Will it matter if the Democrats win?
By Gerald Friedman, CPE Staff Economist
November 3, 2006
An Econ-Atrocity, brought to you by the Center for Popular Economics.
As I write this, it appears likely that after 12 years in the wilderness, the Democrats will capture a majority in the House of Representatives and will make substantial gains in the Senate. (My favorite objective source gives the Democrats a 225-208 lead in the House and a gain of 4 Senate seats to move to 49-51 in the upper body.) After 6 years of almost uninterrupted one-party rule, and the worst government this country has endured since the 1850s, we can only rejoice at Democratic gains as, if nothing else, a sign of a return to sanity after the trauma of September 11, 2001. But, beyond this, what can we expect from the Democrats? Can we anticipate a reversal of Bushism, and a renewed push for social progress?
Alas, the short answer is ‘no’. That said, we should all hope for a Democratic win. A Democratic victory would bring welcome changes in Congress. A Democratic majority would install John Conyers of Michigan as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Sponsor of a Bush impeachment resolution, a dedicated opponent of the use of torture, and a defender of civil rights and civil liberties, Conyers would replace the reprehensible F. James Sensenbrenner. Charles Rangel of New York, a liberal with a nearly perfect labor voting record, would become chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, replacing William (Cal) Thomas, a dedicated opponent of social security and progressive income taxation whose lifetime AFL-CIO voting record is 12% right, 88% wrong. Holocaust-survivor and Iraq-war critic Tom Lantos would replace right-wing ideologue Henry Hyde at International Relations. Without exception, a Democratic majority would install committee chairs preferable to the Republicans’; and we can confidently anticipate that with the new committee structure, the new Democratic majority would not endorse torture, repeal Habeas Corpus, tie a minimum-wage increase to repeal of the Estate Tax, or privatize social security. And there may even be more to gain from a Democratic victory. After six years of virtual free ride, the Bush-Cheney Administration will finally be subject to meaningful oversight. And Bush’s reign of error provides abundant opportunities for serious investigation!
Still, even if the Democrats capture control of the Senate as well as the House, we should not expect that the new Democratic majority will be able to do much more than to limit the damage that Bush-Cheney can do. The structures of government power will still largely be in Republican hands. First, the Republicans will retain the White House, of course, with all of its newly accrued power, control of the Federal bureaucracy, the right to interpret and reinterpret legislation, and the power to veto congressional legislation. Republican minorities in Congress will fight the Democrats at every turn. And, outside of Congress, the Republicans retain the infrastructure of the Conservative Revolution, including an arsenal of right-wing think tanks, media outlets, and corporate funding. Nor have the Democrats prepared the ground to reverse Bush-Cheney. Instead of campaigning to win a mandate for economic renewal and a reborn democracy, they have fought to attract moderate and conservative voters by emphasizing the Administration’s failures of execution, such as its mismanagement of the Iraq war and the Federal deficit. To show their moderation, Democrats have emphasized their military links, the large number of Iraq-war veterans they have nominated. As a result, any Democratic majority will be installed by the election of relatively conservative Democrats from districts with a history of supporting Bush and other Republicans. As if to seal the deal with conservatives and to slam the door on significant social reform, the Democrats have nominated for the Virginia Senate seat a life-long Republican, Jim Webb, Naval Academy graduate, Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, and Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan. Corporations have understood the message the Democrats have been sending; the New York Times reports (October 28, 2006) that rather than donating more to the Republicans to try to stop a Democratic victory they have been shifting their campaign contributions dramatically towards the Democrats to ensure continued access to congressional leadership.
Without a mandate for single-payer health insurance, for renewed regulation, for new environmental initiatives, or even for a withdrawal from Iraq, it is hard to see how a new Democratic Congressional majority will be able to do much more than to slow the bleeding. This is a worthwhile goal. More, it is just about all that we could ever expect from political action by itself. Every major legislative reform – from slave emancipation in the 1860s through the anti-trust activity of the Progressive Era, the New Deal’s Social Security Act, and the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s – was the result of popular pressure from below. In each case, politicians voted social reforms to catch up with popular pressure and to appease militants. Congress did not create the Civil Rights movement by passing the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965; instead, those acts ratified and institutionalized the gains made by the popular movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
Whatever happens on November 7, our task is clear: to build a popular democratic movement that will not only slow Bush-Cheney but will reverse their works and rollback the neoliberal program of the 1980s and 1990s. Our model should be successful movements like the New Deal, the Civil Rights campaign, and the Conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s: each built from the ground up, beginning with an ideological campaign both to critique the prevailing wisdom and to support a new vision. Each of these campaigns was helped by friendly politicians; but they learned that the best way to make political friends is to build people power. We should remember that as we head to the polls to vote Democratic November 7.
Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why they Succeed, how they Fail. New York, Vintage, 1979.
© 2006 Center for Popular Economics
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