The Labor Day Weekend during a midterm election in which Democrats are poised to take over at least one chamber of Congress, thanks in part to a populist uprising that's already dumped one status-quo senator from the party, seems like a great time to talk about Democrats, workers, and corporations.
I don't think I need to use a lot of links or references when I tell you that President Bush has been kind to corporations, and workers have suffered for it. Yesterday, Paul Krugman told us that the workers know it too:
There are still some pundits out there lecturing people about how great the economy is. But most analysts seem to finally realize that Americans have good reasons to be unhappy with the state of the economy: although G.D.P. growth has been pretty good for the last few years, most workers have seen their wages lag behind inflation and their benefits deteriorate.
The disconnect between overall economic growth and the growing squeeze on many working Americans will probably play a big role this November, partly because President Bush seems so out of touch: the more he insists that it’s a great economy, the angrier voters seem to get.
Krugman says that real wages -- that is, wages adjust for inflation -- peaked in 1973. Over the last generation pay has gone overall downhill, coupled with cut-backs in worker benefits throughout the Reagan 1980s and sharp cuts in employee health care since 2000. He cites a Pew Research Center survey that found a majority of American workers who are saying that wages have gotten worse, and a plurality saying benefits are worse -- and they're right.
He points out the tremendous potential for a Democrat who can set things right, but doesn't sound too optimistic about that happening:
The big disconnect, in other words, provides as good an argument as you could possibly want for a smart, bold populism. All we need now are some smart, bold populist politicians.
Just below Krugman on the op-ed page yesterday, Thomas Frank, the author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?," weighed in on the same theme. A core Democratic value, he says, used to be protecting workers against corporations. That was eroded by President Clinton, who wanted to show that Democrats could be pro-business too:
Look through the foundational texts of American liberalism and you can find everything you need to derail the conservative juggernaut. But don’t expect liberal leaders in Washington to use those things. They are “New Democrats” now, enlightened and entrepreneurial and barely able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone muster the strength to deliver some Rooseveltian stemwinder against “economic royalists.”
Mounting a campaign against plutocracy makes as much sense to the typical Washington liberal as would circulating a petition against gravity. What our modernized liberal leaders offer — that is, when they’re not gushing about the glory of it all at Davos — is not confrontation but a kind of therapy for those flattened by the free-market hurricane: they counsel us to accept the inevitability of the situation and to try to understand how we might retrain or re-educate ourselves so we will fit in better next time.
I think many Democrats -- many Americans -- hold a deep intuitive distrust of for-profit corporations, businesses that think only of their own interest (or, more bluntly, their executives' interests), at the expense of the common good. It's something that's come up for me, personally, when trying to understand how liberals who are otherwise pro-science can be so fervently opposed to genetically modified foods. After listening to them, though, I understood that most of them are not opposed to GM food in and of itself (there's always a few Luddites who oppose any "meddling with nature," and happily preach that over their computers, which I presume are built of nuts and stones) -- rather, most of them are opposed to the corporations who act in bad faith. Few people are opposed to drug research, but many American distrust the giant pharmaceutical companies. Ditto for any number of industries.
That distrust stands in tension with the desire for a competent executive leader, with our expectations molded on big business executives. Ralph Nader is anti-corporation, but Ralph Nader is a doofus. And, just as bad, he looks like a doofus -- he wears a business suit like it's something you'd don for a lunar expedition. And, fundamentally, he comes across as anti-business. Democrats want to be pro-business, but we have lost something by doing it in a way that does not bring corporations to heel.
Enter Eliot Spitzer.
People like Ken Gilchrist, 74, are the reason Eliot Spitzer is so far ahead in the polls in the governor’s race.
“I’m a Republican, but I’ll vote for him all the way to the White House” if he keeps going after the people who “are ripping us off, the good-old-boys network,” Mr. Gilchrist, a retired I.B.M. salesman, said on Thursday morning.
“God bless him, God bless him.”
That's not a Republican from 58th & Lex. That's a Republican from Conklin, a suburb of Binghamton, on the shores of the Susquehanna. People are sick of corporations taking advantage of them, they know that their wages and benefits have steadily gotten worse and that under President Bush the executives have become robber-barons while employees have lost their health care. But they also don't see in today's elected Democrats a willingness to do anything about it -- and those few outsiders who do seem willing tend to come across as a little goofy, like Nader, like Kucinich.
Krugman is right that we need some "smart, bold populist politicians." Frank is right that New Democrats' coziness with business has eroded our core values of protecting workers. Spitzer, I think, provides a model for the Anti-Corporation Democrat -- and shows, with his comfort in a suit, with his knowledge of Wall Street workings, that Anti-Corporation can still come across as Pro-Business.