Democratic Agenda – A Snapshot from 1979

Mark R Ansbach & James G Hershberg
writing in THE HARVARD CRIMSON (November 21, 1979) recounts a Democratic Agenda meeting in 1979

The International Inn, Washington, D.C.–tall, modern, plush carpeting, tasteful furniture, color TV, heat-sensitive elevator buttons, expensive coffee shops and a heated pool enclosed by a transparent glass bubble which hotel officials can open up, observatory style, when the sun begins to turn the people inside into ants under a magnifying glass. After a leisurely afternoon backfloating, guests can dine on filet mignon at poolside.

Last weekend, however, the swimming stopped. Folding chairs and activists replaced chaise lounges at poolside, and the sign outside read: “Workshop at 2:30–Fighting Corporations From the Inside.” In the midst of Washington wealth, the national conference of the Democratic Agenda (DA)–a broad but shaky left-liberal coalition seeking to “set an agenda for the 1980’s”–was in high gear. And after three days of meetings, plenary sessions, workshops, a luncheon and a dance, the disparate assortment of 2000 or so students, trade unionists, consumer activists, veteran ’60s radicals (including former SDS and Harvard strike leader Michael S. Ansara ’69), feminists, black and Hispanic leaders, social reformers, religious leaders and community organizers seemed to reach–or reaffirm–a broad consensus. Their common enemy for the next decade: corporate power.

Whether the specific problem under discussion was the energy crisis (a popular topic), union rights, inflation, unemployment, housing, or health care–or the federal government’s impotence in dealing with the problem–the preferred solution turned out to be giving the “power to the people” and taking it away from the huge corporations. “It is time for us to send a message,” urged Robert Georgine, the nominally conservative union leader, “to the corporations that are threatening our democratic institutions.”

And Michael Harrington, a long-time socialist mover and shaker and author of The Other America, rammed home the message: “…corporate power is the most important single cause of our troubles. That is not a frayed, obsolete slogan out of the populist past. As we will see, it is the critical, unprecedented fact of the present and future…”

Now, Robert Georgine, president of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department, voted for Richard Nixon. He was for the Vietnam War. Michael Harrington worked for the things Georgine fought against. Normally one would expect to find them at each other’s throats. But on one issue, the crucial one, they agree–the American economic system is in a crisis and big business is at fault. Unity in diversity: the essence of coalition politics.

Which is what DA is, to an extent, all about. One other similarity links Harrington and Georgine–they’re both Democrats. DA, as its literature proclaims, is “the major coalition within (emphasis added) the Democratic Party concerned with developing and fighting for progressive economic and social programs.” Expect no Port Huron statement from DA; the International Inn is no place to foment revolution.

The coalition seeks, for the most part, to work for change within the system, i.e., the Democratic Party. The abundance of Kennedy buttons and workshops like “The Platform Process and Political Action Committees” made that clear, although some participants, like Barry Commoner and his “Citizens’ Party,” have written off the Democrats as a total loss and gone elsewhere. While DA leaders, like William Winpisinger of the machinists union (and heads of the Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition), are eagerly jumping on Kennedy’s bandwagon, some of the younger activists seemed less anxious to embrace Teddy.

The moving force behind the coalition has been Michael Harrington, who in October 1973 helped found the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), a kind of staging area where radicals and liberals weary from the defeats of the ’60s could regroup to “work within the existing social movements, which were and are predominantly liberal, as a loyal, open socialist fighting to persuade the entire democratic Left that structural change is necessary. Tactically, we move toward (this goal) by way of coalition politics. We act as part of the Left wing of the Democratic Party in order to change the Party itself.”

That was and is DSOC’s line; in practice, its first forays into coalition politics came with Democracy ’76, when DSOC concentrated on shaping a progressive party platform while Jimmy Carter garnered the nomination. The result, DA literature says, was “one of the most socially important documents of our time.” In 1978, the coalition, by then named the Democratic Agenda, surprised Carter forces at the Democratic midterm conference in Memphis with a strong push for delegate selection reforms and resolutions aimed at holding the president to previous commitments on tax reform, health insurance, social services, and other campaign promises. If nothing else, DA embarassed Carter.

This time around DA is again targeting the Democratic platform as a lever to speed “real social change in the U.S.” Harrington disputes the common assumption that DA will be “playing the old game of drafting a fine program and then throwing it in the wastepaper basket the day after the Convention,” arguing that the conventional wisdom doesn’t hold for next year because “the roof is caving in on the American economy.”

However, many observers doubt that controlling the Democratic platform would give DA much clout. For the most part, the coalition is seen as a means to keep Ted Kennedy honest on the left, especially in his economic policies. They want to stop his slide to the political center to get elected. But since DA lacks a candidate of its own–Carter is persona non grata and Brown is not taken seriously–Kennedy has little to worry about in the way of competition for DA votes, which probably explains why he decided not to speak before the conference at its Saturday afternoon luncheon. The senator, carefully tending his image, does not want to be too strongly linked to DA.

And DA, burned once for supporting Carter for president, may have the same feeling. A day after the coalition checked out of Washington, Kennedy snubbed DA’s anti-big oil sentiments by hiring Mobil’s Schmertz, the man who led the company’s campaign against government regulation, to direct the advertising for his presidential bid.

Many delegates believe the labor movement, for all its shortcomings, can best provide the broad base DA needs to operate. An official of the National Organization of Women assured a union audience, “We know it is important for women and labor to be national allies. The way to close the wage gap is to unionize women workers.” But some strains between leftists and unionists were evident. At the energy workshop, activists complained about labor support of nuclear power. Building nukes means construction jobs, at least in the short run. On such issues delicate compromises are necessary to keep the coalition together. “I’d like to get the building trades to come out for human-scale, non-corporate solar power,” Harrington told The Crimson, “even if they won’t endorse our antinuclear position.”

Most delegates would agree the key to DA’s future success lies in effectively communicating to the public the conference’s anti-corporate message. In the last election, said Wurf, “It was the oppressor who voted, not the oppressed.” A black DSOC member from Los Angeles, vice president of his Teamsters local, argued, “We need an educational program to get workers more politically involved beyond issues of the bargaining table.” A number of Agenda-affiliated groups plan a public education campaign for fighting corporate power centered on April 17’s “Big Business Day.” At Harvard, students from New England will hold a three-day conference the same weekend.

DA has begun the tedious and uncertain process of drawing the public-at-large into a coalition that currently exists only as a fragile compact among leaders of disparate organizations who have agreed temporarily to paper over their differences. Though its conference last weekend exhibited DA’s continuing slow but steady growth, Democratic Agenda is only a beginning. If the Agenda platform is to provide a launchingpoint for greater economic democracy in America rather than an expedient steppingstone for a business-as-usual Kennedy candidacy, coalition members will have to work on permanently transforming the outlook of the electorate from one of forever seeking a “better” candidate to one of confronting the alleged abuses of corporate power in America and abroad. That is a long road, but after all, there’s a whole new decade ahead. The coalition may not bring on the changes, but at least they’ve set an agenda. Of sorts.

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