Democrats Used to Be Able to Get Things Done. What Happened?

Why have Joe Biden’s ambitions for a new New Deal stalled, if not completely run aground? The pitch for the president’s Build Back Better program on the White House website certainly sounds like something Franklin Roosevelt could have said during the Great Depression: It calls “the hard work and ingenuity of the American people” the greatest “economic engine” the world has ever seen, but charges that “for too long, the economy has worked great for those at the top, while working families continually get squeezed.”

What’s more, a majority of Americans favor the particulars of Build Back Better — even after Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia rejected the bill a week before Christmas. Polls show that Americans want Congress to spend big to make the transition to renewable energy, guarantee every employee four weeks of paid leave, renew the expired Child Tax Credit, and create universal prekindergarten — and they love the idea of expanding Medicare to cover hearing care.

But Democrats have a problem that has bedeviled their leaders on and off ever since shrewd political bosses from Albany and stalwart Jeffersonians from Virginia founded what would become the party roughly 200 years ago. They lack a social movement of working people that could turn passive support for universal social programs into a force large and vocal enough to enact lasting change. Over the past decade, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the Resistance have come and gone without achieving systemic reforms that reshaped this nation or rectified the durable injustices that plague it. That is because none of those movements had what the party needs: a message that can unite ordinary Americans across racial lines.

The possibility of such a coalition exists in American politics, lurking just outside the field of our vision: As young workers seek to unionize Starbucks branches and Google offices, they are breathing fresh life into the labor movement for the first time in a generation. And while they face formidable obstacles, Democrats need to grab this opportunity if they intend to birth a new era of progressive change. Without such a movement, hopes for a transformative age of reform are likely to be stillborn. Throughout American history, political elites have never started fundamental policy changes on their own; they need a well-organized force of discontented, determined citizens to make them do it.

Three times in the 20th century, Democrats produced major progressive gains, erecting pillars of corporate regulation and social welfare that endure to this day. The New Deal, from 1933 to 1939, did the most to transform the nation. But Democrats also created landmarks in social policy during the brief, yet consequential, periods from 1913 to 1916 under Woodrow Wilson, and from 1961 to 1966 under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. These three eras of progressive triumph offer two central lessons for Mr. Biden and his fellow partisans.

First, to enact change, a social movement has to grow large and powerful enough to compel Democrats to listen to its demands and grant some of them. Wilson and his fellow Democrats rode a long wave of public hostility to the “monopoly” that united farmers who suffered from high tariffs, workers chafing under the long hours and low pay offered by big companies like U.S. Steel, and anyone for whom “Wall Street” was shorthand for a power that corrupted politics and made a small minority of Americans obscenely rich.

During Wilson’s first term, Democratic lawmakers responded to the populist mood by enacting major pieces of legislation that sought to fulfill the pledge in their 1912 platform “to protect the people from injustice at the hands of those who seek to make the government a private asset in business.” The Underwood Tariff Act instituted an income tax on the richest Americans. The Federal Reserve Act aimed to break the dominion of the “money trust.” The Adamson Act guaranteed an eight-hour day to railroad workers, then the most critical employees in the land.

In the 1930s, the burgeoning Congress of Industrial Organizations relatively quickly won recognition from such manufacturing giants as General Motors and Westinghouse. Anger at autocratic bosses and the misery of the Great Depression helped unions like the Teamsters and Machinists, which belonged to the older American Federation of Labor, to make inroads as well. And in industrial states and cities through the upper Midwest and Northeast, the labor movement became the life of the party, electing liberal Democrats in formerly Republican strongholds like Michigan and Pennsylvania and turning big cities from New York to San Francisco into bastions of support for Roosevelt and his allies. Those politicians passed such measures as Social Security, a federal minimum wage and the G.I. Bill, which have withstood conservative assaults for more than eight decades.

In the 1960s, organized labor also gave vital assistance to the Black freedom movement as it surged in the South and then across the nation, helping finance the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and sending busloads of members to the protest on the Mall. Their D.C. staff members lobbied not only for the civil rights and voting rights bills, but also for other items on Johnson’s progressive to-do list. Without labor — a strong social movement challenging congressional Democrats to push for transformative change — none of this would have been possible.

A second lesson to take away from this history is that the most durable progressive programs Democrats enacted not only aided the great majority of Americans, no matter their race, but were also perceived to be helping everyone. The reforms Wilson signed failed that standard. Nearly every member of his party in Congress who voted to curb monopolies and tax the rich was committed to maintaining the brutal system of Jim Crow that restricted and terrorized the lives of Black people. Such blatant racism did not merely alienate and anger those Black people who still could exercise their right to vote and help persuade others to move to the North. It also meant that Democrats could rely on just a single region of the nation to reliably back their nominees.

Labor progressives during the New Deal era sought to remedy this gross moral and political error. From the start, C.I.O. unions welcomed African Americans as equal members and pressed Democrats to take a strong stand for civil rights. The battle against white supremacy, union officials contended, was a class issue. “Behind every lynching,” asserted the C.I.O.’s national director, a former coal miner, “is the figure of the labor exploiter, the man or the corporation who would deny labor its fundamental rights.” It was a message universal enough to ally Black people with the organized white working class, bringing half a million African Americans into unions by the end of the 1930s, and making it increasingly difficult, at least in the North and West, for a Democratic politician to be both an ardent New Dealer and a vocal defender of Jim Crow.

In crafting most of the signature bills of the Great Society, Johnson, a different kind of Southern Democrat, neglected a primary lesson of the New Deal, the genesis of his own political career. Under Roosevelt, Democrats had enacted measures that established programs like Social Security they could credibly claim served the needs of the most citizens. But the most widely publicized measures Johnson signed, with the exception of Medicare, were described as benefits to minorities who were poor and disproportionately nonwhite. The president and his aides argued that the better-off majority should back these programs more out of sympathy than solidarity. It was a sincere appeal to the better angels of the nation — and a laudable break with American apartheid.

But in a society still plagued by racism, it was not effective politics. Since Johnson left office, neither his party nor the G.O.P. has dominated the electoral terrain for more than a few years at a stretch.

For Democrats to reconstruct a majoritarian coalition, they will need a social movement with which to ally, one that would combine the searing critique of corporate power that drove reforms when Wilson was president with the grass-roots numbers and energy of the unions that once helped the party secure an interracial working-class base.

The strength of the current Democratic coalition — unlike its predecessors under Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson — does not reside in the bottom half of the income scale. Its core voters sit at the poles of the social and educational hierarchy: well-educated professionals at one end and poorer people of color at the other. That demographic reality hamstrung President Barack Obama, himself a rather perfect embodiment of his party’s current base: the interracial child of parents with advanced degrees. In 2011, Mr. Obama declared that the Great Recession was “a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.” But aside from signing the Affordable Care Act, he was unable or unwilling to back up that alarm with any significant new program to aid the working class.

The social movements that somewhat grudgingly back Democrats today represent Americans in disparate types of groups as well. Activists for reforming the criminal justice system, curbing climate change, and securing equal rights for L.G.B.T.Q. people often endorse the common vision of an egalitarian, sustainable world. But there is little overlap among the main demands of these movements or among those who devote their lives to fighting for them. No contemporary movement has the size or political clout of the unions that helped finance Democratic campaigns in their liberal heyday — and advance their legislative priorities.

Another problem for Democrats is geography: Progressive activists form a consistent critical mass only in deep-blue cities or states — which limits their ability to win over moderate voters in other parts of the country. Universities and progressive think tanks like the Roosevelt Institute and Economic Policy Institute abound with innovative ideas about how to narrow the income gap, expand and lower the cost of health care, put together a Green New Deal, curb the power of Amazon and its corporate ilk. But their plans lie fallow without a well-organized constituency of working-class Americans that can elect enough politicians to turn them into law.

One can detect some shoots of a potential revival. Workers at Starbucks, a rising number of websites and periodicals, and high-tech companies like Google and Apple are joining unions and fighting to get their employers to recognize them. And most Americans appear to share their esteem for institutions whose purpose has always been to bring a semblance of democracy to the job. In recent polling, organized labor is more popular than it has been since the mid-1960s.

However, as with social media, to “like” a group does not mean one will take action to join or build it or even know how to go about doing either. Most contemporary Americans see unions as a good idea, but not an institution to which people they know belong and cherish. With union membership down to only a tenth of the work force nationwide, only government employee unions remain a powerful factor in most Democratic campaigns.

Still, progressive politicians who consistently talk about class inequality can win, even in red areas. Sherrod Brown, a stalwart champion of unions who has made fighting for “the dignity of work” his signature issue, has been elected three times to the U.S. Senate in increasingly Republican-friendly Ohio. So has Montana’s Jon Tester, who has proposed a bill to bar corporations that lock out their employees during labor conflicts from receiving tax breaks, deductions, or credits.

In his two runs for the White House, Bernie Sanders articulated a similar message with a blunt passion no other politician with national standing could match. But his identity as a proud Socialist may have cost him the nomination by turning off the strong partisans who vote in Democratic primaries.

The Democrat who did get elected president could take some actions that would help stoke a movement of working people. Mr. Biden could speak often and forcefully about how Build Back Better would improve the lives of most Americans. He could stress the virtues of the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which passed the House a year ago, but remains stalled in the Senate by the seemingly unbreakable filibuster. Right now, few people outside the Beltway bubble are likely to have even heard of this measure.

Last fall, a liberal polling firm conducted a survey in swing states and battleground districts to test how voters would react to a Democratic candidate who articulated such an aggressive pro-worker, anti-corporate message:

After hearing that pitch, respondents increased their backing for Democrats to eight percentage points from three, enough to win seats in nearly every battleground district and state. Bruised by the hardships of the long pandemic, many of those polled, according to the longtime strategist Stanley B. Greenberg, were “surprised to hear that Democrats are dissatisfied with an economy where many of the voters … live paycheck to paycheck” and that “Democrats prioritize big changes in the economy and who holds power.”

Of course, even if Mr. Biden’s party did start putting out such a message in clear and memorable ways, it would still face formidable structural obstacles to enacting anything that might resemble a modest version of the New Deal or Great Society. In 1935, when Congress passed the Social Security and National Labor Relations Acts, there were a scant 25 Republicans in the then 96-member Senate — half as many as exist to do Mitch McConnell’s bidding today. Not so long ago, Democrats routinely got elected to the Senate from Nebraska to North Dakota and Oklahoma; their candidates have almost no chance in such states today.

Lacking the kind of mass movement that catalyzed reform surges in the past, it’s hardly surprising that Mr. Biden and his party have disappointed many of their voters and themselves. Such pressure must come mainly from outside Washington — from ordinary working people and their family members, particularly those disgusted with both parties but who retain the ability to spark the kind of citizen activism on which progressives have always relied.

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University. This essay is adapted in part from his new book, “What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party.”

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Related Articles

Back to top button