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The politics of labor, in an evolving America


It's been a long time since Democratic presidential candidates kicked off their campaigns with Labor Day rallies in downtown Detroit, but Vice President Al Gore is gambling that working-class voters will decide this election. Gore has settled on a stump speech that recalls his party's populist traditions: "fighting for working families," siding with "the people, not the powerful," and bashing Big Oil, insurance companies and drug companies.

While it is boosting his poll ratings, Gore's rhetoric is receiving mixed reviews. His Republican rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, calls it "class warfare." And some centrist Democrats are also skeptical, including an unnamed adviser to President Bill Clinton, who told a reporter, "The tone is off for these times."

The dust-up about Gore's rhetoric reflects an argument among the public intellectuals whose books influence political leaders. Four recent political books debate whether national politics should focus on the affluent or the anxious, raising issues that go well beyond the narrow world of policy experts: Is the new economy rewarding most working people or only a fortunate few? Do most Americans face the future with confidence or uncertainty? And should American politics emphasize the aspirations of a well-educated "learning class" or the anxieties of a hard-pressed working class?

Making the case for paycheck politics are "America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters" by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers (Basic Books, 215 pages, $27) and "The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy" by Theda Skocpol (W. W. Norton & Co., 207 pages, $25.95). Significantly, both books have blurbs by Stanley Greenberg, the political theorist and pollster who recently joined Gore's campaign.

Weighing in with opposing opinions are "Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton" by Kenneth S. Baer (University Press of Kansas, 361 pages, $29.95) and "Bull Run: Wall Street, the Democrats, and the New Politics of Personal Finance" by Daniel Gross (Public Affairs Books, 236 pages, $25). Baer's book is a laudatory history of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which opposes pessimistic views of the new economy and populist prescriptions for it, and Gross emphasizes the growing number of Americans who own stocks and mutual funds.

The most influential is "America's Forgotten Majority," which a Wall Street Journal editorial blamed for what it called Gore's "schlock populism." Teixeira and Rogers demonstrate that a majority of voters have modest family incomes, don't have four-year college degrees, and suffered more than 20 years of stagnant wages before their earnings rebounded over the past two years. They have been ignored by politicians from both parties in favor of more glamorous groups, from affluent "soccer moms" to the "wired workers" who are doing well in the new economy.

Working-class voters have responded to this neglect by abandoning their earlier allegiance to the Democrats and becoming the swing voters of contemporary politics. Thus, they supported Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush from 1980 through 1988, dropped Bush in favor of Clinton in 1992, dumped the Democratic Congress in 1994, and re-elected Clinton in 1996.

Although their emphasis on whites may be jarring to some leftists (it's because blacks and Hispanics across the economic spectrum vote heavily Democratic), Teixeira and Rogers' most controversial claim is that white working-class voters are potential supporters for a "pragmatic liberal" agenda.

According to the authors, these voters are skeptical of government, not on philosophical grounds but because they believe it has failed to meet their needs. But they would support substantive measures to address "the new insecurity" afflicting working-class families, including dwindling health coverage, disappearing pensions and the need for continuing education to find new and better jobs in a churning economy. Also, the authors maintain, whites have become more tolerant on racial and social issues:

"The Missing Middle" fleshes out both this analysis and this agenda. The title has many meanings, for as Skocpol contends, ordinary Americans have been estranged from politics because it ignores the middle class, the middle-aged, and those caught in the middle of politically polarized debates.

Means-tested social programs are targeted toward the poorest of the poor. Other public policies serve the very old and the very young, while working parents are hard-put to care for their own children and their aging parents as well. And while most families are putting in longer hours just to stay even -- thus, the resonance of the phrase "working families" -- the debate on social issues has been polarized between the permissive Hollywood Left and the intrusive Religious Right. Instead, Skocpol urges family-friendly policies, from flexible work schedules to universal child care, that would offer tangible assistance to parents who are pinched for time and money.

For their part, Baer and Gross make the case that political leaders should concentrate on two more affluent (and overlapping) segments of the electorate: workers with advanced skills in information technology and people who participate in the economy as investors as well as workers.

Toward the conclusion of his account of recent debates within the Democratic Party, Baer (who is now a speechwriter for Gore) respectfully quotes a statement by two centrist Democratic thinkers that Teixeira and Rogers ridicule: "The New Economy favors a rising Learning Class over a declining working class. They [the learning class] will be better-educated, more affluent, more mobile, and more self-reliant." Similarly, Gross maintains that 46 percent of Americans are part of a new "investor class" that opposes a style of politics that criticizes corporations.

These optimistic assertions are open to debate. In one of their most intriguing and least polemical passages, Teixeira and Rogers explain that information technology is part of the working lives of many members of the "forgotten majority" whose incomes have stagnated.

Thus, they contend that working with computers is not a ticket to affluence, and continuing education is more a lifeline in today's economy than a liberation from economic uncertainty. Indeed, their "forgotten majority," unlike yesterday's working class, is mostly suburban and white-collar but still lives paycheck-to-paycheck.

Meanwhile, "The State of Working America" by Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and John Schmitt (Cornell University Press, 444 pages, $24.95) maintains that reports of the "investor class" are exaggerated: The bottom 80 percent of American wage-earners own only 4.1 percent of total stock holdings. (Full disclosure: Teixeira is a former colleague of mine, and Mishel, Bernstein and Schmitt are current colleagues at the Economic Policy Institute.)

Most likely, Baer and Gross would respond that more Americans are investing in stocks and earning college degrees -- and Americans vote for their aspirations as well as their anxieties.

Perhaps future books or magazine articles from their side of the debate will offer ideas for how public policies more to their liking can relieve the insecurities about jobs, wages and health and pension benefits which the populists address.

This debate about how well Americans are doing -- and how to help more people do better -- will last long after this year's elections. And missing from all four books are the voices of the Americans whose daily struggles are being discussed -- and any indication that the authors have listened to, as well as talked about, working Americans.

On this Labor Day, the crucial question is how most people are responding to two years of rising wages after almost a generation of stagnation, and how it all affects their views of big business, big government and the smaller worlds in which they earn their livings and raise their children.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties."

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