America Wants Security


It was a carefully staged Norman Rockwell scene. The street was lined with American flags; a high school band played "God Bless America."

Then, under the watchful gaze of Wal-Mart's chief operating officer, Maryland's governor vetoed a bill that would have obliged large businesses to spend more on employee health care.

The news here isn't that some politicians wrap their deference to corporate interests in the flag. The news, instead, is that Maryland's State Legislature passed a pro-worker bill in the first place. In fact, the bill passed by a veto-proof majority in the Maryland Senate, and fell just short of that margin in the House.

After November's election, the victors claimed a mandate to unravel the welfare state. But the national election was about who would best defend us from gay married terrorists. At the state level, where elections were fought on bread-and-butter issues, voters sent a message that they wanted a stronger, not weaker, social safety net.

I'm not just talking about the shift in partisan alignment, in which Democrats made modest gains in state legislatures, and achieved a few startling successes. I'm also talking about specific issues, like the lopsided votes in both Florida and Nevada for constitutional amendments raising the minimum wage.

Since the election, high-profile right-wing initiatives, at both the federal and state level, have run into a stone wall of public disapproval. President Bush's privatization road show seems increasingly pathetic. In California, the conservative agenda of Arnold Schwarzenegger, including an attempt to partially privatize state pensions, has led to demonstrations by nurses, teachers, police officers and firefighters - and to a crash in his approval ratings.

There's a very good reason voters, when given a chance to make a clear choice, increasingly support a stronger, not a weaker, social safety net: they need that net more than ever. Over the past 25 years the lives of working Americans have become ever less secure. Jobs come without health insurance; 401(k)'s vanish; corporations default on their pension obligations; workers lose their jobs more often, and unemployment lasts much longer than it used to.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed what the pollsters called an "angry electorate." By huge margins, voters think that politicians are paying too little attention to their concerns, especially health care, jobs and gas prices.

At the state level, many, though by no means all, politicians are responding to those concerns. The push to raise the minimum wage is a useful political barometer: seven states have raised the minimum in just the last two years.

True, there are limits on what state governments can do: they fear that if they do too much for workers, they'll drive business and jobs away. I'd argue that the fear is often exaggerated. For example, Wal-Mart may avoid states that force it to provide health insurance, but given the hidden subsidies the company receives - one way or another, taxpayers end up paying a lot for uninsured workers - this may not be such a bad thing. Still, any major strengthening of the safety net will have to come at the federal level.

Why, then, is Washington so out of touch?

At a gala dinner in his honor, Tom DeLay cited his party's recent achievements: "bankruptcy reform, class-action reform, energy, border security, repealing the death tax." All of these measures are either irrelevant to or actively hostile to the economic security of working Americans.

Yet as Mr. DeLay boasted, many Democratic members of Congress also voted in support of these measures. In so doing, they undermined their party's ability to claim that it stands for something different.

So where will change come from?

Everyone loves historical analogies. Here's my thought: maybe 2004 was 1928. During the 1920's, the national government followed doctrinaire conservative policies, but reformist policies that presaged the New Deal were already bubbling up in the states, especially in New York.

In 1928 Al Smith, the governor of New York, was defeated in an ugly presidential campaign in which Protestant preachers warned their flocks that a vote for the Catholic Smith was a vote for the devil. But four years later F.D.R. took office, and the New Deal began.

Of course, the coming of the New Deal was hastened by a severe national depression. Strange to say, we may be working on that, too.

Originally published in The New York Times, 5.23.05