherent philosophy of government.

Why Did the Democrats Lose?

Democrats too often failed to address the common concerns – living-wage jobs, safe neighborhoods, strong families – that would link the middle-class and the poor, and they ran away from their accomplishments that did. Last year, for example, Democrats passed the Motor Voter Bill and the Family Leave Act and cut taxes for millions of low-income working families while raising taxes on only the richest 1.75 percent of the population. Yet most voters couldn’t name one Clinton accomplishment, and 75 percent of the voters believed that Bill Clinton raised their income taxes.

These failures allowed Republicans to run against government (read: Democrats), for “family values” (read: which Democrats oppose), and to continue using race to divide the Democratic base.

Equally as important, the Democrats lost due to the domination of American politics by special corporate interests that undermine the building of an inclusionary populism.

Abandoned Values

We are faced with a right wing political realignment whose driving force is values – a rubric on which the public believes, with some merit, progressives are mushy. In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, 54 percent of respondents said that the social and economic problems that face America are mainly the result of “a decline in moral values,” while only 34 percent identified financial pressures as the cause. A Newsweek poll found that 57 percent of those asked blame the moral decline of people in general  for most of the problems that make them dissatisfied.

The housing movement, like all progressive single-issue movements, must take seriously the public’s concern about values. Our program should be wrapped within a vision that goes beyond the right to housing. It must include a commitment to:

      1.

Renewing democracy by empowering citizens and promoting reciprocal responsibility.

      Government must create programs that treat people as citizens, not consumers. By empowering citizens (through tenant-managed public housing, coops and community-based mutual housing corporations), we provide the tools necessary for responsible civic behavior.

2. Strengthening neighborhoods, communities and families. America’s strength resides in our families and communities, where the character and values of our citizens are formed. We need to place new emphasis on the voluntary associations and institutions of our community – America’s third sector. Program models should identify and bolster sources of strength and unleash the positive energy that resides within communities.

3. Promoting equality and justice. A 1990s housing policy must be part of a program that addresses the growing gap between the rich and poor, especially as it effects African Americans and Hispanics who have remained severely disadvantaged because of discrimination.

4. Promoting entrepreneurial government. Much has been made of the idea that the vote of the last election was “anti-government.” It was not. People want the government to protect them from the ravages of the free market. Voters are not idiots. They voted “anti-what-government-does.” Progressives must begin to take “how-government-works” seriously.

Corporate Domination of American Politics

Renewing democracy means constituents must count more than contributors. A growing army of special pleaders with big money has perverted Washington into a “democracy for hire,” wrote William Greider in Who Will Tell the People?. “Government decisions on matters people care about intensely, from taxation to environmental protection, are cloaked in reassuring rhetoric, but driven by favoritism and manipulation on behalf of moneyed interests.”

Corporate domination of politics set the stage for the return of the anti-government,  racist populism of the 80s. The Business Roundtable stymied health reform, Wall Street killed Clinton’s jobs bill, and they both undermined campaign finance reform. Big Money financed November’s right- wing revolt with well over $300 million, most raised from corporations seeking favors from government. An affordable housing program will never succeed without campaign finance reform, which must be a part of every housing group’s demands.

Political Entropy

More than money, however, fostered the corporate domination of politics. Popular institutions that supported a civic political culture – the labor union, the neighborhood bar, and the ward organization – have withered or disappeared. Where there once was an  organized, coherent left, there now is a vacuum.

Progressives and affordable housing advocates seeking an alternative to mean-spirited, right-wing Republicanism and centrist liberalism need to rethink our approach to politics. In addition to discussing our program differently we need to critically examine the three tactical approaches we take in the political arena.

Candidate-Centered Politics

Between elections, community groups do their thing. When it’s time for elections, most activists and progressives shop around for the lesser-evil  candidates to support. While we may want innovative, establishment-baiting, economic populists, we usually settle. The few progressive organizations that take politics seriously do the same.

Candidate-centered campaigns are piecemeal, ad hoc affairs. Progressive group coalitions – each concerned with single or related issues such as housing, abortion rights or the environment – are constantly reconstituting themselves, drawing on shifting reservoirs of campaign volunteers, donors and resources, depending on which self-selected candidates present themselves in a given election.

Can a long-term strategy or working relationship ever develop among grassroots groups this way? Is momentum for success possible?

Third Party Politics

America’s winner-take-all electoral system encourages voters to cast their ballots for one of the two front-runners. Voters avoid “wasting” their votes by casting their ballots for a third party that has no chance of winning, since that party’s vote will not translate into any formal voice in government.

Third parties can be harmful, leading to conflict between potential allies. In some situations (New York’s senatorial campaign that elected D’Amato), third parties have actually thrown victories to the more conservative candidates by taking votes away from liberal Democrats. Most pragmatic groups won’t give up opportunities for immediate reforms in order to build a third party.

ACORN and the New Party are trying to avoid some of these problems by selectively running candidates in races where progressive issues clearly offer a real option to voters. While their success remains atypical, do they offer a solution to unite progressives for the long-term?

Shunsters

The third option for progressives is to continue working in grassroots movements and ignore electoral politics altogether – the route most housing groups take. Shunsters believe that efforts to bring grassroots groups into the electoral battles only sap their strength and co-opt their issue focus into a cult-of-the-candidate mentality.

Many activist Shunsters let the candidates fight it out and then attack the winner with protest demonstrations, letter-writing and lawsuits. However, the weakness in this approach is that it implicitly threatens public officials with defeat but does nothing to carry out the threat. The past 20 years have shown that politicians catch on, realize that the threats are empty, and take the groups’ demands less seriously. Can progressives ever build strong enough coalitions to put teeth into these threats?

As of now all the public interest organizations are weaker than the sum of their parts.

Could the national multi-issue groups – Citizen Action, ACORN, The Rainbow Coalition, National Peoples Action, Industrial Areas Foundation – join with housing groups and other single issue groups who combined represent millions of Americans? One could imagine such a powerful coalition – perhaps within a “reinvented” Democratic party – encouraging its members to run for local office, mobilizing its supporters and launching massive voter registration drives in these campaigns. This coalition would work to counter the right and build a new national voice.


Inclusionary Populism: An Action Agenda

      1. Close tax loopholes for the rich. Reform the mortgage interest deduction by changing it to a progressive tax credit.

 

      2. End corporate welfare as we know it. Adopt Labor Secretary Robert Reichs’ challenge to Republicans to match their call for changes in welfare programs with an overhaul of business tax credits that he termed “corporate welfare,” – subsidies to agribusiness, energy, transportation and other industries.

 

      3. Democratize the Federal Reserve Board to ensure lower interest rates and to help enforce the Community Reinvestment Act.

 

      4. Encourage entrepreneurial, non-bureaucratic government, partly by directing public funds toward non-profit community-based solutions.

 

      5. Initiate a real anti-poverty program that will strengthen communities, increase jobs, and fight teen pregnancy and youth violence.

 

    6. Reform campaign finance laws to reduce the political advantage of corporations and the rich through public financing and immediately reinstating the equal time rule in broadcasting.

 

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