Liberalism Without Labor Unions?

August 25, 2009 |
Is the future of American liberalism a politics of charity rather than a politics of solidarity?
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Can there be liberalism without labor? Can a progressive movement exist in a country in which organized labor has lost its political influence? My friend Mark Schmitt, the executive editor of the American Prospect, asks that question:

The new progressive coalition follows the lines of the "emerging Democratic majority" that Ruy Teixeira and John Judis predicted in their 2002 book of that name: minority, professional, and younger voters, with help from a large gender gap. This is a coalition that can win without a majority of white working-class voters, whether union members or not ... But it's also dangerous. A political coalition that doesn't need Joe the-fake-Plumber (John McCain's mascot of the white working class) can also afford to ignore the real Joes, Josés, and Josephines of the working middle class, the ones who earn $16 an hour, not $250,000 a year. It can afford to be unconcerned about the collapse of manufacturing jobs, casually reassuring us that more education is the answer to all economic woes. A party of professionals and young voters risks becoming a party that overlooks the core economic crisis-not the recession but the 40-year crisis-that is wiping out the American dream for millions of workers and communities that are never going to become meccas for foodies and Web designers.

Looking back, we can see that the history of American liberalism since the Depression falls into two periods: the New Deal up until the 1970s, when industrial labor provided the muscle of the reform coalition, and the neoliberal period, when unions have been eclipsed in the alliance by the black civil rights movement and other social movements: consumerism, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights. Necessary and important as they are, there are two problems with these liberal social movements as the base of a progressive party.

First, unlike unions, they are not membership organizations funded by dues from their members. They are mostly AstroTurf movements that depend on their funding and strategic direction on a handful of progressive foundations, and their leaders are appointed by donors and board members, not elected by followers. The work they do is valuable, but they cannot be substitutes for genuinely popular organizations.

Second, the members of most of these nonprofit movements are drawn disproportionately from the white college-educated professional class; their self-assignment to one or another single-issue movement does not disguise the fact that they tend to belong to the same social elite. Like the progressivism of the 1900s, but unlike the labor movement and agrarian populism, the progressivism of the 2000s is a movement of haves motivated by pity for the have-littles and have-nots, rather than a movement of have-littles and have-nots motivated by self-interest. And because they are, or believe themselves to be, motivated by philanthropy, the progressive haves are less interested in the economic struggles of the have-littles of the broad working class than in rescuing a far smaller number of have-nots from dire poverty. And even those elite progressives who are concerned about the working class are motivated by noblesse oblige: "We're from Washington, and we're here to help!"

Is the future of American liberalism a politics of charity rather than a politics of solidarity? In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder whether the relatively brief influence of labor unions in the Democratic Party in the mid-20th century was not an exception to the rule of elitism in American politics. You can write a narrative of American history in which, first, agrarian populism and 19th-century labor movements are crushed by repression and bloodshed by the 1900s. Then organized labor, after a brief, unforeseen period of influence from the 1930s to the 1960s, is crushed a second time by neoliberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, leaving an America in which the only significant conflicts are those within the economic elite. In such a political order, the only left that counts will be the left based on money rather than votes or members. Progressivism becomes a movement of the privileged and charitable who are interested in doing good to other Americans rather than with other Americans.

In such a system, it is hard to speak of a politics of the left at all, inasmuch as politics is a matter of popular participation. To be sure, before elections various non-elite groups must be mobilized to vote for the reformist party. But between elections, there is no need to consult the majority, although pollsters may take its temperature now and then. There is no need to for consultation because public policy is something that should be devised by experts, many of them in interest-group organizations, who study issues, come to their conclusions and propose plans. Why involve the public in devising the plans? Why even explain the plans? It's easier for the experts simply to work with the elected representatives, who can then hire other experts--consultants--to learn how to sell the policies to voters. And if the elected representatives fail in their task of winning a legislative majority and passing legislation-well, since the 1970s liberals have shown that they are willing to rely on unelected federal judges and federal agencies to push unpopular progressive reforms through, when they can't get the votes.

But an oligarchic system in which politics is a debate among graduates of the same elite schools in the same elite neighborhoods is not likely to be stable, particularly in a country like the U.S., where most of the gains of economic growth for a generation have gone to the top. If the game of politics is a game that effectively is limited to the rich and the professional class, then the rest will find tribunes--usually affluent and well-educated themselves--who will propose to turn over the gaming tables and open the doors to the casino. Would the absurd distortions of the current healthcare-reform backlash resonate so strongly if the white working-class felt more invested in the modern version of liberalism? Unlike the Progressive era that preceded it and the neoliberal era that followed, the New Deal era was remarkably free of anti-system protest figures like Eugene Debs, Huey Long, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Patrick Buchanan and Lou Dobbs. Not only labor unions but also genuine grassroots membership parties represented the values and interests of non-elite Americans and checked the disproportionate power of the investors, the corporate managers and the professionals.

Can parties or partylike organizations play the role once played in part by labor unions? During the New Deal era, the political parties still represented popular interests and values, even in areas of the country like the South and much of the West where unions had been defeated. The old kind of party machine is dead forever, but while the conservative movement had some success with direct mail campaigns, neither national party has seriously tried to mobilize ordinary Americans according to a partisan public philosophy, as distinct from manipulating particular groups of voters on the basis of single issues. A few years ago there was talk of the "netroots" as a new constituency, but Internet campaigns in practice seem to have mobilized liberals rather than to have converted voters to liberalism.

In the 47 years of my life I have received only one piece of mail from the Democratic Party--a letter inviting me to pay $1,500 to buy a seat at a table at a fundraiser. I don't receive any e-mails from the Democrats at all. At the same time, I am battered by direct mail from various single-issue liberal constituencies, seeking not my vote but my money. Because I am neither a big donor nor a reliable foot soldier for this or that single-issue movement, but merely a citizen, the Democratic Party as an organization evidently has no interest in me.

The labor movement, as a basis for a liberal politics, is unlikely to revive. But surely the Democrats-or better yet, a liberal movement distinct from the Democrats-could try to use modern communications techniques to try to mobilize voters in places outside affluent neighborhoods and college towns. The objective is not to sell Americans on poll-tested talking points, but to inspire them with a coherent vision of the past, present and future of the country. The effort would be difficult and divisive, and it might fail. But the alternative is more of what we see in the politics of healthcare and energy reform: a politics motivated by a mixture of philanthropy and profit and carried out by means of incremental insider corporatist negotiations, a politics that most Americans watch in frustration from a distance.