In “The Sign of Four,” as Sherlock Holmes walked out of 221B Baker Street on a brief excursion to investigate the disappearance of Captain Arthur Morstan, he recommended to Dr. Watson a book that he described as “one of the most remarkable ever penned,” Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. First published in 1872, it is an iconoclastic history of the world that George Orwell described as one of the formative books of his youth. In it, the dutiful Watson could have read Reade’s description of the last days of Rome, a time in which, he said, the emperor and his favorites dined on nightingales and flamingo tongues as their world crumbled.
“Industry is the only true source of wealth,” Reade wrote,
and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought nothing out but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.
And there went Rome.
In an economy where billions are made and lost on the rise and fall of dot.com ventures that have no visible means of support, Reade’s words about the importance of industry, vivid though they are, seem as charmingly outdated as a Sherlock Holmes plot. But the political echoes of his dour analysis can be heard today in the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C., in the populist presidential campaigns of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, and on the floor of the House as the American labor movement and its few remaining allies decry the shift to a postindustrial society.
For American labor, the price of globalization has been the loss of traditional jobs—and consequent declines in labor income—as capital prefers to invest in low-wage countries where government regulation is weak or nonexistent. Most Republicans predictably champion this trend, and labor’s traditional political vehicle, the Democratic Party, also appears to be conniving in capital flight and the hardships it inflicts on a large part of the workforce.
In America’s Forgotten Majority, Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers write that “from 1973 to 1998, in an economy that almost doubled in real terms, the wage of the typical worker in production and nonsupervisory jobs (80 percent of the workforce) actually declined by 6 percent, from $13.61 to $12.77 an hour.”
Trade may not have been the entire cause of the wage decline, but it is a highly visible factor. In Government Works, Professor Milton J. Esman of Cornell University writes:
The openness of American markets to foreign products, including those produced by US-owned firms in low-wage countries, has been a major disincentive to US firms to invest in improving the efficiency and productivity of home-based plants. It has been economically rational for them to abandon US facilities entirely. The loss of manufacturing jobs, in turn, has contributed to the decline in real wages for displaced workers; their replacement jobs in the services sector usually pay less than the manufacturing jobs they have lost.
This cause and effect may be intuitively obvious, but to American working people the linkage seems to have eluded the leaders of their government. President Clinton has used his considerable charms to sell the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China by promising that free trade will mean more and better jobs for American workers. They have not believed him, and for the most part they have been right not to do so.
Instead of personal prosperity, traditional working-class voters get condescending lectures about the virtues of free trade, often couched in language suggesting that anyone who doubts the benefits of globalization is a knuckle-dragging mouth-breather too dim to understand the works of David Ricardo. In postindustrial Washington, Clinton and his favorites (wearing blue jeans to seem folksy) dine not on nightingales but on barbecue at a Democratic National Committee dinner that raises $25.5 million, much of it in $500,000 contributions, for the party that supposedly represents the common man.
Labor leaders boycotted the event to protest the Clinton administration’s support for normal trade relations with China, and also threatened to withdraw support from Democratic congressional candidates. “This is a betrayal,” George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers of America, said of the China vote. Stephen Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers, suggested his union would back Ralph Nader for the presidency rather than Vice President Al Gore.
Clinton’s faith in free trade may eventually prove correct; even now, the working class is just beginning to share in the economic gains of recent years. But in the short run, the Democrats, led by Gore (a far less persuasive salesman than Clinton), are seeking to retain the presidency and win back the House and Senate next November. Working people, their traditional base, do not appear to be especially enthusiastic, and the upper-middle-income suburbanites—“soccer moms”—their new infatuation, seem tempted by George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”
In three of the books under review, there is a warning to Democrats, but one that may not be heeded as the millions of dollars in contributions roll in: though we may be living in a postindustrial society, for Democrats the key to winning elections still lies in serving the interests of members of the working class, providing them with government services that cannot be supplied fairly by the marketplace and restraining the excesses of unfettered capitalism.
Teixeira and Rogers describe a “forgotten majority”—it makes up 55 percent of the voting population—composed not of traditional unionized blue-collar workers, but of white technicians, mid-level office workers, and others without a four-year college education. Its median family income is $42,000 a year. The authors argue that even after decades in which white working-class voters have shifted in varying numbers to George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Ross Perot, Democrats can still win a substantial number of their votes by addressing their concerns: education, job training, child care, and secure retirement programs.
A major reason for the white working-class defection over the years, the authors say, has been the Democrats’ emphasis on noneconomic issues like racial equality, gay rights, and women’s issues at a time when working-class wages were declining. Because of this coincidence, it seemed logical to white men that the gains of others were coming literally at their expense:
Among those whites for whom the post-1973 economic world has generally been hard, the Democratic party has lost its appeal, while among those for whom it’s been something close to a disaster—white men—a complete meltdown in Democratic support levels has occurred…. And with the forgotten majority workers’ own incomes stagnant or declining, they became very reluctant to pay for programs that they didn’t think worked, or worked for everyone but them.
Into this breach leaped the Republican Party, preaching lower taxes, traditional morality, traditional fam-ily relationships, and smaller govern-ment. White men, particularly in the South, deserted the Democratic Party in droves. The party seemed to them more interested in awarding preferences than rewarding hard work, as well as distracted by its liberal social agenda.
But now Teixeira and Rogers point to polling data indicating that the white working class has grown far more tolerant over the years, more willing to live and work alongside blacks, more accepting of different lifestyles. To win them back, the authors say, the Democrats should adopt a strategy that reunites the social values of these voters—e.g., reward for work, a fairer system of affirmative action—with their economic experience, repairing the breach that has occurred since 1973, when their economic decline began.
Even if this means backing away from the emphasis on racial and sexual issues of recent years, Teixeira and Rogers say the Democrats must take the risk of pursuing broader-based appeals to voters: “The best approach to mobilizing the forgotten majority lies in universalist, transracial issues that should have substantial appeal to the Democratic base [i.e, racial minorities and working women] as well.” As an example, Democrats could advocate affirmative action based on class and family income, rather than on race. Poor blacks would still benefit, but so would poor whites. The offspring of upper-middle-class black parents, however, would get no preference over a white rival from a humble background.
Mounting such a campaign is easier said than done. Teixeira and Rogers describe their forgotten class purely in economic terms, and there is very little mention of issues like abortion, school prayer, and gun ownership that have also hurt Democrats among substantial numbers of white working-class voters. On the other hand, to win a national election, Democrats do not need a majority of the forgotten majority’s votes; they simply need to do somewhat better than the current 33 percent or so support that Gore enjoys among it.
Milton Esman, an emeritus professor of international studies at Cornell, plunges into this debate with an attack that is Rooseveltian in its vigor and forthrightness. His book is an eruption of outraged eloquence after what must have been years of frustration over the flaccidity of moderate progressives in the face of a conservative Republican assault on liberal achievements.
“Nothing has been as bizarre in recent political discourse as the appropriation of ‘values’ by the Republican right as they celebrate unrestrained cupidity, self-interest, and social Darwinism at the expense of ordinary citizens,” he writes in a typical sally aimed equally at conservative knavishness and liberal complaisance.
Like Teixeira and Rogers, he believes Democrats have spent energy on noneconomic issues, “such causes as multiculturalism, environmentalism, homosexual rights, and gender equality that appealed to important constituencies but failed to speak to the daily concerns of most workers, consumers, parents, and voters.” In this vacuum, Republican ideologists sold voters on the virtues of low taxes, self-reliance, and minimal government. If Democratic programs were not aimed at helping ordinary people, there was no reason for ordinary people to support Democrats.
Republicans were able to portray the entire array of Democratic governmental programs as simply the work of busybodies—Hillary Clinton is their most visible current example—who enjoy expanding government for its own sake. At the turn of a new century, few young people can imagine why there was ever a need for Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, federal wage and hour laws (now widely ignored), a federally underwritten welfare program, environmental protection, affirmative action, banking and securities regulation, consumer protection, and public defenders.
Esman reminds us why these programs were enacted in the first place and why they (or most of them) are still essential:
In an integrated and globalized economy such as ours, only the federal government is equipped to check abuses of concentrated economic power; to protect unorganized consumers, investors, depositors, and workers; and to safe-guard the environment and our patrimony of natural resources…. The United States has become economically and culturally “one nation, indivisible.” The abuse of concentrated economic power and of unregulated business practices are national in scope, with national consequences that can be dealt with only by regulation that is national in coverage.