Time to Build a New Populist Movement

The New Deal lasted in various forms for 62 years. The Newt Deal cratered after four years. Now is the time for progressives to build a new populist era.

During the past four years the rich got their tax breaks and the corporations got more special interests written into legislation while health, safety and environmental standards were relaxed. Meanwhile, assembly-line workers watched their jobs exported in the name of free trade while mothers on welfare were told to find a job.

"New Democrat" Bill Clinton signed off on it all, of course, but compromise wasn't enough for the right wing, which has spent the past four years trying to gather evidence to justify Clinton's impeachment. But the Republican leadership overplayed their hand. They managed to keep the voter turnout down to a postwar low 36%, but enough Democrats--particularly union members, minorities and women--showed up to give the party a net gain of five seats in the House and hold the Republicans to no gains in the Senate.

House Republicans have forced Loudspeaker Newt Gingrich to step down, but his heir apparent, Bob Livingston of Louisiana, is hardly an improvement. Many of the House Republicans who forced Gingrich's ouster believed he had been too willing to compromise conservative principles. Known for his hot temper, Livingston was hand-picked by Gingrich to chair Appropriations over three more senior members. He oversaw the cutting of domestic spending while military spending was larded to levels beyond even what the armed services requested. Livingston was the one who bellowed in December 1995 that Congress would "stay here until doomsday" before it would give in over the budget impasse that resulted in the government shutdown. And, after Newt talked him out of retiring this year, Livingston repaid him by leading the coup of cannibals that toppled him.

We'll miss the widely reviled Gingrich because you hate to lose such a pompous villain. But we are confident that Livingston can fill the black hat and puff up his own vest. With a working majority of just six votes, he's going to have a hard time imposing party discipline and satisfying his right wing. That will give him plenty of chances to blow his top.

This is the time for progressive populists to make their move, either to reclaim the Democratic Party or build an alternative party. While the mainstream press depicted it as a "status quo" election, we think the great stories of the election were the populist victories, such as in Minnesota, where the people stunned the pros by picking Jesse "The Body" Ventura for governor precisely because he did not talk like a politician. Tom Vilsack was almost as unlikely a winner in Iowa as he closed a 20-point gap in the polls to become the first Democratic governor in 30 years. In Wisconsin, campaign finance reformer Sen. Russell Feingold was outspent but won--albeit narrowly--after he put his faith in the people and refused "soft money" assistance in his re-election campaign. In North Carolina, John Edwards, a plaintiff's lawyer who vowed to fight for working-class folks, sent right-wing Sen. Lauch Faircloth back to private life. Democrats regained the governors' offices in Alabama and South Carolina, re-elected Sen. Fritz Hollings in South Carolina, and elected a new Democratic governor in Georgia, putting the lie to the myth of Republican invincibility in the Deep South.

But Jesse Ventura's victory should be a wakeup call that Democrats need to pay attention to working-class issues. As conservative Democrats have been defeated or switched to the Republican Party, particularly in the South, over the past decade, the House Democratic Caucus has become increasingly progressive. They would be more comfortable in following their progressive leanings if they felt support from their progressive constituents. Call them at 202-224-3121.

The top priorities of Democrats in Congress should be to protect education, jobs, the environment, access to health care and Social Security. This election should have nailed the coffin shut on Social Security privatization. Any effort to reduce Social Security benefits, put them at risk of market speculation or extend the retirement age amounts to a betrayal. Still, the week after the election, the Clinton administration was floating the possibility of some compromise on Social Security privatization. If more revenue is needed, Congress should generate it by removing the limit on earnings subject to the Social Security tax, from the current $68,400. For information on the New Century Alliance to Protect and Strengthen Social Security, call Roger Hickey at Campaign for America's Future, 202-955-5665; web (www.ourfuture.org).

If they want to appeal to working people, Democrats should fight for a minimum wage of at least $7 an hour, with increases for inflation so that a parent working full-time would be able to live with a child above the poverty line. At the current minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, someone who works full-time for 50 weeks is still below the poverty level for a family of two. The living-wage movement has managed to pass living-wage ordinances in 18 cities, with higher minimum-wage standards for workers affected by the measures, even as business interests at the congressional level in September killed Sen. Edward Kennedy's bill to raise the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour. For more information contact Jen Kern at ACORN, 202-547-2500 or (www.igc.org/community).

When the Republicans bring up flat taxes, which would help wealthy taxpayers at the expense of the middle class, Dick Gephardt should whip out his tax reform plan. It maintains current revenue levels, exempts the first $27,500 of income for a family of four and then applies a 10% tax for income up to $61,000. Most of us would pay a lot less federal tax under this plan, but if we're making millions on the stock market we would pay a lot more. The plan has five marginal tax rates, going up to 34% for couples making over $275,000. It would tax earned and unearned income at the same rate and do away with virtually every deduction, credit, exclusion and adjustment, except personal deductions, the mortgage interest deduction and the exclusion for employer-provided health care. You could put the return on a post card (it might be a big post card, but it would fit.) And corporations should pay their share of taxes. For the tax proposal and other Democratic issues see (www.house.gov/democrats).

Any trade bills and foreign loan guarantees should require reciprocal labor and health standards. If multinational manufacturers want to sell their goods in American markets, their factories overseas should pay a living wage and observe health and environmental standards. For more information call Global Trade Watch at 202-546-4996 or see the web-site: (www.tradewatch.org).

Democrats should push for assistance for small farmers, exclude large agribusinesses from subsidy programs and promote fair markets. Contact the National Farmers Union, 1-800-347-1961; web site (www.nfu.org).

Democrats should push to allow congressional elections by proportional representation, as Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) has proposed. Contact the Center for Voting and Democracy, 301-270-4616; web site (www.fairvote.org).

Democrats should get behind the "Clean Money" campaign finance reform movement, to provide public financing for congressional candidates who agree to limit their fundraising and expenditures. Contact Public Campaign, 202-293-0222; web site (www.publicampaign.org).

Finally, Democrats should demand tough regulation of health maintenance organizations that includes the right of patients to sue their HMOs for medical procedures that are denied them, but progressives should promote a universal health care system to cover the 43 million Americans, mainly the working poor, who cannot afford insurance now. For more on universal health care, see Physicians for a National Health Plan web site at (www.pnhp.org) or call 312-554-0382.

That should keep congressional Democrats busy until they actually get a majority.

-- Jim Cullen

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