Let’s get this out of the way: I’m voting for Biden come hell or high water, and no attempt to dissuade me will succeed. But that’s not my subject today.
The Democratic Party released its draft platform, the compilation of ideas and legislation intended to be adopted at August’s convention and to guide the next administration. It contains a lot of promising points (e.g., good sections opposing “regime change,” and “ending forever wars,” quite a bit about racial justice, support for pay equity and raising the minimum wage, and much more) and almost as many disappointments (a weak reproductive rights section, a mixed bag of climate proposals, no support for marijuana legalization, etc.). Here’s a partial overview.
But sadly, the glaring omissions I want you to notice are unlikely to be written about elsewhere. Search for the words “art” and “artists,” and you will come up blank. Search for “public service employment” and you’ll also find zilch.
I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that in this plague year, with unemployment at all-time highs and businesses collapsing right and left, the drafting committee failed to call for something like a new WPA, putting people to work at government expense rebuilding physical and cultural infrastructure. On pages 15 and 16 of the draft platform, they talk about rebuilding, to be sure, but in a disembodied way. Their language of job creation is all about supporting small businesses and retraining, politicians’ inevitable answer to unemployment (and not so different from Ivanka Trump’s egregious “Find Something New” campaign).
It’s true that training is critical in some fields: dirty-energy workers should be helped to transition to jobs in clean energy, for example. But community artists don’t need to be retrained. They are mostly skilled, dedicated, and valued by participants in the work they do. The only relevant retraining program I would endorse is educating politicians to enlarge their idea of socially valuable work and how it is to be supported, abandoning the market-worship they’ve internalized and learning to see opportunity where it actually exists.
The omissions of the platform make me sad and frustrated. Wouldn’t it be nice if politicians learned from history? Wouldn’t it be great if they acknowledged the key roles personal and social creativity play in nurturing a humane and just society? The information is freely available. Twice in the past the U.S. has instituted public service employment: Federal One of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the Thirties and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) in the Seventies. You can find a brief summary here from my book New Creative Community). It’s a no-brainer to notice how resourceful artists were in using these programs for community cultural development and how large their impact was. It also doesn’t take much brain power to notice that certain social goods, such as community-based arts work, are not going to be provided by for-profit enterprises no matter how much stimulus funding is offered. For such public-interest activities, public support is essential.
This was true when President Obama was elected and I was among a quite large group of arts activists advocating for a new WPA. Here are links to a couple of essays I published at the time: “The New-New Deal 2009: Public Service Jobs for Artists?” and part two, “The New-New Deal 2009: Part 2—A New WPA for Artists: How and Why.” It is much more true now with a struggling economy, epic unemployment, and communities in crying need of creative help in sharing their stories, reweaving social fabric, standing for love and justice.
In 2008 and 2009, artists and arts activists hoped the incoming Obama administration would embrace a new WPA, but we were naive. Both the WPA and CETA had been phenomenally effective in their missions of employing the structurally unemployed in work for the common good. Funding for this work had never been robust, but after the recession of 2008, it declined further, and today it is more anemic than ever, especially as funders redeploy their grants to match their pandemic-era priorities. We thought a new WPA was a natural, but we weren’t taking the right things into consideration.
We didn’t pay enough attention to the way both programs were used by right-wingers to bring down progressive public spending. The WPA provided a good deal of support to artists determined to speak out about the issues of the day (check out the list of Federal Theatre Project productions, for instance). To quite a few politicians, that was too much free expression to tolerate. As the U.S. ramped up for World War II, it became possible for them to argue successfully for an end to the WPA both on grounds of its objectionable politics and of the need to spend funds instead on preparing for war and other approved expenditures. The timing was favorable for the right-wing agenda too: as the war effort began to gather steam, the groundwork was laid for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s post-war Red Scare, with witchhunts focused disproportionately on artists.
In similar fashion, the fact that CETA had employed many artists with progressive politics outraged the right. They framed their opposition along the same lines as the myth of “welfare queens,” asserting that people were being paid for worthless or even non-existent jobs—which flowed naturally from their belief that employing artists was tantamount to paying people to play for a living. CETA’s abolition was almost the first act of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
These ridiculous and punitive ideas about public service employment have been so strongly mainstreamed that very few elected officials even consider advocating for a new WPA. Even in times like these, there is an epidemic of defensive blindness that infected the Obama administration and continues today: don’t stand up for what’s needed if you know the Republicans will hate it. Political courage, anyone?
I would like to be able look to the members of the Platform Committee to provide it, but I see too many who are likely to prefer caution. Do you know any of these people? Can you approach them to put a new WPA on the agenda?
The Democratic Party says it’s inviting platform ideas from any and all. It’s a little late in the process (the decentralized convention begins on August 17), but I didn’t discover this invitation until after the draft platform had been released. Perhaps it’s moot or merely pro forma, because when I click on the links asking voters to share their ideas, it goes to a page where people are invited to say why they’re voting for Joe Biden. But it isn’t as if the platform is the last chance to garner support; we just have to persist.
It wasn’t that the WPA and CETA programs were created specifically to support artists. They were driven by high unemployment (though nothing as high as today’s) and the desire to help sectors under economic stress. Artists just happened to be one of them. Artists who want to serve community and democracy were resourceful and resilient. They were fortunate to have some advocates in high places, and were able to turn these programs toward essential cultural development.
That is what we need today: opportunities that address cultural infrastructure, recognizing artists among other workers as both needing support and providing essential services. This topic has my concentrated attention as we consider this society’s future, toward the election and definitely beyond. Please stay tuned for further information and please keep me posted on anything you are doing to bring the idea of a new WPA closer to reality.
“Fruits of My Labor” sung by Ruthie Foster.