The Democratic Dance

In the early 1950s, Memphis record producer Sam Phillips was supposed to have said, "If I can find me a white singer who has the Negro sound and the Negro feel, we'll make a million dollars." He found Elvis.

In 1988, with Jesse Jackson's Rainbow presidential campaign, the moguls of the Democratic Party glimpsed the horrible possibility of a true, multiracial populist uprising against the age of the shrinking wage. It's not hard to imagine them muttering to themselves, "If we can find a 'mainstream' man with that populist feel, we'll get back in the White House."

Bill Clinton, it must be acknowledged, has a little bit of Elvis in him. And it's not just the diet. In his 1992 campaign, Clinton played a "mainstreamed" version of the Rainbow music, and a happy nation danced. But like Elvis, after that first flash of brilliance, he began to disappoint. Elvis left Sam Phillips and went to Hollywood. Clinton stopped listening to his populist musical director, James Carville, and went to Wall Street.

Clinton's new friends told him, "If you try that populist stuff on us, we'll crash the bond market and let you preside over a four-year recession." Soon NAFTA was passed, without the labor provisions candidate Clinton had promised, and those "investments" Labor secretary Robert Reich kept talking about—in worker-training, education, and infrastructure—well, they were put off to an ever-receding tomorrow.

That's the Democrats' dilemma. They climb the charts when they play that fanfare for the common person. But to exercise power (from the top) in this country you've got to harmonize with the global corporations. They have to sound like the party of working families. But they have to do it without challenging the free trade regime that has kept wages down since "Burning Love" was in the Top 10.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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