Since Ronald Reagan was elected president more than three decades ago, right-wing extremists gathered in the Republican Party have been attempting to restructure the role and functions of government to the advantage of the top layers of the capitalist class.
One of their main aims has been to dismantle the bundle of social programs and rights (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and voting, civil, disability, women’s and labor rights, and much more) that were legislated over the past eight decades. These progressive breakthroughs are anathema to them. Instead of triumphs, the right wing sees them as sorry episodes in American history.
Looking back over the past 30 years it is fair to say that the right wing has been successful in redistributing income, by way of taxes, to the wealthiest corporations and families. It has been much less successful in dismantling social entitlements and rights.
That speaks to the popularity of this social compact with the American people.
Nevertheless, the rightists keep trying to do away with it, including in the recent debt ceiling talks. And they will try again when the super-committee of 12 senators and representatives – half from each party and chamber – convenes this fall and deliberates on the future of these programs and rights.
So no one who benefits from them – and that means just about every American – should rest comfortable. No longer are a safety net for older people, a health care bottom line, and basic equality and democratic guarantees considered a part of the birthright of every American. Indeed their future is precarious.
What will it take to save these core components of our social compact? The same thing that it took to win them – sustained mass struggle of a broad-based labor-led multiracial movement. Without such a movement it is hard to see how these social protections will be maintained – not to mention improved upon.
Yes, in the White House and Congress there are supporters of social entitlements and rights (and that too is necessary for a winning struggle) but it’s not sufficient. They don’t have the social power to stand up to a right-wing-driven offensive that includes nearly every section of the capitalist class. That social power resides with the masses of people who put elected officials into office.
In these circumstances, the left and progressive community has a crucial role. Here’s what it can, and must, do:
1) Bring to light the linkages between capitalism’s inner dynamics, the capitalist economic crisis and the current onslaught on people’s living standards and rights. In particular, remind everyone that unregulated “free enterprise” that got us into this mess won’t get us out, and that’s where the need for a proactive, pro-people government comes into the picture.
2) Make the case that job creation is the nation’s immediate and overarching priority. In fact, austerity measures at this moment are harmful for working people, for the economy and for our fiscal health in the long term. Indeed, chipping away core social programs would be a dagger to the heart of working people, especially people of color, and exactly the wrong medicine for an economy that limps along due to lack of consumer spending.
3) Put together a strategy that singles out the main obstacle to positive change – right-wing extremism – as well as the main social groups that have to be assembled to preserve America’s social compact and expand it.
4) Elevate the struggle against racism – an ideological and social practice that feeds the corporate bottom line, interweaves with the political project of the far right, and gravely weakens the struggle to defend past gains and win future victories. Qualitative turns in a progressive and radical direction are organically bound up with growing anti-racist thinking and action on the part of white people, especially white workers.
5) Find the forms to unite the broadest possible movement in defense of these programs and rights. Narrow approaches that bypass allies, even temporary ones, set radical against more immediate demands, and minimize the danger from right-wing extremism, are of no help. The task is not to propose the most radical solutions to every problem, but, in the first place, to organize struggles around the demands that millions are ready to fight on.
6) Connect every struggle against the right to the coming national elections.
Not for a long time has the left and progressive community been so badly needed to play its historic role. Let’s do it.
Photo: America’s social compact: In this undated photo, senior and retiree members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, predecessor of today’s Unite-Here union, hold placards urging “fair play for the aged,” “hands off Social Security,” “don’t mess with Medicare,” “keep your promises Mr. President,” and more. Kheel Center, Cornell University CC 2.0