Thankfully, as Greg Sargent writes, Democrats in the Senate and progressive institutions are refusing to concede the point. And whether they actually hope to embarrass Republicans into passing a new extension of benefits, or whether the only expectation is to use the issue to turn public opinion even further against a heartless Republican Party, the efforts involved look like they will be extensive.
Please read below the fold for more on the fight over unemployment benefits.
1) Liberal groups will launch a national TV ad campaign that hits Republicans for letting benefits expire for over one million Americans, to be launched the day after Christmas and run on national cable through at least December 28th, the day benefits are set to expire. The ads will also highlight GOP priorities by spotlighting GOP opposition to nixing loopholes enjoyed by the top one percent even as a lifeline expires for over one million far less fortunate Americans.Sargent notes that the ultimate objective of this campaign is to convince voters, despite the media's automatic inclination to blame "Congress" for any gridlock or federal inaction, that the blame for failing to pass an extension of this popular program and hurting 1.3 million Americans in the process falls squarely on the Republican Party. And just as with the contrast between Democrats and Republicans on maintaining current levels of food assistance programs for the neediest, there is certainly room to gain political ground from the electorate by campaigning on conservative heartlessness toward the poor—especially when said conservatives insist on having poor kids sweep school floors to earn their lunches while their wealthier counterparts stand idly by.
There may also be a second round of ads launched when Congress returns in early January. The ads — backed by a “significant” buy, a source says — will be run by Americans United for Change. Other groups involved in the broader campaign include the National Employment Law project, AFSCME, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and UAW.
2) House Democrats are planning a big push in local media, with the goal of using local coverage to dramatize how constituents in Republican districts will be impacted by the expiration of benefits. This is hyper-granular stuff: I’m told Ways and Means Committee Dems are collecting county-by-county data on the number of people who will be kicked off benefits, and pushing local press outlets to reflect these numbers in their coverage.
The idea is to make it harder for individual lawmakers to escape the direct consequences, in their districts, of failing to renew benefits, bringing it home ...
3) Liberal groups are drawing up lists of House Republicans who are both vulnerable and reside in states where unemployment is high. The targeting of them will take various forms, such as conference calls — directed at local media in their states and districts — that feature people who are losing benefits.
Meanwhile, labor unions are planning events in states, and liberal groups are planning polls on unemployment benefits in both marginal districts and nationally. Results should be released next week.
Without question, maintaining food stamps and unemployment benefits is an unqualified good. But there is room for debate on whether focusing on the safety net nearly exclusively is harming the liberal project at large. At the New York Times, Thomas Edsall cribs substantially from a post by Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal to argue that doubling down on the "social safety net" strategy actually detracts from the progressive agenda at large:
In practice, Konczal writes, the political left has abandoned its quest for deep structural reform — full employment and worker empowerment — and instead has “doubled-down” on the safety net strategy. The result, in his view, is “a kind of pity-charity liberal capitalism.”Edsall makes the case that business interests are more than happy to have the social safety net in place because the welfare state allows them to pay wages that would otherwise be completely inadequate while expecting government to pick up the tab and ensure that these workers have enough resources to prevent the fabric of society from fraying completely. Meanwhile, the current political debate is occurring between Democratic elites who support "pity-charity liberalism" despite the lack of a broader empowerment agenda, and a Republican Party infected with such a case of Social Darwinism that it seems to want to see the poor starve, seemingly out of spite if nothing else.
Konczal’s poignant description of the problem goes a long way toward explaining the current struggles of the left. The question is whether there is an effective worker empowerment strategy at a time of globalization, offshoring and robotization.
Insofar as Democrats concentrate the bulk of their efforts on means-tested transfer programs (on the extension of long-term unemployment benefits, Medicaid and food stamps, for example), they leave the most needy and vulnerable to the vagaries of public opinion.
Survey data find that during hard times people become less altruistic and more inclined to see the poor as undeserving. They turn to the right, not the left, in periods of economic stress.
The call of Konczal and his colleagues on the progressive left for an empowerment agenda — for structural economic reform — faces roadblocks far higher than many people realize. The loss of a political movement (economic liberalism) and its political vehicle (a stable progressive coalition) has put the left into a position of retreat, struggling to protect besieged programs that are designed explicitly for the poor and that therefore lack strong public backing.Now, none of this is to argue that Democrats and progressive allies should not continue to fight tooth and nail for extensions of the social safety net. Obviously, common decency, economic justice, and the maintenance of the social fabric depend on the continuance of these programs. But especially now that Republicans have been using their control of the House of Representatives to chip away at the social safety net at every opportunity, playing defense is not enough. It is critical to go on offense and fight for a broader empowerment agenda and fundamental structural economic reform, rather than continue to simply defend the social safety net while austerity and economic inequality force ever-increasing numbers of people to rely on it.
The shift of the Democratic Party from economic to “pity-charity” liberalism has put the entire liberal project in danger. It has increased its vulnerability to conservative challenge and left it without a base of politically mobilized supporters. Progressives are now dependent on the fragile possibility that inequality and socioeconomic immobility will push the social order to the breaking point and force the political system to respond.
Edsall is correct that the political power of the bottom half of the economic spectrum has been gutted and hollowed out; that we have lost a political movement and a political vehicle at the nationwide level. At the local level, however, there are signs of coalescence as minimum wage increases take hold across the country, and as fast food strikes spring up organically across the country. And in Senator Elizabeth Warren, we have one nationwide leader who is willing to not just defend the social safety net, but put fundamental economic reform at the top of her agenda.
The progressive movement is starting to see the energy and leadership necessary to stop simply playing defense, and start advocating for an empowerment agenda that can reverse the decades of squeezing and fracturing endured by the middle class. The question is whether we can sustain enough organizational strength to capitalize at both the local and the federal level and bring about the type of fundamental economic change we need.