March 9, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

This Democratic Party is the one progressives wanted. Will they recognize their success?

It depends on the kind of progressive you are, liberal or illiberal.

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Sometimes the footnotes are worth expounding on. That’s what I’m going to do this morning. In Monday’s edition of the Editorial Board, I qualified the term “progressives” like so: “Not the same thing as ‘liberals,’ mind you. Progressives can be quite illiberal.”

There are many ways to parse language. For now, I have in mind the widespread view among progressives that the Democrats, for all the gains they have made, are still impure, ideologically. This impurity isn’t just academic. It has real-world implications. As long as they compromise their ideals, they can expect little but failure in the future.

This was the subtext of progressive discourse during last week’s debate in the Senate over a provision in the American Rescue Act that would raise the federal minimum wage from its current $7.50 an hour to $15. In the end, seven Democrats voted against the measure (plus Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats).1 The president vowed to give working-class Americans a raise. Raising the minimum is broadly popular. Yet these so-called “moderate” Democrats found a way to block it.

The American Rescue Act would push more money to the bottom half of American society than in any time in my life. And yet the Democrats could still lose in two years.

This was a bad omen for progressives like Elie Mystal, the justice correspondent for The Nation. If the Democratic Party can’t deliver for the working class, then working-class voters are going to turn on the Democrats, just as they did in 2016. On Friday, Elie Mystal wrote on Twitter: “We’re going to get the shit kicked out of us in ’22.”

Before I go on, I want to say I am deeply sympathetic to the progressive complaint about the wishy-washy nature of the Democratic Party. I never liked Bill Clinton’s embrace of “small government” because all of that was a big lie peddled by frauds.2 Barack Obama’s effort at bipartisanship often made me want to pull out what’s left of my hair. Joe Biden’s recent decision to let Saudi Arabia off the hook for the murder of a Washington Post journalist was equally maddening. I believe, as progressives believe, that raising hell is sometimes the only way to make the Democrats behave morally.

Where I part ways with progressives is believing performance is linked to reward. It is assumed that raising the minimum wage would be recognized by the working class and that working-class voters would reward the Democrats in the 2022 midterms. That assumption, however, is based on another assumption: that everyone is working with the same set of facts. If there’s anything we understand clearly, in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, it’s that lots of people are not working with the same set. Lots of people, in fact, are hostile to the very notion that there exists an empirical reality.

Here’s the tip jar! Put something nice in it!

I’m not saying the performance-reward link is wrong. I’m saying it’s becoming untrustworthy. At best, the performance-reward link might wedge the working class, so that half really does appreciate what the Democrats are doing, and rewards them, while the other half believes whatever the hell it wants to believe.3 If the Republicans take one or both chambers of the United States Congress, it won’t be because of Democratic failure. It will be because the Republicans succeeded in spreading lies.

The American Rescue Act is the single biggest transfer of wealth since the Great Society programs of the late 1960s.4 As I said Monday, it flips 40 years of economic policy on its head. Pending final passage expected this week, the new law would push more money to the bottom half of American society than at any time in my life. And yet the Democrats could still lose in two years. As Issac J. Bailey wrote today: “Fighting stupid culture wars will matter more to voters than cutting childhood poverty nearly in half, helping the unemployed and uninsured and black farmers and so many others.”

If “fighting stupid culture wars” over Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss and Meghan Markle can win the congressional elections, why should the Democrats bother with the American Rescue Act? Well, for one thing, no one knows the future. For another, you probably should not do the right thing in order to win a prize. As I teach my 9-year-old, doing the right thing is its own reward, or should be. The past five spending bills privileged businesses and corporations. The newest one, as Chuck Schumer said, does the polar opposite. “The most important thing is what we delivered for people.”

If the Democrats are now doing the right thing, for its own sake, knowing they cannot and should not underestimate the power of the Republican Lie Machine, knowing they could lose in two years despite all the good they are doing, why are some progressives still giving them hell for not being pure enough? Well, it has to do with that footnote.

Some progressives refuse to engage. They refuse to dirty their hands. They refuse to be disappointed. The solution to every problem is ideological, because every problem is one of ideology. It is an article of faith that the Democrats will lose not because the Republicans are so very good at lying, not because they have structural advantages in the form of gerrymandering and such, but because the Democrats “compromised” with themselves when it came to raising the federal minimum wage. (You can literally substitute any policy preference here.) Some progressives do far more than raise hell to make the Democrats act morally. Instead, they go out of their way to smash them.

Illiberalism might not be so bad if it did not obscure what’s happening. While Schumer, conservative Democrat Joe Manchin and others are common targets, no progressive has attacked Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the House Progressive Caucus. Yet she said over the weekend that though the provision to raise the minimum wage is missing from the American Rescue Act, that’s among “relatively minor concessions” that will not keep the House from passing it and the president from signing it.

In other words, what’s happening is this: the progressives, like Jayapal, who have made serious inroads into the Democratic Party over the last decade, are quite liberal in that they are doing the work of political engagement for the sake of doing the right thing even though doing the right thing may not pay off in the end. That’s what you want from a progressive party. Whether the party is pure or impure doesn’t really matter.

—John Stoehr

1

Along with all 50 Republicans, they killed the amendment.

2

The issue for “conservatives” was never the size of government but who the government is primarily serving. That is, government for people who are not very obscenely rich is bad.

3

I would include wedging the white working class, too.

4

True even though the minimum wage provision failed.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

3 Comments

  1. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:39 pm

    well said

  2. Bennett on July 30, 2021 at 11:39 pm

    Well put, John. We should take what we can get. Unfortunately, the Raise the Wage Act (RWA) would have also put Democrats in a good position (somewhat), akin to how much float the ACA delivered, with a number of red states.

    Let’s start here with the rate at which the minimum wage would have climbed under the RWA (https://edlabor.house.gov/imo/media/doc/2021-01-26%20Raise%20the%20Wage%20Act%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf).

    Barring Georgia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania (all blue, some barely, this past election cycle), every $7.25 (or even less) minimum wage state is a red state. (For states’ rates, go here: https://www.paycor.com/resource-center/minimum-wage-by-state. Note that 20 states are at the lowest end.) So the RWA would most affect red states, exactly where Democrats want to compete.

    Then there is the questing of timing. The effects of the RWA would be felt immediately. That favors reward-performance arguments. It’s always harder to make that argument for policies that don’t deliver immediate results. (In a sense, it’s why Trump’s tax breaks to the rich didn’t poll that well, but stimulus payment did. Trickle down–myth that it is–still has to “trickle down.”)

    So, plays in red states? Check. Immediate impact? Check? But how broadly would its effect be felt? Well, we actually know the answer to that. It’s here: https://www.governing.com/archive/minimum-wage-workers-by-state-totals.html#data. The overall impact would range from 0.5% of the workforce in our most populous state (California) to over 4% in such states as (unsurprisingly) Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. And how impactful is that in a red state?

    Well, the answer is not enough. Not really even close in a number of them. Let’s take Tennessee. Trump won Tennessee in 2020 by 700K votes out of 3 million cast (or 60.7% of the vote). Even if every single 4% minimum wage earner had voted and been a Trump voter and then switched their vote to Biden, that would move 120,000 votes at the absolute most. Do the math across many of those red states and it simply doesn’t add up.

    All of this is to confirm that your argument is entirely right. We should raise the minimum wage because it’s the right thing to do, not because of the reward–particularly because the numbers don’t even bear out the reward argument under the cold calculus of self-interest.

  3. Bern on July 30, 2021 at 11:39 pm

    Some people just can’t take ‘maybe’ for an answer…

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