Getting Tough with Progressive Constituencies

Time for some tough love

During an average election season, Democratic candidates can expect to be bullied, lectured, criticized, mocked, dressed down, blackmailed, and publicly humiliated. And that’s just by their friends.

As in any dysfunctional relationship, political constituencies test the strength of candidates’ devotion, making them earn love through public displays of affection, expensive candlelit dinners, and professed love for ethanol subsidies. It’s a relationship built on distrust, however, because with such a closely divided electorate, issue groups know that once the primaries are over, their chosen ones will need to move to the middle to attract swing voters. So they demand signs of commitment early, putting candidates in the difficult position of either remaining wedded to an extreme stance or becoming vulnerable to the charge of “flip-flopping.”

It’s time for this to stop. It has never been a particularly mature way of conducting political business, but with the stakes so high and the margin for error so slim, candidates need to learn how to stand up for themselves and progressive constituencies need to keep the larger picture in mind as well as their specific individual interests.

This does not mean that Democrats need to abandon their core constituencies if they want to win. On the contrary, many of these groups are responsible for giving the Democratic party its identity and for providing many of the values that drive progressive politics. But when Democrats focus on individual constituencies to the exclusion of their ability to appeal to a broader audience, they become simply unelectable. If they don’t show some tough love to a handful of their oldest – and often most demanding – supporters, they will marginalize themselves beyond repair.

Labor Unions

Manufacturing jobs are not coming back to the United States. You know it, I know it, and Ron the laid-off worker from the old auto parts plant knows it, even if he can’t yet admit it to himself. Even so, serious Democratic politicians continue to base appeals to working-class voters on the presumption that the manufacturing sector can be resuscitated and those lost jobs can return.

It is tempting to look at recent political history, note that the candidates who courted labor support in Iowa (Dean and Gephardt) were handily trounced by candidates who lacked union endorsements (Kerry and Edwards) and declare labor unions irrelevant and impotent in contemporary politics. But such a calculation would be as much of a mistake as capitulating completely to the demands of union leaders.

Because in truth, while their role has changed from the early years when they negotiated living wages and safer workplaces than the deathtraps of old, labor unions still serve an essential purpose in our economy. In this era of labor slack, with more Americans enduring long-term unemployment than at any other point in the last twenty years, many companies see an opportunity to increase their profit margins by cutting or capping employee benefits and salary increases. Don’t like it, they say? Fine. There are ten schmoes lined up outside who will work for low wages and poor benefits. You can leave any time you want. Labor unions are often the only defense workers have against unscrupulous employers and even so, the recent grocery strike in California showed that businesses are becoming ever more powerful (after six months on the picket lines, workers settled for less than what they had to begin with.)

Our economic system is transforming with lightning speed. Even the Clinton-era predictions about the development of a new information economy are now dated, as jobs for which former manufacturing employees once attended ITT schools to obtain are now being outsourced to countries like India. We don’t yet know what the solutions will be. But we know that focusing on the economy of the past won’t help anyone.

Teachers Unions

When conservatives look around to choose a whipping boy, teachers unions are usually near the top of their list. Secretary of Education Rod Paige recently blamed the fact that the No Child Left Behind law is a tad bit unpopular on the devious machinations of teachers unions, calling them “terrorists.” (My parents, lifelong public school teachers and card-carrying members of the NEA and the AFT, were not pleased to find themselves in the same league as Al-Qaeda. Although, Michigan winters being what they are, they wouldn’t be too unhappy if John Ashcroft rounded them up and sent them to Gitmo for a few months.) What Paige conveniently overlooked is that No Child Left Behind is unpopular not because teachers unions have been badmouthing it, but because it is in so many ways a poorly conceived and implemented policy. In Virginia, Republican state lawmakers led the legislature in passing a bill that would exempt their state from certain requirements in the law.

And yet, teachers unions have waged an all-out assault on school vouchers, an initiative that has significant public support, particularly in the African-American community, and that may in fact provide important educational opportunities to poor students who are trapped in low-quality public schools. The unions are correct to argue that the answer to our educational problems is not to abandon public schools. But while they are busy working themselves into high dudgeon, thousands of students sit in schools that are failing them.

My heart is normally with the teachers unions, but their unwavering opposition to vouchers has had the unfortunate effect of denying them the ability to make sure that voucher programs – which continue to spread, despite their objections – serve the best interests of America’s students. For all the talk of “accountability” that accompanied passage of the No Child Left Behind law, private schools are largely exempt from accountability standards, even when students attend them with the aid of public dollars in the form of vouchers. Accountability for schools that participate in voucher programs should be an issue that the teachers unions can get behind, but they can’t legitimately enter into that debate until they set aside their flat-out, no-way no-how, over-our-dead-turtle-tanks resistance to voucher programs.

The Black Community

The primarily pragmatic decision to break Democratic ranks on the issue of vouchers is just one sign of tension between the black community and the Democratic party. The tale of NAACP president Kwesi Mfume’s massive hissy-fit last summer is already the stuff of party legend and it touches on a problem that has become more pronounced over the past few years.

Enough with the melodrama already. No one is “disrespecting” the black community. Yes, the Democratic party far too often takes the votes of black Americans for granted. And yes, Dennis Kucinich and Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman initially failed to show up to the cattle-call candidate appearance that is required of any candidate who seeks the endorsement of the NAACP. But none of that means that their financial support of black causes is tantamount to “Confederate dollars,” as Mfume charged. Their transgressions are hardly egregious enough for them to be branded “persona non grata in the black community.”

Mfume and other black leaders have a perfect right to be ticked off at politicians who think that they can waltz into black churches a week before Election Day, listen to some good gospel music, down a few biscuits after the service, and consider the “black vote” in the bag. But even Mfume has to realize that his reaction – demanding that the three offending candidates come before the assembled convention to grovel and make public apologies – only serves to weaken Democrats in the long-run. It is impossible to present an image of a strong, united party and nominee when candidates in search of the nomination are forced to meekly say their “I’m sorry”s and promise never ever to do it again.

The black community is going through a political identity crisis right now. After the dramatic and tangible successes of the civil rights era and the visible battles over busing policies, black politics over the past few decades has focused on issues of much more subtle distinction. Are they race issues? Or are they really class issues? It’s difficult to pinpoint whether a particular politician has voted the “correct” way. So in too many cases, politicians have had to seek endorsements by instead courting black leaders, loudly proclaiming themselves “a friend of the black community,” and opening themselves up to public humiliation if they fail to do either one aggressively enough.

One fact still remains – despite an often unfortunate history on race issues, the Democratic party of the past thirty has been the most hospitable and receptive home for black voters. And, to the extent that Democrats have gained power, they have done so by relying on overwhelming support from the black community. Neither one can afford to take the other for granted. This is a mutual relationship. Figure out a way to actually listen to each other.

Choice Groups

And finally, we come to my friends at NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the National Abortion Federation. Ladies, say it with me: Abortion is not good. (Yes, it’s sometimes necessary; yes, we need to protect the rights of women and doctors to use the last resort of abortion when they absolutely need to.) But no one wants to raise abortion rates in this country.

Yet if you listen to the rhetoric of choice groups – and if you watch the way that some of them threaten Democratic lawmakers who dare to consider policies that would restrict abortion – you might be mistaken in thinking that any drop in the abortion rate is bad thing. That it necessarily means that women are being hurt and oppressed. They’ve lost sight of the fact that abortion is a necessary evil, not an act worth celebrating. Let me be clear: I do not mean that doctors who perform abortions or women who seek them are evil. But even pro-choice advocates should be able to agree with Clinton’s formulation that abortion should be “safe, legal,” and most of all, “rare.”

The American Prospect’s Michael Tomasky recently wrote about the Democrats’ heavy-handed decision to deny then-Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey a speaking slot at the 1992 convention because of his pro-life views. Tomasky rightly criticized the party, noting: “Letting Casey speak would not have entailed changing the party’s platform, which is solidly pro-choice and shouldn’t change. But it would have signaled an awareness of something that every non-interest-group human being who has given this issue any serious thought or discussed it with friends and relatives knows: that the subject is a morally complicated one; that reasonable people who are otherwise fairly progressive can have serious and honest qualms about abortion; that not everyone who has such qualms is a right-wing nut.”

Democrats are not going to – nor should they – adopt a pro-life platform. But they would do well to adopt rhetoric that is less stridently pro-abortion. And choice groups would do well to remember that while it is their job to stake out idealistic positions, they need to be patient and tolerant with politicians who recognize the gray areas of this difficult issue, sometimes voting for sensible measures such as parental notification laws.

Eyes on the Prize, People

All of these constituencies are incredibly important, and both the issues and concerns they represent are key to defining what progressivism stands for. But – and listen carefully because this is an essential point – no one will be able to do a damn thing about any of those issues if progressives aren’t in power. If you prefer arguing until you’re blue in the face to winning back control of Congress and the White House (and possibly securing control of the Supreme Court), then go ahead and support the status quo.

Or would you rather argue over the details in the Oval Office?

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