May Day

Published April 27, 2007, issue of April 27, 2007.
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Springtime, the season of renewal, is a time of expectation and remembrance, a time for looking forward to nature’s rebirth, while thinking back on the winter just endured. We fill the season with holidays of hope and memory, mimicking the earth in its drama of reawakening: Passover, with its memories of exodus and promise of liberation; Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Day, recalling the Nazi horror and vowing “never again”; Israel Independence Day, celebrating a millennial moment of rebirth; Memorial Day, honoring those who fell for freedom and pledging to carry on for them. Each holiday unites us as a community or a nation, reminds us of the values we share and of the promises yet to be fulfilled.

This coming week, a holiday of hope will pass almost unnoticed, and we will be the poorer for having forgotten it. Next Tuesday is May Day, observed in most of the world — though not in North America — as Labor Day. Unlike our own September version of the worker’s holiday, the Labor Day observed on other continents is typically marked by open celebration of the rights of working people and the poor. The streets are filled with union members, activists, idealists — and not a few scoundrels — carrying banners and singing songs of justice and hope. Speeches are made, and politicians pay obligatory homage to the ideals of economic democracy and the dignity of the common man. We don’t do that here.

Worldwide, it is true, the scoundrels usually outnumber the idealists. The banner of social and economic transformation — the red flag of socialism — was long ago seized by dictators who used it as a bludgeon to subjugate the very working people they pretended to champion. Trampling democracy, law and basic decency, these self-anointed “vanguard” parties set about to create what they called a dictatorship of the working class. What they built was nothing more than dictatorship. For many of us, the flag has come to symbolize that legacy of oppression, and the name of socialism has become synonymous with the worst of its claimants.

This has been our loss. There are others who fly the same flag, and do so in the name of democracy and freedom. But these parties, the labor and social-democratic parties of Europe and points south, too often find themselves on the defensive, ashamed and apologetic. The cataclysmic end of the Cold War is understood to be a victory of America over the Soviet Union and of capitalism over socialism. The very idea of economic justice has become suspect among the chattering classes of the West. In its place have come the triumph of the markets and the dictatorship of the investing class.

But the democratic socialists of the West owe no apologies. In England, Sweden, Holland, Israel and dozens of other democratic nations, parties of social democracy have won power over the decades by earning voters’ trust, and they have used it to improve working people’s lives in countless ways so obvious that they are now taken for granted. Because of them, much of the industrialized world enjoys universal health care, living wages and decent old-age pensions.

America, to its misfortune, never gave rise to a strong party of social democracy. For a time, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Democratic Party built a social-democratic style coalition of economic populists and social liberals, with economic justice and the rights of the working majority as its bedrock. That coalition held sway for decades, until it fractured on the shoals of the Vietnam era. In the turmoil of the 1960s, liberals and the nation’s working majority turned their backs on one another. With that, America’s brief flirtation with social democracy came to an end. The Democrats came to be seen as a party of bohemians and nags, while Republicans settled in for a generation of dominance. The moral vision of social democracy was reduced to the whinings of so-called populists, ignored by both parties and invisible on the national stage. Instead, we’ve had a generation of market fundamentalism, declining wages, runaway corporate crime, mountains of debt and ever-growing inequality.

The midterm election of 2006 opened the door for a new beginning. Democrats sensed an opportunity in the wave of public disgust with the Bush administration. They understood that to cut into the Republican hold on the so-called Red States, they had to overcome widespread suspicion of the Democratic social agenda. To do that, they returned to the old slogan of economic justice, and recruited candidates who could carry that message — figures like Jim Webb, Bob Casey and Heath Shuler. These are figures who in any other time or place would be known as progressives and social democrats, but somehow have come in the 21st century to be known as conservatives.

There’s a lesson here for Democrats, if they’re wise enough to hear it. Appropriately for May Day, it’s a message of memory and hope. America’s working majority wants its old party back. The new one they got in 1972 hasn’t worked. By championing the politics of social liberalism, putting minority rights first and neglecting the basic needs of the majority, Democrats ended up with neither. When they begin with the majority, then they’re in a position to help everyone. There’s a name for that sort of politics: social democracy.

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