Author: J. Phillip Thompson

J. Phillip Thompson is an associate professor of urban politics, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before entering academic life, Thompson worked as deputy general manager of the New York Housing Authority and as Director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Coordination.

IS THERE LIFE AFTER SHELLACKING: A Post-Election Program for the Democratic Party

The Right—meaning the Tea Party, most Republican elected officials in Congress, Fox News, and several very large corporations—is attacking the Obama administration not for failure, but for success. Obama not only bailed out General Motors (GM), he put in an overseer to ensure the company made sound investment decisions. It worked. He put money into banks, but also increased the regulation of financial institutions. It worked—in staving off financial collapse— and the stock market has rebounded. He pushed through health care reform, establishing the principle that health care is an entitlement. He has reduced some of the military’s worst excesses (torture) and fired the military commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan when the general challenged Obama’s authority. He put through a stimulus bill that prevented local governments from large-scale layoffs, avoiding hugely diminished public services. He diminished political in-fighting within the Democratic Party after a very bitter primary battle for the presidency. In short, he showed signs that government could work effectively in tackling big problems. This is why he is under attack from the Right.

The Right has been lavishly funded to make the opposite case. Its funders have pocketed trillions from reduced taxes and reduced government regulation of its financial transactions. The justification for such minimalist government is the argument that government doesn’t work. This is what makes Obama a threat. If he is willing to interfere with GM and financial markets, what will be next?

The reason why the Left—meaning an uncongealed assortment of labor unions, black and Latino leaders, a minority of Democrats in Congress, a broad array of civic advocacy groups, and some liberals at MSNBC—is sulking about Obama is that they don’t feel his administration has done enough. Banks failed and got bailed out, managers got undeserved multi-million-dollar bonuses (paid for by taxpayers)—yet needed jobs didn’t come out of any of this. Key provisions for improving health care were stripped out of the health care bill, or never introduced. Many billions targeted for infrastructure are tied up in federal and state bureaucracies, never reaching the ground, where they would create jobs. The administration is expanding the war in Afghanistan, at an incredible cost, with no clear prospect of resolution. Perhaps most aggravating, Obama’s political operatives appear to have lost interest in the tens of thousands of grassroots activists that helped him win office. Key members of the Obama political team appear to not understand movement building, while the Tea Party is grooming grassroots leaders across the country. To some, this feels like a betrayal. Many on the Left were excited about Obama, but not about his policy program. They supported him because his speeches suggested he understood the need for bottom-up movement building to push government reforms. Most knew even modest reform would be fiercely contested every step of the way.

While many of the Left have become frustrated and critical of the Obama administration for compromising one or another legislative initiative, this criticism is partially irresponsible. Obama said repeatedly, before and after the election, that he needed civic leaders “to lead.” He emphasized that he could not change major federal policies by himself. When the Right organized—at the grassroots level—to fight health care reform, the Left did not counter-organize until the very end of the process (too late). When Obama did not introduce comprehensive immigration reform, there was a barrage of criticism from immigration advocates, but little grassroots organizing on the issue to help move the congressional opposition. The exceptions— students rallying around the DREAM Act and undocumented immigrants mobilizing against raids in Arizona—stand out precisely because they are a stark contrast to the ineffective insider-lobbying approach of other advocates. Labor unions focused initially on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and never managed to explain why EFCA should matter to people losing their homes to foreclosure, or to blacks and Latinos unable to get into the construction trades, or to the millions of workers in the South and the Southwest (where unions don’t exist). Black elected officials have, by and large, made themselves irrelevant to their constituents, which is why black voter turnout is chronically low. Half of young black men drop out of high school, and 60 percent of those go to prison. They aren’t too concerned about the personal scandals or fighting over leadership posts that seem to preoccupy the Congressional Black Caucus.

The Midterm Elections

Clearly, midterm voters were angry, and the anger was most apparent among white working-class voters. However, white voters’ anger doesn’t cohere ideologically. They disliked Republicans and Democrats equally, and were evenly divided about whether government should move Left or Right. They don’t like “big government,” but like big government programs like Medicare and Social Security. Interestingly, many of the Democratic losers were “Blue Dogs” that were trying to follow Bill Clinton’s example of forging a brand of Democratic conservatism—this failed to excite activists on the Left and the Right. All of this suggests notable instability amongst working-class white voters, and a growing sense that voters want strong action and leadership rather than centrism and compromise leading nowhere in particular.

Democrats did not stimulate great enthusiasm amongst black voters. A last-minute Democratic National Committee campaign to get out the black vote, largely via radio appeals, did not have much impact. This was no shock, as black voters tend to sit out midterm elections. Still, the drop-off in excitement about Obama was palpable. This is understandable—black voters have already been through forty years of having their hopes raised by Democrats, particularly by black Democratic politicians, only to be forgotten once the candidates win office. It cannot be assumed that blacks will turn out and vote in 2008 numbers two years from now, especially if they feel abused by Obama’s administration. And that sentiment exists right now.

There has been non-stop grumbling about Obama from black political commentators such as Tavis Smiley, as well as members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who maintain that the administration downplays blacks’ concerns because it doesn’t want to appear (to whites) partial to blacks. Many blacks feel that—at a time when black unemployment is double that of whites (which is also high), and foreclosure rates in black communities are seven times higher than in white neighborhoods—they deserve some special attention. While it is very unlikely that more than 10 percent of blacks would vote against the Democrats in 2012, many black voters could stay at home. This would be devastating for Obama and the Democratic Party. What, then, is a message and strategy that could generate enthusiasm in the black community, as well as among angry working-class whites?

Is Rebuilding America Tantamount to Socialism?

Without a dramatic change in our politics and public policies, this recession could last indefinitely. This is because the U.S. has some bad economic fundamentals. The economy may have sporadic upturns, and there are bright spots—like high technology, quality elite universities, and functioning venture capital markets—but, without substantial changes, the overall trend will be slow decline.

What is unsound about our economy? Public schools are not churning out large numbers of well-trained people; health care costs are exorbitant and the results are unimpressive; energy costs are far too expensive; and it takes too much time and money to move goods and people around. What is not on the list of bad fundamentals is public debt. What matters more than debt is the substance of what the debt is being used to finance. President Obama has already suggested (weakly) that the program for economic recovery should be to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, physically and socially. This is fundamental to economic prosperity—it lowers costs and creates the basis for all kinds of creative entrepreneurialism and economic innovation. It is government’s responsibility to invest in the kind of physical and social infrastructure that enables citizens to reach their greatest productive potentials. Since such ideas have been labeled by the Right as “socialist,” causing otherwise thoughtful people to get scared and run for cover, we should discuss socialism.

President Obama’s massive bailout of Wall Street has not abated accusations, by Sarah Palin and others, that he is a socialist. As I write, the official Tea Party website features a description of the “Obama Dictatorship.” Despite the fact that there are some leading exponents of this view—such as the megawealthy Koch family, a principal funder of the new Right and the John Birch Society, which once considered Dwight Eisenhower a closet communist—the administration is defensive about this issue. The political atmosphere is anything but “free” and “open,” and the neoMcCarthyite atmosphere stifles badly needed sensible economic discourse.

What, exactly, is socialism? Karl Marx (1818-1883) conceived of socialism as an inevitable transition period between capitalism and a utopia, called communism, through which government would not be needed, everyone would get what they need, and people would be willing to work to the best of their ability because work would be so personally fulfilling. Others conceived of socialism as some kind of mixed economy having private, public, community, and worker-owned firms. What emerged under the banner of socialism in the twentieth century were a variety of economic and political approaches, from bureaucratic and repressive state regimes in the Soviet Union and China to Scandinavian social democracies (the latter resembling more expansive New Deal programs). To collapse these various and divergent socialist approaches into the conclusion of a “failed socialism,” based on the failure of the Soviet Union, is a bit like saying that because German fascism emerged in a capitalist democracy, capitalist democracy is an extension of “failed fascism.”

Socialism and capitalism have not succeeded or failed—they got married. What did fail are “isms.” Most capitalist countries have characteristics—such as universal, government-provided health coverage and social security—that socialists in Marx’s time would have considered strongly socialist. What happened to the movement for these programs? Race and terror. Socialism was equated with racial integration, and vice versa. Southern leaders said these programs would ruin their “way of life”—which depended on cheap black labor—and said these programs represented “anti-democratic” big government, which had to be fought at all costs. Northern liberals and social democrats acquiesced, allowing racial segregation in projects such as New York City’s Stuyvesant Town, Dixiecrat control of federal social programs in Southern states, and the exclusion of the agriculture industry (comprised of mostly black and Latino workers) from labor protections. Not surprisingly, black support for democratic socialists waned. Then, with social democrats in a weak condition, the Right gained power in Congress and viciously repressed the Left.

It has been politically risky to advocate socialism, in any form, ever since. The national interstate system was funded in 1956 by a program popularly called the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, and promoted as a form of “defense” against the Soviets. The very same highway system was originally conceived in the 1930s by the Roosevelt administration, yet it was then defended in quasi-social democratic terms: to create jobs and strengthen the economy. “Cold War liberals,” for example, supported civil rights and increased federal funding for science and math education not as a social democratic means of improving the economic vitality of the nation, but as a way of countering Soviet influence in the “dark continents” of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and competing with the Soviets in space. Black leaders in the 1960s, afraid of being red-baited, called for a Marshall Plan for American cities, likening this route to Cold War economic discourse about Europe, rather than calling it municipal socialism. It did not matter. The “urban Marshall Plan” proposal was dismissed and soon diverted into cheap fragments—welfare checks and affirmative action—while the black movement was simultaneously repressed through the FBI’s counter-intelligence program.

Also repressed was the nation’s memory that the social democratic approach of building good infrastructure (physically and socially) was good for our economy. Our nation’s infrastructure has been deteriorating ever since. Europe, Japan, and China, for example, have “bullet” trains that go hundreds of miles per hour. But we have Amtrak, offering limited service and topping off at eighty miles per hour. In the absence of a quality rail system, most of us waste many hours per week in traffic. Besides the wear and tear on workers, physically and emotionally, wasting time in traffic is bad economics, reducing productive work hours and time parents can spend with children (our most valuable long-term resource). Instead of building new infrastructure, we have provided tax cuts to the rich, who—with the difference in net worth between the average worker and CEOs having increased tenfold in recent decades—have been buying record numbers of yachts, helicopters, and private planes to get around. What is concerning—in 2011, in the midst of an economic recession—is that we cannot have a national conversation about infrastructure without it being diverted by hysterical and vapid arguments about defending the capitalist way of life. These arguments serve the same function today that arguments about defending the “Southern way of life” did in the 1950s—they appeal to widespread prejudice and ignorance in order to defend narrow elite interests.

The questions the nation needs to consider include: What combinations of public and private investment, and “co-production,” work best for sustainable economic prosperity?; What kinds of social investments produce healthy and inventive producers?; What kinds of regulations prevent corruption while protecting innovation?; and (especially) What kinds of democratic structures encourage enlightened discourse and problem-solving?

A Political Transition Point

The U.S. is at a political transition point shaped by changing demographics, economic recession, and global environmental crisis. A key question for our society is whether our political system will enable participatory and thoughtful problem-solving that will lead to good decisions. Now, a majority of babies born in the U.S. are non-white. Non-whites tend to live in urban areas, and almost all big cities in the U.S. are already majority-minority. A consequence of the demographic shift is that those institutions (especially urban institutions) appealing to rising “minority” populations—be they political parties, unions, or businesses—will be better positioned for growth in the coming decades. How political parties handle the immigration issue, for example, could shape their fortunes in the coming decades. Whether or not the labor movement is seen as an obstacle or a constituent part of this rising minority group’s struggle out of poverty will help determine whether the labor movement grows in the future. Because non-citizen immigrants today cannot vote (historically, many could), the impact of changing demographics has not been fully felt in politics. That, too, will change in the near future, as waves of children having immigrant parents reach voting age. The way the issue of illegal immigration is typically discussed in national politics now—as a law enforcement issue, without consideration of how the U.S.’s history of domination and resource-extraction (or dumping subsidized goods) pushes immigrants away from their home countries—does not bode well for solving the problem.

A second transition is economic. The centers of the world economy are moving East and South—where most humans live. U.S. economic success will increasingly depend on: (a) whether the U.S. produces goods and services valued in the Global South; and (b) the rules of exchange, which can no longer be imposed by the West. This is a bitter pill for many in the West who have a hard time conceiving of, and treating, the “dark continents” as equals. An immediate aspect of the emergence of the “world economy”—dramatic increases in mobility, communications, and exchange—under conditions of “free market” or “neoliberal” capitalism is that workers are put in direct competition globally. Large firms are able to locate manufacturing and many other services in countries where workers live in slave-like conditions. This is an unfortunate “chickens coming home to roost” for the U.S. labor movement, which in decades past supported corporate America’s efforts to suppress anti-colonial democratic movements in the Global South. The best way to address this issue is still to fight for democracy and higher labor standards globally, which would raise consumption in those countries and lessen the practice of dumping cheap goods in wealthier countries. Another approach is protectionism, which would block the U.S. from the very nations we hope to export to in the future. A third approach might be an attempt at a new imperialism. This would be catastrophic, but not beyond the realm of U.S. politics.

A third transition is environmental. Climate change is underway. Without adaption, hundreds of millions of people (mainly in poor countries) are expected to lose their lives during this century, along with enormous losses of wealth in the U.S. and elsewhere. At the same time, natural resources—such as oil—are finite and will diminish as rapid population growth and development worldwide sharply raise the demand for these resources. Making the nation more sustainable at this time of climate change and scarce natural resources requires trillions in investment. On the physical side, we have 55,000 community drinking water systems; 30,000 wastewater treatment and collection facilities; four million miles of roads; 117,000 miles of rail; 11,000 miles of transit lines; 600,000 bridges; 26,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways; 500 train stations; 300 ports; and 19,000 airports. Many of these systems are between fifty and one hundred years old, and have deteriorated. This infrastructure was predicated on cheap and abundant oil—which no longer exists—and needs to be rethought to reduce oil dependency, waste, and wildly excessive costs.

Social Infrastructure

Without training an entire generation to meet these challenges and rebuild the nation, we will not be economically successful. Meeting this challenge requires as much attention to the social infrastructure as to the physical. For example, to truly conserve energy and other precious resources, we need to reverse urban sprawl and attract people to live in urban metropolitan areas. Typical single-family detached houses— exposed to the elements on six sides, located in suburban tract developments isolated from mass transit—will be too costly in future years, as energy prices rise with the disappearance of cheap oil and gas. Yet attracting suburbanites back into cities requires tackling serious social breakdowns in cities: failing schools, high unemployment, and crime. Our national unwillingness to solve these social problems, such as persistent black poverty growing out of historic racism and excessive inequality, is a big part of what produced flight from cities in the first place.

Social inequality played a key role in producing our unsustainably built infrastructure. Now, unsustainably built infrastructures are intensifying social problems. For example, tens of millions of (mainly white) Baby Boomers reaching old age are scattered across the suburbs. They will be living longer due to medical advances, yet many will suffer from multiple chronic illnesses, will be unable to drive (leaving them socially isolated in their houses), and will be in a very low income bracket (outliving their pensions). The social infrastructure needed to take care of this aging group consists largely of homecare workers. Homecare workers are low-paid, are often unable to afford a car, and live in cities or poor suburbs with poor transportation access to patients in wealthier suburbs. They are frequently poorly trained and educated, and often unable (and not allowed) to perform simple medical procedures—such as injecting insulin—that will increasingly be needed by the exploding frail-elderly population. It would make sense for the government to promote “granny unit” housing complexes in urban areas—near public transportation, and medical and social services. It would likewise be prudent to upgrade training and pay for homecare workers. It would similarly make sense for young couples to urbanize to avoid rising energy and transportation costs, as well as to reduce commuting time that could be better spent with children. Yet the elderly and families with children—if they can afford it—tend to avoid cities, and with good reason. If we do not change these dynamics, economic conditions will just get worse. Better planning is needed at all levels, from the local to the national; it is diametrically opposed to deregulation.

A Forward-Looking Program

Rebuilding, and greening, the nation’s infrastructure—social and physical—would represent the most dramatic change in the economy since the Industrial Revolution. It also presents opportunities for expanding wealth and ownership among low-income people on an unprecedented scale. Energy, for example, will be cheaper and more reliable if an upfront investment is made to produce it, at the neighborhood level, using renewable sources of energy (sun, wind, tides, heating/cooling from the earth itself) and clean hydrogen or natural gas generators. Community residents can themselves own and manage these facilities, and reap the rewards (selling energy back to the grid) to fund other community priorities. Lots of jobs can be created to build and maintain energy-efficient systems.

But changes like this will not occur without a movement to discuss ideas, organize communities and interested unions, and push for new public policies and investments. This is not a question of favoring “government” over “the market,” it is a matter of democratizing both. Markets are bundles of rules that set out the terms of exchange among players. Big corporations will attempt to establish rules that benefit themselves. This is the danger of leaving “green” decisions up to corporations. We will not learn about, much less implement, greener and more beneficial alternatives to cars if the process is left up to vested interests like car and oil companies. Shaping the rules and limiting options are also why these corporations are pouring billions into influencing the political process. There is no reason why communities, labor groups, and others cannot establish their own goals for greening the nation (such as rail or job creation, or community reinvestment) and establish market rules that open up the process for greater citizen involvement. With community groups’ and labor’s organizing ability, they might, for example, advocate that communities vote on utility plans. This would democratize the energy market and weaken the power of corporate lobbyists to buy politicians. The energy market would become neither entirely private nor public, but a participatory public-private arena. While any sector of the economy can be made more participatory (or democratic), what makes greening cities so attractive is that energy conservation, water conservation, and other green approaches are “open markets”—the rules are yet to be defined and the dominant players do not yet exist.

To seize the opportunities before us to create good jobs while rebuilding the nation, we need to expand our concept of democracy from electing representatives and monitoring them to monitoring how our “private” investments are managed. The Right makes a political living promising to keep close watch over how government spends citizens’ tax money. But citizens have an equal right to know—and to regulate—how banks, insurance companies, stockbrokers, and pension-fund managers handle their deposits and investments. Citizens’ responsibility to monitor economic institutions in a democracy is rarely taught in high school (or college) civics classes—but it should be. Most citizens do not know what banks or insurance companies do with their money. Even many union leaders do not know where their pension funds are invested. In this environment, it is not surprising that Wall Street found ways to steal—and I do mean steal—spectacular amounts of money. Even in the wake of scandals that nearly caused a national financial collapse, the Right is again, unbelievably, calling for more deregulation. What we need, though, is greater economic literacy and accountability at all levels of society—it is as fundamental to democracy as the right to vote. If we do not have this, our nation’s politics will simply be captured by unaccountable economic elites. Financial “coups” operate through the force of ideas: by arguing that if ordinary citizens cannot understand job creation and economic decisions, should they be left entirely to the private sector?; or by red-baiting alternative ideas. They also operate through funneling money to politicians, buying off opponents rather than killing them as in a military coup. The horse is already out of the barn here. We are in a fight for democracy.

The decline of robust social democracy— and of labor—began with labor’s refusal to fight against racial segregation. Organized labor lost the support of at least ten million African-Americans who, as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others demonstrated, were willing to struggle and sacrifice for this kind of change. The decline of the labor movement can be traced from this point, because without strong black support it could not withstand right-wing counter-mobilizations that restricted and rolled back its gains. Labor is struggling today for its very survival, but it is so internalized that working-class and poor people are looking elsewhere for militant leaders willing to fight for them.

Labor needs allies, which can be found in community organizations, environmental organizations, parents’ groups, and elsewhere. Labor needs a program on how to change the economy, which could involve rebuilding the nation’s social and physical infrastructure, and strengthening our democracy to empower citizens to make economic institutions accountable. But, most of all, labor needs the will to fight.