John Buell

Election 2006: The Rise of the Centrist Democrat?

Every election is followed immediately by a new political season. Even before party stars seek their party's 2008 presidential nomination, party strategists and pundits strive to explain the results. The vast majority of the prominent DC pundits and some leading Democrats are now warning Democrats that their gains came from "moving to the center." Once they arrive in D.C., these newly-elected Democrats will have some real heart-to-heart exchanges with the supposedly over-the-hill liberal war horses who will be heading many of the House and Senate committees. There is considerable evidence, however, that Democratic gains are not the result of this stale centrism. Washington needs the kind of bipartisanship that extends full procedural protections, access to committee hearings, and full voter protection to all political parties. But it also needs a progressive Democratic Party that offers constructive alternatives to our nation's recent course.

That a new conservatism on social issues like abortion, support for the war, and celebration of fiscal orthodoxy is the way to go for the Democrats hardly squares with some important election results. Harold Ford Jr., the poster child for this centrist approach, lost in Tennessee, while Sherrod Brown, clearly a pro-choice liberal, won in the bellwether state of Ohio. More broadly, Ford's loss highlights a question that centrist advocates never seem to confront. Democrats are often advised to put aside social issues, but just which social issues? It is hard to look at an election like that in Tennessee and deny that race is still a highly divisive factor in US politics. Should the Democrats try to win such contests by picking a white male to run? And can Democrats hope to win by disregarding persistent concerns of blacks and other minorities regarding racial profiling, discrimination in the workplace, and unequal educational opportunity? Such profiling also affects the larger political landscape. As long as law enforcement campaigns unfairly target minority communities and business and media unfairly stereotype minorities, campaigns to extend broad safety nets are too easily demonized as serving the needs of lazy or criminal misfits.

The party -- or at least some of its members -- may be faulted for confining their reforms to social issues even as it retreated from initiatives to redress equally intractable workplace and market injustices to working class whites. This is a sure recipe for backlash politics, but the answer is not to retreat on racial or gender justice but rather to proceed on both the economic and social fronts.

In an odd way, centrists and corporate media who advocate that "social issues" be removed from the table replicate one of the worst failings of the old left in the US and in Western Europe, the notion that economics is everything. Orthodox Marxists are notorious for the belief that once private property and its attendant inequalities were abolished, politics as we know it would end. Human beings may depend on work in order to live, but how they live gives meaning to their work. Injustices within the home or the community are just as important as those in a workplace.

There is evidence, which unfortunately few of the national media pundits seem to have considered, that some of the Democratic gains came among candidates who were both progressive on social issues and concerned about the plight of working-class whites. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting recently reported that among 28 new House Democrats, 20 are pro-choice and only five are openly pro-life. Just as interestingly, the great majority of this new Democratic class favors an increase in the federal minimum wage, a step endorsed at the state level in all six initiatives, including such solidly red states as Arizona. In addition, FAIR points out, "One ideological stance that was actually widespread among the incoming Democrats, and one that is actually likely to alter Democratic Party priorities, is an opposition to NAFTA-style trade agreements and an embrace of "fair trade" principles." Fair trade and economic justice measures advance the interests of both minorities and working-class white males and provide a more congenial background for discussion of tough social issues.

None of this is to deny that Democrats may need to find better means to advance the goals of job security and economic justice. Though the current tax structure is clearly unfair, tax reform alone cannot redress the massive gaps between corporate CEOs and the frontline workers. More adequate -- and inflation adjusted -- minimum wage standards, Federal Reserve policies that treat full employment as a vital goal, better worker training initiatives and steps to give workers an independent voice and an equity stake in their workplaces and new trade agreements that strengthen worker rights both at home and abroad all to be on the table.

Even with such steps, social liberalism on abortion rights or on racial matters can be a hard sell to some working- or middle-class families. The content of the social issues debate is necessarily always changing and progressives need to be attentive to new concerns. Trumpeting the "right to an abortion" can often be read as insensitivity to the extreme economic and personal sacrifices working-class parents make to rear their children. The most fruitful response to the backlash such issues generate should be to broaden the rights for which progressives strive. Reproductive rights need to be accompanied by more economic and cultural support for working and stay-at-home parents. Rates of teenage pregnancy diminish considerably when teens enjoy adequate educational and economic opportunities. Concerns about "liberal media" might be best addressed not through censorship of offending programs but by efforts to expand access to the media for social conservatives as well as other minority groups. Finally, parents all across the political spectrum could benefit from reductions in the working day and more time with their children.

In the long run, rather than abandon its commitments to the working class and social minorities, Democrats must acknowledge the enduring connection between both sets of issues and be open to new ways to advance these in changing circumstances. A party that addresses job security is more likely to receive an audience for concerns about race and gender. Unfortunately, a mass media that reflects corporate interests hardly ever explores these concerns and connections.

John Buell writes from Maine.

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