Kevin Drum's recent article, Why the Democratic Party Has Abandoned the Middle Class in Favor of the Rich, has rightly been getting a lot of attention lately. It focuses our attention on a crucial piece of the story of America's economic collapse: how the Democratic Party went from being the voice of the middle class to becoming sycophants of the rich, enthusiastically endorsing positions that destroyed prosperity in order to help the wealthy hold more of their money and power.
But if we are to understand this story, we have to get it right. And Kevin Drum doesn't really do that here. At the center of his story is the fate of American labor unions. He argues that the New Left-influenced Democrats ignored and abandoned the needs of working people, and that opened a breach within the Democratic Party that was difficult to heal. He's wrong about that, as he's also wrong in implying that the labor movement is in terminal decline. As we work to rebuild social democratic politics in America, we need to make sure we understand what really happened.
Part of the problem is that Drum begins his story in the 1960s. In fact, discussions of recent American politics really needs to begin in the late 1940s. At that time, the Democratic Party had been in power for 15 years (at least in the White House) and was committed to a progressive agenda. That agenda included not only core economic principles like full employment and universal health care, it also included a commitment to civil rights, global peace, and organizing the hell out of the American workplace.
But the right never accepted this agenda. They had won some electoral victories along the way - the 1938 midterms brought the New Deal to a halt, the 1946 midterms gave the right control of Congress (and delivered Taft-Hartley, among other horrors). But it was the emerging Cold War that shattered the progressive Democratic coalition. The right mercilessly painted that coalition as a bunch of Stalinists, and under siege, the coalition split. Democratic leaders like Truman, as well as labor leaders like Walter Reuther and George Meany, felt they had no choice but to purge the left. And so they did.
By 1950 the social democratic movement in America was dead. The economic agenda that FDR had proposed in 1944 - the Second Bill of Rights - was abandoned. It's worth reminding ourselves of what FDR wanted his legacy to look like:
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
Civil rights was jettisoned (and was only advanced because activists themselves refused to give up). Democrats, along with the leaders of labor, embraced the Cold War and abandoned their agenda of peace. And they concluded that prosperity would be delivered by the free market and by large corporations, with some generally minor regulations to prevent another Depression.
During the repressive 1950s, labor leaders felt they had reached the best deal they could get - they had secured their position in American politics and the economy (or so they thought) by abandoning their social democratic agenda, by purging the left, and by fully embracing a corporate, militaristic state.
These leaders were generally unprepared for the 1960s. That's not true of all unions - some had been funding social democratic activism and civil rights work all along. Kevin Drum mentioned the Port Huron Statement, which is seen as a classic New Left text, but what he didn't say is that it was written at a labor-sponsored conference by people active in the Student League for Industrial Democracy, a labor-funded organization designed to promote unionism in the new generation.
Drum writes of a caricatured New Left:
They were animated not by workplace safety or the cost of living, but first by civil rights and antiwar sentiment, and later by feminism, the sexual revolution, and environmentalism. They wore their hair long, they used drugs, and they were loathed by the mandarins of organized labor.
This is a massive oversimplification. The people who consciously saw themselves as a "New Left" - Students for a Democratic Society, for example - included economic concerns as a core issue. This was the era when poverty was the main issue. Michael Harrington's "The Other America" had shown that a lot of Americans were being left behind during postwar prosperity, and civil rights activism was, after all, largely about economic concerns. SDS launched efforts to bring the New Left into this fight through direct community organizing around issues of poverty. They called it the Economic Research and Action Project. It didn't produce the desired results, but it and subsequent efforts showed that the New Left was very deeply interested in working with labor and the working-class.
In some unions that desire was reciprocated. Peter Levy wrote an entire book on this in 1994, titled The New Left and Labor in the 1960s. Some unions, like Walter Reuther's UAW, were more open to the New Left. Others, like the building trades, were usually deeply hostile. George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, was too deeply wedded to the 1950s model - labor had to fight the left and stand with the "liberal consensus" of war and corporate economics - to be sympathetic. The AFL-CIO strongly backed the war in Vietnam, even though many in the white working-class were ambivalent at best about it.
Still, the New Left was VERY interested in organized labor and in addressing economic issues. Always was. Of course, they were also interested in ensuring that racial and gender barriers to prosperity came down - they understood that prosperity was meaningless if it wasn't for everyone. That challenged the postwar power arrangement that labor leaders had invested everything in, and leaders like Meany didn't see the value to blowing that up.
Even more importantly, when there were unions that did see the value, their rank and file didn't always agree. Many rank and file union members had deeply invested in the notion of working class = white, and believed that people of color were a threat to their prosperity.
Nixon exploited these divisions brilliantly. In 1970 there was a "hard hat riot" on Wall Street, where construction workers attacked an anti-war protest. Nixon immediately seized on this to make it look like "real America" supported the war and hated hippies. Nixon wore a hard hat and played up the issue. But he also exploited the divisions over race. Nixon drove a wedge between civil rights activists and building trades unions in particular on affirmative action policies. Nixon used the policies to alienate white construction workers from black and Latino workers and their supporters in the New Left. (Read more about that here.)
There were New Left activists, especially by the late '60s, who spent quite a lot of time trying to organize the white working class. They did a lot of community organizing. In some places it worked, in some places it didn't. Persistent white working-class racism was a big barrier. Some participated in union reform movements that challenged the more conservative power structure.
There was a fundamental difference on economic questions, however. Many in the New Left were products of the middle-class, had seen the emptiness of the postwar economic system, and were advocating for something more radical. (Subsequent events have proven them right - the postwar policy of using free markets and free trade, overseen by corporations, to produce prosperity to be a failure.) Many rank and file white working-class people still felt their middle-class status was tenuous, and did not understand why the New Left was rejecting the middle-class lifestyle they themselves aspired to keep. They hadn't rejected American capitalism. It was working for them - at least for the time being - and were not sympathetic to efforts to change it.
By the mid-'70s New Left economic activism had begun to fade - the New Left was totally unprepared for neoliberalism and had never really been able to articulate a reaction against it, and when neoliberalism hit with full force, it was able to take advantage of the splits between the New Left and the labor bosses. Of course, the labor unions weren't prepared for neoliberalism either. They assumed that Democrats would always back Keynesian economics and would never vote for right-wing economic policies like deregulation and tax cuts.
Drum wants to argue that the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972 caused big splits within the Democratic coalition. I don't really think that's accurate. 1968's impact is overstated. The protests at the Chicago convention were a sign of discontent, but even many on the New Left wound up supporting Hubert H. Humphrey that fall - and had RFK lived, he would have won the nomination and would have had a better shot at unifying the New Left and the white working-class.
Nixon's policies of divide-and-conquer help explain some of the difficulties in 1972, when labor shied away from strongly backing George McGovern. But the backdrop was one of racial divisions. The New Left would never, ever endorse racism. Many in the white working-class did, especially in the fight against affirmative action or against busing. That divide was very difficult to bridge.
But the divides that existed made it difficult to react to the unexpected challenges of the 1970s. The rise of neoliberalism - policies designed to gut the public sector and give all power and wealth to the corporations - was sudden and neither the New Left nor labor expected Democrats to embrace it as deeply as they did. Jimmy Carter and many Congressional Democrats sold out the middle class from about 1978 onward. The divisions between the New Left and labor made it difficult to put up a common resistance - especially when labor unions still believed that the basic economic system was working, and when they felt they couldn't or shouldn't aggressively support the social and cultural agenda of the left. (When whites were rioting against disco music in the late '70s because it was seen as "black," you can see just one aspect of the problem.)
What did persist of the New Left tended to be more exclusively focused on social issues, and began to take the economic system for granted. Still, some New Left activists spent the 1980s fighting alongside labor to keep plants open and to stop deindustrialization. But this was never very widespread, and it did not help that after 1977 or so the Democratic Party had embraced neoliberalism as well. Most labor leaders were still unwilling to leave the Democratic Party (even after Clinton backstabbed them on NAFTA) because there didn't seem to be a viable alternative.
Unions only lately - and recently - began to discover that the New Left had been correct all along. Some discovered that sooner, some later. But it took right-wing victories, Democratic failures, and the post-2000 economic downward spiral to make that common ground possible.
The New Left tried. Labor leaders, by and large, were just not willing to listen. They didn't see the crisis ahead and when it came, they did not see the value of working with the New Left to respond - and by the late 1970s there wasn't much of a New Left remaining even if they had.
Kevin Drum's whole article does show, correctly, that labor leaders made a series of bad bets from about 1968 onward. They overestimated the degree to which the American political and economic elite wanted or needed them. And they were way, WAY too slow to realize that the Democratic Party's leadership had turned on them.
What Drum doesn't really examine is the way that white working-class racism made deeper coalitions with the New Left impossible. The reason that such coalitions are now possible is because many of those white working-class racists are finally dying off, and the more diverse Millennial generation is starting to outnumber them in the electorate.
The only hope for labor is to ally fully with the progressive left, and fight neoliberalism - and anyone who practices neoliberalism - with everything they've got. California labor has discovered this. They put together a great, diverse, progressive coalition that beat Meg Whitman by 13 points last year. Labor donated a lot of money to the campaign to defeat Prop 8 (and if that campaign had not been run by idiots, and had actually reached out to labor sooner, it might have succeeded in defeating Prop 8). Labor still has its problems - still too wedded to a top-down model - but there are now many more labor leaders who "get it," who understand the value of progressive politics and the progressive movement, and who hopefully realize the contempt in which they are held by most of the Democratic Party leadership.
Finally, Drum writes as if the labor movement is terminally ill. That's absurd. Labor unions have been around in the USA for nearly 200 years. They face unprecedented repression, to be sure. But strikes and unions have been outlawed or made difficult before, including in the late 19th century. Unions survive, because the basic fact remains that the only way working people will have decent conditions and pay is if they organize for it themselves.
The challenge is to find ways to promote union organizing in a 21st century economy. Democrats, including President Obama, failed unions and failed progressives when they failed to advance the Employee Free Choice Act. Progressives didn't fight as hard as we should have either. Our movement cannot succeed without labor unions - because we will keep losing as long as our workplaces are not democratic.
But when you go to Netroots Nation in Minneapolis next month, and see all the union organizing there, and union members, and union sponsorships, you'll see the future of progressive coalitions. And you'll see the future of America. We have a chance to finally bring together the left and labor, after nearly 50 years of effort. It sucks that it comes during a severe crisis. But the opportunity is there. Let's make sure we take it.