Inside the Political Theater
July 24, 1984
SAN FRANCISCO — With the exception of Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, the big-name Democrats parading on TV here sound like third-rate sellers of soap. The Democratic Party remains the largely unimaginative political organization that began to lose its New Deal base years ago. But for the first time in recent memory there are signs of life within it, and stripped to its essentials, the fight pits the women and minorities, symbolized by Ferraro and Jackson, against the still-dominant conservative wing.
The question is whether Jackson and Ferraro will be consumed by the conservatives or stake out fresh ground. Just as the Republican Party was refreshed in 1980 with the raw energy of the New Right, the Democratic Party, buoyed by the feminist surge and black voter registration, could begin to find itself this year.
Ferraro is best known as a team player, disciple of Tip O’Neill; unlikely to stray far from his beck and call. Mondale already is flooding her with his own staff, but while Ferraro may appear to be a political pawn, the forces behind her ascendancy are not so easily controlled.
Since Jackson’s arrival in San Francisco, he has sounded a note of reconciliation. He pledged himself to resolve tensions between Jews and blacks and offered a public apology: “… if, in my low moments, in words, deeds, or attitudes, through error or temper, taste or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived anyone’s fears, I sincerely apologize.”
For weeks now, Jackson has been holding secret meetings with Bert Lance. Lance and Jackson are negotiating the terms of the minority planks, and concocting the southern strategy for Mondale’s campaign. Jackson is thankful to be cut into the ruling party councils, and with his help Mondale gets a shot at an expanded black vote.
At first, Jackson negotiated with Lance over delegate questions. More recently, Lance sent his advisers to brief Jackson on the economy. Much pleased, Jackson responded by making Lance’s major proposals the centerpiece of his convention speech, at least in early drafts.
Thus, stuck incongruously into the midst of Jackson’s powerful, poetic rhetoric, were Lance’s corny ideas about U.S. banks being in hock to foreigners. It is Lance’s theory that Reagan, in running up the deficit, has made the United States dependent on foreign bankers from whom the country must borrow to keep going.
Roll Call of Shame
Consider the record of this party over the last four years — what Tom Hayden called neo-Reaganism. The list is telling:
Support for the MX; refusal to oppose the deployment of Euromissiles in any serious way; Democrats in Congress, including those with liberal credentials, repeatedly declining to oppose Reagan on Central America, with the result that American-backed contras have laid siege to Nicaragua; standing with Reagan in El Salvador in the face of mounting civilian murder. Even as this convention opened, the party leadership is preparing to back President Duarte, under whose rule the terror in El Salvador has mushroomed.
The Democratic leadership stood with Reagan on the 1981 tax bill — legislation which transferred wealth from the middle class to the rich, and in the process virtually ended the corporate income tax. The neo-liberal wing of the party has, under Gary Hart, mounted a vigorous attack on the labor movement as a “special interest” — at a time when the unions represent the only buffer between workers and the aggressive policies of corporate business.
Most recently, the House Democratic leadership created the umbrella beneath which the Republicans successfully pushed through Simpson-Mazzoli, which, among other things, would establish a “guest worker” program for foreign agricultural workers. This re-creation of the bracero program — which another era of Democrats fought to eliminate — threatens to wipe out the Farm Workers Union, and amounts to one of the most vindictive, punitive, racist measures in American history.
The New Democrats
Despite the choice of Ferraro, the Democratic Party has persistently fought the rise of women within its own ranks. Nevertheless, Ferraro’s emergence and the Jackson campaign represent a broad challenge to the rampant neo-Reaganism in the party.
For the women who have had to fight, kicking and screaming, to the top of the Democratic Party, Ferraro’s selection represents an immense victory, and the opening of what surely will be a wider struggle for economic equality.
Ferraro is much more than a feminist candidate. The daughter of an immigrant working mother, she speaks directly to the disenfranchised base of the Democratic Party, the working women who have been most hurt by the recession and placed under savage attack by Reagan’s policies — the last hired and first fired who now populate the irregular workforce and are now a critical factor in American labor.
These women play a major role in the expanding lower middle class, which now consists of 72 million Americans — 30 per cent of the population. They come come from households with earnings between $6000 and $18,000 a year. Since 1978, the lower middle class has grown by a third. An increasing percentage of this class is made up of households headed by women, most of them minorities. It includes millions of young people who have never held a full-time job; people who once held factory jobs and now work for less than $6 an hour in service jobs; and old people living on fixed incomes.
There are within this group enough people to elect a Democratic president, but until Jesse Jackson began his campaign in predominantly white New Hampshire you’d hardly have known they existed. It is absolutely true that without Jackson, Ferraro’s nomination would never have been possible. The feminist movement owes a great debt to Jackson, a debt that many women seemed incapable of recognizing in the early moments of this convention.
Tough Talking Ferraro
Ferraro is a person of progressive political instincts. Here are a few points she made in an interview with the Voice earlier this year:
On the MX: “I have supported research and development. I have not supported deployment because it is destabilizing.”
On Nicaragua (asked if she thought it was a Cuban or Soviet satellite): “They are a Marxist government. There is no doubt about that. I think our problem is, frankly, that we expect it to be a democracy the way we define democracy, and I don’t think that’s possible.”
On El Salvador: “I would insist that the U.S. government let the people know we expect them to get their own act together, within their own units, to put someone in charge of the government. And probably the most important thing is that they do something about the amount of killing that is going on there. I would exert pressure on them to clean up their act, or they would be without economic aid.”
In one speech this year, talking about the concept of comparable worth, which fundamentally seeks to redefine the social utility of work (the most potentially profound economic subject the feminist movement has taken up), Ferraro declared: “A woman with a college education can expect lifetime earnings equal to those paid to a man who never finished the eighth grade. Groundskeepers are paid more than nurses. Parking lot attendants are often paid more than experienced secretaries. We entrust our children — our most precious resource — to teachers who frequently earn less than truck drivers.”
A New Feminist Era
Geraldine Ferraro is not just a symbol. Her nomination, as Frances Fox Piven puts it, is a “signal,” a tremor from within. Ferraro’s nomination opens a new era of feminist politics, for the first time placing the genuinely radical perspectives of the feminist movement in a far broader national arena.
Comparable worth, for example, entails a restructuring of the American economy and could precipitate a struggle of serious proportions with the business community. It is because Ferraro is associated with these ideas that her candidacy will in all probability undergo formidable challenge.
The vice presidency would be more than a symbolic job for a woman, It offers a forum of real power and, if gained, could spark a political groundswell.
The feminist movement has so far succeeded in spanning class divisions. Things are now apt to change. Its future political course will, in all likelihood, depend on how successfully it deals with potentially divisive splits — the extent to which, for example, white middle-class women reach out to include black women, and the measure of cooperation shown to poor working women.
The Republicans already have begun to play on these potential divisions to split the gender gap vote and open a serious attack on the feminists.
As with the environmental movement a decade ago, it is certain that the modern feminist movement will focus increasingly on basic economic issues — equal pay for equal work, redressing inequality in the workplace, the social purpose of work in general, the feminization of poverty. In short, Ferraro’s nomination should result in a bold, new opening for feminist politics, and a new radical lens through which to view the economy. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 13, 2020