Democratic Underground

All in the Family
January 8, 2002
by Jack Rabbit

Could Archie Bunker be persuaded to vote for the Meathead? Or at least for the same progressive candidate for whom the Meathead would vote? This idea would have been absurd in the seventies, when Americans tuned in every week to watch the working class bigot played by the late Carroll O'Connor make a fool of himself berating his politically progressive son-in-law (Rob Reiner) on the popular TV series All in the Family.

However, it is a possibility that the Left in general and Democrats in particular should find worth exploring as we look to 2004. Last week, we examined the role of third parties in American politics. We began by examining the two major parties as coalitions of voting blocks, that is, of voters with similar social and economic challenges or ideological views.

Some voting blocks shift their identity over time. A given voting block may change from Democratic to Republican; or, the voting block may not be solidly identified with either party and become identified as swing voters. Such a voting block may go for one party in one election and the other the next. Third party movements come into play when neither party addresses the concerns of a particular block.

We took a long look last week at the progressive Democrats who felt that the Democratic Party had abandoned their principles and felt it worthwhile to cast their lot with the Green Party. For the discussion this week, one might easily imagine Mike Stivic (also known as "the Meathead"), Archie Bunker's son-in-law, as being one of these voters. The election was close enough that these disaffected progressives, by withholding their votes from Democratic candidate Al Gore, cost Gore the election.

The fate of many third parties is that one of the major parties adopts part of the upstart party's platform and takes most of its voters into its fold. This may present a problem for the major party in that by gaining the support of the upstarts, it may alienate some of its existing supporters. These alienated supporters either start a third party movement of their own or even change allegiance to the rival major party.

So, the critical question for the Democrats today is: can they make concessions to the Meathead and the disaffected progressives who voted for Nader in 2000 without alienating the centrists they need just as badly? We'll return to this question.

Last week, we also introduced a thought to be held for this one: that one of the major voting blocks whose allegiance has shifted over time is the white working class. This is the voting block with which most people would identify Archie Bunker. On the seventies TV series, Archie was a solid Nixon man. In 1972, Archie and many people like him voted for Nixon. The writers of All in the Family did not go much into Archie's prior voting behavior, but based on his demographics and his overall perspective we might surmise that in 1968, he was not yet ready to vote Republican but was uncomfortable with liberal tendencies among the Democrats.

Archie may have voted for independent presidential candidate George Wallace in 1968; at least we know many people like him did. In 1972, Wallace, a Southern Democrat, returned to the fold of the party, but most who voted for him four years earlier, like Archie, voted for Nixon. Prior to 1968, Archie was probably a solid, loyal Democrat. He may have been old enough to have voted in his first election for Roosevelt; although Archie as we knew him scorned FDR and his legacy, in the thirties and forties Archie was a beneficiary of the New Deal and no doubt knew a good thing when he saw it.

However, since 1972, Archie and those like him have displayed rather interesting voting behavior. Hurt by the recession of the mid-seventies, they voted for Jimmy Carter over Nixon's successor, Jerry Ford. After Carter proved ineffective, they voted for Ronald Reagan in both 1980 and 1984. Thus, the former Wallace voters were now designated as Reagan Democrats (if Archie is like many other blue-collar voters, he never changed his registration). They also voted for Bush in 1988. However, the early nineties brought more uncertain times, and Archie - perhaps holding his nose - voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In 2000, the blue collar vote split between Bush and Gore.

What is even more interesting is what Archie and the other blue collar voters who have been on this winning streak in presidential elections have to show for it. Nothing. In fact, less than nothing. Ronald Reagan, arguing for his re-election, asked voters if they were better off in 1984 than in 1980. Most appreciated the economic stability brought by the lower rate of inflation since he had come to office and rewarded him accordingly. However, in a longer term view, Archie Bunker was not better off in 1984 (when he voted for Reagan) then in 1948 (when he voted for Truman). And he isn't better off today. The American working class has gone backwards.

When Archie - or at least our hypothetical version of him - voted for Truman in 1948, he belonged to a labor union that assured him wages and benefits on which he could feed his family and think about purchasing a new car and a home. The dark days of the Great Depression were far behind and the average American could look forward to a life of relative comfort. The quarter-century or so following the end of World War II were perhaps America's golden years.

Today, fewer than 12% of Americans belong to a labor union and purchasing power for wage earners has dropped. In an article called "Structural Adjustment Is Hitting the US Too" (in Kevin Dahaher, ed., Democratizing the Global Economy, Common Courage Press: Monroe, ME, 2001, pp. 177-81), social activist Anuradha Mittal cites some interesting statistics. A worker earning the minimum wage earns less than $10,000 a year; the official federal poverty line is just over $17,000 for a family of four. Nearly 17% of all Americans live below this the poverty line. Over 44 million Americans lack health insurance and over 7 million are homeless. At nearly 20%, the United States has the highest rate of child poverty among industrialized nations.

This is not because of any dramatic, sudden downturn of the American economy that took place. On paper, at least, both the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton enjoyed long periods of economic growth; however, the high tide, rather than rising all boats, merely kept many small boats from sinking.

In a word, as a reward for voting for the winning conservative and centrist candidates in presidential elections for thirty years, the American blue-collar worker has been screwed. Perhaps no greater cause of this has been the emergence of a global economy. In this arrangement, capital may easily cross national boundaries. A company that manufactures automobile parts headquartered in Illinois may easily build a factory in Mexico instead of Illinois.

Now, of course, the environment in Mexico may encourage the manufacturer to locate his factory in Mexico as well. After all, Mexicans workers make lower wages, their labor unions are less aggressive and the government does not pass pesky environmental legislation that might require the factory in Mexico to take care that production waste not pollute the air and water.

Meanwhile, the manufacturing jobs that remain in this country are not as desirable as they once were. The export of so many such jobs overseas has caused a downward pressure on wages and benefits. Furthermore, the manufacturing jobs that leave the United States are being replaced by service-oriented jobs that don't pay as well. The factory worker is being replaced by the non-union retail clerk, the hamburger flipper and the waitress. The lives of the new American low-wage earner is documented in a new book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2001). This is recommended reading.

The kind of corporate behavior where good-paying jobs are exported to low-age economies is encouraged by trade agreements like NAFTA, which make it easier to export capital. These trade agreements discourage developing countries from protecting their fledgling industries with tariffs. Instead, developing nations are encouraged to bring in the ready-made capital from the United States. This arrangement may have some very marginal short-term benefits to industrial workers in developing nations, but in the long term, their wages will remain low and working conditions poor.

The real winners in the free trade regime are the multinational corporations in the United States. It should surprise no one that an American CEO now makes over 400 times what his lowest-paid employee does. One would assume that this is the work of the Republicans. It sounds like the idea is to enrich those at the top with the hope that it will trickle down to the bottom. The Republicans don't talk about this "trickle down" theory too loudly any more because its long been held to be a lot of baloney. It is certainly true that the GOP supports the free trade agenda.

However, NAFTA is a feather in the cap of Bill Clinton, who was just as much a free trader as any Republican. Al Gore, Clinton's chosen heir, promised to continue Clinton's free trade policies.

Progressives, like the Meathead, have long decried this state of affairs. As pointed out last week, this is no small reason why progressive Democrats deserted the party and voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. The progressives favored replacing free trade with fair trade, which allows developing nation to grow their own industries, asserting the rights of workers to organize for better wages and benefits and for small farmers to get a fair price for their crops. One can see that for these progressives, the focus on trade issues has been on what is does to urban workers and rural peasants in Asia and Latin America. However, what happens to poor people in Asia and Latin America is of no immediate concern to the working poor in America; they have their own problems paying their own bills. Yet the same policies that are oppressing the poor of developing nations are also eroding the power of the American blue-collar worker. Furthermore, the low-wage service worker who has replaced the factory worker has so little stake in the present political process that he typically doesn't vote at all. As politics goes, this is an untapped resource. It's time for the Left to tap it.

The solution would seem to be obvious. The Democratic Party must become the party of fair trade. The fact is that free trade policies hurt most Americans, and that most of those who are hurt are traditional Democratic constituencies or constituencies that are the concern, at least theoretically, of the political Left. The Democratic Party must again become their champion. The Democrats can become the dominant American political party by bringing peace to the Bunker household and getting Archie and the Meathead to support the same candidate.

The Democrats should endorse fair trade planks in their platform, including withdrawal from the WTO. These planks should be written in language stressing that better-paying manufacturing jobs will remain in America, while also paying homage to the benefits such policies will have to the masses in developing countries. In addition, the Democrats should support a revitalization of public education and a single-payer national health insurance program on the lines of the Canadian system.

Other planks in the platform should endorse laws to make it easier for workers to organize and to discourage government from employing contractors with poor labor and environmental records. The government should be prohibited from awarding a contract to any firm that employs non-union workers in a attempt to break a strike. As long as the idea is to show that the Democrats are the champions of the worker class, a plank should endorse direct aid for child care for working parents.

The centrists and conservative Democrats will remain in this revitalized progressive Democratic Party because the platform will not abandon the fiscal responsibility for which the Democrats now stand. Will they abandon the Democrats for the party that wants to reduce taxes below the level the government can fix roads or build schools? Not very likely. This wing of the party has worked hard to improve the image of Democrats as fiscally responsible. There's no reason for the Democrats to give this away. Politics, after all, is about making choices, sometimes hard ones. One fundamental choice the Democrats can make is to make certain that government is solvent enough to fund the programs that meet public needs.

The Republicans would not dare counter with their Horatio Alger pitch of rugged individualism and personal responsibility. They are the party of opportunity? For whom? For those who are already rich and powerful, perhaps. Are they really rich and powerful because they are innately more intelligent or morally superior to the rest of us? Do they want us to believe that those at the top earned their way there by there own prowess? Are Dan Quayle and George W. Bush really the zenith of human evolution? No, it has to do with the privilege that comes with being born to wealth and power, something for which the individual is not responsible.

How dare the Republicans tell the woman scrubbing their floors for them that she is responsible for her poverty? Perhaps this woman grew up in a poor neighborhood and attended a dilapidated and underfunded public school. Perhaps her mother raised her on welfare and her father skipped out. How dare they tell this woman that the fact she toils so and is not the CEO of General Motors is her own fault? Just let them make that pitch to the working poor.

The Republicans will respond, as they often have, by appealing to the fears and prejudices of that we have long associated with Archie. There will be gay marriages; there will be abortion on demand. To which the Democrats can respond that gay rights and abortion have nothing to do with the decline in the quality of life for low-wage earners in America. If every gay person in the world miraculously became straight overnight, even if abortion were outlawed, that will do nothing to help the diminishing purchasing power of the American blue-collar and service workers and their families. Gay rights and abortion do not threaten the survival of the traditional family simply because the traditional family unit is the best way for most people to have children and raise them into productive adults.

The Democrats, without contradicting any gay rights or pro-choice planks in the platform, must not be apologetic and start mumbling about the right of an individual to pursue the dictates of his own sexual orientation or a woman to make her own reproductive decisions; it's time for progressives to stop condescending to these people and assume that they know what their interests really are. Instead of that old limp line that sounds like an apology for supporting human rights, the Democrats must assert to the blue-collar and the low-wage service worker: "Vote for us and you will have better wages and benefits, which will make life easier and better for you and your traditional family."

If the Republicans say that this is class warfare, then let the response be a paraphrase of Patrick Henry: If this is class warfare, let us make the most of it.

Such a progressive platform, centered around planks of fair trade, labor rights, human rights, environmental protection and fiscal responsibility, would revitalize the Grand Coalition that led FDR to victory after electoral victory in the thirties and forties, not by making empty promises to the beleaguered American worker or by appealing to fears of these people, but by showing hope that there is a better future in a democratic America. Such a platform is a winner for the Left, whether they are Democrats or Greens, and for most Americans. It is a winner for both Archie Bunker and the Meathead.

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