Are The Democrats The Right Choice?

NB. This is a discussion between Adolph Reed and Bob Master.
Scroll further down for Bob Master’s response.

Adolph Reed’s Opinion: Why Labor’s Soldiering For The Democrats Is A Losing Battle

 

The question whether an Obama-era Democratic party may offer opportunities for labor and left-of-center political interests presumes that Obama’s Democratic Party offers potential for significant departure from the rightward tacking we’ve seen since Bill Clinton’s presidency. There is little in anything Obama’s said or done to warrant such a presumption.

Throughout his career, Obama has been able to assume left support while never seriously committing to any actually left policies. In fact, in his books and speeches he has frequently invoked stereotypical images of left dogmatism, intemperateness, or folly, often as asides that seem intended mainly to reassure conservative sensibilities about his judiciousness.1

This inclination to toss off casual references to the Left’s “excesses” or socialism’s “failure” has been a defining feature of Brand Obama and supports the claim that he is a new kind of pragmatic progressive, singularly able to bridge—or rise above—left and right, and appeal across ideological divisions.2

Rather than a departure, however, Obama’s political style presumes and consolidates Clintonism’s ideological and programmatic victory. Obama could not have sold his liberalconservative “bipartisan” transcendence so successfully to leftists/progressives if Clinton had not already moved the boundaries of liberalism rightward enough to incorporate key elements of the Reaganite agenda and worldview. Clinton’s presidency articulated a Democratic version of neoliberalism that abjures commitment to the public sector’s role in mitigating inequalities produced through market processes. This is the substantive foundation of Obama’s political vision. His posture of judiciousness and transcendence of left-right division, for example, depends partly on ritual validation of bromides about “big government,” which he can evoke through nods to resonant phrases, without needing affirmative arguments that might disconcert his left constituents.

Obama has been able to assume left support while never seriously committing to any actually left policies.

In a similar vein, Obama’s reliance on nasty, victim-blaming stereotypes about black poor people to convey tough-minded honesty about race and poverty also presumes victorious Clintonism. Clinton’s rhetoric of “ending welfare as we know it,” his division of the poor into those who “play by the rules” and those who presumably do not, his Orwellian recasting of the destruction of low-income housing and forced displacement of poor people as “moving to opportunity” and “HOPE,” and (most of all) his debacle of “welfare reform” already had helped effect liberal Democrats’ accommodation to underclass ideology that construes behavior modification as the fundamental objective of anti-poverty policy. Obama’s nefarious “Popeyes chicken” speech and his Father’s Day excoriation merely rehearsed, albeit more effectively, Clinton’s well-known stratagem of disparaging poor black people in speeches to black audiences. 3

Neither Obama’s deep and tight connections to investor class interests (no candidate received more in financial sector campaign contributions, as is reflected in his list of economic appointments) nor his commitment to a militarist foreign policy has differed substantially from Clinton’s, Gore’s, Kerry’s or others’ in the Democratic leadership. So why, then, have so many politically savvy people assumed—both during his presidential campaign and since his inauguration—that an Obama-led Democratic Party would mark a progressive departure from its predecessors?

This assumption stems largely from his racial classification and the complex imagery and claims associated with the prospect of his becoming the first president publicly recognized as black. That imagery encouraged characterizing the implications of Obama’s election for American racial politics as lying in a different, and perhaps normatively precedent, dimension from his substantive vision and programmatic agenda. From that perspective, the symbolic significance of the opportunity to elect a black president could mystify, or even outweigh, the candidate’s actual politics.

In this view, Obama’s victory and presidency are progressive because he is black. Obama receives a pass from progressives because the election of a black president is by definition a progressive accomplishment. Whatever advances and supports this president’s election and administration must be progressive, even when he explicitly and preemptively rejects left options for conservative ones. Tellingly, Obama himself has sought to deflect criticism by adducing who he is—elements of his biography, his personal bona fides—rather than his substantive political commitments. The logic that roots Obama’s progressivism in who he is rather than what he does or stands for also mirrors Clinton’s insistence that his liberalism inhered in who he was—the poor boy from Hope, Arkansas who could feel your pain, baby-boomer, post-segregationist Southerner. As we have seen around one issue after another—the endless, even expanding wars; failure, yet again, to follow through on promised labor law reform; an approach to health care reform that built in satisfying the insurance and pharmaceutical industries as non-negotiable from the outset, the equivalent, as my father would say, of hiring Jesse James as a bank guard; an inadequate approach to economic stimulus; abetting, if not actively advancing, the destruction of public education; and, in some ways most destructive of all, blithe inattentiveness to the intensifying fiscal crises of the states—the belief that this administration is open to progressive initiatives remains undisturbed, undercutting protest or mobilization from the labor movement and other institutional constituencies actually capable of marshalling opposition. The conviction that Obama literally embodies the aspirations of a Democratic Left has encouraged a suspension of criticism of his administration, as the travesty of the Gulf Coast oil spill dramatically illustrates.

The belief that this administration is open to progressive initiatives undercuts protest or mobilization from institutional constituencies actually capable of marshalling opposition.

So the posture from the AFL-CIO and other unions—as well as environmental, civil rights, women’s, and public interest groups—has been first to defend the administration against attacks from the Right and then to hope that demonstrated loyalty or “responsibility” will pay off in concessions. This hopefulness is often expressed in appeals to the president’s better, more progressive instincts—which had largely been projected onto him in those supporters’ will to believe—and efforts to dissociate him from his appointees’ actions. (If we could only get an audience with the king, we could show him the mistakes being made in his name!)

To be sure, our side has realized gains from this administration that would not have been possible under Republicans. One recent illustration is the apparent shift in the New York Labor Board’s disposition regarding graduate student unionization. 4
Department of Labor enforcement reportedly has improved dramatically as well, and Obama’s executive order mandating project labor agreements for federal construction projects (Executive Order 13502) will have real impact. The EPA and OSHA have been reinvigorated as regulatory agencies, as have others, and civil rights enforcement in the Department of Justice has been renewed. At the same time, it is not clear that these and other gains indicate any particular openness to progressive politics from Obama’s administration. They just as likely reflect the general ways that having a Democratic administration in power is preferable to the alternative.

These and other such gains are meaningful so far as they go and are not to be dismissed. It is necessary to lobby, advocate, cajole, compromise, and acquiesce to win as many such victories as possible. The reality of our political weakness is such that we cannot hope for more from a sitting administration and Congress. No less than comparable gains under Clinton, however, these must be weighed against what we have lost and will lose—as workers of whatever race, gender, and sexual orientation—as the result of the Obama Democrats’ generally imperialist foreign policy and economic and social policies that shrink social protections while expanding the punitive apparatus and reinforcing financial sector and corporate hegemony.

That sort of accounting is unlikely to take place, partly because doing so would mean confronting a core contradiction of labor and left political strategy that is content to operate entirely within the national Democratic Party’s programmatic steering imperatives. Over time, a political strategy crafted within those constraints will be able to do little more than negotiate the best possible terms of defeat in a revanchist regime of upward redistribution that is the practical logic of neoliberalism.5
As Doug Henwood recently observed, the essence of this contradiction is that “the Democratic Party is a party of capital that has to pretend for electoral reasons that it’s something else. So, Dems make progressive noises to satisfy the base, but once in power, do the bidding of their funders.” 6

Obama is more likely to complete the Clintonist consolidation of the Democratic Party as the identitarian left-wing of neoliberalism.

It is this tension between the class basis of the Democratic Party’s policy commitments and the concerns of its electoral base that often gives Democrats the appearance of incoherence. Republicans don’t have that problem because they’ve fashioned a popular electoral base on issues that lie in a different domain from their commitments to the financial sector, crony capitalism, and upward redistribution.

This brings us to what is distinctive about the Obama-era Democratic Party and his administration. Obama’s signature accomplishment may be sidestepping that tension precisely through the symbolic power condensed in the imagery of the First Black President. That imagery—which condenses longstanding tropes and narratives of American history, racial and otherwise—has swept up not only the politically naïve. Nor is this disposition only a matter of ideological thrall. It has a material foundation in the institutional arrangements that have emerged through the breakdown of the New Deal and postwar social bargaining system, and the political weakness and demobilization that accompanied it. Therefore, rather than providing new opportunities for the Left and labor, the Obama presidency is more likely to complete the Clintonist consolidation of the Democratic Party as the identitarian left-wing of neoliberalism.

In an otherwise insipid 2008 New York Times Magazine article on Obama as avatar of yet another “new black politics,” Matt Bai contended that the new black politicians are “just as likely to see themselves as ambassadors to the black community as they are to see themselves as spokesmen for it.” 7 They are, that is, emissaries from Democratic elites who communicate the limits of the possible and thinkable, as established within the boundaries of the neoliberal policy framework, to their putative constituents at least as much as they articulate, and advocate for, the interests of the latter to the former. That characterization applies more broadly to those institutions and interest groups, including the labor movement, that are likely to be harmed by the party’s commitment to a larger framework of neoliberal policy priorities. At best, those institutions effectively function to fit their constituencies’ interests and political agendas into that larger framework. This development is substance and product of political demobilization.

As the Clintonist consensus has taken more complete hold in defining the Democratic policy horizon, those opinion-shaping elites have less and less to deliver to their constituencies, to the extent that victory commonly, perhaps unconsciously, reduces to averting the worst possible defeat. In their efforts to mobilize electoral support for Democratic candidates, at least on some basis other than the standard mantra that “the other guy is worse,” these emissary elites’ claims to constituent bases have also had to strain credulity ever more. Labor Party National Organizer Mark Dudzic’s observation about John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign expresses this contradiction neatly:

Legions of anti-war activists campaigned their hearts out for a pro-war candidate. Laid-off textile workers and steelworkers went to the wall for a man who had never voted against a single trade agreement. Lifelong advocates of health care as a right devoted their every waking hour to elect someone who promised to throw another half a trillion dollars down the sinkhole of private, for-profit health insurance. 8

Unless we believe that it is possible to persuade people indefinitely that their material experience is, in fact, not their material experience, this is an arrangement that cannot hold.

Clintonism was partly an attempt to displace this contradiction by weaning Democratic liberalism from its association with downward economic redistribution through crafting a new mythical target voter, much as the Republicans had under Reagan. The ideal New Democrats are socially liberal members of the professional-managerial stratum and investor class who accept the dominance of the financial sector, an imperialist foreign policy, and a retreat from the public sector in the name of rationality and innovation; they are committed to cultural diversity and identitarian liberalism—or at least to feeling smarter and morally superior to their Republican neighbors, families, and co-workers. This mythical voter also is drawn to a post-partisan, technocratic vision of politics and policymaking that renders class rule invisible by presenting it as undebatable rational necessity, a baseline commonsense. Eruption of discontent from labor and the Left around NAFTA and welfare reform underscored the limits of Clinton’s strategy. However, by the end of his administration the apparent Clinton prosperity, and the need to circle the wagons to defend him from right-wing attack, seemed to harmonize the Democratic base. 9

Obama’s technocratic approach to policy depoliticizes decision-making and appeals to a professional-managerial constituency.

Obama has taken the logic of Clintonism further in two respects. First, his posture of judiciousness and technocratic approach to policy matters depoliticizes decision-making and appeals to a professional-managerial constituency. In addition to conferring a tint of “grassroots” authenticity, his self-narration as a “community organizer” reinforces this effect via the trope of change without conflict. (This move fits perfectly with what we might call the NGO-ization of social movements.) Second, he promises to harmonize the Democratic coalition by embodying an evanescent progressivism that appeals to blacks and non-white immigrant groups, as well as liberals of whatever race, gender, or sexual orientation, on the basis of his own biography and identity and the massively seductive power of the First Black President trope. The latter is a notion of progressive politics without clear programmatic content apart from a commitment to diversity. Moreover, to the extent that Obamaism reduces to an essentialist—and essentially irrationalist—grounding of politics in identity, and a post-partisan, post-ideological approach to policymaking, it also fits comfortably with neoliberalism’s disparagement of the public and the social.

Walter Benn Michaels argues in the Spring 2010 issue of New Labor Forum that it is possible to meet an egalitarian ideal of diversity or parity of group representation within an ideological and policy regime that radically intensifies economic inequality, even in ways that increase hardship on significant proportions of the groups that benefit from pursuit of diversity. 10
From this perspective, conflation of the two notions of social justice—equality and parity among groups—is not simply an analytical problem, but can have real-world consequences that include a zero-sum relation between diversity and economic equality.

The labor movement has become a cue-taker in the Democratic coalition, corralling and channeling its constituencies around and between elections to rationalize why the promised payoffs fail to materialize.

Proponents of an antiracist politics commonly express anxiety that Obama’s election could issue in premature proclamation of the transcendence of racial inequality, injustice, or conflict. It is and will be possible to find as many expressions of that view as one might wish, just as it will be possible to find a more or less explicitly racist “birther” tendency. The greater likelihood, and in my view the great danger, is that we will find ourselves left with no critical politics other than a desiccated identitarian leftism capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering, and making up “Just So” stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the arid language of disparity and diversity. This is a politics that emanates, by the way, from the professional-managerial class that remains generally insulated from the ravages of the ongoing economic crisis, 11
the endless wars, and the other costs of predatory neoliberalism.

So what does the analysis I have laid out here say for practical political action? As I have indicated, working to win whatever gains can be won for labor and other left interests, particularly at the level of social regulation, is an urgent necessity for the sake both of improving and securing people’s lives and buttressing our position in ongoing struggle. But, without social movement pressure, we win hardly anything. The late Tony Mazzocchi often observed wryly that the labor movement, and working people in general, got more from the Nixon administration than from Clinton’s. The difference is not that Nixon was more our friend than Clinton was. It was that our movements were still vital enough as a force in the society to compel action, to force our will onto history, if only in limited ways. We have so long since lost that capacity that it seems no longer to exist in historical memory.

If we are to have any hope of shifting the terms of political debate in a direction more favorable to working people’s interests, we need to focus on rebuilding social movement capacity as well as winning what can be won under the terms decreed to us by Democratic neoliberalism. This is a project, however, that cannot be conducted within the constraints of either the electoral cycle or Democratic politicians’ and functionaries’ sense of the limits of the possible. And there lies a Catch-22. Institutions, like the labor movement, that have the capacity to generate and sustain such a project have become, to an unhealthy extent, cue-takers in the Democratic coalition; they function as much as anything else to corral and channel their constituencies around and between elections to rationalize why the promised payoffs fail to materialize. In this institutional vacuum, many energetic young and not-so-young people have gravitated toward romantic political strategies that amount to little more than hyperbolic, often seemingly Alinskyite calls for propaganda of the deed and fantasies that are the political equivalent of spontaneous combustion. Creating alternative courses of action that can help navigate our way out of this political impasse seems to me to be a vastly more important discussion for us to have than wondering what we might be able to win from a Democratic Party and administration over which we, in any event, have no control.

Bob Master’s Response: Engaging with Democrats

Disillusionment with Democrats is one of the oldest—and most familiar—sentiments of labor progressives. Sadly, the first twenty-one months of the Obama era haven’t done much to alter those feelings. Without question, there has been progress on a number of critical issues—economic stimulus, health care reform, financial reform, key appointments at OSHA and the National Mediation Board (which oversees railway and airline labor relations)—which would have been unimaginable in a Republican presidency. But the frequent ideological and political vacillation of the new administration and its congressional allies on a range of issues has given rise to a surge of anger and frustration among labor activists who had fervently hoped that Obama’s victory would at last inaugurate a new progressive era in American politics. Especially in the weeks leading up to the vote on health care reform in late March, as numerous labor-backed members of Congress abandoned those who had worked so hard to create a powerful Democratic majority, feelings of betrayal among labor political activists were palpable and deep.

The situation is immeasurably worse at the state level, where devastating budget crises have driven debate over fiscal and budget issues, as well as attitudes toward public sector unionism, dramatically to the right. In state capitals like Trenton and Albany, it is almost as if the Obama victory, and the potential ideological shift it signified, never happened. The vicious rightward skid of state and local politics, drenched in the economic anxiety of the Great Recession and echoing powerfully of Reaganism and California’s Proposition 13, has been stunning to labor and community activists. In New York State, for example, an incipient property tax revolt and relentless editorializing against tax increases on the wealthy seem to have paralyzed Democratic legislative majorities struggling to close a $9 billion budget gap. The state’s first black governor, David Paterson, has warned that the wealthy—the putative engines of the state’s economy—will flee if required to endure their fair share of the state’s tax burden. He vociferously argued that New York’s historically generous social spending represents a kind of “addiction”—as if pre-kindergarten programs, rebuilt infrastructure, small class sizes, a robust higher education system, and a clean environment are the symptoms of some kind of  rare disease. Leading Democrats refuse to impose even temporary tax levies on the bloated bonuses of Wall Street bankers, even though 2009 financial sector profits would simply not exist were it not for the massive—multi-trillion—taxpayer-funded bailout of 2008

The vicious rightward skid of state and local politics has been stunning to labor and community activists.

Across the Hudson, much of New Jersey’s Democratic Party establishment has joined an escalating public crusade to pin the state’s persistent fiscal problems on the allegedly excessive compensation of teachers and public employees. In this, they deliberately pit struggling property taxpayers—who have lost any hope of pension or health care security in Wal-Mart America—against middle-income public employees desperately hoping to preserve their modest pensions and decent, though hardly extravagant, health care benefits. Perhaps the state’s loudest Democratic proponent of this approach has been Ironworker leader-turned-state senator, Steve Sweeney. Upon becoming the Senate majority leader earlier this year, Sweeney rammed through a package of bills, slashing pension benefits for future public employees and imposing health care cost-shifting on any public sector contract that does not already include it. So much for collective bargaining.

The bills sailed through the Democratic-controlled state senate with only two abstentions and not a single vote in opposition; only a handful of Democratic assembly members risked editorial board wrath by voting against the package. Sweeney is actually playing junior partner in this crusade to Republican Governor Chris Christie, who has won national conservative acclaim for his vitriolic attacks on the state’s largest union, the New Jersey Education Association. The situation has deteriorated so far that Christie felt comfortable earlier this year accusing the teachers of using their students as “drug mules” to advance a parochial political agenda.

Many labor activists, myself included, would not have predicted this depressing state of affairs on November 4, 2008, when Obama’s movement-like campaign triumphed in the context of the worst crisis of capitalism in seventy years. A massive outpouring of hope and activism, ideologically inchoate as it was, had mobilized millions of youthful and of-color voters in unprecedented fashion. The Reagan-Gingrich-Bush worldview, a toxic mix of imperial adventure and blind faith in unregulated markets and trickle-down economics, had collapsed spectacularly in a self-induced implosion of reckless financial speculation and unfettered greed. Surely a new era of progressive change was at hand.

But as it turned out—and certainly we should have anticipated this—it takes more than a change of presidential leadership to bring about major economic and political change. From the very first, Obama hewed to the rhetoric and practice of “bipartisanship,” almost inexplicable in the face of a Republican minority that seemed resolutely and unanimously committed to opposing even the tiniest departure from right-wing political economy. The fruits of bipartisanship were bitter: the stimulus package was watered down with tax cuts to win the votes of a handful of Republicans, undermining its effectiveness and achieving nothing in terms of inoculation against the right-wing message machine. The administration allowed conservative Montana Democrat Max Baucus months for a fruitless pursuit of Republican support for health care reform, reinforcing the appearance of congressional dysfunction and allowing the Tea Party time to mobilize for the raucous town hall meetings. For no apparent reason, over a year went by without any appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which had been deadlocked with three vacant seats for nearly two years. And before finally reversing course late in March, Obama even declined to make recess appointments to the NLRB in February, reportedly out of a desire to avoid antagonizing Republicans. And, of course, the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts killed any hope of enacting desperately needed reform of the nation’s labor laws.

With the spring 2010 recess appointments to the NLRB, there is hope of pro-labor rule-making that might ease the way for organizing.

But the Obama administration’s reluctance to pursue a straightforwardly progressive strategy is only part of the problem. In the absence of clear progressive leadership, at the grassroots level as well as in the White House, the economic anxiety generated by the deepest postwar recession has taken a predominantly right-wing populist form. The White House’s slowness to pin blame for the collapse on Wall Street chicanery, the virtually unconditional bailout of the nation’s largest financial institutions, and an economic team composed primarily of Wall Street insiders, allowed the Limbaughs and the Becks to make big government—rather than its opposite, deregulation—the culprit in the financial collapse. Anxiety about the racial transformation of America, led for the first time by a black president and gradually becoming a majority minority population, also clearly plays a critical role. Over half of the Tea Partiers, 89 percent of whom are white, say that too much has been made of the problems of blacks in recent years, and a similar percentage say that the administration is overly concerned about the problems of poor people. Ninety-two percent believe Obama is moving the country toward socialism, a laughable proposition for an administration whose economic team is led by what Robert Kuttner early on described as a “Team of Rubins.”

Nevertheless, the achievements of the last twenty-one months should not be discounted or minimized. The administration’s ultimate determination to wage partisan warfare to achieve passage of health care reform seems to have marked a liberating transition. The plan itself was deeply compromised, and labor was infuriated by the president’s persistent support for taxing higher-cost health plans. But a determined campaign forced the administration to retreat on 80 percent of the impact of that proposal and, in the end, the passage of reform signified a victory for the belief that public goods, provided by government and funded by taxpayers, are an essential element of a fair society—a decisive repudiation, however flawed and contradictory, of the dominant view of the previous three decades. The spring 2010 recess appointments to the NLRB mean that the long logjam at the board will be broken, and there is hope of pro-labor rule-making that might ease the way for at least some organizing. The National Mediation Board issued a critical rule change strengthening the organizing rights of hundreds of thousands of airlines workers. And the administration’s commitment to pursue partisan financial reform seems to suggest an overdue realization that for the president to address the actual needs of society, Republicans will have to be bypassed. Further, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s charges of outright corruption at Goldman Sachs may be one of those turning points in the zeitgeist, shifting the political climate as the public focuses on the greed, speculation, and dishonesty at the root of the Wall Street collapse.

How, then, should labor political activists deal with this most recent bout of disillusionment with Democrats? Profound frustration has prompted some to call for labor to break its ties with the Democratic Party completely, and organize a truly independent labor or progressive party. This is a hopeless fantasy. High school civics provide the primary reasons: in a non-proportional system of representation with winner take all, single district elections, opting to support third-party candidates who have no chance of winning means isolation from the actual arena of legislative decision-making. History is littered with the wreckage of these fantasies, which have been more or less energetic, depending on the state of mass movements at the time they arose. I was personally involved in the 1980 incarnation of such hopes, the Citizens Party which, buoyed by the anti-nuclear power movement in the wake of near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island, ran environmentalist Barry Commoner for president. We believed a significant split in labor was possible because of Carter’s economic turn to the right, which included supporting deregulation of both the airline and trucking industries as the long ascendancy of right-wing economic ideology got underway. As the Party’s New York State organizer, I repeatedly argued that there was little difference between Carter and Reagan and that the time had come to build a truly independent party founded on principles of economic democracy. In the end, there was no break in labor, and Commoner drew an insignificant percentage of the vote. Ten months after the election, when Reagan fired over eleven thousand striking air traffic controllers, I was permanently disabused of the notion that there are no significant differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Further, the Democratic Party has demonstrated enormous ideological elasticity, especially in times of great crisis, and has moved sharply to the left under the pressure of highly mobilized mass movements at several crucial moments in our history. The most dramatic example of this dynamic came during the Second New Deal of 1935, when the most radical Congress in American history and the Roosevelt administration collaborated to enact Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Works Progress Administration, the Wealth Tax Act, and the Rural Electrification Act, among other reforms, in three short summer months. The Democrats were responding then to the pressure of a massive working-class mobilization that began early in the Great Depression and culminated in the massive strikes of 1934. By the end of Roosevelt’s re-election campaign in 1936, the pragmatic patrician was declaring that the forces of “organized money are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred . . . . I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces have met their master.” Similarly, thirty years later, Lyndon Johnson parlayed the power of the civil rights movement into the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and the War on Poverty. When Johnson drawled, “We shall overcome” in his nationally televised speech proposing the Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. was moved to tears. This Democratic adaptability has historically foreclosed the emergence of majoritarian third-party efforts.

At the same time, labor simply cannot afford to disengage from the legislative process. The last twenty-one months may have been frustrating, but a McCain presidency would have been devastating: no health care reform, instead of a flawed, but historic, step forward; a far more paltry stimulus package which would have left the economy in even worse condition; anti-labor appointments to the NLRB, instead of delayed pro-labor recess appointments; and little hope of significant financial or immigration reform legislation. Similarly, as difficult as the tenure of Governor Corzine was for New Jersey state workers, the Christie era is already much, much worse. Whatever his flaws, Corzine at least believed in collective bargaining. The difference that makes in the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers is immeasurable.

But continued unconditional support for Democrats is also clearly unacceptable. The challenge is how to go about building independent political power for labor and its allies while staying engaged in the work of fighting critical legislative battles. A number of strategies are possible:

  • Mount strategic primary or third-line challenges to anti-labor Democrats. Led by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a number of unions joined with MoveOn to support Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter’s challenge to the senator from Wal-Mart, Blanche Lincoln. By investing millions in a challenge to the right-wing incumbent, labor sent the Democratic leadership a clear message that it will no longer support anti-labor Democrats simply in order to maintain the party’s majorities. In a primary run-off election in early June, Halter fell several thousand votes short of a stunning upset, but the point was made nevertheless. In upstate New York, community activists and a number of major unions are exploring a similar strategy to punish Congressman Michael Arcuri, who was elected with vigorous labor support in 2006 but who switched from a “no” to a “yes” vote on health care reform in March. That betrayal ignited outrage among New York labor and progressives.
  • Utilize “fusion” or cross-endorsement voting by building independent third parties that usually endorse major party candidates. Over the last dozen years, New York’s Working Families Party (WFP) has built an impressive track record of both issue work and electoral power, becoming a major progressive force in state politics. Under New York’s unique system, which permits candidates’ names to appear on multiple ballot lines at the same time, the WFP has endorsed major party candidates, most often Democrats, who support its legislative agenda of progressive taxation, high-road economic development, and social investment. The WFP won an increase in the minimum wage in 2004 despite Republican control of the governorship and the state senate, helped win passage of the largest progressive tax increase in the nation in 2009 in order to stave off devastating budget cuts, and won passage of landmark “Green Jobs” legislation later in that session. The potential of fusion as a tactic for building independent power is also reflected in the success of the WFP’s younger cousin in Connecticut, which has developed into a major player in Hartford on issues such as paid sick days and closing corporate tax loopholes.

The challenge is how to go about building independent political power for labor and its allies while staying engaged in the work of fighting critical legislative battles.

The problem with fusion, of course, is that it is legal in only a handful of states, having been outlawed by a coalition of railroad and banking interests in most places in the early 20th century in the years following William Jennings Bryan’s Populist-Democratic fusion candidacy for president in 1896. The track record of labor-backed fusion in New York and Connecticut argues for labor to devote a significant chunk of its political resources to opportunistic campaigns to re-legalize fusion voting. A year ago, the Oregon legislature did just that, and the Oregon Party is now engaged in a challenging campaign to achieve ballot status under state law. Already, however, it has managed to elevate debate about the creation of a public bank, modeled on North Dakota’s, which will serve the interests of ordinary Oregonians, rather than its investor class.

Labor will no longer support anti-labor Democrats simply in order to maintain the party’s majorities.

  • Take to the streets. As a labor political director, I am obsessed with elections and legislative strategies. But what has been conspicuously—and bafflingly—absent from the struggles of the last twenty-one months has been a mobilized, insurgent mass movement. I argued—mostly to myself—that labor should have planned a massive, Solidarity Day-style demonstration on the first warm day in the spring of 2009, to send an early, powerful message to the Obama administration that it must deliver on working people’s demands for stronger organizing rights, massive economic stimulus, and real health care reform. Instead, it was the Tea Party that took the initiative to the streets last summer. Labor and its allies—USAction, MoveOn, environmental organizations, organizations of women and people of color, student groups, Jobs with Justice, etc.—must devote greater resources and energy to popular mobilization.
  • Take the long view. Hopes of a dramatic progressive shift in the nation’s political culture because of Obama’s election were overblown. Obama’s victory represented a decisive rejection of the war in Iraq and the failed economic policies of the Bush administration. It also represented an undefined aspiration for change. The moment cries out for a new ideological clarity about the role of government in mitigating the excesses of markets run amok, from Wall Street to the Gulf Coast. But it now seems clear that decisive movement toward those values will require more than a single electoral victory. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, will have to take to the streets to force the society toward greater social justice, economic equity, respect for workers’ rights, and a sustainable economy. Our job is to do whatever we can to encourage and prepare for the moments when those movements arise.

The Obama election opened up the possibility of a progressive revival, and labor must continue to search for tactics and strategies that can push through that opening. Patience, persistence, and experimentation are the watchwords of the day. Simply abandoning the Democrats won’t get us where we want to go, and the consequences of such a strategy could be catastrophic. Merely sitting back and hoping that Democrats will get the job done is also clearly not a viable strategy. The challenge is to build a movement, both in the streets and at the polling places, which can push Democrats and the society from below toward a new progressive era.

 

Notes

1. For example: “It made me smile, thinking back on Frank and his old Black Power, dashiki self. In some ways he was as incurable as my mother, as certain in his faith, living in the same sixties time warp that Hawaii had created.” Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994), 98. Such characterizations abound in Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006).
2. Matt Taibbi, “Obama Is the Best BS Artist since Bill Clinton,” February 14, 2007, available at www.alternet.org/story/48051.
3. Barack Obama, “Speech on Fatherhood,” June 15, 2008, available at www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/06/obamas_speech_on_fatherhood.htmlhttp://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/06/obamas_speech_on_fatherhood.html; see also “Obama Sharply Assails Absent Black Fathers,” New York Times, June 16, 2008, available at www.nytimes.com/2008/06/16/us/politics/15cnd-obama.html and Lynn Sweet, “’Y’all have Popeyes out in Beaumont?’ Obama on the Bully Pulpit,” Chicago Sun-Times, February 29, 2008, available at blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2008/02/sweet_column_yall_have_popeyes.html.
4. “Showdown on Grad Unions,” Inside Higher Education, April 28, 2010.
5. See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 19.
6. Doug Henwood, “How to Learn Nothing from Crisis,” Left Business Observer #125, February 25, 2010.
7. Matt Bai, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?,” New York Times Magazine, August 6, 2008.
8. Mark Dudzic, “After the Elections: What Next?,” available at www.thelaborparty.org (accessed January 5, 2005) and cited in Adolph Reed, Jr., “The 2004 Election in Perspective: The Myth of ‘Cultural Divide’ and the Triumph of Neoliberal Ideology,” American Quarterly 57 (March 2005): 4.
9. Reed, “The 2004 Election,” 11.
10. See Walter Benn Michaels, “Identity Politics: A Zero-Sum Game,” New Labor Forum 19, no. 2 (Spring 2010).
11. See Andrew Sum et al., Labor Utilization Problems of U. S. Workers Across Household Income Groups at the End of the Great Recession: A Truly Great Depression Among the Nation’s Low Income Workers Amidst Full Employment Among the Most Affluent (Flint, MI: C.S. Mott Foundation, February 2010), 13.

New Labor Forum 19(3): 82–85, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095–7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000003

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