• Chuck Schumer and the Democrats' Identity Crisis: Economic Policy vs. Rhetoric

    Dec 22, 2014Richard Kirsch

    A populist message won't be enough to save the Democratic Party if its leaders continue to serve Wall Street.

    A populist message won't be enough to save the Democratic Party if its leaders continue to serve Wall Street.

    Two weeks before New York Senator Charles Schumer once again delivered for Wall Street with the omnibus budget deal, he gave a major speech in which he sounded like a progressive champion. Schumer offered a stirring defense of government as the only force that can stand up to the private sector’s attack on the middle class, and argued that for Democrats to “roll to victory in 2016... First, we must convince Americans that government can be on their side and is not just a tool of special interests.”

    Schumer is not just any Democrat. He led the successful election efforts for Democratic senators in 2006 and 2008, is number three in the Democratic Senate leadership, where he is responsible for policy and communications, and he sits on several of the most powerful Senate committees. His speech at the National Press Club on November 25 was billed as a major analysis of why Democrats did so badly in the midterms and how they should chart a path to victory in 2016.

    Unfortunately, Schumer embodies the contradictions that will tear the Democratic Party apart over the next two years. He understands the need to embrace a populist, progressive narrative and program, but his ties to Wall Street and big money lead him to blunt any real moves by Democrats to take a bold stand for working people against corporate power.

    The budget proposal to allow more government bailouts of banks that gamble with their depositors’ money was a huge lost opportunity for Democrats to paint Republicans as being on the side of the big banks that wrecked the economy. That opportunity was negated by President Obama’s pushing for the budget and Senator Schumer’s stealth maneuvers (widely known in Congress) to keep the Wall Street deal intact. As a result, the leaders of both parties demonstrated, as they’ve done before, that government is in fact on the side of the rich and powerful.

    Schumer knows that this is a problem if Democrats hope to win at the polls. While his speech at the National Press Club got a lot of attention for his negative comments about the President’s strategy on the Affordable Care Act, those remarks were only a small part of a long analysis that has a lot in common with progressive views of the economy and the role of government. Some highlights:

    The most salient factor in our political economy is that for the first time in American history, middle-class incomes have been in decline for over a decade… The powerful have much more access and influence over government and specific and strong actions must be taken to curb that influence so government can really represent the average person… We must illustrate that government can provide solutions by delineating specific concrete programs that if enacted would actually improve lives and incomes… We must convince the middle class that the only way out of their morass is by a stronger and effective government, not by demeaning or running from it…

    When large forces harness power and push you around, you need a large after force to stand up to -- to stand up for you. The only force that can give you the tools to stand up to the large tectonic forces that can mitigate the effects that technology creates on your income is an active and committed government that is on your side.

    Schumer highlights the same key economic fact that progressives emphasize: wages have not kept up with productivity. But it is in his explanation of what is behind stagnant wages that he departs from progressives. For Schumer, “it can be described in one word -- technology. Technology allows capital to garner [a] far greater share of increases.” He goes on to note globalization as another factor.

    Schumer leaves out the powerful political forces that drove down wages. The biggest omission is his total failure to discuss the role of Wall Street in wrecking the economy and, more broadly, in driving down wages at the expense of corporate profits. Schumer, who as much as anyone in government is responsible for unleashing Wall Street is incapable of making that case. Schumer, a leading champion of banking deregulation, has collected more than $20 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector, more than any other senator who hasn’t run for president.

    And it’s not just Wall Street that Schumer leaves out of the story. It is also the corporate attack on labor unions and on labor standards.  He makes no mention of the slashing of taxes on unearned income, so that the rich pay lower taxes than the rest of us, or of the gutting of corporate tax collection. Where are the corporate villains – abetted by both political parties – who have enriched themselves at the expense of American families while driving down taxes and government investment in the public structures that are foundations of a powerful economy?

    Schumer emphasizes that Democrats need a policy program to go along with their message of being on the side of the middle class, but he punts on what ideas they should propose, saying, “In the coming weeks and months we will have this debate within the Democratic Party.” Still, he declares that the Democratic program must be “attainable and effective, which means they must work politically.” That’s a recipe for more small-bore ideas, which will neither meet the big challenges facing the country nor inspire people.

    In his conclusion, Schumer again asserts that what can unite Democrats “from Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton to Joe Manchin” is working to “convince middle-class Americans that we are the party that will put government back on their side… and passing legislation that is effective and acutely focused on reversing the middle class decline.”

    Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell famously said, “Watch what we do, not what we say.” But in today’s world of minute-to-minute coverage and social media, that isn’t so easy to pull off. CREDO Action, one of the big progressive netroots groups, immediately called out Schumer, along with President Obama and other Democrats who enabled the Wall Street budget deal.

    Schumer is a brilliant politician and legislative tactician, but the reality of the corporate attack on American workers will overwhelm any messaging gloss that Democrats can put on it. He’s right; Democrats will have to take sides between working families and the middle class or the super-rich and CEO campaign contributors. 

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

    Image via Shutterstock

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  • Ten Years: Students Moving the Country Forward

    Dec 18, 2014Taylor Jo Isenberg

    After ten years of engaging young people in the political process, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network continues to push for a system that works for all of us.

    In an email to peers at Stanford University students on November 4, 2004, a student attempted to turn the tide on the malaise setting in after a disappointing election night for progressives. He captured the sentiment of the moment:

    After ten years of engaging young people in the political process, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network continues to push for a system that works for all of us.

    In an email to peers at Stanford University students on November 4, 2004, a student attempted to turn the tide on the malaise setting in after a disappointing election night for progressives. He captured the sentiment of the moment:

    Elections are a great time to shape the future of our country, but democracy is not something that happens every four years. We have a lot of work to do … we need to figure out how to explain what we care about in a coherent and convincing way, we need to develop a leadership network to match the conservatives of the next generation, and we need to keep public officials accountable to the issues that brought us all in.

    In a follow-up email, he boiled it down to one simple statement: "I'm seeing a student-run think tank that will reinvigorate mainstream politics with a new generation's ideas."

    In one of those rare occurrences that indicate that people might be on to something, others were incubating a similar concept. Two friends at Middlebury and Bates also felt compelled to respond to the political moment, and articulated their initial thoughts on a "think tank that unites college students across America under one political agenda aimed at taking back our democracy." Something similar was taking shape at Yale University.

    The rest of the story is Roosevelt lore – the late nights, cross-country recruiting trips, the passionate debates about how best to position the organization to effectively elevate young people as a source for powerful ideas capable of policy change.

    Yet what makes this particular story potent is that, ten years later, we celebrate not only that vision, but also today's reality. Thousands of students over the past ten years have worked tirelessly to actualize the initial vision that emerged from a bleak moment in our political history. We’ve published 600+ policy solutions that have been read over half a million times; trained thousands on how to challenge the fundamentals of our social, political, and economic systems; and catapulted young people as civic actors into key debates on the policy challenges of our day. Most importantly, the list of student and chapter successes on the ground is staggering in its breadth and depth of examples where young people have taken active ownership of their communities to bring about solutions with meaningful impact.

    As a proud Roosevelter, I think we have much to celebrate. We took a few days last week to elevate our work in Washington, DC – a celebration that included a conversation with Representative Rosa DeLauro and members of Congress on how to look to best practices from Roosevelt’s model to effectively engage a new generation in policy and politics, a discussion on the Campus Network’s next ten years, and presentations at the White House featuring our student’s policy work. And of course, we hosted a party for 190+ alumni and supporters (a rockin’ one, according to keynote speaker Jared Bernstein).

    Ten years is also a moment to look towards our future. It’s been a common refrain around our office and with our members that there are some unsettling parallels between the post-election reality ten years ago and the one we face today. Distrust of institutions is on the rise, policy priorities with high public support are thwarted by special interests, and our debate is seriously deprived (with a few exceptions) of a vision for what our country can build towards. We’re still in need of a shake up. The upside? Where things are happening, it’s often led or heavily supported by young people – from the ballot initiatives in the 2014 election to the sustained demand for accountability in our justice system.

    It’s no secret that the political establishment is perplexed about young people. The media haphazardly jumps between two narratives, unable to decide if we’re self-absorbed, naïve and complacent in the face of our economic future, or the most civically minded quiet do-gooders since the Greatest Generation. Yet many of the major civic and political organizations are struggling with declining membership numbers. It’s not unheard of for organizations to develop “Millennial engagement strategies” to combat this problem.

    We think the answer pretty simple: it’s about institutions and systems embracing the shifts instead of fearing them. From the moment they walk through the door, our members are asked to be a part of building something as equals. They’re given the tools to be the architects – and are instantly connected to a network of peers who support them. In a political system more interested in managing young people than tapping into their ingenuity and energy, Roosevelters come to us because they see the limitations of traditional pathways of engagement. As a result, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network has remained a network that evolves and shifts as our students lead the way.

    We aren’t, of course, the only ones – there is a vibrant ecosystem of organizations and movements that are also innovating and responding to the changing ways people of all ages are expressing their priorities. We could not be more proud of our alumni who have gone on to lead, participate in, and learn from these efforts.

    Our successes also beg the question – what does this mean for the next ten years? How do we continue to amplify our strengths and evolve to reflect the moment, opportunities, and risks? That’s the conversation we’re having next – a conversation we want our alumni and supporters to be a part of. In 2015, the Roosevelt Institute will introduce our Alumni Network, which will focus on how to strengthen the Roosevelt community and its potential to influence social and economic priorities. If we are to respond to the call for an economic and democratic system that works for this century, it is going to take all of us.

    It is now a Campus Network tradition to close any major convening or retreat with a passage from Jean Edward Smith’s FDR. It narrates President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepting the nomination at the 1936 Democratic National Convention. It’s a famous speech, most notably for his “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny” quote. We start reading a little earlier – Smith sets the stage, with the country emerging from the worst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt walks to the platform on the arm of his son James. Smith details a powerful moment, where the President sees the poet Edwin Markham, author of Man with a Hoe, reaches out to greet him, and stumbles and falls. People rush to snap his braces back into place. He then proceeds to give the speech, which puts forward uncompromising and substantive statements on political and economic equality. It’s resolute, forceful, and clear – there are wrongs we must right, power that needs to be rebalanced, problems to be solved by the people.

    I hope that our members take two things away from the passage. First, that every individual can’t do it alone. Second, that it is possible to stand for something that upsets the current balance of power – and to see the country move forward as a result. It’s a valuable reminder today, when all seems hopeless in the face of stagnation and entrenchment.

    As we look to the next ten years, that’s the question Roosevelters will continue to ask, and will eventually answer. What do we stand for, and how will we move this country forward?

    Taylor Jo Isenberg is the Vice President of Networks at the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • The Budget Fight Was the First Skirmish in the War for the Soul of the Democratic Party

    Dec 12, 2014Richard Kirsch

    Democrats had the leverage to nix a deal that opens the door to more Wall Street bailouts, but they caved in to Republican blackmail.

    Progressives lost the battle over the budget last night because President Obama and a minority of Democrats took the side of Wall Street. It is the first of many losses we will see in the next two years as Republicans relentlessly pursue their corporate agenda. The bigger question is whether progressives will lose the war in the Democratic Party.

    Democrats had the leverage to nix a deal that opens the door to more Wall Street bailouts, but they caved in to Republican blackmail.

    Progressives lost the battle over the budget last night because President Obama and a minority of Democrats took the side of Wall Street. It is the first of many losses we will see in the next two years as Republicans relentlessly pursue their corporate agenda. The bigger question is whether progressives will lose the war in the Democratic Party.

    Blowing up this budget deal should have been easy for Democrats. They were handed a perfect message: the Republicans are willing to shut down the government so they can bail out Wall Street the next time it wrecks the economy.

    Democratic votes were needed because a group of 67 right-wing Republicans opposed the bill on the grounds that it did not go far enough in opposing the president’s executive order on immigration. The Republican split gave Democrats the leverage to demand that the bank bail-out provision be stripped from the bill.

    But with President Obama twisting enough Democratic arms (57 in total) to give in to the Wall Street-engineered Republican blackmail, that powerful, winning message was diluted.

    Democratic negotiators also agreed to the deal to repeal a provision of the Dodd-Frank law that prevents government bailouts of banks who engage in a form of risky trading. Their argument was “Republicans made us do it; it’s the best we could do.” But of course, with all the Wall Street money going to Democrats, that’s a convenient excuse. They can turn around and wink at the lobbyists who deliver Wall Street campaign contributions, playing a game in which the dupes are the American people.

    The bailout of banks and Wall Street speculators remains deeply and broadly unpopular. It is an issue that generates anger among grassroots activists on the left and the right. For Americans who see Wall Street billionaires getting richer by gaming the system while families struggle to meet the basics, there could be no clearer contrast.

    Progressive Democrats fought back. In a rapid-fire display of the energy and nimbleness of progressive organizations and champions in Congress, the deal was quickly exposed.

    Senator Elizabeth Warren laid it out clearly on the Senate floor: “We put this rule in place because people of all political persuasions were disgusted at the idea of future bailouts… Republicans in the House of Representatives are threatening to shut down the government if they don’t get a chance to repeal it.”

    In the House, progressive Democrats joined the call. California Rep. Maxine Waters, the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, said, “We don't like lobbying that is being done by the president or anybody else that would allow us to support a bill that ... would give a big gift to Wall Street and the bankers who caused this country to almost go into a depression.”

    The vigorous pushback from progressive groups and their allies in Congress convinced Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to break with the White House. Pelosi said that they were being “blackmailed” to vote for the bill, which she called “a moral hazard.” Still, Pelosi did not use her considerable powers of persuasion to get fellow Democrats to vote no.

    For the next two years we will see Republicans do everything they can to deliver for corporate America at the expense of the American people. The only question is whether Democrats will enable them. Will President Obama continue to make compromise after compromise? Will Democrats in the Senate use the filibuster to block the Republican attack on working families? Will enough Democrats in the House keep coming to the rescue of a divided Republican Party?

    We will see the same fight in the Democratic primary for president. Will Hillary Clinton break from the Wall Street wing of the party with which she aligned as a senator from New York? Will her challengers make the same sharp contrast that Senator Warren did, when she began her speech on the Senate floor by asking, “Who does Congress work for? Does it work for the millionaires, the billionaires, the giant companies with their armies of lobbyists or lawyers? Or does it work for all the people?”

    As I wrote after the election last month, Democrats who used a populist economic message – who named the corporate villains and declared that “we all do better when we all do better” – won. Democrats who ran to the mushy middle lost.

    But this is not just a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, it’s a fight for our very democracy. As Justice Louis Brandeis said almost a century ago, “We may have a democracy or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

    Americans are yearning for champions who stand up for them. If we have any hope of changing the direction of our economy from enriching the rich at the expense of the rest of us and of recapturing our democracy from the CEO campaign contributors and Wall Street bag men, it will be because progressive forces and elected champions stand up not just to Republicans but to President Obama and any Democrat who takes the side of Wall Street against America’s working families.

    It is clear that progressives and the American people will lose battle after battle in Congress over the next two years. The real question is whether we will lose the war. 

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 66: How Do We Make the Promise a Reality?

    Dec 10, 2014Ariel SmilowitzMonika Johnson

    Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

    Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

    Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

    Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

    These questions are indelibly inked into the fabric of our economy, society, and political system. Following World War II and the creation of the United Nations, the UDHR represented “the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.” Championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the widely accepted manifesto built upon the work of her husband, who famously declared that worldwide democracy should be founded upon four essential freedoms.

    This primordial soup of rights-based ideology and dialogue resulted in the birth of the United Nations, and subsequently a handful of substantial treaties, frameworks, and guiding principles for our quest to define and maintain human rights globally.  

    However, after decades of debate, we have yet to answer the ultimate question: who is responsible for ensuring this productive discourse is transformed into tangible action? Earlier this year, political scientist Stephen Hopgood proclaimed that we have reached “the end of human rights.” Hopgood argued that despite successful recognition of all human beings’ moral equivalence (no minor feat), little has been done to meld regional differences in interpretation and practice. In other words, our attempts to answer the critical question of implementation -- whether through international declarations like the UDHR, conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the creation of the UN Human Rights Council -- have fallen short.

    As we reflect on the anniversary of the UDHR, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider and expand our approach toward human rights. Leaders of the classical human rights movement envisioned a world in which governments agreed on and multilaterally implemented a set of principles. Since that time, we have witnessed immense globalization, putting civil and political rights at odds with economic and social ones while introducing a set of new players, including multinational enterprise.

    Consequently, these conventions, declarations, and institutions are not fully equipped to enforce human rights at every level of society. It is necessary for us to be inclusive of all influencers, including the private sector, non-state actors, and other organizations and groups, in order to truly realize a society in which every person can fulfill his or her full potential -- the dream of FDR’s progressivism and Eleanor’s Declaration of Human Rights.

    Beyond Institutions: Global Enterprise and Human Rights

    If governments and international institutions are unable to police human rights at every level, non-state actors must accept responsibility for integrating dignity into their practices. While vast ground remains to be covered, many companies are taking the lead on assessing their spheres of influence and ensuring their profits do not come at the expense of the choices and livelihoods of others.

    One such company is Carlson, a corporation in the hotel and travel industries that works to stop human trafficking crimes. According to the International Labor Organization, 14.2 million people are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities worldwide. Despite 90 percent of countries enacting legislation criminalizing human trafficking under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, it persists as tragic but preventable collateral damage of everyday economic and social activity.

    Upon realizing that traffickers regularly use the hospitality industry to transport victims, Carlson used the valuable information provided by UNODC to be part of a solution. Now, they train their employees to recognize and report trafficking and have partnered with the State Department to educate travelers on the sexual exploitation of children.

    For Ford Motor Company, being a more responsible business wasn’t as simple. Forced labor was buried deep in its supply chain, far from Detroit in Brazil’s charcoal mines, which provide an ingredient in steel production. When slave labor was exposed there in 2006, Ford was purchasing pig iron made from refined charcoal and using it in Cleveland to manufacture cars sold nationwide. The company took action to halt the use of pig iron and ensure its supply chain procured materials responsibly. Today, it collaborates with the State Department, the ILO, and the Brazilian National Pact to eradicate forced labor and improve transparency in manufacturing.

    Like Ford’s model, supply chain innovation offers an opportunity for rising leaders to use the economic influence of private business to impact human rights. Both of these companies leveraged their own success to help solve a global problem. They confronted their spheres of influence and were willing to work with partners to develop solutions.

    Similarly, Unilever, the maker of products including Dove soap and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, partnered with Oxfam in 2013 on a supply chain analysis of its operations in Vietnam. The partners sought to better understand the implications of the UN Framework for Business and Human Rights and Global Compact Principles on global companies, and to improve conditions for thousands of workers along their manufacturing chain. Oxfam discovered that while Unilever was committed to high labor standards, policies ran only skin deep; Vietnamese managers were not equipped to implement them and lacked internal reporting mechanisms for violations.

    Oxfam dissected Unilever’s business practices and concluded that while Unilever still had a long way to go, its positive corporate culture and long-term relationships with suppliers make it well positioned to confront the root causes of labor problems and authentically attempt to solve them.

    Unilever, Ford, and Carlson did not sacrifice profits or shareholder obligations. Instead, they participated in a global conversation on human rights -- one aggregated by the UN Global Compact -- and underscored the importance of effective, cross-sector collaboration to reform their own practices.

    A New Legacy for Our Generation

    Each of these entities demonstrates the many spheres of influence at play in the pursuit of full human rights and dignity for all. What if every company took the same initiative to understand the social repercussions of its actions?

    We need to rethink human rights by recognizing the power of our own choices upon others. Everyone is responsible for upholding human rights, whether as a part of your day job or as a member of a community. Seemingly benign actions -- how much you pay your employees or which charities you support -- are manifestations of your own unique interpretation of what dignity and rights mean.  

    The UN, NGOs, and other global institutions have provided a priceless platform for dialogue on human rights. Without the consensus-building mechanisms they provide, there would be no Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no “naming and shaming” of human rights abusers, and no coordinated effort to stop the world’s cruelest atrocities.

    And yet, as we continue our efforts to avert the "end of human rights," what will our own generation's legacy of implementation be? As this generation rises to power in public and private leadership roles, those at decision-making tables across the spectrum will have an opportunity to think critically about their own actions. The foundation and forums, from the UDHR to the UN Global Compact, certainly exist. Now, it’s up to us to ensure a future in which human rights are celebrated not only at the institutional level, but at a more personal, human level as well.

    Ariel Smilowitz is a senior at Cornell University majoring in Government and the Northeast Regional Policy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

    Monika Johnson is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Alumni Advisory Committee.

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