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Building the Democratic Party By Helping the Middle Class

George Packer reviews recent books which propose that for the Democrats to achieve stable power, they must provide economic assistance to the struggling middle class, not fight cultural battles. Single payer’s economic stability can foster progressive cultural norms.

December 14, 2023

What Does the Working Class Really Want?
The Atlantic
December 11, 2023
By George Packer

From the late 1970s until very recently, the brains and dollars behind both parties supported versions of neoliberal economics: one hard-edged and friendly to old-line corporate interests such as the oil industry, the other gentler and oriented toward the financial and technology sectors. This consensus left the battleground open to cultural warfare. The educated professionals who dominate the country’s progressive party have long cared less about unions, wages, and monopoly power than about race, gender, and the environment. …

[There is an] outpouring of new books that pay political attention to those overlooked Americans of all races who lack a college degree, many employed in jobs that pay by the hour—factory workers, home health aides, delivery drivers, preschool teachers, hairdressers, restaurant servers, farm laborers, cashiers. During the pandemic, they were called “essential workers.” Now they’ve been discovered to hold the key to power, giving rise to yet another round of partisan dreaming of realignment, this time hinging on the working class. But these Americans won’t bene􀀁t from their new status as essential voters until the parties spend less effort coming up with what they think the working class wants to hear, and more effort actually delivering what it wants and needs. … 

Joshua Green’s fast-paced, sober, yet hopeful The Rebels: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Struggle for a New American Politics argues that a Democratic renewal is already under way. … Green traces the Democrats’ estrangement from working Americans back to the ’70s; he begins his story with a moment in 1978, when Jimmy Carter abandoned unions for Wall Street. The narrative reaches a climax in 2008, when the financial crisis destroyed home values and retirement savings while taxpayer dollars rescued the banks that had triggered it, convincing large numbers of Americans that the system was rigged by financiers and politicians. Because of policy choices by the Obama administration—Democrats’ last spasm of neoliberalism—much of the blame fell on the former party of the common people. Yet out of the wreckage rose a new group of Democratic stars who sounded like their New Deal predecessors, many of whom were every bit as radical. Taking aim at corporate elites, Green’s protagonists want to increase economic equality through worker power and state intervention. Though Sanders and Warren failed as presidential candidates, Green argues that their populism transformed the party, including the formerly moderate Joe Biden, who has pushed a remarkably ambitious legislative agenda with working-class interests at its center. …

One party supports unions, the child tax credit, and some form of universal health care, while the other party does everything in its power to defeat them. One president passed major legislation to renew manufacturing and rebuild infrastructure, while his predecessor cut taxes on the rich and corporations. Yet polls since 2016 have shown Republicans closing the gap with Democrats on which party is perceived to care more about poor Americans, middle-class Americans, and “people like me.” …

Now, encouraged perhaps by the excesses and failures of a professional-class social justice movement, and by the relative success of Biden’s pro-worker agenda, they seem to be finding their voice. [P]olling data from Wisconsin and Massachusetts provide evidence that Americans are less divided on cultural issues than activists on both sides, who bene􀀁t by stoking division, would like: “If you look at the country’s voters, and put aside the culture wars, what you find are genuine differences between the parties’ voters over economic issues.” The real disagreements have to do with taxation, regulation, health care, and the larger problem of inequality. Democrats’ way forward seems obvious: emphasize differences on economics by turning left; mute differences on culture by tacking to the middle. If the party can free itself from the moneyed interests of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and the cultural radicalism of campus and social media, it might start to win in red states.

Comment by: Jim Kahn

George Packer is a wonderful writer on politics: progressive, incisive, clear. In this piece, he argues that for the Democrats to achieve a solid and enduring electoral majority, they must first and foremost address the economic needs of the working class. The political and moral need to bolster the working class (and poor!) is unassailable. However, the moderation of cultural stances that he proposes will generate controversy on the left.

Where does single payer come in? The article says, “some form of universal health care”. That’s not enough, because anything short of comprehensive, financially unimpaired coverage will fall short. We in the single payer movement clearly still have education and organizing to do even with savvy progressive thinkers.

Does single payer – a profound economic hand up – also foster progressive cultural norms? I propose that it does: when vulnerable middle-class families have the reassurance of stable and affordable health care, they won’t blame others for depriving them of this critical need. Through sharing in a common social good, the “other” of different social groups is more likely to become “one of us”. That doesn’t get us to the full array of progressive cultural values, but it sure helps.

About the Commentator, Jim Kahn

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Jim (James G.) Kahn, MD, MPH (editor) is an Emeritus Professor of Health Policy, Epidemiology, and Global Health at the University of California, San Francisco. His work focuses on the cost and effectiveness of prevention and treatment interventions in low and middle income countries, and on single payer economics in the U.S. He has studied, advocated, and educated on single payer since the 1994 campaign for Prop 186 in California, including two years as chair of Physicians for a National Health Program California.

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