The 2016 election will about two things: The Supreme Court and rebuilding the middle class.
We can count on the Roberts Court to remind us over and over that they’re willing to do anything possible to reduce women’s rights and increase corporate power, while making it easier to buy an election than to vote in one.
So it’s up to Democrats to make the case that they can grow the middle class. It’s a case many analysts believe the party failed to make in 2014.
Here’s how The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent described the key problem — besides turnout — that Democratic pollsters found in their immediate postmortems of the disastrous 2014 election:
…Democrats’ economic message [failed] to win over persuadable voters, ones outside the ascendant Democratic coalition, in the numbers needed to offset the structural disadvantages Democratic incumbents and candidates faced.
Democrats say they’re fighting for workers but workers can’t feel it — either in their wallets or their guts.
This reality is even more depressing given that we now know that as the election was taking place, the United States was enjoying the best quarter of economic growth in a decade in the middle of the best year of job growth since 1999. That wasn’t good enough.
Democratic policies may be slowly undoing the damage of eight years of George W. Bush, but the rhetoric and the policies seem too small compared to the magnitude of economic struggles of what we used to call the middle class.
Here’s how to start to fix this now.
With aggressive action on overtime pay rules, President Obama has an opportunity to reset the argument with an executive action that will stake the Democrats claim as the part of the middle class and put Republican candidates on the defensive for 2016. This action is not without risks and it threatens to expose the weakness that keeps the party from making the kind of full-throated economic argument that will reverse Republican gains with the white working class.
Wages largely remain stagnant and nearly all the gains of the economic recovery are going to the richest. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the growth in productivity has grown eight time faster than pay.
Salon‘s Paul Rosenberg explains how raising the salary threshold on overtime pay directly tackles the problem of stagnant wages:
Although the details are a bit complicated, the bottom line is not: there’s a wage level below which everyone qualifies for mandatory time-and-a-half overtime, even if they’re on a salary, and that level has only been raised once since 1975, with the result that only 11 percent of salaried Americans are covered today, compared to over 65 percent of them in 1975. If you make less than $23,660 a year as a salaried worker, you qualify for mandatory overtime—if not, you’re out of luck. Only those hanging on to the lowest levels of the middle class have those protections anymore. Just adjusting the wage level for inflation since 1975—an act of restoration, not revolution—would be as significant an income increase for millions of middle-class Americans as a $10.10 or even $15 minimum wage is for low-wage workers. It would cover an additional 6.1 million salaried workers (by one account) up to $970 per week, about $50,440 annually—the vast majority of those it was originally designed to protect, but who have slowly lost their protections since the 1970s.
When you have two-full time workers working 60 hours a week with no overtime, their wages shrink and the employer doesn’t have to fill what should be a new position. It hurts workers and cements the two biggest problems with our economy: low wages and a weak labor market that keeps may Americans from even looking for work.
“The increase would disproportionately help women, blacks, Hispanics, workers under age 35, and workers with lower levels of education because these workers are more likely than other subgroups to have lower salaries that put them below the proposed new threshold,” the Economic Policy Institute notes.
The electoral map Republicans enjoyed in 2014 gave them numerous advantages that they won’t see again until at least 2018. But their biggest advantage with the mediocrity of the Democratic message and the left’s belief that if you put together the right polices a few months before the election, people will see the light.
Democrats ran on a few policies that poll well — minimum wage, equal pay, student loan relief — but offer no match to a Republican Party that is practiced in making a grand moral argument that felt particularly persuasive in a year when the world seemed to be falling part: We will protect you from the world and free you from the burden of government.
Democrats need to make the argument every day that workers have been asked to sacrifice enough. Republicans want us governed by corporations. Democrats want to free us. By working together, respecting the rights of women and minorities and asking those who can to invest more in our economy, we’ll rebuild the institutions that made America great.
This is a message that has to be repeated and reaffirmed with action constantly. And few actions makes this point more directly than getting overtime pay rules back to where they were in the 1970s.
The problem with this message is that it threatens relations donor class, which increasingly powerful thanks to the Roberts Court. Some will argue that aggressive action on behalf of workers now will upset the suddenly real recovery. This argument echoes the argument that asking the rich to pay more in taxes or raising the minimum wage hurts the economy, which are also not true. But they feel true to scared rich people — and those who vote as if they are scared rich people.
But lots of rich people get it — like Nick Hanauer, the billionaire venture capitalist who has made it his personal mission to convince the White House to raise overtime standards.
Democrats can’t just stand up for government. They have to be able to stand up to corporate rule the same way Republicans stand up against government. Otherwise every argument they make will sound like Republican Light. And when given a choice, voters will always go with a real bastard over an imitation bastard.
President Obama has proven that in his “fourth quarter” he’s willing to take controversial action that that he hopes will punctuate his legacy. If he can’t act now to directly raise workers’ wages, when there’s nothing left for him to lose but his legacy, Republicans are still winning.