Will dark money defeat progressive change?

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“The one-sided class war of the last 40 years is becoming two-sided,” leftwing philosopher Noam Chomsky recently declared.  He is encouraged by the many strikes going on as well as the power of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the surprisingly liberal Biden  administration. 

Chomsky was remembering the 1978 resignation of Douglas Fraser, then president of the United Auto Workers, from a Jimmy Carter White House panel of big businessmen and labor leaders. The group was supposed to come up with cooperative solutions to labor-management problems.

Fraser said,  “I believe leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to  wage a one-sided class war today in this country-a war against working people, the unemployed,  the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.”

He declared, “The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress.” 

In those days, the only public figures in the mainstream who cried “class war” were rightwingers panicking over a slight increase in the minimum wage. Fraser promised to help build a new progressive social movement. A multi-issue coalition supported by the more liberal labor unions, environmentalists and feminists was created. Some of the participants  encouraged a half-hearted Ted Kennedy to run against Carter in the primaries. 

Today’s situation is quite different. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is the largest caucus in the Democratic Party. The chair of the Senate Budget Committee is a democratic socialist. The “Build Back Better” (BBB) social safety net and clean energy reconciliation bill is the result of a compromise between the progressives and the more moderate liberals. 

The balance of power in the Democratic Party has changed drastically. Alexander Sammon, in an article in The American Prospect entitled “The Undignified Demise of Centrism,” points out that the battle over the Affordable Care Act in 2009-2010 was quite different. The “moderates” of the Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions had the most members. The much smaller Progressive Caucus lost after pushing for “price controls, a public option, Medicare buy-in, anything.”

The “moderates” in the House were considered the serious pragmatists and the progressives were derided as rigid ideologues. 

Sammon notes:

“The fight over BBB has been the opposite. No faction has revealed itself to be less intellectually rigorous or serious than the moderates. They are unwilling and seemingly unable to articulate a single positive concern, legislative vision, or priority for the Democratic agenda. They are allegedly worried about spending, but oppose tax hikes and hugely effective cost-saving in the way of drug pricing reform. They are worried about inflation but can’t even engage with the reality that the entire bill seeks to lower the most acutely inflationary costs—housing, education, health care, and child care—for American households. They can’t conjure a contrary vision, or even a counteroffer, other than making things smaller for smaller’s sake. They don’t even speak to the press to explain themselves. They do, however, oppose.”

The Democrats control the House, Senate and White House but just barely. Democrats can only afford to lose three votes in the House. It seems 210 of 220 Democrats definitely support BBB. Since the Senate is evenly divided (with Vice President Harris providing the 51st vote), the votes  of all of the Democrats are needed. 

There are two holdouts, Joe Manchin and  Kyrsten Sinema, who seem to like the limelight and the numerous contributions from corporate donors. Joe Lockhart, a former White House  press secretary tweeted:  “My dream? Democrats pick up a few more Senate seats in 2022 and when Joe Manchin holds a press conference to declare what he can live with and what he can’t, nobody shows up.”

In his article, Sammon outlines “the transparent corruption and pay-for-play” of the reluctant House “moderates” in detail. Their dark money group called “No Labels” actually tried and failed to destroy the entire BBB. 

In an investigative article in The Intercept, Akela Lacy reported that “major trade associations like Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, and the American Petroleum Institute, along with a web of conservative and dark-money groups tied to former President Donald Trump, congressional Republicans, and the Koch network, are funding ads and lobbying against the (BBB) package.”

According to recent research by the nonpartisan watchdog group Accountable.US, at least 13 conservative and dark-money groups have spent millions on ads and lobbying efforts since April. Kyle Herrig, president of the group, says big business  interests fighting Biden’s agenda are “masquerading as advocates for everyday families while they’re really fighting to keep billion-dollar corporations from paying their fair share.”

Herrig warns lawmakers who are targeted by this propaganda that public opinion polls show that the Build Back Better package is enormously popular with the American people.