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Earth to Democrats: Re-Embrace Big Government Liberalism

Ralph Seliger
November 28, 2016

by Ralph Seliger

I'M AWED that Michael Moore foresaw in July that Donald Trump would break through among blue-collar Rust Belt voters. Sadly, for a variety of reasons we need not discuss in detail here (and are not entirely her fault), Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate to blunt Trump's charge. His small but decisive winning margins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan consisted of working-class Democrats who had voted for Obama at least once, indicating that this was more a response to Trump’s economic message than his appeals to bigotry.

The results revealed weaknesses in how the Democratic party has been functioning for decades in distancing itself from New Deal liberalism. Still, to this day, the Dems govern better than the Republicans, while Republicans do politics much better. Obama’s success in preventing the Great Recession from becoming another Great Depression is rarely brought home to the public in convincing fashion -- a notable exception being Joe Biden’s 2012 campaign slogan that “Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”

Mainstream Democrats, including Obama, are to blame for not more consistently and loudly defending the value of government spending for useful purposes -- especially for infrastructure maintenance and expansion, and for education and health care. Their overall record is mostly good: The New Deal saved the country in the 1930s, LBJ established Medicare and advanced civil rights, and Obama's infrastructure spending and the temporary takeover of General Motors and Chrysler saved the U.S. economy from free fall in 2009. Republican obstructionism, borne of their philosophical opposition to deficit spending, ensured that the recovery would be slow and sluggish; this contrast should have been made clear to the American electorate.

The public has constantly been bombarded with nostrums on cutting back on government spending to balance the federal budget and on reducing taxes to spur investments. Furthermore, the Republicans have gotten away with blocking additional spending for infrastructure and to subsidize public employment in state and local jurisdictions.

YET THE PASSION of Trump's rallies, the vehemence of his supporters, and the lower-than- expected turnout for Clinton from groups that had supported Obama, all mark how he connected as the candidate for change, with Hillary seeming to represent the status quo. Neither candidate sufficiently addressed the difficult reality that good industrial jobs are being lost because of technological and economic change (e.g., automation), but Trump effectively blasted multilateral trade deals, and drew blood from Clinton by tying her to job losses associated with the NAFTA agreement championed by Bill Clinton. The conversation has barely begun on how the future portends a dearth of full-time employment with benefits, a “gig economy,” which logically necessitates more government involvement rather than less -- for national healthcare coverage and possibly a guaranteed minimum income.

Among my many disappointments with the Obama Presidency was his failure to become the education President. Instead of attempting to upgrade the teaching profession -- with better professional preparation, on-the-job support, and higher salaries -- teachers and their unions were subject to scapegoating and a drain of resources toward competing charter schools. There still is a compelling need for making higher education more affordable, through free tuition for the first two to four years of public college and/or more favorable terms for loans, scholarships, assistantships and work-study programs. Also, career-oriented vocational training via public high schools and community colleges should be reinvigorated -- for the building trades, health care and other technical fields that do not require a college degree.

As for the “college” that is not an institution of higher learning, there's an urgent need to campaign for eliminating or reforming the Electoral College, even if there's little prospect of succeeding, because such a campaign would undermine the GOP's claim to a popular mandate for the Trump presidency. This year’s result is the second in the most recent five contests in which the winner of the most popular votes will not be anointed by the Electoral College; by the final count, Clinton is expected to have received over two million more votes than Trump. In addition to the hotly-contested Bush-Gore fiasco in 2000, this country came within less than 120,000 votes of electing another popular-vote loser in 2004 -- if John Kerry had not been narrowly defeated in Ohio.

Because of the requirement to obtain the endorsement of three quarters of the states, amending the Constitution to change the electoral system would be difficult. But there is another reform mechanism that has been gaining ground in recent years -- the Interstate Compact, which currently has the support of ten states plus the District of Columbia, for their electors to automatically vote for the national winner of the popular vote.

What’s called for is what Howard Dean memorably dubbed “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party” in 2004, an unapologetic advocacy of government efforts to expand employment and the social safety net; in other words, a Bernie Sanders-style approach without needing to scare people by calling it socialism, but providing Americans with the protections typically available in Western social democracies. Such a strategy would emphasize economics and thereby tone down racial discord. Obviously, racial biases in law enforcement should be addressed, but identity politics should not be the primary focus of a broad liberal/left coalition.

Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently administers the blogs for Ameinu and The Third Narrative.