Home / General / The Democratic Party: Labor’s Frenemy

The Democratic Party: Labor’s Frenemy



I have a long piece in the Boston Review on the complicated relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party. The basic thesis is that unions have no real choice other than working within the Democratic Party even when the Democratic Party does not pay off that support. In the end, what other choices does labor have? The political wilderness. An excerpt that starts by considering the paradox that despite the Obama administration doing a lot for workers in the second term, unionization rates still declined in the last 8 years:

This mixed bag for American workers suggests both the possibilities and limitations of labor unions’ integration into the Democratic Party. Nothing in American labor history suggests unions can succeed if the government opposes their causes, but unions have consistently failed to further a pro-labor agenda within the Democratic Party. And without a realistic alternative—the Republican Party, after all, has waged a multi-decade war on workers—unions have no choice but to keep working within the Democratic Party.

Historically unions have faced three fundamental challenges within the Democratic Party. First, and perhaps most importantly, they are politically isolated, thanks to geographical limitations. Unions only ever held significant power in a handful of states in the Northeast and Midwest, with smaller numbers on the West Coast. This meant that politicians throughout the South, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountain states could ignore unions, attract companies to their states by claiming they would remain non-union, and pay no political price for hostility to organized labor.

Second, the Democratic Party has lacked a coherent industrial policy for the last half-century that would foster union growth. Both Democrats and Republicans have helped companies move their union factories to overseas locations while having no realistic job plans for those workers left behind.

Third, and as a result of the other two issues, the labor movement has remained a junior partner in the Democratic Party, unable to be the kingmaker it hoped to be after World War II. Without meaningful input or control of the Democratic agenda, it remains reliant on the goodwill of national Democrats and the few allies it does manage to cultivate to promote its agenda.

I go on to discuss how the failure of unions to organize the South in face of widespread racebaiting and anti-Semitism meant that Democrats like Carter and Clinton rose to power owing basically nothing to unions and how that, combined with the lack of a meaningful industrial policy or any real plan to deal with globalization, deindustrialization, and automation, means that Democrats have a lot of responsibility for the problems workers face today. Yet, what else is there for unions to do but to keep trying to make the Democratic Party better? Not much.

I also argue that the progressive politics of the small, grassroots donor is basically a consumerist politics that privileges middle class white people over workers and the collective action that only unions can provide.

The reality of the post–Citizens United world even further marginalizes organized labor within the Democratic Party. Democratic candidates are increasingly reliant upon both corporate grandees and small donors to run election campaigns. But while progressives mostly like the small donor model, which worked so well for Bernie Sanders, what this really means is that legions of middle to upper-middle class white donors will be funding grassroots Democratic campaigns. Without a strong union influence over candidates, union workers, who are increasingly African-Americans and Latinos and who lack the resources to donate to candidates individually, will be shut out of the process. Such a model might be good for progressive initiatives such as gathering support for minimum wage hikes, but significantly less so for union-specific legislation such as passing card check legislation or reversing a national right-to-work bill if Trump were to sign one. If unions could not reverse legislative setbacks during the Johnson or Obama eras, it seems even less likely that they will be able to the next time Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress.

And yes, this may be the first ever political article or at the very least article about labor unions to use the word “frenemy” in the title. I feel like getting that title through the editors is a victory for 21st century language.

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  • LeeEsq

    Even at the height of New Deal/Great Society liberalism, the Democratic Party never saw itself as a working person’s party the same way different parties elsewhere saw and presented themselves. The Democratic Party always recognized that it represented a large swathe of different groups, sometimes with conflicting interest. This prevented unions from having the same position in the Democratic Party that they had on European labour and social democratic parties.

    • Yes, but those days are past in Europe as well.

      • Cheerfull

        Consider, for example, the current circumstances of France’s Socialist Party.

        • Not to mention the British “Labor” party.

        • Murc

          Or the British “Labour” Party, whose current efforts to try and reclaim their mantle as the working person’s party are likely to be shattered next month.

          I’m not a big fan of Corbyn but if Labour gets shellacked on June 8th the Blairites are gonna come roaring back in.

          I gotta hand it to May, tho. Deciding that the Fixed Term Act is a dead letter is the politically smart move in so many ways. If they lose, they leave Labour holding the Brexit bag and cleaning up the mess the Tories and UKIP created while keeping their own hands clean. If they WIN, they don’t need to stand again until 2022, which gives them time to manage and possibly ameliorate the gut-punch that Brexit in 2019 will deliver.

          It also might work to somewhat neuter the SNP, as if they try and secede again in the wake of this it looks like sour grapes rather than principle.

          May is a terrible person but she’s no dummy.

          • I’m an advocate of Shavian spelling.

            • Cheerfull

              I understand he left money in his will for people like you. I wonder what happened to it?

            • ForkyMcSpoon

              I don’t think “Labor” counts as Shavian.

              Maybe if it were something like Lébr or Leıbər…

          • LeeEsq

            I’m not a big fan of Corbyn but he isn’t the one behind Labour’s ideological divide. Labour’s ideological struggle go back decades. Most of the European labour or social democratic parties back to back down on the entire public ownership of the means of production thing by the early to mid-1950s. They were further to the Left of the Democratic Party in the United States but basically accepted the logic of the regulated market.

            The Labour Party held on to Clause Four much longer than other social democratic party because its core membership, the ones that would show up at local party meetings and go to the annual conference, really believed in it and stuck to their guns even as it became increasingly clear that the majority of the British electorate no longer believed in it. The true believers still existed after Blair got rid of Clause Four and eventually managed to gain control.

            • The trouble with Corbyn is not that he’s on the left, it’s that as a working politician he makes Michael Foot look like Talleyrand. He behaves as if he’s wandered in from his usual pitch selling Socialist Worker outside Darlington railway station. Ken Livingstone and George Galloway are plainly far worse people, and you would trust them neither with your spouse nor your wallet, but they are real politicians.

          • Phil Perspective

            I’m not a big fan of Corbyn but if Labour gets shellacked on June 8th the Blairites are gonna come roaring back in.

            To what? To reclaim a dead party? If Corbyn goes, a lot of people will go too. They’ll blame the Blairites for undercutting Corbyn. And anyway, you do realize that the Blairites don’t have a leader, right?

      • LeeEsq

        That’s an entirely different issue but yes, many of the Labour and Social Democratic Parties in Europe no longer see themselves purely as working people’s parties. A big part of this is because they started getting more into things like feminism, LGBT rights, and the growing number of immigrants to Europe and their descendants. What gets called identity politics in the United States.

        There really hasn’t been a party that managed to be a classic working person’s party and a party of Identity Politics liberalism at the same time.

        • Murc

          There really hasn’t been a party that managed to be a classic working person’s party and a party of Identity Politics liberalism at the same time.

          Man, that’s the dream though, isn’t it?

          • LeeEsq

            It seems to be. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet suggests that there might be some difficulties with it.

            • Murc

              Yes. My gut reaction is that the “class not race” and “racism is everything” crowds do not work together well and also don’t particularly want to.

              • CP

                My only quibble with this is that while I see “class not race” arguments frequently, I rarely see the reverse. 2016 in particular brought about a whole flood of people arguing “we lost because of identity politics, and we need to stop focusing on that and go back to focusing on what matters, the economy and the rising class divide!” But I’ve talked to very few feminist or BLM types who argue that class isn’t important in the same way that these people denounce “identity politics.” All they say is that they’d like their issues to be remembered as well.

                The phenomenon you describe exists, but it seems to be a one-way street.

                • Murc

                  That’s fair. Perhaps I should have formulated it as “the identity politics people aren’t particularly interested in trying to work with folks whose ideas of politics begin and end with vulgar marxism.”

                • NewishLawyer

                  I don’t know about BLM but I do see and observe that there is a huge class divide in Feminism.

                  There are a lot of people who call themselves feminists and believe in a feminism that seems (perhaps inadvertently or unconsciously) focused on issues that are highly important to upper-middle class (and usually white) professionals vs. feminist issues that are more blue-collar and/or important to people of color.

                • The mens all know about the class divide in feminism. They are less likely to know about the decades of left opposition to all “identity politics” or about the divide between real world feminists and those strongly influenced by academic women’s studies.

              • ForkyMcSpoon

                I dunno, I don’t think the Marxists make up a big part of the US body politic.

                I think the problem is that there are a lot of working class voters who want the racism, but if race were not salient (as in previously relatively homogeneous European countries) or various compromises were made (the New Deal) they’re willing to vote for the left-wing party. But the Democrats are now the party of minorities and those same types of issues have arisen in Europe… some of the working class just doesn’t care as much about economic issues as they do about those – not unless the situation gets very bad (part of how Obama got elected in 2008… which in retrospect I mean… “shouldn’t” that have been a bigger victory than 7 pts given how thoroughly the GOP shat the bed?).

                The inability of the political activist crowds from those wings to get along contributes to the dysfunction as well, of course.

                Beyond Sanders simply not facing many personal attacks, I think that part of the reason for his general election polling strength was simply how many were unaware of his views on immigration and other “identity politics” issues. I rather doubt Trump and the GOP would’ve sat by and let anti-immigrant/anti-abortion/anti-BLM/etc. white working class voters fall in his lap.

                I guess we’ll get some test cases as we’ll surely see multiple approaches tried in state and local elections.

                • LeeEsq

                  I think that the “class not race” and the Identity Politics group actually has the same end goal. Many on the Identity Politics group same the share economic policies as the “class not race” left. Neither are exact fans of free market capitalism. Both groups would probably love to have a political system where a white cis-gender male construction worker and Hispanic female hotel cleaner vote for the left party and where the white cis-gender female bank manager and the African-American gay male stockbroker vote for the right leaning party.

                  Its easier to pursue left leaning economics when your party consists of people from the same socio-economic class. The difference is that both factions really disagree how to get to this place. The “class not race” faction believes that you have to focus on leftist economic policy first and foremost and let that do the sorting. The Identity Politics faction believes getting rid of sexism, racism, and homophobia must occur first and then you can sort on class.

                • The right does not want the feminist lawyer or the Hispanic stockbroker who’s concerned with the problems faced by racial and ethnic minorities. Those are concerns of liberalism. Parts of the left may wish it could make those people into Republicans just wishing liberals are “neoliberals”, and still get wins for the left, but it seems unlikely. If the circle is to be squared, right populism might even seem to be a better way to get “social democratic” policies without having to ally with “those people”.

                  The problems of neoliberalism or whatever are not going to be solved if the left decides for populist extremism, however good that feels.

          • NewishLawyer

            Maybe it is the dream but why should social politics be connected to economic politics and vice-versa.

            There are a lot of voters in the Democratic Party who seem to be here mainly because the GOP has gone off the deep deep end in terms of social conservatism and seems to be going more so every day. I have no idea what would cause the GOP’s fever dream of social conservatism to break. I do know that there are plenty of Americans who would probably belong to a center-right party if they existed in a more European system but here are stuck with the Democratic Party for varying degrees of enthusiasm.

            Which also leads to the meme that there is no such thing as an enthusiastic and sincere Democratic Party and this meme never dies.

            • Murc

              Maybe it is the dream but why should social politics be connected to economic politics and vice-versa.

              Because they’re inextricably intertwined, and if you’re for justice and equality in one aspect of the body politic it behooves you to be for it in all aspects.

              • NewishLawyer

                Maybe but you have to convince a lot of people of this and a lot of people are not convinced.

                This isn’t even left to identity politics but to simple issue of “leave me alone liberalism.” This isn’t even an explicitly American issue. The liberal reforms done in 1960s Great Britain were done by both Tories and Labour and done so via private bills. Many members of both parties were deeply suspicious of the liberalization that was being done by upper-middle class Labourites via Roy Jenkins.

                In the United States, a lot of the liberalization of the press and media came from non-democratic parts of government like the Courts. As late as 1967, it was still too shocking to here Mick Jagger sing “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on TV and he needed to tone it down.

              • LeeEsq

                I don’t think so. You can defend a lot of social liberal politics can be advocated on classical laissez-faire grounds. Jeremy Bentham wrote a very early defense, though he kept it to himself, on why homosexuals should not be persecuted on laissez-faire grounds. Early feminism was also part of the classical liberal laissez-faire cosmology. Women should be given the same rights as men because its not really anybody’s business otherwise. Same with racial equality. Perfectly capable of going along with laissez-faire.

                Many working class parties also had to deal with the fact that many members of the working class are culturally conservative. Most working class parties regardless of how center or far left they were contained a strong professional middle class educated component and a working class component. The educated middle class component tended to be much more liberal on cultural and social issues than the working class component. As Dominic Sandbrook points out in his history of the United Kingdom during the 1960s, White Heat, permissive society legislation had proponents and opponents in both the Labour and Conservative Parties.

            • Dilan Esper

              The best kept secret in American politics is how many suburban voters Republicans lose by opposing Roe.

              • NewishLawyer

                Julian Bond also noted that the GOP would be able to compete for the Black vote if they were just receptive to the idea of affirmative action because the Black-American community does contain a good bit of social conservatism.

                • gccolby

                  because the Black-American community does contain a good bit of social conservatism.

                  This feels a little strangely-phrased to me. Or strange in that it seems to hang on the notion that black people are more socially conservative than other groups. They may or may not be, but there’s no need to even ask. Of course there are many socially conservative black Americans, it’s a group of millions of people! Yes, if the GOP would offer up even the intermittent, imperfect opposition to racism that the Democrats do, they would get more Black votes, even if liberals are twice as common among black Americans as among whites.

                  This just doesn’t strike me much of an insight. Race is foundational in American politics, a GOP that decided to support affirmative action would most likely be the product of an earth-shattering realignment. In the event this happens, the GOP can have those votes as far as I’m concerned because we’ll be playing a very different and probably much better game.

              • LeeEsq

                A Republican Party that was morel like the British Conservative Party, less culture war, basic acceptance of the welfare state, and saner free market economics would be a near unstoppable political force.

                • gccolby

                  Or the Democratic Party would re-align on these issues and moderate itself to be competitive, equilibrium would return and the stakes of elections would shrink somewhat. I’m not sure why these scenarios envision only one party changing and riding that change to political domination.

                • Phil Perspective

                  You haven’t been paying attention to UK politics lately, have you? The Tories are trying to destroy the NHS by stealth, just like Trump will try to destroy the ACA.

            • MAJeff

              Maybe it is the dream but why should social politics be connected to economic politics and vice-versa.

              Because we are homo socialis before and above being homo economicus.

              • NewishLawyer

                I agree but this is why I think it is hard to combine social politics and economic needs.

                The social and economic wants/needs of white-collar educated women are very different than those of a middle-aged blue-collar men. How do you combine them? Especially suppose the white-collar young woman is tired of being cat-called and harassed on her way to and from work by construction workers. How do you get her sympathetic to threats of automation and outsourcing in the working-class community or the war on labor unions?

        • Ronan

          Also the fact that a lot of european social democratic parties have explicitly become the party of the educated middle class which eroded their old base ( Im not against that necessarily, that’s my demographic aswell, but it’s part of the causal story):

          “Over recent decades, deep social and economic changes have hit particular groups within British society very hard: older, less skilled and less well educated working-class voters. These are the groups we describe as the ‘left behind’ in modern Britain, who could once rely on the strength of their numbers to ensure a voice in each of the mainstream parties. Yet as Britain has been transformed, the relentless growth of the highly educated middle classes has changed the strategic calculus.

          Both Labour and the Conservatives now regard winning support from middle-class swing voters as more important than appealing to these struggling left behind voters. Before the emergence of UKIP, their response to being ignored was to turn their backs on politics, staying home en masse on election day and developing a sour, anti-establishment outlook. The political impact of this was limited – party strategists were concerned, but not threatened, by falling turnout and growing hostility to politicians….”

          (eta:from this book https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/23/revolt-on-right-robert-ford-matthew-goodwin-review)

          Lee- “There really hasn’t been a party that managed to be a classic working person’s party and a party of Identity Politics liberalism at the same time.”

          Well it’s not impossible. Evidence shows (afaik) that more working class immigrant groups in Europe still prioritise economic issues, particularly where politics hasnt explicitly been turned into a battle of values and/or identity. This seems to be true of Latinos in the US aswell.
          Gay marriage, secularist values and feminism (the last in practice if not always principle)seem to becoming more popular, so no reason they couldnt exist with an explicitly class politics( particularly as the ‘working class’ is now disproportionately non white and female)

          Now Im much more of a small/medium business, bourgeois liberal nationalist, so in a perfect world I wouldnt be pushing class warfare. But we’re not living in such a world.

          • NewishLawyer

            The thing about Working Class parties is that they can also become the victim’s of their own success.

            Nader in one of his saner moments called this the Liberal’s Dilemma. You give a generation or two government programs of health care, Social Security/Unemployment, Free to Cheap Education, Healthcare, Job safety, etc and then they move into the middle class and beyond. Many of their children attend university and become white-collar professionals. And then it becomes all about “my taxes are too high.”

            FWIW, European center-right parties made peace with the Welfare State and/or socially permissive liberalism (aka stay out of the bedroom). American conservatives are still convinced that they can turn back the clock on Griswold v. Connecticut.

    • CP

      That’s probably at least partly because American political parties have both traditionally been loose coalitions between a hodgepodge of different interest groups who, quite a few times, had nothing in common except a strong enough dislike for people in the other party. More so than European parties, I believe.

      • LeeEsq

        I’d say that this is the main reason why the Democratic Party became a pure working people’s party. The reason why a pure working people’s party did not emerge in the United States is because the American political system is brutal for third parties.

        • FlipYrWhig

          Also, for most of the 20th century, it was pretty easy to smear working people’s parties as anarchist/Communist and hence antithetical to American entrepreneurial striving as mythologized by Horatio Alger/Frank Capra/etc.

          • LeeEsq

            The official atheism of many working class parties did not help in the voluntarily religious United States.

  • But would “a meaningful industrial policy or any real plan to deal with globalization, deindustrialization, and automation . . .” actually lead to a resurgence of the union movement? Industrial unionism succeeded in circumstances that just don’t exist any more. Highly concentrated, labor intensive industries that had monopoly profits they could share with unions to buy peace; and a crisis of capitalism that made a dispositive segment of the plutocracy recognize that they needed to modify capitalism in order to save it.

    I’m not sure that the traditional industrial union model can ever work again. We need a different model for organizing working class people.

    • At this point it might not. In 1970, it may well have.

    • Brett

      Plenty of alternative models are being tried. I have no idea which one will succeed (if any), although given the nature of a services-dominated economy I suspect it will look a lot like the SEIU’s “master contracts” and European-style sectoral bargaining.

  • efgoldman

    I wonder if many in the party viewed the racist construction and public safety unions leaving the Democrats in the 70s and 80s, as a stand in for most or all of organized labor?
    Also the barely surviving miners and a lot of the small rump of steelworkers have gone whole-hog racist. How do we deal with that?

    • The craft unions were always racist. In fact part of their mission was to reserve craft work for white men. The CIO was different in a) organizing along industrial rather than trade lines and b) being racially inclusive. You’re talking about the AFL unions, and this has always been a major part of the story of our underdeveloped left.

      • LeeEsq

        Unions aren’t perfect institutions and more than a few of them operate more like medieval guilds than labor unions. At best they want to keep outsiders out because they want the skills and jobs to pass down from parent to child or between kin. From what I can tell, this was true in many European countries to even without American racial dynamics.Many of the American craft unions are very racist though. Guild like behavior is one of the failure modes of labor unions. Its the working class equivalent of passing down the family business.

        • This guild stuff is really only true of smallish building trades unions and that’s mostly been the case for 80 years.

          • A lot longer than 80 years! More like 140.

      • efgoldman

        The craft unions were always racist.

        Of course, but all the segregationist Southerners were nominally Democrats, too, so it was just one more racist part of the coalition.
        Now, of course, the parties have become ideologically monolithic. Most of the white racists, by far, are, or vote, Republiklown; Dems are still a broad-based coalition, but that base is now mostly women and minorities. I don’t know how you square that with “labor needs Dems to have policies which rescue them.”

        • NeonTrotsky

          Can women and minorities not be working class?

          • efgoldman

            Can women and minorities not be working class?

            Of course. Damned intartoobz shorthand.
            In fact that’s what the growing service unions mostly are.
            The question is, how do we get the craft unions and the public safety unions at least partially back.

  • DrDick

    Have to agree with this. It is the dilemma that all left progressive constituencies face. The party hierarchy and professionals trend more centrist and resist real, substantial change, but it is still the only game in town.

    • Derelict

      I’m not so sure. The Democratic Party has, most assuredly, not bent a whole lot of effort toward unions and working folk. But, especially over the last 20 years, how much would even wholehearted devotion by the Party to unions and workers have made a difference? After all, we’ve had Republicans controlling most Southern state governments for going on 30 years, and now they control a majority of state governments. The Supreme Court has been reliably Republican for more than 20 years. And Republicans have controlled Congress for most of the last 20 years.

      I just don’t see even the most vigorous Democratic efforts gaining much headway against a deck that heavily stacked against those efforts.

      • efgoldman

        I just don’t see even the most vigorous Democratic efforts gaining much headway against a deck that heavily stacked against those efforts.

        Kasich’s offensive against labor in Ohio got voted down in referendum, but the mechanics of that aren’t available in most states.

        • postmodulator

          Voted down due to organizing and mobilizing by Democratic constituencies. Labor’s gratitude lasted something under a minute.

          This “frenemy” shit goes both ways.

          • What are you talking about? No one fought Kasich’s reelection more than Ohio unions.

            • This subthread became considerably more understandable when I finally realized that “Kasich” does not spell “Kucinich”.

  • SIS1

    I think the emphasis on Manufacturing in this post is wrong – manufacturing jobs are not the be all, end all of employment. The problem is that unionism was not spread to the new sectors in which labor growth has existed, particularly healthcare and human services. The Democratic party would have been an indifferent ally at best in trying to do so, but in the end greater technological and economic currents would undermine manufacturing employment (same with resource extraction sectors).

    • Not entirely so. Hospital nurses are heavily unionized. So are teachers. Social workers are also unionized, particularly in the public sector. It’s the lower skilled workers who are not.

      • SIS1

        Yes, you are correct that nurses are a good example of unionizing in the sectors I too hastly said weren’t. That said, unfortunately public service unions have their memberships too heavily tied to public spending to be the basis for a resurgence in unions. Moves to unionize more folks in the restaurant business and in other service sectors is were growth can be.

    • efgoldman

      The problem is that unionism was not spread to the new sectors in which labor growth has existed, particularly healthcare and human services.

      Isn’t SEIA the only union that has showed positive growth in recent times?

      • I presume you mean SEIU. I don’t know if they’re the only one. (They do include the nurses.)

        • efgoldman

          I presume you mean SEIU.

          Typos are my friend.

        • Marek

          I presume you mean SEIU. I don’t know if they’re the only one. (They do include the nurses.)

          Not sure what this means. Some nurses are SEIU, but most nurses are not.

      • SIS1

        I was inarticulate with my post – yes. there has been growing activity in the service sector, and this is the growth that is important and matters, not trying to bring back the Steelworkers or UAW.

        SEIU and 32 BJ have seen strong growth, thankfully, and they and unions like them (or the hotel workers and service union in Las Vegas) are the future, not the left over industrial groups.

        • CP

          That gives me some hope for the future.

        • Vegas hotel workers are UNITE-HERE and not an independent union, as they are usually portrayed as. Just noting this is all.

          • SIS1

            Looking at the history here, UNITE-HERE is the successor to a bunch of unions from trades that were primarily dominated by women or minority groups through their history. Not a coincidence then that they are at the forefront of trying to organize a workforce that is predominately female and minority.

  • ice9

    I’m with you, and a union member, but ‘worker’ is a general term. Using to refer to union members is imprecise with that flavor of bias that feels a bit seedy. A worker’s a worker, and we wish them all well.

  • FlipYrWhig

    Why can’t unions become kingmakers for the Republican Party, especially a Trumpian Republican Party that occasionally shakes its fist at financiers, plutocrats, and free traders? If we’re looking at a political landscape where the white working class of the (post?) industrial Rust Belt likes to keep voting for Republican politicians, wouldn’t it be an easier lift for them to demand that the Republicans they already vote for address their material interests as well as their affective ones? It seems like it would be easier to add pro-worker policies to the culture-war stuff they already like. I mean, I don’t WANT to see that happen, but it seems like from a pure game-theory perspective it would make a lot more sense.

    • Well, given that game theory is basically useless in understanding the actual actions of people, then I think that answers the question. But more fully, it’s because Republicans are the party of the plutocrats and that is unlikely to go away Not to mention that becoming a party that addressed pro-worker policies is also a policy that address pro-minority and pro-women policies since they are mostly the same thing.

      • Murc

        Well, given that game theory is basically useless in understanding the actual actions of people, then I think that answers the question.

        My god, this, a thousand times this.

        The classic example here is… there’s a psychological study run periodically where you take a decent-sized sum of money, say 100 USD or local equivalent, and put two people in a room, and say “one of you gets to decide how the money will be divided between you two; however, the other person has to approve the divide or you both get nothing.”

        Game theory says that the person with veto power should and will always say “yes” to any amount proposed by the divider to be given to them that is over zero, on the grounds that they always end up with more money than they started with so it is a net win no matter what.

        But any six-year-old can tell you that if the person dividing it up says “I get 99 dollars and you get 1” the person with veto power is going to go “no, fuck YOU” and decide you both get nothing. Game theory can’t account for that.

        • FlipYrWhig

          Fine, I was intending to use “game theory” as a sort of shorthand for something like “gaming it out,” but if it’s a distraction, I’m happy to discard it.

        • I too am shocked that the constructions of social “science” prove useless.

          • Marek


          • econoclast

            Jesus Christ, Erik, sometimes you are such an anti-intellectual hack. We know that Murc is right because social scientists came up with the example (the ultimatum game), ran the experiment, and came up with the outcome that Murc mentioned. There’s social science name for the behavior — strong reciprocity. You wouldn’t be able to use the example to bitch about how social science is useless if it weren’t for the work of social scientists.

            • There is a difference between being anti-intellectual and laughing at the pretenses of people telling stories about people that are usually ahistorical and wrong that they are doing science.

        • ForkyMcSpoon

          Sure it can. You just need to account for the fact that denying the greedy asshole their money has utility (emotional satisfaction) that’s worth more than $1.

      • FlipYrWhig

        But if Republicans are the party of the plutocrats, why are white working-class people in key states voting for them _now_? I would venture to say it’s because white working-class people in key states like what the Republicans are offering, which is the promise of tax cuts and deregulation mixed with contempt for lazy brown moochers. I think the Democratic Party should offer robust pro-worker policies because it is good and right, but I have no hope that a Democratic Party that offered such policies would win the actual votes of the people currently voting for Republicans.

        • Because much of the white working class will choose white identity over class identity combined with the fact that the don’t see the Democratic Party has any solution to the problems of their lives so why not vote for the racist who makes me feel good about being white.

          • FlipYrWhig

            I don’t think they’ll stop doing that even if the Democratic Party DID have some solution to the problems of their lives. That’s why I think it’s more likely that they’ll clamor for the Republican Party to offer them some (tangible, material) solutions to the problems of their lives. IOW, I think populist Republicanism is far more likely to emerge than populist Democratic-ism, despite the best efforts of the leftish blogosphere.

            Either that, or they’ve just already entirely given up on the idea that politicians provide solutions to the problems of their lives, and so they’ll vote for symbolism and trollishness because at least it will make liberals cry. But if that’s true, from a sheer partisan electoral advantage perspective, it doesn’t matter WHAT Democrats and liberals do, does it?

            • Linnaeus

              This is one reason why the decline of organized labor is bad news for the Democrats. Unions are not only sources of funding and volunteers for GOTV efforts, they also provide a lot of political education for their members, which serves to counteract, among other things, right-populism.

            • Aaron Morrow

              I don’t think they’ll stop doing that even if the Democratic Party DID have some solution to the problems of their lives.

              We don’t need all of them to stop, just some percentage. (Not having a reasonable way of estimating the percentage that would switch is a major reason why attempting to use game theory doesn’t work.)

            • The problem with this formulation is the problem with the entire discussion of the WWC post-Trump, including in stories like what I linked to in the Times earlier. There have always been union members who prioritized white identity over class identity. And there always will be. It’s not about of THEY stop doing this or that or that the WWC is hopeless, whatever. It’s about numbers and percentages of voters. This is a fight around the margins and understanding that rather than trying to essentialize a complex group of people brings us to a much better place to act on these problems.

              • FlipYrWhig

                I can buy that but IMHO there needs to be an end to lefty utopianism about how prioritizing class issues and class identity is the ONE WEIRD TRICK that would win every election forever.

                • I don’t disagree, although I do think that prioritizing class issues is something that does not happen nearly often enough in our politics. But that can’t be divorced from also prioritizing racial justice and that’s where some of the class not race people struggle.

    • efgoldman

      If we’re looking at a political landscape where the white working class of the (post?) industrial Rust Belt likes to keep voting for Republican politicians, wouldn’t it be an easier lift for them to demand that the Republicans they already vote for address their material interests as well as their affective ones?

      You answer your own question in this sentence.
      If the rust belt is, indeed, post industrial (it is) then the biggest part of the WWC problems is: no jobs.
      That the government (RWNJs) have failed to keep promises that were made to the workers and former workers mainly by Democrats (for instance the health care for retired miners bill that Yertle McTurtle squashed against the interests of his own voters) doesn’t matter, since those ni[clangs] over there are getting all the gummint bennies anyway.

      • FlipYrWhig

        I agree, but it seems to me that if I were a despairing former industrial worker who didn’t know what could be done and didn’t trust Democrats to do it if I did know, I would go to town hall meetings and yell at Republicans to do something, because they’re supposed to be on my side and Trump promised he’d help. I’d be pissed at my old boss, pissed at rich do-nothing Republicans, and hoping that someone on the Bannonite side of Trump was listening. Under those conditions, it seems like you’d eventually get angrier populist Republicans who want to put people in hardhats to work on building things, and there’s no reason to work with a party that supposedly cares too much about darkies and illegals and feminazis and queers to get that.

        It just seems like a logical short-term outcome. But we’re nowhere near that. And I don’t entirely understand why.

        • ColBatGuano

          I think the answer is: Who bankrolls the Republican party?

  • I think it goes without saying the unions don’t vote; their members vote. And if neither party is interested in supporting their economic needs, then they will vote on their next set of priorities, which may be based on racial issues, abortion, defense of marriage, or whatever differentiates the parties in their eyes.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      they don’t always put their own economic needs first. Sometimes supporting a war seems more important to them. I’ve run across a couple of people recently who I am pretty sure would happily give up whatever the dems could promise them economically if that meant the fetus-Americans were protected from the hordes of rampaging abortionists. I know a strong union guy, retired from the state, former local D party volunteer, who voted for trump- and to screw every union worker over- because he was just that scared Clinton was going to take his guns

      the Ds should offer meaningful policy solutions- whatever that might entail- because it’s the right thing to do, but at the same time they surely can’t count on being rewarded at the polls for doing so

      • Exactly. If the unions could reliably guarantee a voting block, that would be one thing. But I don’t think they can even do that anymore.

  • n00chness

    Civil Plaintiff’s Lawyers (aka “Trial Lawyers”) are in the same boat. The Democratic Party sort of keeps them at arms-length perhaps due in part to the poor relationship that they have, much like the unions, and the Party rarely delivers for lawyers now as they did in the 1960s and 1970s when many of the key Consumer Protection statutes like the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act were enacted.

    The alternative to working with the Democrats of course is the political wilderness, and enabling a party that is actively committed to thwarting your goals.

    It’s the same calculus that it would have been nice to see more of the Bernie or Die folks to have adopted. It doesn’t taste particularly nice but it is correct.

    • n00chness

      “poor relationship” = “poor reputation,” with the public at large.

      Switch to Disqus!

      • Often , Dems add rights for various groups, then they lose. See Nixon , Trump, et al. Somehow the idea that blacks or gays or women getting rights makes a lot of natural Dem voters into instant enemies of Dem candidates.

        Me thinks racism/sexism is way more powerful than working together for the greater good.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Reducing the artificial stability of the two-party system, as enforced by plurality voting method, would increase labor’s leverage over actual Democratic politicians, and the effectiveness of labor’s voice in the Democratic coalition. It would also help in organizing parties that would serve as “gateway drugs” to bring the WWC (back) into the Democratic party, just as Trump’s racism and CDS have been gateway drugs to push the WWC (further) towards the Republicans.

    This is true in spite of the fact that it’s the kind of thing that a Naderite might say.

    • Also, if the unions could guarantee a consistent voting block.

  • drkrick

    It seems to me that the breakdown of the relationship between the Dems and Labor was mostly a case of the Dems not being able to dance with an unwilling partner. My adolescent memory of the late ’60’s / early ’70’s was that the Teamsters and George Meaney’s AFL-CIO (who together constituted most of what people considered the Labor movement) got extremely cozy with the Nixon Administration and the GOP over both Vietnam and civil rights and pretty much wrote themselves out of the relationship with the Democrats before they realized the GOP, as the Powell memo showed, was ultimately committed to being the party of the plutocrats. The relationship didn’t improve much in the next 15 years, and when the Dems followed Toney Coelho into more corporate friendly territory the die was pretty much cast.

    • FlipYrWhig

      Erik is an academic specialist on these things but this formulation neatly matches my (amateur) understanding as well. By the time Democrats could become the party of globalization and trade deals, if they even are, the labor-Democratic Party relationship was already heading towards divorce because of the Cold War and civil rights.

      • the labor-Democratic Party relationship was already heading towards divorce because of the Cold War and civil rights.

        Well, there’s a divorce between the labor movement and the left on the Cold War, but not between the labor movement and the Democratic Party, as Democrats basically supported the Cold War into the 80s.

        • FlipYrWhig

          A valid point.

    • Linnaeus

      It’s important to remember that the AFL-CIO is a labor federation, and its member unions take their own political stances, which need not always match what the AFL-CIO does. Not every union was the Teamsters in the late 60s and the early 70s, the UAW being an example of that.

      • NewishLawyer

        Walter Reuther worked very hard to make the UAW a socially progressive organization and keep it as such.

  • And yes, this may be the first ever political article or at the very least article about labor unions to use the word “frenemy” in the title.

    Your work will not be done until you can do the same with “friend zone”.

    • use the word “frenemy” in the title. I feel like getting that title through the editors is a victory for 21st century language

      Victory? Gaaa…. Eric, please don’t organize a webinar on this topic. Or I’ll be forced to to coat your bicycle seat with ketchturd.

      • Argh tried to portmanteau ketchup and mustard and mis-spelled it. Should have gone with mustup

  • jamesepowell

    I have doubts whether unions can accomplish much in 21st century America. Democrats can’t do much for them when supposedly blue and extremely pro-union (by comparison) states like Michigan and Wisconsin elect and re-elect Republicans who are aggressively anti-union.

    Democrats might be better off adopting national pro-employee policies. Somebody’s got to come up with a package, an employees’ contract with America of sorts, and try to sell that.

    • Phil Perspective

      Democrats can’t do much for them when supposedly blue and extremely pro-union (by comparison) states like Michigan and Wisconsin elect and re-elect Republicans who are aggressively anti-union.

      Neither Barrett nor Burke would commit to undoing Walker’s anti-union law(s). Why should union supporting Democrats get excited about that?

  • Brett

    A Job Guarantee would absolutely be the best way to do this, and it would force the federal government plus state and local governments to get creative about it. Federal contracting projects, infrastructure work, “every area with a certain population has a hospital and/or clinics”, environmental clean-up and restoration, sponsored public startups – the list goes on.

    • It’s also a clear political message that reinforces American cultural fundamentals unlike abstract weird things like UBI

      • Brett

        Uh oh, you said “UBI”. Every time you say “UBI” we get a 50-comment thread that rehashes every thing that’s been said in all the prior 640 UBI comment threads.

      • FlipYrWhig

        I think it’s a great idea but, I’m curious, is the intention (in terms of “American cultural fundamentals,” per Erik) mostly about building/fixing things or about other kinds of work too? Are you paying local starving artists to paint murals, or are you paying them to empty bedpans, or are you paying them to pour concrete? There are many things an able-bodied person can do for the public good, and many things a sound-minded person can do for the public good, but I wonder about how soon the blue-collar/pink-collar/white-collar divides would kick in and create distinct political difficulties.

        • It’s not like you create the government as an employer of last resort and then paradise ensues, sure.

      • Justin Runia

        Sorry, but when someone falls back on “culture”, I get queasy pretty quick. If J.D Vance and Martin Peretz don’t get to decide what defines culture, neither do you.

        I’m not even going to touch the absurdity of valuing work, as long as it’s not slave work or domestic work.

        • I’m not defining or valuing culture. I am observing how other Americans define work and legitimacy.

  • Bruce Vail

    Of course the logical alternative to working within the Democratic Party coalition is to burrow from within and take over the whole thing. Then you can kick out the Wall Steeters and the Beltway Bandits and have a real workers party.

  • Rusty SpikeFist

    I notice since Erik got tenure there’s been a great deal more truth on this blog and a great deal less rationalizing and semi-defending every bit of neolib bullshit coming from the Democratic leadership.

    Suspect that’s not a coincidence.

    Congratulations, Erik, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of this new Prof. Loomis.

    • I started working on this in December. To say the least, nothing has changed since Friday.

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