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Building A Progressive Coalition

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j ur recent effort to unseat Cari Pursell demonstrated the strength of the Central America solidarity movement within Ann Arbor and the 2nd district. It also opened the way to establishing coalitions with other progressive organizations. At a time when the general course of politics in the country is shifting sharply towards the right, t is essential that we attempt to make use of these openings in order to put together a coalition that can provide a real alternative to Reaganism. First of all, it is essential for progressives to realize how intense the rightward drift over the last few years has been. Over the last several years taxes for the rich have been cut by approximately one third. Welfare and other payments for the poor have been reduced by comparable amounts after adjusting for inflation. For the first time in recent years, workplaces are getting more dangerous as health and safety hazards are routinely ignored. Corporations routinely practice union busting tactics or ignore aspects of contracts which they find unfavorable, since the courts and national labor relations board have little interest in protecting the rights of workers. In addition to the massive redistribution of wealth from lower and middle income groups to the rich, there has also been a major shift in what is considered the responsibility of government. In the 70s Gerald Ford was willing to talk about limited forms of national healthcare insurance that would cover people suffehng from catastrophic llnesses. Now, it would be virtually impossible to find anyone prominent in national politics advocating national health-care. While n the past there was some commitment on the part of government to provide for the education of children and to make college affordable, ín recent years this commitment has become somewhat of a joke, as the quality of education in many schools has sunk to abysmally low levéis. Now instead of making college affordable, the state is committed to paying for college for those fortúnate enough to have parents who could put $3,000 aside when their children were born. The individual retirement accounts set up by Reagan were meant to be a similar retrenchment in government commitments, as the government would subsidize the retirements of individuals who could put money into IRAs, but then make cuts in social security for those who were not so fortúnate. Even on the issue of employment itself there has been a major retreat. We have been seeing levéis of unemployment that would have been viewed as catastrophic just 15 years ago, that the media barely even seems to notice today. The government's official commitment to maintain high levéis of employment is taken about as seriously as Reagan's latest alibi in the Contragate scandal. The fact that the policies of the last several years have redistributed wealth upwards should not be surprising, since that is exactly what they were designed to do. This upward redistribution was supposed to be justified by the fact that it would lead to more economie growth and thereby make everyone better off. Halfway through the second term of the Reagan administration it's clear that in fact these policies did not lead to growth; our growth rate has been at the lowest levéis since the depression.AII they have done is to give moneytotherich. Unfortunately, as the unequivocal failure of the Reagan administration's economie policies becomes ever more apparent, and as its foreign policy unravels in a sea of lies and perjured testimony, many Democrats appear all to eager to piek up the cause. The disastrous policies of the Reagan administration are now the received truths of the up and coming "neoliberals". According to the neo-liberals, we are all supposed to recognize the limits of the government's ability to meet social needs and the power of the unfettered market as an engine for economie growth. These neo-liberal Democrats promise further attacks on social programs and labor and more creativo ways to redistribute wealth to the rich. Neo-liberal Democrats feel comfortable making such appeals not because they actually believe such policies work (although some may actually be that gnorant of economics and recent history), but because they no longer feel any obligation to minorities, unions or the poor (the traditional electoral strength of the party). Instead they offer a watered down version of Reaganism to wealthier segments of society. They are confident that the party's traditional constituencies will remain loyal, because they will have nowhere else to go. As the neo-liberals attempt to set the agenda for the Democratie party, it will offer new opportunities for progressives since we can offer a real alternative to Reagan. The sort of mass involvement that we've been able to bring about n the Central America solidarity movement and the congressional campaign is a real forcé that exists independently of the money of the rich, and can be applied effectively in electoral politics and elsewhere. This force can be built upon if we can lay our policies and programs that answer to the Democratie party's traditional constituencies. A central feature of any such program would be an abandonment of the ideal of free trade, to be replaced by the notion that the economy should meet the needs of the people, not vice-versa. This point is particularly important because it has become the accepted logic that workers are going to have to accept lower wages and more unpleasant working conditions if the United States' products are going to become competitive again in world markets. What l'm proposing is that rather than depress living and working conditions in this country to third world levéis, we simply decide that we dont have to compete. The notion that we enjoy some particular virtue by engaging in free trade is a pernicious superstition possessing extraordinary endurance, but remarkable little substance. The movement away from free trade is one that makes sense both from the standpoint of the nation as a whole, and from those constituencies with whom we have the best chance of allying ourselves. A couple of examples could Ilústrate this point more clearly. Given current levéis of unemployment, a reduction in the workweek to 35 hours would be a desirable way to reduce unemployment. Such a move would not be reaiistic, however, without an increase in hourly wages to compénsate workers for shorter hours. As long as we have to be concerned about foreign competition, raising wages would not be possible in many industries. It would simply put firms out of business. If domestically produced goods had some protection, then the obstacles to wage increases would be less significant. Another area where protection from foreign competition coukj very clearly allow for progressivs change would be in the establishment of more stringent environmental regulations. Currently firms often evade regulations by claiming that more stringent enforcement would put them at a disadvantage with foreign competition. Again, there is clearly some truth to the claim, but f the threat of foreign competition is removed, then there is little reason why stricter 'andards could not be enforced. There are many other areas where the threat of foreign competition has slowed or prevented progressive change form being instituted. Arguing for protection does not mean that all forms of protection are equally appropriate or desirable. Clearly it is possible to design policies that minimize the disruption to the countries that export to the United States and that maximize the extent that we gain from the trade that we engage in. Rather than making the case for protection or the best type of protection here, I would just claim that protection itself can remove one of the major roadblocks to progressive change. A second desirable side effect of protecting domestic industry is that it will strengthen those constituencies that are most likely to back progressive change. By strengthening unions and raising income levéis for families at the lower end of the income scale, we can expect that those likely to support progressive change will play a more active role in politics. One of the effects of Reaganism has been to economically undermine the more progressive segments of the population. Not only have unions been weakened, but many households that were formerly middle class or working class have sunk into poverty, and are now far less likely to take part in politics, even to the extent of voting. While there is no guarantee that these people will be progressive if they re-enter the politica! sphere, recent polls have been remarkably consistent in showing a direct link between increasing income levéis and conservative political perspectives. As far as unions are concerned, they have certainly not always been on the progressive side of every issue, but t is extremely difficult to think of any important piece of legislation that would have passed without the support of organized labor. Antipoverty programs as well as government funding for education, housing and healthcare have all been promoted primarily by organized labor. It is reasonable to believe that a reinvigorated labor movement would be a powerful forcé for further advances in these areas.