Liberals must make class issues a priority
ave to be altered, not so much because of failure but success. For nearly 50 years American liberalism, often derided by critics, nevertheless accomplished much in the theater of civil rights. Efforts to improve the legal status of African Americans, women, and gay and lesbians have been largely successful, if not complete. What has been neglected is the thorny issue of economic inequality.
Even Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and its parent, the Great Society, failed to adequately address the issue. The $11 billion tax cut of 1964 skewed money to the wealthy. The much-celebrated Medicare program buffeted county hospitals and physicians. From 1966-1973, medical doctors saw their incomes grow at a rate of 11 percent a year. This increase was due primarily to LBJ’s program. It also represented a transformation of the medical profession taking them from Buicks to Cadillacs.
What went unaddressed was the status of labor unions, which actually declined in the Johnson years. It is telling that when LBJ had sizable majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate that he did not repeal Taft-Hartley, which required an “open” non-union shop. The “hand up, not hand out” approach of the Great Society never addressed the issue of power and that has shaped the American Left ever since.
During the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the forces of deregulation, both in commerce and finance, were advanced considerably. Free trade, as illustrated by NAFTA, broke the back of industrial unions. Clinton managed to curtail welfare programs and trumpet that “the era of big government ‘was over.'” He did try to correct the excesses of Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut and was rewarded with a GOP takeover of the House and Senate in 1994.
As a result, liberalism has lost a voice in the affairs of working people. Rightly or wrongly, issues like the Keystone Pipeline appear to once again place blue collar jobs hostage to upper-class environmentalist whims. Given the union-busting tendency of Republicans, no one has spoken for the toiling classes for some time.
Since they have been offered rhetoric rather than results, many have opted to vote for other concerns. Gun ownership, personal religious beliefs and sometimes prejudices have been, in lieu of anything else substantial, a motivating force in casting a ballot.
For Democrats and liberals this could be a daunting reality in elections to come. With the Supreme Court committed to empowering the super rich at unprecedented levels, the Democratic party needs those dependent on a check to stick together. But solidarity is a two-way street and the fashionable celebrity-studded elite Democrats very rarely consider class issues as a priority. The constant cries for those to adjust to each other in society through continuing education does not exactly appeal to workers in their late ’40s or early ’50s.