In 2015, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg advised Hillary Clinton to run on a promise to “level the playing field” and “rewrite the rules of the economy.” She didn’t take his advice. Instead, she told voters she would “build on the progress” of the Obama administration and “create ladders of opportunity.”
Professors like me, who get to speak in full paragraphs all the time, can easily dismiss campaign slogans as superficial and manipulative. But they are organizing principles that can align basic vision with both policy proposals and organizing strategies. These two slogans still reflect two possible organizing principles for the Democratic Party in 2019-20. Biden wants to build on Obama’s progress, and Sanders and Warren aim to rewrite the rules of the economy, boldly addressing our runaway inequality of income and wealth. Like Greenberg four years ago, I believe that candidates who articulate a broad left-populist approach will be more electable in 2020. And as we face a future filled with peril, they are the only leaders who can govern in a way that could repair our toxic race and class dynamics.
Greenberg skewers the “build on the progress” trope by showing how many people didn’t see any progress during Obama’s eight years, both in the economic data and in what people told him in surveys and focus groups. He thinks this slogan actually moved some people to vote for Trump, who in 2016 seemed to many to be the one offering some hope and change. Greenberg predicts that Trump will hang himself on the same trope next year, if he isn’t impeached and removed from office before then.
But I think it’s the second part of Clinton’s 2016 message that reflects the real problem: there’s an important difference between aspiring to “ladders of opportunity” versus “leveling the playing field.” The first emphasizes equality of opportunity, while the second is about equality of condition. Equality of opportunity aims to give everybody an equal chance to climb a ladder to get one of the limited number of spots on a playing field that is severely titled by race, gender, and class. Equality of condition is about getting everybody on a level playing field, not necessarily in equally desirable spots but with some substantial narrowing of the best and worst spots and with the worst spots being adequate for a decent and meaningful life.
To get anything close to equality of opportunity, we would have to vote to take away the huge opportunity advantages currently enjoyed by most of the professional middle class. This is a large group of people and they vote a lot, so no politician will either promise to or do what’s necessary, no matter how much they talk about equality of opportunity in the abstract.
To get close to equality of condition, on the other hand, requires rewriting the rules of the economy by fairly taxing the rich and then greatly expanding social wages – i.e., reducing everybody’s monthly expenses by using tax revenue to subsidize health care, housing, child care, mass transportation, and education. To finance the expansion of social wages to scale, it’s helpful that a relatively small group of people now have most of our money. They vote with dollars as well as ballots, but there aren’t very many of them, and as both Sanders and Warren have shown, we can get an enormous amount of money from the outrageously rich while leaving them still very rich.
While equal opportunity is the primary solution and goal for historically marginalized and discriminated-against groups like African-Americans and women, it’s no solution at all for class inequality – and especially not for the top-heavy kind we now have in the U.S. Having an equal chance to get one of the limited number of spots at the top would still leave most people struggling with poor to mediocre incomes and working conditions. What’s more, there is no way to achieve equal opportunity unless everybody starts out with some level of equality of condition.
Let’s take jobs, for example. The equal-opportunity solution is for individuals to get a good education (even if they have to go into $100,000 of debt to get it) so they can then get one of those good professional or managerial jobs in the “knowledge economy.” Problem is there are not enough of those good jobs for this to work for many people. Professional and managerial positions, not all of which would count as “good jobs,” represent about two-fifths of all jobs, and the incomes and conditions of the other three-fifths are mostly insufficient and declining in real terms.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest projection, that is not going to change in the future. In fact, if anything, it’s going to get worse. Of the top 20 occupations estimated to have the largest job growth in the next ten years, the six lowest-paid jobs – five of them with median wages below the poverty level for a family of four – account for the majority of the new jobs. Fourteen of the top 20 occupations make less than the national median wage of $47,000, and those 14 will account for more than three-fourths of job growth. Nine of those occupations have medians of less than $30,000 and would thus benefit from a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour. Those nine occupations account for nearly 60% of all the jobs produced by the top 20. They include food preparation and serving; personal care aides; home health aides; waiters and waitresses; janitors and cleaners; restaurant cooks; laborers and material movers; nursing assistants; and landscaping workers. These are the primary jobs of the future. They do not require college educations. They are not part of the knowledge economy, except that they are the people who feed, clean, beautify, and care for knowledge workers when we’re not working.
No matter how much equal opportunity we achieve, somebody has to do these jobs. These people are doing work that needs to be done. It would be great if we could equalize educational opportunity for their children, but they need higher incomes now, unions to represent them now, and social wages that can dramatically reduce their household expenses now.
Most of the rest of the workforce also needs those things, if not as urgently and dramatically as low-wage workers, and what’s more, they know it. As a Vox headline reported earlier this year, “taxing the rich is very popular; it’s Republicans who have the radical position.” And while the concept of social wages is not yet part of our public discourse, individual elements of it are also popular. Majorities may not be for totally eliminating private health insurance in four years, as Sanders and Warren propose, but very large majorities support various forms of expanded public health insurance like “Optional Medicare-for-all” and “Medicaid buy-in.” Likewise, “two-thirds of Americans favor raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.” Even larger majorities support paid family leave, greatly expanded government spending on child care and early learning, and large increases in infrastructure spending, though a somewhat smaller majority support the Green New Deal.
On these and some related issues, public opinion is what the mainstream media calls “far left,” and the public is unified on these issues across race and class. Even the white working class, the mainstay of the current Republican Party, basically agrees with the black working class and the Hispanic working class on these social-wage issues, as do majorities of college-educated folks of all races. Democrats who run on these issues will beat Trump or any other Republican, and they will be positioned to govern us out of our current morass. Democrats need to make a big promise and then organize like hell to achieve it. Building on “progress” that most people haven’t seen for 30 or 40 years won’t do it. It’s time to level the playing field and rewrite the rules of the economy.
Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago. A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered (Temple 2000).