Why Democrats Should Get On Board With Universal Employment

In this Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, file photo, women fill out job applications at a JobNewsUSA job fair in Miami Lakes, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
In this Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, file photo, women fill out job applications at a JobNewsUSA job fair in Miami Lakes, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Two years ago, the Democratic frontrunner running for president scored votes and pundit points by reasoning that universal health care — among other big ideas being floated by liberals at the time — was too difficult: that progress happens in increments, and not earthquakes.

That was 2016.

This year, likely Democratic contenders for the 2020 White House race have embraced not only single-payer, but as of this week, an even more radical idea that makes government health care look like an exercise in political moderatism.

Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders have each called for a program that would guarantee a job for every able-bodied American who wants one. It’s a grand, loud, on-the-nose reincarnation of the emergency employment programs in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. As with universal health care, it’s likely to be a big ticket talking point in the next Democratic Party primary and — hopefully -- the next presidential race.

The jobs-for-all concept is being spun by advocates as a crucially needed federal investment project. Many of the jobs would revolve overdue initiatives such as infrastructure development and the “guarantee” provision would benefit applicants who are often marginalized by the private sector (among others, people of color, those with disabilities, the poor and the formerly incarcerated). A guaranteed jobs program would also set a new tone in Washington for renewed government spending, which has long been curtailed by the whims of deficit hawks and the dubious idea that deficits actually matter.

But here’s the thing: all of these compelling arguments are going to run into a wall of opposition from conservative and liberal public figures who will hotly denounce the jobs-for-all program as socialism or an act of political vanity. They won’t necessarily call it either of those things, but they’ll reject the concept on the grounds that it’s too radical, too unwieldy, or — as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum recently put it — totally unrealistic and “insane.”

It might seem strange for a magazine named after a 20th century labor organizer to malign the guaranteed jobs program in favor of more liberal incrementalism, but in a way, Drum’s article epitomizes why the jobs-for-all idea is going to generate argument: because many of America’s liberal pundits haven’t moved on from 2016 in the way that millions of liberal voters are moving on and evolving.

These voters — spurred by millennials — are moving further to the left at a faster rate than many of their elected representatives. New polling on the jobs-for-all concept also suggests that the public could embrace the idea even as public figures shoot it down. A new study by Data for Progress and Civis Analytics found that 52 percent of those surveyed support the idea of promising jobs to every American adult. And that survey queried opinions from Americans of all political persuasions: not just Democrats.

But there’s also a more primal dimension to the disconnect between Democratic voters and Democratic public figures, in which the guaranteed jobs program becomes even more meaningful.

... it’s time for the Democrats to prove their mettle and their relevance to the voters they need most.

One of the most remarkable things that happened in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory was the lightning-quick formation of opposition activist cells like Indivisible and the growth of grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and #NeverAgain. Two common qualities that you can observe in these groups are tenacity and combativeness. They’re action-oriented, uninterested in milquetoast compromises, and unafraid of ruffling feathers in pursuit of their goals — which is basically the polar opposite of the Democratic Party’s progress-by-incrementalism playbook.

If Democratic Party leaders are willing to take the presumed “risk” of embracing something as massive and bold as the guaranteed jobs program that’s catching on with the 2020 contenders, the message they’ll send to their voters is that the party is also capable of evolution: that the old and ultimately failed strategy of coddling moderates at the expense of a strong base is not party orthodoxy, but something that can be revisited and even rejected when needed.

This is one of those moments of necessity. The Democratic voting public is on fire and ready for a fight on the issues that matter to them. The Democratic leadership is timid and unsure of its next moves — even as their voters bay for a brawl with Trump and the GOP. These voters are looking for a new, robust party strategy that doesn’t involve arriving at the legislative bargaining table in pre-compromised form, as Democratic leaders are wont to do. The Democrats have now had more than a year to flex their muscles and swing for the fences with their trepidatious embrace of universal health care, an issue with unlikely bipartisan appeal that was deemed a political impossibility during the last presidential race.

Today, with the jobs-for-all concept snowballing towards the arena of mainstream politics, it’s time for the Democrats to prove their mettle and their relevance to the voters they need most.


Headshot of Miles Howard

Miles Howard Cognoscenti contributor
Miles Howard is an author, journalist, and trail builder based in Boston.



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