The U.S. House of Representatives was controlled by Democrats for four decades leading up to the 1994 congressional elections. With a generation of failure staring him in the face, Republican congressman Newt Gingrich decided it was time for his party to pursue a new strategy. Rather than run races district by district, Gingrich organized over three hundred congressional candidates around a national agenda: The Contract with America.
The contract itself was a list of promises ranging from welfare reform to anti-corruption measures. Its intent was to boil down the complicated process of voting to a simple decision: Do you agree with the contract, or not? If you agreed with the promises, then you would vote Republican, whether you lived in North Dakota or New Jersey. Republicans swept into the house majority for the first time in a half-century on the back of Gingrich’s contract.
The Contract with America provides a potent political lesson for present-day Americans: Contrary to Tip O’Neil’s famous wisdom “all politics is local,” Trump’s shadow hangs over every congressional race in the country. Voting Republican is synonymous with endorsing Trump’s vision for America. It’s not as formal as the Contract with America, but Trump’s cult of personality provides the same national cohesion that propelled the Republican party to victory in 1994.
Unfortunately for Americans that believe in the progressive vision, the Democratic party has failed to produce any meaningful national agenda to counter Trumpism.
As a quick aside, I’d like to note that I’m only talking about the Democratic party because it is the only viable electoral route to victory for leftists in America. If we had a parliamentary system, the Democratic party would have splintered into two or three pieces a long time ago.
What makes the Democratic failure to produce an agenda especially frustrating is that the premise on which left-wing politics are based — that free-market capitalism is a deeply flawed economic system which must be heavily regulated or abolished — is no longer disputed by their Republican counterparts.
Trump rose to prominence by railing against globalization and endorsing protectionist policies. He promised to bring jobs back to America through brute force, not the free market. He would never admit it, but his campaign was predicated on a critique of the neoliberal economic system.
White middle America, which was abandoned by global capitalism as jobs moved overseas and automation moved in, included Trump’s most fervent supporters. Of course, the not-so-subtle xenophobia helped.
The left’s vision has been comparatively fragmented. A massive power struggle between moderate Democrats and progressive Democrats has been raging since Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump in 2016. It was only inflamed further by the election of a new cohort of young, dynamic progressives in the 2018 midterms.
It feels like the soul of the Democratic Party is at stake. And every second that ticks on without a resolution is a second without a united democratic critique of capitalism. Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and others have already built the blueprint. The rich and the powerful have constructed a system which induces mass incarceration, widespread student debt, an exploitative healthcare industry, environmental devastation and a fundamental imbalance between the worker and the boss. To combat these ills, Democrats propose universal health care, aggressive investment in a green economy, an end to the carceral state and a leveling of the playing field for workers.
Rather than blaming immigrants, refugees and the “cultural elite” for America’s problems, a true progressive vision points to the real culprits: Ruthless capitalists.
The Democratic Party should wholeheartedly embrace a new Contract with America, which puts the progressive vision for America on full display. In November of 2020, all Americans should know that a vote for a Democrat means a vote for a green New Deal, universal healthcare and childcare, housing as a human right, an end to mass incarceration, tuition-free public college, a deep safety net and strong workers rights.
Trump has played his cards. His critique of capitalism is dark and destructive. Democrats can — and must — counter with a stronger, brighter vision.
Harry Zehner is the opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.