Given that the nation just finished celebrating Labor Day, it’s a good time to check in on the progress of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, S. 811 in the United States Senate. The legislation would ban discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation (except for employers that have a religious mission or have fewer than 15 workers).
The bill was introduced to the Senate in April of this year by Senator Jeff Merkley, and was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Since that time, no action on the bill has taken place.
Generations At Odds, a report released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute, indicates that 71 percent of Americans support legal protections for gay and lesbian workers of the sort provided for in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. That kind of high level of support for a cause should lead to passage of legislation in a democracy, yet the Senate has not acted.
The Senate is currently controlled by the Democratic Party – though by a slim margin. Could it be that the Senate Democrats are out of touch with American opinion, leaving the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the lurch? I suspected that this might be the case, and so I checked the list of cosponsors for the legislation.
It turns out that the Senate Democrats are quite representative of the opinion of the American people on the issue of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. 71 percent of Americans support workplace protections like those included in the legislation, and 72 percent of Senate Democrats have signed their names in support of the bill.
The following are the Senate Democrats who have declined to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act: Max Baucus, Tom Carper, Kent Conrad, Kay Hagan, Tim Johnson, Herb Kohl, Mary Landrieu, Joe Manchin, Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson, Mark Pryor, Harry Reid, John Rockefeller, Jon Tester, and Mark Warner.
The Senate Republicans, on the other hand, are profoundly out of sync with American opinion. While 71 percent of the American public supports the cause of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, only 8 percent of Republican senators do.
This pattern indicates that, at least in terms of labor issues and gender equality, the Senate is strongly out of balance. While the Republicans in the Senate are promoting a hard right wing position that’s far beyond popular American opinion, the Democrats are not counterbalancing the GOP agenda. The Senate Democrats are occupying a centrist position, not a position that’s to the left of American opinion.
The effect is that the Senate, though formally controlled by the Democratic Party, is ideologically dominated by the Republicans and their right wing agenda. A right wing position has become the default in the Senate, even though that political position is not in accord with the values of the American opinion.
If this dynamic holds true across other issues, then the solution for bringing the U.S. Senate into alignment with the American people needs to be the creation of an effective political party on the left. The left is the missing piece in politics on Capitol Hill.
In this context, efforts by groups like Americans Elect and No Labels to create a new centrist political party are redundant and unlikely to succeed. Why would American voters flock to a new centrist political party, when the Democratic Party already occupies that position?
What’s truly missing is a reasonable, well-organized liberal political party. The challenge in constructing such a party isn’t ideological. It’s organizational. Liberals reject the corporate money that’s built up the Republican Party. Working Americans could, if they all chipped in a little bit, get a reasonable balance of cash and volunteer labor behind a liberal party.
The problem is that working Americans are living through rough economic times. Because the American federal government has been taken over by a center right coalition of Republicans and Democrats, without a liberal party to balance the system, policies have systematically redirected wealth from workers to corporations and their wealthiest investors. The economic dynamic that excludes liberals from American politics is thus circular, and won’t change unless liberal activists are able to come up with an effective new mechanism for political organization that doesn’t rely on financial donations.