Jonathan Martin has a pretty good piece at Politico about why the Democratic Party has gone AWOL in the class war. As the Republicans look to return us to the Gilded Age, both Democratic politicians and the grassroots seem unable or unwilling to respond. Occupy Wall Street was a moment of hope and I don’t take the lack of occupations of public space this spring to mean much of anything because we don’t know what people are doing behind the scenes, but it’s hardly revolutionizing the nation right now.
Fundamentally, Martin wonders what happened to economic populism within the Democratic Party. He highlights 4 broad reasons:
*The political infrastructure doesn’t exist. Class-based partisan appeals by Democrats in the early and mid-20th century were typically supported by a robust and well-organized labor movement. That doesn’t exist in any similar form these days.
*Even populist politicians need money. Conspiracy theorists who believe campaign contributions drive the agenda aren’t altogether wrong. It is virtually impossible to be a successful national Democrat without relying heavily on business interests, including the financial industry, for campaign funds.
*The president, a man comfortable in elite circles, is not temperamentally inclined for the kind of sustained, rough-edged partisan combat that true populist politics requires. So, while he is tempted by populist appeals on some days, he often turns ambivalent and changes his message the next.
*Most important of all, lots of Democrats simply do not support populism, on either ideological or stylistic grounds. Many upscale Democrats believe that Washington needs less combat, not more, and populist messages strike them as irrelevant at best, demagogic at worst. Even some working-class voters have their assets in the stock market, because of their 401(k)s and IRAs, making even the most traditional of Democrats believe their interests are more in line with Wall Street than opposed.
Smaller reasons Martin discusses include the fact that the remnants of our unionized workforce are mostly government bureaucrats who don’t elicit a lot of sympathy, the focus on cultural issues over economics for the Democratic base, too much of an emphasis on individualism on the left, and Obama’s comfort with expertise and surrounding himself with the economic elite.
On a broad level, I agree with all of these things to a greater or lesser extent. But the one thing Martin doesn’t do is ask why labor has declined. He emphasizes the decline of organized labor as the biggest issue behind the lack of left-populism–without the structure of organized labor, who directs this anger? Occupy Wall Street articulated the anger well, but eschewed directing other people toward change (in fact, I’d argue that the influence of anarchism upon young people is a small but important reason for the lack of an organized response to populism. I’ll leave that for the present though unless someone wants a further discussion).
Martin just sort of presents labor’s decline as a reality in the present. But there’s a history behind falling union numbers and it has nothing to do with corruption and very little to do with union complacency, even if both of those things might have been problems in the past. What we see today is the culmination of a half-century war on American unions that corporations concocted in the years after World War II to repeal the gains labor made during the 1930s and 1940s. It was a slow, steady, stealthy plan that has proven almost impossible to stop. It was largely bipartisan, couched in terms of trade that centrist and conservative Democrats like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama love.
This war is called Globalization.
When did this war begin? We could start it at so many times (Taft-Hartley would be a good place) but it probably begins with the Border Industrialization Program in 1965, when the Mexican government discovered it could attract American businesses who wanted to escape labor (and increasingly environmental) obligations by building plants just across the border. President Johnson supported the BIP as a solution to the problems of the Bracero Program and American corporations began moving union jobs south. Union numbers had already begun to decline slightly through companies moving operations to right-to-work states in the South, but after 1965, the numbers plummet. Corporations began lobbying the U.S. government to expand these programs and create free trade deals that would allow for the massive exportation of American jobs, of which the most notorious was the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, also passed under a Democratic president over labor’s protests. NAFTA also served to create a huge labor force for Mexican factories. By undermining corn prices since agribusiness could dump cheap corn on the Mexican market, NAFTA drove farmers off the land and into the maquiladoras, creating a cheap, exploited labor force with few realistic options. Today, President Obama wants a huge free trade agreement with countries in east Asia; not that there’s too many industrial jobs left to export, but this policy certainly won’t bring those jobs back.
Now I’m not going to say that there is no benefit at all to globalization. But it is absolutely the biggest reason why unions aren’t there today to lead a populist fight against our plutocrats.
If we want to talk about the lack of economic populism, Martin is right that we need to tie it to labor’s decline. But to understand labor’s decline, we have to indict the system of globalization, something that most Democratic politicians don’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole.