The American Prospect
January 20, 2005
The Democratic National Committee will meet in February to choose a new party chairman. There is more jockeying than usual, with debates about whether the party should move left or right, hawk or dove, spiritual or secular, populist or what.
Here's an instructive story you (and many national Democratic leaders) may have missed:
President Bush carried Florida handily last November. But there was something else on the Florida ballot that got little national attention -- an initiative to raise the state minimum wage to $6.15 an hour.
The initiative was put on the ballot by the community organizing group ACORN and a coalition of unions, MoveOn, and others with 975,000 signatures. The minimum wage initiative was opposed by nearly all Republicans and business groups.
Not only did the initiative win by a stunning 72 to 28 percent; it won in every single Florida county, even rock-ribbed Bush territory.
The Kerry campaign, hooked to a relentless message that the candidate had to identify with "the middle class," rejected overtures from the organizers and did not get involved. If Kerry had vigorously championed this campaign, the outcome in Florida and nationally might have been different.
Well, $6.15 an hour, you are probably thinking. How many Americans are paid that little? And is it really smart to identify with the working poor at the risk of alienating the middle class?
But that's a false choice. For all the years of its ascendancy, the Democratic Party appealed to both groups. For the middle class it represented the prospect of security and opportunity. For the poor the party stood for the aspiration to become middle class.
The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 7 million workers would benefit from a hike in the federal minimum wage to $6.65 an hour, and 10.5 million more workers would benefit indirectly as wage scales moved up generally.
The federal minimum wage, incidentally, was once worth about $8 an hour in purchasing power, compared to its current paltry $5.15.
In Florida, where millions of workers are stuck in lousy jobs in retailing, agriculture, and routine service occupations with little job security and no health benefits, it's clear that something very important happened. Most of the 72 percent of the voters who supported the ballot initiative make more than minimum wage. But a great many of them must be concerned with economic insecurity for themselves, their neighbors, and their children.
According to ACORN, the minimum wage initiative will give a full-time worker a $2,000 annual raise and will produce a total of $400 million in purchasing power for lower-income Floridians. Remember, these are people not on the dole. The measure also indexes the Florida minimum wage to inflation.
Why can't the Democratic Party grasp that there are tens of millions of voters (many of them actually dispirited nonvoters) who would be moved by a candidate and a message that credibly addressed their concerns?
One reason is that many of the people whom party leaders spend most time with -- affluent donors and party professionals -- can't really imagine that close to 20 million Americans would get an instant raise if there were a higher minimum wage. Other than domestic help, they might never have met anyone who earns $5.15 an hour.
Many party pollsters and tacticians also seem to have a hard time grasping that it's possible to be both for the poor and for the middle class, to be both for a strong America and to believe that Bush's Iraq policy is a strategic disaster, to champion both better economic opportunity and a better national security policy. Isn't this the party that is supposed to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time?
George W. Bush has been dismal for low-income working Americans. Under his presidency, wages have stagnated, job insecurity has worsened, and once-good jobs have fallen victim to outsourcing. Any opposition party worth its name would be shouting this from the housetops and offering tangible alternatives.
ACORN isn't waiting for the Democratic Party. According to its executive director, Steve Kest, 22 states could approve ballot initiatives to raise state minimum wages. ACORN and its allies are discussing minimum wage initiatives in Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, and other states with senatorial and governor races in 2006 and battleground states for 2008.
These organizing drives have the side effect of registering voters and enlisting ordinary people in efforts to use the democratic process to improve their lives. A lot of Americans are missing out on the dream. They would vote for a party that grasped their plight.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.