Beyond Resistance: How Democrats Can Win Back Working Families

(Photo: AP/Seth Wenig)

Supporters of paid family leave hold signs at a rally in New York City on March 10, 2016.

The throngs of protesters who attended the Women’s March on Washington, and who continue to demonstrate at airports, town halls, and on city streets around the country, have made clear that opposition to Donald Trump’s radical Republican agenda will be sustained and powerful. But to earn the trust of the majority of Americans who reject Trumpism, Democrats will have to go beyond simple resistance. They’ll have to show that if voters restore them to power, they’ll actually improve the lives of working families.

Democrats have some work to do. Take, for example, Muriel Bowser, the Democratic mayor of Washington, D.C.—in theory, at least, the heart of the resistance. For two years, Bowser failed to support local legislation to create the nation’s strongest paid family and medical leave program. The D.C. Council passed the bill anyway, mustering a super-majority in the face of Bowser’s—and corporate D.C.’s—objections to both the program’s costs, and to the government’s role in administering it. But Bowser’s opposition to a policy supported by a bipartisan majority of voters demonstrates precisely the kind of tone-deafness that will keep Democrats in the minority. Now more than ever, Democrats must give struggling families a reason to believe in government as a force for good in their lives. A rejection of paid family and medical leave policies in D.C. does just the opposite.
Because of the Democratic party’s historic losses around the country last year, the Democrats in the best position to restore faith in party leadership are those few who remain in power—mostly mayors, governors, and state legislative majorities. Trump’s campaign played on racial demagoguery that reached far beyond the white supremacist “Bannon wing” of the GOP base by blaming widespread economic insecurity on the racial “other.” Step one of the resistance is rejecting Trump’s racial scapegoating. But step two is delivering real relief to working families who might otherwise be vulnerable to Trump’s far-right populist appeals.

At a time when so many Americans are struggling to make ends meet, Democrats must aggressively brainstorm and promote the solutions that working families are begging for. Paid family leave should be central to this platform, as should minimum-wage increases, like the $15 minimum wage law that has drawn wide praise in the District. These are vital tools to reduce the economic inequality and racial health disparities that are all too prevalent in major American cities—and they go hand in hand. Notably, the District’s new paid leave policy will guarantee the city’s lowest-income workers 90 percent of their wages while on family leave. This will be particularly helpful to working parents with newborn children, who are in a vulnerable spot. Our research has shown that two-parent families with young children experience a 14 percent drop in income compared to households without children. For single mothers, the drop is even more dramatic, at 36 percent. D.C.’s paid family leave policy will provide concrete support to families trapped between the need to care for their children and the necessity to earn a living wage. 

Such benefits are especially crucial now that Republicans are working every day to destroy the social safety net, including the Affordable Care Act, and are slashing federal support for cities and states. Democrats fighting to protect struggling families must do more than win rhetorical arguments. Where they can, they must enact concrete policies in the form of better pay and family-supporting benefits, affordable college, and programs to send young people to work instead of to jail.
At a time when Republicans and corporate lobbyists are peddling “alternative facts,” Democrats serious about resisting Trumpism and winning more elections must boldly own these actual facts: Higher wages boost economies; paid leave makes for stronger families and better workers; universal health care is a social good; immigrants are vital members of our communities; and diversity and inclusion are what really make America great. To regain voters’ trust, Democrats must counter Trump’s right-wing, xenophobic, false populism with a family-friendly populism of their own—one that tangibly lifts up the dignity and financial well-being of all working people. 

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