August 25, 2009

I WOKE UP WITH WHAT?::

Liberalism without labor unions?: Hey Democrats: Can liberal interest groups and social elites really form the basis of a successful political party? (Michael Lind, Aug. 25, 2009, Salon)

Looking back, we can see that the history of American liberalism since the Depression falls into two periods: the New Deal up until the 1970s, when industrial labor provided the muscle of the reform coalition, and the neoliberal period, when unions have been eclipsed in the alliance by the black civil rights movement and other social movements: consumerism, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights. Necessary and important as they are, there are two problems with these liberal social movements as the base of a progressive party.

First, unlike unions, they are not membership organizations funded by dues from their members. They are mostly AstroTurf movements that depend on their funding and strategic direction on a handful of progressive foundations, and their leaders are appointed by donors and board members, not elected by followers. The work they do is valuable, but they cannot be substitutes for genuinely popular organizations.

Second, the members of most of these nonprofit movements are drawn disproportionately from the white college-educated professional class; their self-assignment to one or another single-issue movement does not disguise the fact that they tend to belong to the same social elite. Like the progressivism of the 1900s, but unlike the labor movement and agrarian populism, the progressivism of the 2000s is a movement of haves motivated by pity for the have-littles and have-nots, rather than a movement of have-littles and have-nots motivated by self-interest. And because they are, or believe themselves to be, motivated by philanthropy, the progressive haves are less interested in the economic struggles of the have-littles of the broad working class than in rescuing a far smaller number of have-nots from dire poverty. And even those elite progressives who are concerned about the working class are motivated by noblesse oblige: "We're from Washington, and we're here to help!"

Is the future of American liberalism a politics of charity rather than a politics of solidarity? In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder whether the relatively brief influence of labor unions in the Democratic Party in the mid-20th century was not an exception to the rule of elitism in American politics. You can write a narrative of American history in which, first, agrarian populism and 19th-century labor movements are crushed by repression and bloodshed by the 1900s. Then organized labor, after a brief, unforeseen period of influence from the 1930s to the 1960s, is crushed a second time by neoliberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, leaving an America in which the only significant conflicts are those within the economic elite. In such a political order, the only left that counts will be the left based on money rather than votes or members. Progressivism becomes a movement of the privileged and charitable who are interested in doing good to other Americans rather than with other Americans.

In such a system, it is hard to speak of a politics of the left at all, inasmuch as politics is a matter of popular participation.


If the Democratic Party was a woman he'd be gnawing his own arm off.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 25, 2009 7:55 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus
« DON'T THINK OF A MASSIVE BOONDOGGLE: | Main | NOW IF ONLY THEY FOLLOW THE NORWAY MODEL: »