The City Is the Factory examines the “relocation of the space of protest from the factory to the city . . . see[ing] in it a shift that is both historically distinct and politically significant. Across these city-oriented struggles, [the book’s essay’s] focus on the increasing prominence of what Henri Lefebvre called “right to the city” demands and...
Unlike Hillary Clinton, a one-time member of the Walmart board of directors, Sanders has been a lifelong friend of labor with the record to prove it. It was Sanders who represented the leftwing of the possible, not Clinton. Moreover, a Sanders presidency was certainly...
In the United States, rising inequality has been associated with the ascent of neoliberalism, the breakdown of post-War social contract and the decline of the country’s labor movement, indicated by the low-level of union density and strike activity.
Since 1991, Russia has seen massive changes in the structure of the economy, control over property, the reconfiguring of employment by sector, the provision of social benefits, and the nature of the labor market. The impact of these shifts on work...
New Labor Forum Editor Paula Finn and Harold Meyerson, Executive Editor of The American Prospect, discuss the unintended negative impact former President Bill Clinton had on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, whether or not Bernie Sanders would have been able to defeat Trump, and the state of the Obama coalition without President Obama at its head.
We write this on the day following Donald Trump’s electoral triumph. That stunning victory raises more questions than it answers. To what degree is the election outcome attributable to an anxious and enraged white working class that feels by turns neglected, misunderstood and insulted by mainstream and progressive organizations and pundits? And how should labor and progressive activists understand and respond to the racism the campaign exposed? What did the 2016 election tell us about the wisdom and viability of the Obama coalition, which depends on demographic changes presumed to be advantageous, rather than on birthing a multi-racial working-class? Did the AFL-CIO impact the election, particularly in the rust belt? We’ll take up these and related concerns in subsequent issues of New Labor Forum.
One thing seems clear, however. Addressing any of these concerns will take place outside the corridors of power. The Sanders campaign was an important overture in that direction. Our “On the Contrary” features a debate about whether the Sanders primary campaign was a lost opportunity for the labor movement. This debate is joined by Larry Cohen, ex-president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and Randi Weingarten with Leo Casey of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Our lead article by Phil Thompson examines the prospects for building on an already active “urban populism” which has established a foothold in a healthy number of American cities. Thompson raises the challenges implicit in maintaining and strengthening Obama-type coalitions, comprised of working-class blacks and Latinos and largely white millennials that constitute core metropolitan constituencies. Urban displacement is one issue that must be addressed if this new social chemistry is to work. Karen Chapple writes about how cities might develop in the interests of all instead of at the expense of their working classes.
Those working classes would probably be making a mistake to rely on anyone but themselves in the months and years ahead. One encouraging sign of that resourcefulness was the Verizon strike of last summer. Dan DiMaggio provides an anatomy of that victory, explores the multiple forces at play from the political as well as from the industrial arena, and poses the dilemma unions like the CWA face in dealing with frontier changes in technology and industrial organization. Farm work, not known for recent technological innovation, presents another challenge altogether, given the fact that it remains beyond the reach of most labor laws and protections. Julie C. Keller, Margaret Gray, and Jill Lindsay Harrison describe the efforts of immigrant dairy workers laboring at some of the dirtiest, most hazardous jobs to win some protection and justice from their employers. Mariya Strauss devotes her “Roots of Rebellion” column to another sub-sector of the food production sector, examining organizing efforts by seafood workers in New Orleans.
Widening the orbit of working-class influence is, in part, a function of political imagination. Once the labor movement embraced the cause of trust-busting which excited the passions of millions not necessarily part of the labor movement. Those days are long gone, but Carl T. Bogus argues they should not be. He lays out the reasons why anti-trust prosecutions have declined, how working people nonetheless pay a heavy price when mergers and acquisitions are allowed to proceed without government opposition, and why the labor movement should take up that forgotten cause. Another way to broaden the reach of the progressive movement would be to champion the cause of wounded and traumatized veterans who are, by and large, drawn from the country’s working classes. Ann Jones illuminates how major business interests, including the Koch brothers, are whittling away at government health care for veterans in an effort to buoy up their bottom lines. In “Organized Money” Max Fraser devotes his column to exposing another covert way major financial players are trying to gut or do an end-run around the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
One way not to win friends and influence people is on display within the labor movement. On the critical issue of environmental regulation and transformation–a cause that mobilizes many millions far removed from the ranks of organized labor–the movement is deeply divided, one faction siding with those most guilty of despoiling the earth. Sean Sweeney analyzes this split in his “Earth to Labor” column. A more welcome if small sign of the opposite appears in Sarah Jaffe’s “Under the Radar” reporting on a less well-known protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The “black box” of the workplace is a phrase bearing many meanings. It connotes tyranny, for example, as it does in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Paul Christensen sheds some desperately needed light into that hidden world. His essay is a primer for all those who wonder what’s happening to the Russian working class and its sporadic efforts to break out of that black box. Here at home the phrase also signals the closed off word of the prison industrial complex. There prisoners first of all, but then too those charged with their day to day imprisonment, face a vexing dilemma. Prisoners confront horrific conditions and often horrific treatment by prison guards. Guards deal with danger and an overhang of job insecurity as talk of prison closures grows. Austin McCoy wrestles with these conflicts and how they might be resolved.
Our Books and the Arts section begins with a review by Zora Ahmed of a closely related subject, namely the endemic racism of the criminal justice system in Cook County, Chicago: Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court. Echoing the theme of financial trickery in “Beg, Borrow, or Steal”,” Andrew Elrod reviews two books about the entanglement of people by merchants of debt, Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit, and Fixing Global Finance, and How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy .Thinking about the future life of progressivism in the Clinton years and beyond is a book of essays called The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century, reviewed here by Kate Aronoff. Whatever else that future will entail it must rest on grassroots organizing, so we have included a review by Steve Early of two books that bear on that experience: The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and The Rise of a New Justice Movement, and America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century. And echoing the urban theme of this issue’s cover, we feature Li-Young Lee’s poem, The City in which I Love You, both a paean to and lament about “storied, buttressed, scavenged, policed city I call home, in which I am a guest.”
Article originally published at nonsite.org.
Some readers will know that I’ve contended that, despite its proponents’ assertions, antiracism is not a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself: the politics of a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations. Moreover, although it often comes with a garnish of disparaging but empty references to neoliberalism as a generic sign of bad things, antiracist politics is in fact the left wing of neoliberalism in that its sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial (and other identitarian) lines. As I and my colleague Walter Benn Michaels have insisted repeatedly over the last decade, the burden of that ideal of social justice is that the society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ, etc. That is the neoliberal gospel of economic justice, articulated more than a half-century ago by Chicago neoclassical economist Gary Becker, as nondiscriminatory markets that reward individual “human capital” without regard to race or other invidious distinctions.
We intend to make a longer and more elaborate statement of this argument and its implications, which antiracist ideologues have consistently either ignored or attempted to dismiss through mischaracterization of the argument or ad hominem attack.1 For now, however, I want simply to draw attention to how insistence on reducing discussion of killings of civilians by police to a matter of racism clouds understanding of and possibilities for effective response to the deep sources of the phenomenon.
Available data (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/?tid=a_inl) indicate, to the surprise of no one who isn’t in willful denial, that in this country black people make up a percentage of those killed by police that is nearly double their share of the general American population. Latinos are killed by police, apparently, at a rate roughly equivalent to their incidence in the general population. Whites are killed by police at a rate between just under three-fourths (through the first half of 2016) and just under four-fifths (2015) of their share of the general population. That picture is a bit ambiguous because seven percent of those killed in 2015 and fourteen percent of those killed through June of 2016 were classified racially as either other or unknown. Nevertheless, the evidence of gross racial disparity is clear: among victims of homicide by police blacks are represented at twice their rate of the population; whites are killed at somewhat less than theirs. This disparity is the founding rationale for the branding exercise2 called #Black Lives Matter and endless contentions that imminent danger of death at the hands of arbitrary white authority has been a fundamental, definitive condition of blacks’ status in the United States since slavery or, for those who, like the Nation’s Kai Wright, prefer their derivative patter laced with the seeming heft of obscure dates, since 1793. In Wright’s assessment “From passage of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act forward, public-safety officers have been empowered to harass black bodies [sic] in the defense of private capital and the pursuit of public revenue.”3
This line of argument and complaint, as well as the demand for ritual declarations that “black lives matter,” rest on insistence that “racism”—structural, systemic, institutional, post-racial or however modified—must be understood as the cause and name of the injustice manifest in that disparity, which is thus by implication the singular or paramount injustice of the pattern of police killings.
But, when we step away from focus on racial disproportions, the glaring fact is that whites are roughly half or nearly half of all those killed annually by police. And the demand that we focus on the racial disparity is simultaneously a demand that we disattend from other possibly causal disparities. Zaid Jilani found, for example, that ninety-five percent of police killings occurred in neighborhoods with median family income of less than $100,00 and that the median family income in neighborhoods where police killed was $52,907.4 And, according to the Washington Post data, the states with the highest rates of police homicide per million of population are among the whitest in the country: New Mexico averages 6.71 police killings per million; Alaska 5.3 per million; South Dakota 4.69; Arizona and Wyoming 4.2, and Colorado 3.36. It could be possible that the high rates of police killings in those states are concentrated among their very small black populations—New Mexico 2.5%; Alaska 3.9%; South Dakota 1.9%; Arizona 4.6%, Wyoming 1.7%, and Colorado 4.5%. However, with the exception of Colorado—where blacks were 17% of the 29 people killed by police—that does not seem to be the case. Granted, in several of those states the total numbers of people killed by police were very small, in the low single digits. Still, no black people were among those killed by police in South Dakota, Wyoming, or Alaska. In New Mexico, there were no blacks among the 20 people killed by police in 2015, and in Arizona blacks made up just over 2% of the 42 victims of police killing.
What is clear in those states, however, is that the great disproportion of those killed by police have been Latinos, Native Americans, and poor whites. So someone should tell Kai Wright et al to find another iconic date to pontificate about; that 1793 yarn has nothing to do with anything except feeding the narrative of endless collective racial suffering and triumphalist individual overcoming—“resilience”—popular among the black professional-managerial strata and their white friends (or are they just allies?) these days. What the pattern in those states with high rates of police killings suggests is what might have been the focal point of critical discussion of police violence all along, that it is the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working class populations produced by revanchist capitalism. There is no need here to go into the evolution of this dangerous regime of policing—from bogus “broken windows” and “zero tolerance” theories of the sort that academics always seem to have at the ready to rationalize intensified application of bourgeois class power, to anti-terrorism hysteria and finally assertion of a common sense understanding that any cop has unassailable authority to override constitutional protections and to turn an expired inspection sticker or a refusal to respond to an arbitrary order or warrantless search into a capital offense. And the shrill insistence that we begin and end with the claim that blacks are victimized worst of all and give ritual obeisance to the liturgy of empty slogans is—for all the militant posturing by McKesson, Garza, Tometi, Cullors et al.—in substance a demand that we not pay attention to the deeper roots of the pattern of police violence in enforcement of the neoliberal regime of sharply regressive upward redistribution and its social entailments. It is also a demand that, in insisting that for all intents and purposes police violence must be seen as mainly, if not exclusively, a black thing, we cut ourselves off from the only basis for forging a political alliance that could effectively challenge it. All that could be possible as political intervention, therefore, is tinkering around with administration of neoliberal stress policing in the interest of pursuing racial parity in victimization and providing consultancies for experts in how much black lives matter.5
Another revealing datum regarding the imagery of an unbroken history of racist denigration of black “bodies” stretching back at least to 1619 as explanation of the current racial disparity in police killings is that, as Mike Males has shown, police killings of black men under 25 years of age declined 79% between 1968 and 2011, and 61% for men over 25 during that same period.6 Nor is that quite surprising. The victories won by the civil rights movement were real, as were the entailments of the Voting Rights Act. Things were generally worse with respect to everyday police terror in inner-city black neighborhoods than they are now. One of the few of the Black Panthers’ slogans that wasn’t simply empty hyperbole was their characterization of the role of police as an “occupying army” in black communities. (When I first saw The Battle of Algiers in the late 1960s, I felt an instant shock of recognition, a sense that I’d lived some of the film.) Racial transition in local government and deepening incorporation of minority political interests into local governing coalitions had a moderating effect on police brutality in black communities.7
My point is not in any way to make light of the gravity of the injustice or to diminish outrage about police violence. (I realize, however, that some will impute that intention to me; for them and all who would take the charge seriously, see note 1 below.) However, noting a decline—or substantial change in either direction for that matter—in the rate of police killings does underscore the inadequacy of reified, transhistorical abstractions like “racism” or “white supremacy” for making sense of the nature and sources of police abuse of black Americans. Racism and white supremacy don’t really explain how anything happens. They’re at best shorthand characterizations of more complex, or at least discrete, actions taken by people in social contexts; at worst, and, alas, more often in our political moment, they’re invoked as alternatives to explanation. In that sense they function, like the Nation of Islam’s Yacub story, as a devil theory: racism and white supremacy are represented as capable of making things happen in the world independently, i.e. magically. This is the fantasy expressed in formulations like racism is America’s “national disease” or “Original Sin”—which, incidentally, are elements of the liberal race relations ideology that took shape in postwar American political discourse precisely as articulations of a notion of racial equality that was separated from political economy and anchored in psychology and individualist notions of prejudice and intolerance.8
Nevertheless, putting to the side for a moment those ways in which causal invocations of racism and white supremacy are wrongheaded and inadequate and accepting for the sake of argument that the reified forces can do things in the world, if their manifest power can vary so significantly with social, political, and historical context, wouldn’t the objective of combating the injustice be better served by giving priority to examining the shifting and evolving contexts under which racism and white supremacy are more or less powerful or that condition the forms in which they appear rather than to demonstrating that those forces that purportedly cause inequality must be called racism or white supremacy in particular? One problem with the latter objective is that it is ultimately unrealizable. There is no definitive standard of what qualifies as racism; like terrorism or any other such abstraction, it is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, an illustration of the great cultural victory of the postwar civil rights struffle is that “racism” is negatively sanctioned in American society. No one with any hope of claim to political respectability—not even Maine governor Paul LePage, who leaves one struggling to imagine what he assumes would thus qualify as racist, (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/27/us/profane-phone-message-has-gov-paul-lepage-of-maine-in-hot-water-again.html?_r=0)—embraces it. In addition, advocates of antiracist politics argue that debate over the name that should be attached to the injustice is important because acknowledging the existence of racism/white supremacy as a causal agent is a necessary first step to overcoming its power. But that claim rests on shaky political ground. It is at bottom a call for expiation and moral rehabilitation as political action. In that sense Black Lives Matter is like its rhetorical grandparent, Black Power; it is a slogan that has condensed significant affective resonance but is without programmatic or strategic content. Also like Black Power, in response to criticisms of its lack of concrete content, BLM activists generated a 10 Point Plan—http://www.puckermob.com/lifestyle/black-lives-matter-just-delivered-their-10-point-manifesto-and-this-is-what-they-want, in part clearly to address criticisms that they had no affirmative agenda beyond demands that the slogan be validated and the names of selected victims of police killing be invoked. This was followed more recently by an expanded document featuring roughly sixty items called “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice”—https://policy.m4bl.org.
Some, perhaps many, of the items propounded in the initial 10 Point Plan are fine as a statement of reforms that could make things better in the area of criminal justice policy and practice. Many, if not most, of those assembled under the rubric “Vision for Black Lives” are empty sloganeering and politically wrongheaded and/or unattainable and counterproductive. However, the problem is not a shortage of potentially effective reforms that could be implemented. The problem is much more a political and strategic one. And the focus on racial disparity both obscures the nature and extent of the political and strategic challenges we face and in two ways undercuts our ability to mount a potentially effective challenge: 1) As my colleague, Marie Gottschalk, has demonstrated in her most important book, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics(Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 2016),9 the carceral apparatus in its many manifestations, including stress policing as well as the many discrete nodes that constitute the regime of mass incarceration, has emerged from and is reproduced by quite diverse, bipartisan, and evolving complexes of interests, some of which form only in response to the arrangements generated and institutionalized by other interests. Constituencies for different elements of the carceral state do not necessarily overlap, and their interests in maintaining it, or their favored components of it, can be material, ideological, political, or alternating or simultaneous combinations of the three. Challenging that immensely fortified and self-reproducing institutional and industrial structure will require a deep political strategy, one that must eventually rise to a challenge of the foundational premises of the regime of market-driven public policy and increasing direction of the state’s functions at every level toward supporting accelerating regressive transfer and managing its social consequences through policing. 2) It should be clear by now that the focus on racial disparity accepts the premise of neoliberal social justice that the problem of inequality is not its magnitude or intensity in general but whether or not it is distributed in a racially equitable way. To the extent that that is the animating principle of a left politics, it is a politics that lies entirely within neoliberalism’s logic.
Here’s a roundup of recent union statements regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The AFL-CIO proclaims “Dakota Access Pipeline Provides High-Quality Jobs” and offers its full support of pipeline construction as it is “ part of a comprehensive energy policy that creates jobs, makes the United States more competitive and addresses the threat of climate change. Pipelines are less costly, more reliable and less energy intensive than other forms of transporting fuels, and pipeline construction and maintenance provides quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers.”
AFL-CIO acknowledged the concern of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the following terms. Exerpt:
“We believe that community involvement in decisions about constructing and locating pipelines is important and necessary, particularly in sensitive situations like those involving places of significance to Native Americans. However, once these processes have been completed, it is fundamentally unfair to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay. The Dakota Access Pipeline is providing over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs.”
Read the full AFL-CIO statement here.
LIUNA also released a statement of support for the pipeline construction project and included some angry words at other unions who have chosen to release statements of solidarity with the protestors.
Delegates unanimously passed a resolution condemning the attacks on the livelihoods of LIUNA members working on the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Communication Workers of America (CWA), National Nurses United (NNU), Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), and American Postal Workers Union (APWU) who have come out publicly against the pipeline. The resolution stated in this exerpt,
“These four unions have no equity in this pipeline, it will not put a single one of their members to work yet they choose to take food off of our members’ tables. A central tenet of the labor movement has always been that when it comes to a project in which you have no equity at stake, you either support it or remain silent. We look forward to reciprocating the “solidarity” shown to LIUNA members by these unions.”
Read the full LIUNA statement here.
No DAPL Statements
The Service Employees International Union issued the following statement in support of the Standing Rock Sioux’s efforts to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from disturbing their sacred lands and burial grounds and to avoid the threat of contaminating the Missouri River which provides the Tribes’ drinking water. Exerpt:
“Historical disregard for low income communities and communities of color, including those where many SEIU members live and work, has subjected them to toxic air pollution and contaminated waterways for decades. In these communities, asthma and other respiratory ailments caused by toxic air and poisonous toxins such as lead in the water supply, affect our children’s health and ability to thrive. As the nation’s largest healthcare union, we stand with the growing movement of environmental organizations, businesses, students, parents and others demanding cleaner air and water and to address the growing threat of climate change for the health and safety of our families and communities. As a union of service employees deeply committed to making sure all work is valued and respected, we know that workers employed by the fossil fuel industry are caught in the middle. SEIU members recognize the importance of these jobs for these workers and their families and we demand that our government protect all workers whose lives and livelihoods are impacted by a shift away from fossil fuels. Our government must make the needed investments into building a new clean economy, including a just transition of workers from the fossil fuel workforce, by investing in clean energy and rebuilding and repairing much of our nations aging infrastructure, including existing pipelines which are in great need of repair. We will fight for an economy and democracy in which working families can live and work in a clean environment with good jobs for all.”
Read the full SEIU statement here.
National Nurses United has released a statement in support of the federal government’s construction halt and called for a permanent end to the project. Exerpt:
“We commend the leaders and members of the Standing Rock Sioux, the many First Nation allies who have joined them, and the environmentalists and other supporters who have participated in the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. The decision of the Departments of Justice, Army and Interior is a direct result of the efforts of the pipeline opponents who have taken this courageous stand on behalf of all of us,” said NNU Co-President Jean Ross, RN.
Read the full NNU statement here.
And the CWA Committee on Human Rights also released a statement of support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Exerpt:
“CWA, through our Committee on Human Rights, stands with working people and against corporate greed, whether we’re fighting for clean water in Flint, Mich., against bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would hurt U.S. jobs and communities, or the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to safeguard their community.
The labor movement is rooted in the simple and powerful idea of solidarity with all struggles for dignity, justice and respect. CWA will continue to fight against the interests of the 1% and corporate greed and firmly stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe against the environmental and cultural degradation of their community.”
Read the full CWA statement here.
It also should be noted that the AFL-CIO constituency group, the Labor Coalition for Community Action, has released a statement in support of #NoDAPL. Exerpt:
“We remain committed to fighting the corporate interests that back this project and name this pipeline “a pipeline of corporate greed.” We challenge the labor movement to strategize on how to better engage and include Native people and other marginalized populations into the labor movement as a whole. Lastly, we applaud the many labor unions working to create a new economy with good green jobs and more sustainable employment opportunities for all. We also encourage key stakeholders — labor unions including the building trades, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and others who would be impacted — to come together to discuss a collective resolution.”
The Labor Coalition for Community Action includes the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and Pride at Work. You can read the full LCCA statement here.
*This article was originally printed on www.tomdispatch.com.
On a winter’s day in Boston in 1773, a rally of thousands at Faneuil Hall to protest a new British colonial tax levied on tea turned into an iconic moment in the pre-history of the American Revolution. Some of the demonstrators—Sons of Liberty, they called themselves—left the hall and boarded the Dartmouth, a ship carrying tea, and dumped it overboard.
One of the oddest features of the Boston Tea Party, from which our current crop of Tea Party populists draw their inspiration, is that a number of those long-ago guerilla activists dressed up as Mohawk Indians, venting their anger by emitting Indian war cries, and carrying tomahawks to slice open the bags of tea. This masquerade captured a fundamental ambivalence that has characterized populist risings ever since. After all, if in late-eighteenth-century America the Indian already functioned as a symbol of an oppressed people and so proved suitable for use by others who felt themselves put upon, it was also the case that the ancestors of those Boston patriots had managed to exterminate a goodly portion of the region’s Native American population in pursuit of their own self-aggrandizement.
Today’s Tea Party movement, like so many of its “populist” predecessors, is a house of contradiction, a bewildering network of crosscutting political emotions, ideas, and institutions. What connects it powerfully to a populist past stretching all the way back to Boston Harbor is, however, a sense of violation: “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Despite a recurring resistance to the impositions of powerful outside forces—anti-elitism has been axiomatic for all such insurgencies—populist movements have differed greatly on just what those forces were and what needed to be done to free people from their yoke. It’s worth noting, for instance, that an earlier invocation of the Boston Tea Party took place at a 1973 rally on a replica of the Dartmouth—a rally called to promote the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
From the Know-Nothings to the People’s Party
Over the course of American history, the populist instinct, now resurgent in the Tea Party movement, has oscillated between a desire to transform, and so create a new order of things, and a desire to restore a yearned-for (or imagined) old order.
Before the Civil War, one such movement that caught both these urges was colloquially dubbed the “Know-Nothings” (not for any anti-intellectualism, but because its members deliberately conducted much of their business in secret—hence, if questioned, were instructed to say, “I know nothing”). Know-nothing-ism exuded the desire to move forward and backward at the same time. During the 1840s and 1850s, it swept across much of the country, North and South. There were “know-nothing” candies, “know-nothing” toothpicks, and “know-nothing” stagecoaches.
Soon enough, the movement evolved into a national political party, the American Party, that appealed to small farmers, small businessmen, and working people. Its attraction was two-fold. The party vociferously opposed Irish and German Catholic immigration to the U.S. (as well as that of Chinese and Chilean immigrants working in the gold fields of California). Yet, in the North, it also denounced slavery. As planks in a political program, nativism and anti-slavery might seem like an odd couple, but in the minds of the party’s followers they were joined at the hip. As Know-Nothings saw it, the Papacy and the South’s slave-owning planter elite were both conspiring to undermine a democratic society of masterless men.
Keep in mind that conspiratorial thinking has long been deeply embedded in American populist movements (as in the Tea Party today). In nineteenth century protestant America, alleged plots by Vatican hierarchs were a recurrent feature of political life. In the North, a wave of crime and the rise of “poor relief” and other forms of dependency—including wage labor, which accompanied the arrival of a flood of impoverished Catholic immigrants—seemed to threaten an American promise of a society of free, equal, and self-reliant individuals (supposedly so noxious to the priestly elite of the Catholic Church). In the slave South, where the master class was believed to be hard at work subverting the Constitution, conspiratorial machinations were self-evidently afoot. By the mid-1850s, most “Know-Nothings” in the North had found their way into the newborn Republican Party which combined hostility to slavery with a milder form of anti-Catholicism.
Populism with a capital “P,” the great economic and political insurgency of the last third of the nineteenth century that blanketed rural America from the cotton South to the grain-growing Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West, would bear its own distinctive ambivalence. The People’s Party indicted corporate and finance capitalism for destroying the livelihoods and lives of independent farmers and handicraftsmen. It also attacked big business for subverting the foundations of democracy by capturing all three branches of government and transforming them into coercive instruments of rule by a new plutocracy. Populists sometimes attributed what they termed an American “counterrevolution” to the conspiratorial plots of the “great Devil Fish of Wall Street,” suspected of colluding with Great Britain’s elite to undo the American Revolution.
The remedies proposed, however, were hardly those of Luddites. These instead anticipated many of the fundamental reforms of the next century, including government subsidies for farmers, the graduated income tax, direct election of the Senate, the eight-hour day, and even the public ownership of railroads and public utilities. A tragic movement of the dispossessed, the Populists yearned to restore a society of independent producers, a world without a proletariat and without corporate trusts. Yet they also envisioned something new and transformative, a “cooperative commonwealth” that would escape the barbaric competitiveness and exploitation of free market capitalism.
The Great Plains of Resentment
For the next four decades, populism remained emphatically against corporate capitalism and held on tightly to its resentment of powerful outsiders as well as a penchant for conspiracy mongering. During the 1930s, however, the location of Conspiracy Central began to shift from Wall Street and the City of London to Moscow—and even New Deal Washington. Anti-communism added a new ingredient to an already roiling American politics of fear and paranoia, a toxic element which still inflames the Tea Party imagination two decades after the Berlin Wall was torn down.
During the 1936 presidential campaign, in the midst of the Great Depression, three populist movements—Louisiana Senator Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” clubs, the Union for Social Justice formed by the charismatic “radio priest” Father Charles E. Coughlin, and Francis Townsend’s campaign for government pensions for the elderly—coalesced, albeit briefly and uneasily, to form the Union Party. It ran from the left against President Franklin Roosevelt, nominating as its presidential candidate North Dakota Congressman William Lemke, a one-time spokesman for radical farmers. (The vice-presidential candidate was a labor lawyer from Boston.)
The Union Party expressed a broad dissatisfaction with the failure of Roosevelt’s New Deal to relieve economic distress and injustice. Senator Long, the latest in a long line of Southern populist demagogues, had been decrying the power of land barons, “moneycrats,” and big oil since his days as Louisiana’s governor. His “Share Our Wealth” plan called for pensions and public education for all, as well as confiscatory taxes on incomes over $1 million, a minimum wage, and public works projects to give jobs to the unemployed. Townsend’s scheme was designed to solve unemployment and the penury of old age by offering monthly government pensions of $200, financed by taxes on business, to everyone over the age of sixty. Coughlin, an early supporter of Roosevelt, trained his fire on finance capitalism, inveighing against its usurious, unchristian “parasitism.”
But Long and especially Coughlin were at pains to distinguish their form of radicalism from the collectivism and atheism of the Red menace. Father Coughlin expressed support for labor unions and a just wage. He was, however, an inveterate foe of the left-leaning United Automobile Workers union, and roundly condemned the sit-down strikes which spread like a prairie fire following Roosevelt’s triumphal landslide victory in the 1936 presidential election, as workers across the country occupied everything from auto plants to department stores demanding union recognition.
Indeed, in his radio addresses and his newspaper, Social Justice, the priest ranted about an incongruous conspiracy of Bolsheviks and bankers whose aim was to betray America. He would eventually add a tincture of anti-Semitism to his warnings about a Wall Street cabal. His growing sympathy for Nazism was not so shocking. Fascism, after all, had its roots in a European version of populism that conveyed a post-World War I disgust with the selfishness and incompetence of cosmopolitan ruling elites, a virulent racial nationalism, and a hatred of bankers and especially Bolsheviks.
Followers of Long and Coughlin loathed big business and big government, even though big government—back then anyway—was taking on big business. For them, “Don’t Tread on Me” meant a defense of local economies, traditional moral codes, and established ways of life that seemed increasingly endangered by national corporations as well as the state bureaucracies that began to proliferate under the New Deal. Union Party campaign oratory was filled with references to the “forgotten man,” an image first invoked by Roosevelt on behalf of the working poor.
In the years ahead, kindred images would resurface during a time of turmoil in the late 1960s in Nixon’s appeals to the “silent majority” of “Middle America,” and more recently in the Tea Party’s wounded sense of exclusion. “Forgotten man” populism conveyed the irate politics of resentment of precariously positioned Americans against the organized power blocs of modern industrial society: Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government.
Race, Resentment, and the Rise of Conservative Populism
Over the last half century populism has drifted steadily rightward, becoming ever more restorationist and ever less transformative, ever more anti-collectivist and ever less anti-capitalist. What were subordinate themes in the older style populism—religious orthodoxy, national chauvinism, phobic racism, and the politics of fear and paranoia—have come to the fore in our time. At least in broad terms, both the Barry Goldwater and the George Wallace insurgencies of the 1960s displayed this trajectory.
Goldwater, the Arizona senator and 1964 Republican candidate for president, an “insurgent”? Yes, if you keep in mind his condemnation of the too-liberal elite running the Republican Party, who, in his eyes, represented a clubby world of Ivy League bankers, corrupt politicians, media lords, and “one-worlders.” Or consider the way he flirted with the freakish John Birch Society (which called President Dwight Eisenhower a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist Party” and warned of a Red plot to weaken the minds of Americans by fluoridating the water supply). Or the Senator’s alarming readiness to threaten to push the nuclear button in defense of “freedom,” which could be thought of as the Cold War version of “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Above all, Goldwater was the avatar of today’s politics of limited government. In his opposition to civil rights legislation, he might be called the original “tenther”—that is, a serial quoter of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves for the states all powers not expressly granted to the federal government, with which he justified hamstringing all efforts by Washington to rectify social or economic injustice. For Goldwater the outlawing of Jim Crow was an infringement of constitutionally protected states’ rights. Moreover, he was an inveterate enemy of all forms of collectivism, including of course unions and the welfare state.
As the Goldwater opposition sank its grassroots into the lush soil of the Sunbelt, its desire to restore an older order of things was palpable. At a time when New Deal liberalism was the reigning orthodoxy, the senator’s reactionary impulses seemed startlingly adrift from the mainstream, and so strange indeed.
Goldwater’s rebellious constituents were an oddly positioned band of rebels. Unlike the declining middling sorts attracted to the Union Party, they came mainly from a rising Sunbelt stratum, a new middle class significantly nourished by the mushrooming military-industrial complex: technicians and engineers, real-estate developers, middle managers, and mid-level entrepreneurs who resented the intrusion of Big Government while in fact being remarkably dependent on it.
They could be described as reactionary modernists for whom liberalism had become the new communism. How shocking when this Arizona “maverick”—he deserved the label far more than John McCain ever did (if he ever did)—won the Republican nomination in a knock-down brawl with the presidium, led by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, that had run the party until then. Might the Tea Party accomplish something similar today?
Think of Alabama Governor George Wallace as the other missing link between the economic populism of yesteryear and the cultural populism of the late twentieth century. He was all at once an anti-elitist, a populist, a racist, a chauvinist, and a tribune of the politics of revenge and resentment. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”: a line spoken at his inauguration as governor in 1963 that would be his signature defiance of the civil rights revolution and its alliance with the federal government. In no uncertain terms, it signaled the militant racism of his bed-rock supporters.
His appeal, however, ran far deeper than that. The whole tenor of his politicking involved a down-home defense of blue-collar America. Like Huey Long, he was sensitive to the economic predicament of his lower-class constituents. As governor he favored expanded state spending on education and public health, pay raises for school teachers, and free textbooks. When he ran for president as a third party candidate in 1968, he called for increases in social security and Medicare. As late as 1972, Wallace increased retirement pensions and unemployment compensation in Alabama.
Yet he championed the hard-hat American heartland by hailing its ethos of hard work and what today would be known as “family values” far more than by proposing concrete measures to assure its economic well-being. Wallace railed against the know-it-all arrogance of “pointy-headed” Washington bureaucrats, the indolence of “welfare queens,” and the impiety, moral decadence, and disloyalty of privileged long-haired, pot-smoking, anti-war college students.
Bellicose calls for law and order, states’ rights, and a muscular patriotism fueled the revanchist emotions that made Wallace into more than a regional figure. When he ran in the Democratic primaries in 1964 (with the support of the John Birch Society and the White Citizens’ Council), he won significant numbers of votes not only in the Deep South, but in states like Indiana, Wisconsin, and Maryland, a sign of the Southernization of American politics at a time when the spread of NASCAR, country music, and the blues were Southernizing its culture as well.
Wallace’s venture into third-party politics (on the predictably named American Independent Party ticket) terrified the Democrats, who feared the loss of part of their blue-collar base. He called Vice President Hubert Humphrey, then running for president against Richard Nixon, as well as Northern liberals generally, a “group of god-damned, mealy-mouthed sissy-britches”—shades of Senator Joe McCarthy and the 1950s—and he promised to take the gloves off, if elected, and bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age.
Wallace’s popularity revealed a possibility to Nixon and the Republicans denied them since the end of Reconstruction: that, on the road to an Electoral College victory, they might begin to develop a “Southern strategy.” In the meantime, his populist cry that there “was not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican parties” won him ten million votes, 13.5 percent of the total and forty-six votes in the Electoral College. And remember this: a crowd of twenty thousand attended a Wallace rally in 1968 at a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Don’t Tread on My Taxes
So what does this episodic and checkered history of American populism have to do with the Tea Party?
As a start, the Tea Party movement reminds us that the moral self-righteousness, sense of dispossession, anti-elitism, revanchist patriotism, racial purity, and “Don’t Tread on Me” militancy that were always at least a part of the populist admixture are alive and well. For all the fantastical paranoia that often accompanies such emotional stances, they speak to real experiences—for some, of economic anxiety, insecurity, and loss; for others, of deeper fears of personal, cultural, political, or even national decline and moral disorientation.
Though such fears and feelings are, in part, legacies of the corporate liberal order—one of the dark sides of “progress” under capitalism—in this new populist moment, anti-capitalism itself barely lingers on. Though outrage at the bank bailout did help propel the Tea Party explosion, anti-big-business sentiment is now a pale shadow of its former self, a muted sub-theme in the movement when compared to the Wallace moment, not to mention those of Huey Long or the Populists.
This is hardly surprising since, at least economically, capitalism has, according to recent surveys of Tea Party backers, served many of them reasonably well. Like Goldwater supporters of the 1960s, those who identify with the Tea Party movement are generally wealthier than the population as a whole, and more likely to be employed. They are also apparently better educated, so their fondness for Sarah Palin’s intellectual debilities may be more a case of resentment of bicoastal cultural snobbery than eye-popping ignorance. However, this profile may mislead us. Within the ranks of fellow white Republicans—which are, after all, their relevant reference group—Tea Party partisans tend to be poorer, economically less secure, and less educated.
Precariously perched in this way, they deploy an exalted rhetoric about threats to liberty which belies a sour, narrow-minded defensiveness against any possible threat of income redistribution that might creep into the body politic . . . and so into their pockets. “Don’t Tread on Me,” once a rebel war cry, has morphed into: “I’ve got mine. Don’t dare tax it.” The state, not the corporation, is now the enemy of choice.
Tea Party populism should also be thought of as a kind of identity politics of the right. Almost entirely white, and disproportionately male and older, Tea Party advocates express a visceral anger at the cultural and, to some extent, political eclipse of an America in which people who looked and thought like them were dominant (an echo, in its own way, of the anguish of the Know-Nothings). A black president, a female Speaker of the House, and a gay head of the House Financial Services Committee are evidently almost too much to bear. Though the anti-immigration and Tea Party movements so far have remained largely distinct (even if with growing ties), they share an emotional grammar: the fear of displacement.
But identity politics aside, Tea Party anger reaches far beyond the ranks of the modest Tea Party movement. It resonates with other Americans who understandably feel that political and economic elites, serving themselves at the expense of everyone else, have failed Americans. The big question is just exactly how (or even if) that private and personal rage gets transformed into moral and political outrage. If the heirs of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, or the Sarah Palins of today, have their way, the outcome won’t be a tea party.
Amid a volatile and unorthodox presidential season, Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters have denounced the outsized political and economic power of the corporate elite, and brought socialism back into consideration, especially among young voters. While this platform energized a broad cross-section of the country, it struggled to earn the broader support – especially among African Americans, Latinos, and organized labor – that an enduring movement would require. What will now be required to maintain the momentum and build a movement of the 99 percent? How do supporters build on the progressive message carried through the Sanders Campaign? What are the new possibilities and challenges? What comes next?