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.This is a point that's often overlooked in discussions of progressive movements. It is often elite-driven.
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!"
I don't believe that this is an accident, though. It's always been elites:
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.You don't need to equivocate: elite-driven politics are the rule in America and have been for a long, long time. I'd be very cautious about claiming that things changed that much during the labor-dominated period, either, though it did change. And, remember, the reasons why it changed wasn't because of anything labor did per se, but because of the threat that a radicalized working class presented and the backdrop of depression and world war, and the great compression to a broad middle class during the 1940s/1950s.
Even from a simple political economic point of view, this shift is easily understood. The wealthy make [i]orders of magnitude[/i] more money than workers, and therefore have incredible, unbelievable resources. Not all of them are going to be bastards, but even the ones that aren't are going to marshal resources that worker-driven organizations like unions simply can't. Dominance by "benign" elites is inevitable.
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. To be sure, before elections various non-elite groups must be mobilized to vote for the reformist party. But between elections, there is no need to consult the majority, although pollsters may take its temperature now and then. There is no need to for consultation because public policy is something that should be devised by experts, many of them in interest-group organizations, who study issues, come to their conclusions and propose plans. Why involve the public in devising the plans? Why even explain the plans? It's easier for the experts simply to work with the elected representatives, who can then hire other experts – consultants – to learn how to sell the policies to voters. And if the elected representatives fail in their task of winning a legislative majority and passing legislation – well, since the 1970s liberals have shown that they are willing to rely on unelected federal judges and federal agencies to push unpopular progressive reforms through, when they can't get the votes.That last bit is a bit unfair—-the reason why liberals rely on such things is because of the structure of American governance, the rise of the conservative movement as an agent in itself, and the importance of the Bill of Rights in American jurisprudence. Conservatives are even more likely to resort to the Constitution to get their way; they simply have a weaker legal case and always have.
As for the rest... it could be worse. A lot of other democracies—like Canada, the UK and Japan—have more powerful, less accountable civil servants that really do make all the important decisions. In America elected officials are a fair bit more powerful than the norm, and the public more powerful in turn. Since voting is rarely (read: never) based on a politician's policy positions, but instead based on their temperament, beliefs and personality, voters already make a key decision on what kind of policies they want when they choose the person to represent them. It's a valid concern, but it's not solely an American concern.
Can parties or partylike organizations play the role once played in part by labor unions? During the New Deal era, the political parties still represented popular interests and values, even in areas of the country like the South and much of the West where unions had been defeated. The old kind of party machine is dead forever, but while the conservative movement had some success with direct mail campaigns, neither national party has seriously tried to mobilize ordinary Americans according to a partisan public philosophy, as distinct from manipulating particular groups of voters on the basis of single issues. A few years ago there was talk of the "netroots" as a new constituency, but Internet campaigns in practice seem to have mobilized liberals rather than to have converted voters to liberalism.I don't buy that the labor movement is dead, nor that it's dead as a basis for liberal politics. The greatest change between now and the 1990s is that people are more aware than ever of the distinction between the grand economic elites and the rest of us, and people are more aware than ever of how tenuous their jobs are. If the stories are true of a permanent movement away from good-paying, middle-class work, it's even more likely that unions will make a comeback, if only because people will no longer have that sense of smug security in their dot.com stocks or home equity that kept them from paying attention to the way things really were out there. And, though Obama's certainly not helping, the conservative movement is still a shadow of what it once was. Crazy, sure, but nowhere near as powerful.
In the 47 years of my life I have received only one piece of mail from the Democratic Party – a letter inviting me to pay $1,500 to buy a seat at a table at a fundraiser. I don't receive any e-mails from the Democrats at all. At the same time, I am battered by direct mail from various single-issue liberal constituencies, seeking not my vote but my money. Because I am neither a big donor nor a reliable foot soldier for this or that single-issue movement, but merely a citizen, the Democratic Party as an organization evidently has no interest in me.
The labor movement, as a basis for a liberal politics, is unlikely to revive. But surely the Democrats – or better yet, a liberal movement distinct from the Democrats – could try to use modern communications techniques to try to mobilize voters in places outside affluent neighborhoods and college towns. The objective is not to sell Americans on poll-tested talking points, but to inspire them with a coherent vision of the past, present and future of the country. The effort would be difficult and divisive, and it might fail. But the alternative is more of what we see in the politics of healthcare and energy reform: a politics motivated by a mixture of philanthropy and profit and carried out by means of incremental insider corporatist negotiations, a politics that most Americans watch in frustration from a distance.
As for visions...well, that's a problem, yes. That's been a problem with the various liberal factions for a long time. They fight, but they don't have any vision of what they're fighting for. At best they're preserving the past. The closest thing to a vision is the green movement, and that's probably why it's been more successful at binding groups together than anything else.
The irony is that the vision could become a stronger, better, fairer and more effective labor organization movement.