The best hope for American progressives in 2006 is for the Democrats to fail in November’s mid-term elections. Let me explain.
The Republicans are imploding in sleaze and incompetence. But if the Democrats claw back a few seats without a coherent governing philosophy, this would cover up the party’s intellectual failings and reinforce its long-term decline.
The Democratic strategy in 2006 seems to be to run Iraq veterans in vulnerable House districts. But is opposition to the war enough? After all, John McCain, a Republican who opposes abortion and gay rights, would trounce any Democrat in a presidential race dominated by the war.
It’s natural to play Bush’s Iraq incompetence for political advantage. Less heartening is their failure on more central and longstanding issues:
- Rigged politics: can America’s electoral integrity be meaningful when nearly 99% of Congressional incumbents routinely win re-election? In 2004, 401 of the 435 sitting House members sought re-election; all but five were re-elected.
- Inequality: in 1975 the average compensation of the top 100 chief executives was thirty-nine times that of the average worker; today that multiple exceeds 1,000. Between 1979 and 2000, the income of households in the bottom 20% grew by 6.4%, that of the top 20% by 70%, and the top 1% by 184%. Social mobility is on the wane; in the 1970s, 65% of people moved up an income bracket; in the booming 1990s, only 60% did.
- Health care: America could spend the same on health care and provide universal coverage. But you wouldn’t know this from listening to the Democrats, so many of whom have been bought out by the health-care lobby.
The House has approved a bill that would criminalise the offering of assistance to illegal immigrants, be it by social workers, teachers, or church groups, and reversed one of the Democrats’ few recent triumphs by allowing oil exploration in Alaska.
There’s no single reason behind the decline of the progressive movement. But you could do worse than finger the co-option of Democratic Party leaders. America’s rising tide has created a more populous, fatter elite. Democratic leaders once lived amongst their working-class constituents; today they vacation in St Barts. Journalists, union bosses, NGO leaders, and university presidents have been similarly softened. And as the Economist noted earlier this year: “Everywhere you look in modern America - you see elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves.”
For the better part of the 20th century, progressive forces were able to erode the advantage of the wealthy. Reform was catalysed by unions, feminism, and the civil-rights movement.
Today, such collective progressive movements have withered. Their pale replacement is a combination of the internet and celebrities – Bono and the Gates’s are Time magazine’s persons of the year.
If the Democrats make gains in November, it will be a false dawn. A less-than-stellar result might catalyse the revolutionary debate the party desperately needs.