THE DO-SOMETHING-BAD CONGRESS

Here’s ostensibly uber-media-savvy Chuck Schumer making the case that the problem with Republicans in Congress is that they don’t do anything:

“When they (Republicans) get up and read their litany, it’s things that only a few narrow special interests care about, like a bankruptcy bill or class-action reform,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Anything major that affects average Americans and makes their lives better, they haven’t been able to get done, and I think people know that.”

Granted, people like for Congress to do things. So when your opponents run the Congress, it makes sense to accuse them of not doing things. But with this Congress especially, which has done all kinds of no good very bad things, it’s worth actually pointing out how bad those things are.

Schumer is doing exactly the opposite. He’s taking two awful pieces of legislation passed by our right-wing Congress at the bidding of right-wing special interests and at the expense of everybody else and he’s suggesting that no one other than those special interests are affected. Conservatives have passed bills to make it harder for working Americans to lift themselves out of bankruptcy or to get just compensation for grievous corporate abuses, and Chuck Schumer doesn’t find it worthwhile to make the case to the American people that these laws are bad – rather than distracting – for all of us.

This is the same kind of silly rhetoric we hear all the time from national spokespeople for the Democratic party about how gay rights and women’s rights aren’t the kinds of issues that actually affect people. It’s not an approach that seems to have sold too many people on the principled vision of the Democratic Party as of yet.

ONE SIDE OF THE DEAL

An American worker who works at the current federal minimum wage – $5.15/ hour – for forty hours a week for fifty-two weeks, without interruption, would make $10,712.

The 2006 federal poverty line for the continental United States for a two-person family is $13,200 a year.

That means a family of one child and one parent who works full-time at the federal minimum wage is living at least $2,500 below the poverty line.

The reality faced by the working poor in America is somewhat different. People struggle to find consistent full-time work. People take multiple jobs adding up to well over forty hours without receiving the benefits of full-time work from any of them. People get sick.

A decade ago, conservatives in Congress – with a good many ostensible liberals in tow – inflicted a harsh revision of the American social contract, tearing away the safety net from those who utilized its support for more than three or five years of their lives – even if they were using that time to gain the skills for a better shot at living-wage work. Under the regime of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the uncompromising message sent to every low-income woman and man in this country by our congress is that your first and immediate responsibility is to find a way into the minimum-wage workforce.

But the same leaders who have most loudly pushed that message on marginalized Americans have fought fiercely against either requiring that work pay by raising the minimum wage or facilitating workers’ freedom to demand that work pay by protecting their organizing rights.

This week, some of them floated an insulting proposal – intended to fail – which would ease the minimum wage higher for some workers while both leaving tipped workers out to dry and depleting the federal government’s resources for empowering working Americans by lavishing cash on this country’s wealthiest families.

We deserve better.

BEDROOM POLITICS

Last year, Grover Norquist told a New York Times reporter that he had little trouble getting the culture warriors over at the Eagle Forum to stand with the auto industry in opposition fuel efficiency standards because “it’s backdoor family planning. You can’t have nine kids in the little teeny cars.”

Certainly, leaders on the modern American right, as well as the left, struggles with how to keep its constituent movements working constructively together, or at least keep them from actively undercutting each other. But those struggles seem to turn out better on the right. Arguably, that’s because the right has real power to mete out amongst the groups and individuals who make it work and can therefore keep them in line. But there’s as strong a case to be made that being out of power is more unifying – that’s why, in the fall of 2004, well-justified and broadlyy shared anti-Bushism made it so much easier to imagine that there really was a coherent, unified left in this country. That example itself suggests one of the problems we face: while there’s more discussion these days about the importance of broad-based, multi-issue progressive coalitions, the people most vocally pushing for them want such coalitions to work essentially as extensions of Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees. “Netroots” folks like Kos actually pride themselves on their lack of ideology (and get vouched for on this count over at The New Republic).

Meanwhile, while a certain amount of the hand-wringing on the right about Bush’s supposed unconservatism is just a strategic response to his unpopularity – that is, an attempt to save the conservative brand from public dislike of its most prominent example – there is a genuine gap between certain aspects of what Bush is doing and the preferences of the grassroots activists and house intellectuals of the conservative movement, and it seems to be spurring renewed consideration at least in the pages of the right-wing mags about whether there can be a multi-issue conservative ideological coalition that’s not a partisan one. If conservatives do a better job than liberals of organizing across issues for a vision beyond the electoral fortunes of a party, even as conservatives and not liberals are running the government, then the left will have been outmaneuvered again.

That’s why folks across the left should be excited about UNITE HERE’s Sleep With the Right People campaign, part of the union’s international Hotel Workers Rising project, through which hotelworkers in cities all over North America are using concurrent contract expirations to leverage strategic pressure on major hotel chains to raise the standard of living for all their workers and agree to fair organizing conditions for those without collective bargaining rights (I start work with HWR tomorrow; views expressed here are my own). Sleep With the Right People represents a crucial alliance of progressives committed to the dignity and empowerment of people too often marginalized based on sexuality, class, gender, race, or the intersection of these identities.

As Hugh argues here and here, this campaign represents a critical stand against the view that “difference” should be “a cause of fear.” It recognizes the interconnectedness of the freedoms to join a partner in building a life together, and to partner with co-workers to build a more democratic workplace, each without sacrificing safety from violence or freedom from want. It’s a step towards the ameliorating the too-frequent insensitivity of the labor movement towards identities other than class and the too-frequent insensitivity of the LGBTQ movement towards identities other than sexuality. There are more steps ahead.

ANYBODY CAN SERVE

Anya Kamanetz has a great piece in the Times criticizing the role of unpaid internships in reinforcing inequality and discouraging assertion of material needs by employees and future employees. As she observes, these internships, because they require taking an economic loss during the summer to pay for cost of living while receiving no wage, function as a luxury good available largely to the already privileged – and at the same time, they serve as crucial qualifications for future employment. So they make it easier for the most fortunate among us to stay that way (inadequate financial aid systems are part of the problem as well). And at the same time, these internships support the sense that if you truly care about something, you shouldn’t care about getting paid for it. Which is easier not to care about when you don’t need the money. As Dana Goldblatt observed, “By letting myself be exploited, I’m actually exploiting others.”

Over at Campus Progress, Asheesh notes that progressive organizations are often stretched thin as it is. That’s indisputable. But the unwillingness of so many groups on the left to economically support those potential summer interns who can’t work for free evidences a failure to take a long-term strategic interest in building our base and diversifying the leadership of our movements. And it’s an unfortunate example of the lack in many corners of the modern American left of a systematic account of class and the role it plays in modern American life.

That problem was all too clear when I asked the president of a leading environmental group why the movement wasn’t more diverse and she responded that her group could only recruit “joiners.”

It’s also clear in the valorization by many on the left of an ethic of volunteerism as the ultimate foundation of civic life. I’m all for community service. But statements that make unpaid service out to be the most noble of activities obscure this country’s dependence on the men and women who do critical work for long hours teaching children and caring for patients and serving food and get paid (though not enough) – because if they weren’t being paid, they couldn’t provide for themselves and their families. Volunteerism, as it all too often gets discussed, is a classed ideal, and its valorization to the exclusion of other forms of service leads us to identify as community leaders primarily wealthy people who make contributions that require little sacrifice.

Absolutely, everyone should seek ways to use their time away from work to reduce injustice – though having students clean the windows of public schools together once a year is a less effective way to do that than having them get together and try to figure out why no one in their community is being hired to clean the schools’ windows and how that should be changed. But whether it’s community service or political advocacy, progressives do a disservice to our values and to our community when we valorize first the work that doesn’t pay (this is part of why I’m so excited about Students for a New American Politics).

In high school, when I led our school’s contingent to Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King Day of Service, we got T-shirts with Dr. King’s quote that “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve.” King was absolutely right. But his point is often misunderstood. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve,” he continues, “You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermo-dynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

King’s words are a much-needed reminder that we can best overcome divisions through shared projects of social justice. Unfortunately, just as imposing professional qualifications on service would render the ideal inaccessible to many people, imposing the requirement that service be uncompensated to be laudable reinforces already existing divisions. So does the claim made by too many liberals that social justice is about selfless acts for others by those with nothing to gain themselves. Such a definition will always privilege those who have less stake in their struggles and obscure those who take tremendous risks to fight for a stronger community for themselves and their neighbors.

PIN THE TAIL ON THE ELITE

There’s a lot that could be said about Matt Bai’s NYT Mag profile of Mark Warner, which unsurprisingly says as much about Bai as about Warner. Bai’s faith in the conservatism of the average American, and the culpability of the uber-rich liberals in wrecking the Democrats’ appeal, will be familiar to anyone who read his chiding critique of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s book for considering structural obstacles to Democratic resurgence when the problem was obviously those liberal Hollywood celebrities and crazed bloggers stopping the party from offering Americans what they actually want. What struck me most on reading the article was the way that Bai’s choice of anecdotes reinforces his narrative – which may also be a reflection of Warner sharing anecdotes that reinforce a similar one.

Bai notes Warner’s plans to reform Medicare and his “embrace of free trade,” as things which will antagonize that infernal liberal elite, even though, as his readers may recall from the 2004 election, the party’s coterie of fund-raisers and policy wonks and strategists and spin-meisters are not known for their support for including labor standards in trade agreements. Warner’s belief that eroding entitlements in the solution to global competition seems more likely to put him on a collision course with the low-income voters who depend on our social insurance net and who’ve borne the burden of neoliberal trade policy. But there’s no gesture towards such a confrontation in Bai’s piece; instead we get an anecdote about his being hectored by elitist liberals at a Bay Area dinner party:

Warner thought his liberal guests would be interested in his policies to improve Virginia schools and raise the standard of living in rural areas; instead, it seemed to him, they thought that they understood poverty and race in an intellectual way that he, as a red-state governor, could not…as some of the guests walked Warner to his car, one woman vowed to educate him on abortion rights. That was all he could take. “This is why America hates Democrats,” a frustrated Warner blurted out before driving away. (Still piqued a month later, Warner, speaking to The Los Angeles Times, summarized the attitude of the assembled guests about their plans to save the country: “You little Virginia Democrat, how can you understand the great opportunities we have?”)

To read this story, and Bai’s article, you would think the only people to the left of Mark Warner are Bay Area elitists with cash left over from their brie purchases to distort the primary process. Of course, Matt Bai isn’t the only elite journalist committed to a vision in which his self-styled centrism is the will of the masses and those to his left are an insular elite. Michael Crowley, in a TNR piece on the tensions between Steny Hoyer’s more TNR-friendly war position and Nancy Pelosi’s, chose to describe Pelosi’s inner circle this way:

In addition to her top confidant, the combative Miller, others with Pelosi’s ear include Rosa DeLauro of New Haven; Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto; and Jan Schakowsky, a fiery crusader from Chicago’s upscale Lakefront area. All are critical of the war.

Now I’ve had the pleasure over the past four years of discovering all kinds of things for which New Haven should be nationally known. But it isn’t. Probably, as many TNR readers recognize Lakefront as New Haven. So Crowley could as helpfully written about “Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, Jan Schakowsky of Lakefront, and Rosa DeLauro, whose New Haven, CT district represents a largely low-income constituency.” I’m curious why he decided instead to specify how “upscale” Lakefront is. But maybe that just makes me part of the reason people hate Democrats.

KATHY IS A NICE MOTHER

As if MSNBC’s “Are you spending more or less than last holiday season?” survey wasn’t bad enough, they just read an e-mail from a woman named Kathy who plans to spend “over $1,000” on a new XBox for her child on EBay. The correspondent’s response: “You’re a nice Mom, Kathy.”

I guess any low-income women hoping to be nice mothers are out of luck.

CAREER PATH TO MOTHERHOOD?

Tuesday’s New York Times piece on women at schools like Yale who plan to become stay-at-home moms addresses an important phenomenon. Unfortunately, it makes little more than passing mention of the underlying issues of class and gender which shape the choices the article pitches largely as curious lifestyle decisions.

Class divisions deeply inform women’s and men’s decision about parenting in work in multiple ways. They make it possible for some women to picture living and raising children comfortably off of the income of an exceptionally well-paid spouse without making the economic sacrifices most families have to when one parent stays home. At the same time, class divisions leave other women in positions where the work-family compromises they would like to strike as working mothers are unfeasible because they lack the bargaining power to achieve the schedules and receive the support from employers that they need. So while class makes it possible for some women and impossible for others to maintain economic security while leaving the workforce, class also makes it possible for some women and impossible for others to balance work and family responsibilities.

Underlying the responsibilities in play here are gendered conceptions which haven’t yet changed as much as many of us would like to think. It’s difficult to argue with those who suggest that a woman’s choice to stay home and raise kids deserves respect, but it’s important to consider the ways in which social structures and pressures constrict and inform that choice. The debate need not be confined to one side which argues that women and men should both be evaluated by the standards by which we’ve traditionally judged men and another side which argues for an essentialist, “difference feminist” understanding of what women are and should be that trots out old tropes about their essential nature. Instead, progressive feminists can and should take on traditional paradigms of male and female identity behavior, arguing for a shared, less gendered repetoire of goals and actions which makes traditionally male and female jobs and tropes accessible to both genders. Women who want to build homes with men can’t make fully free choices about how to balance family and work until men are equally challenged and expected to make equivalent sacrifices as well.

We’re not there yet.