Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why workers dump Democrats: Part I

Recent polls claim -- and I have no reason to doubt them -- that the Democratic Party is being hammered by white working-class Americans. This has happened before, most notably in the early 80's with the "Reagan Democrats" and in the late 80's with the same folks going for Bush Sr. Interestingly enough, the same voters returned to the Democrats and "Bubba" Bill Clinton (Rhodes Scholar; Yale Law 1973).

Why have these voters periodically dumped the Democrats in favor of the Party for The Rich? Much has been written on this subject, for example Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas."
I'd like to summarize some of the reason that the Republicans have been so successful in getting American workers to vote for them, in spite of the fact that the Republicans represent the elite wealthy classes.

This installment (more next week) gives what I think is the most important reason: The Democrats have been so sorely red-baited that they are incapable of talking about the most important issues of Economics and Class. Everyone knows that the Republicans are the party of the wealthy. This has been true almost since their creation, when they split from the Whigs in mid 19th century. They favored railroads, banks and northern commercial interests and this became even more pronounced during the 20th century. The Democrats, with the longer history dating back to Jefferson and colonial times, generally represented rural/agricultural interests (definitely anti-banker). After the Civil War they became the natural party of the South since the Republicans were still associated with the hated -- by many whites -- Abraham Lincoln. Below the Mason-Dixon line the Democratic Party represented raw racism and segregation.

At the end of the 19th century came the fierce labor struggles, with Grover Cleveland calling out the National Guard in 1894 to break the Pullman strike, and then the presidential election of 1912 with E. V. Debs getting over 900,000 votes on the Socialist ticket. (He did it again in 1920 while a prisoner in a federal jail for his outspoken agitation against America's participation WW I.) The success of the Communists in Russia made the elite classes in America and Europe very nervous indeed; so did the growth of their homegrown labor movements. The result was the beginning of their desparate attempt to fight the unions and the socialist party: the beginning of the perpetual "Red Scare" acknowledged a threat to them far more serious than "Reefer Madness", contraception, or even Women's Suffrage. Thus was born red-baiting, the main tool that the Republicans, the party of the wealthy, wielded in its attempt to retain power in American political life.

While the captains of industry hated unions and fought them by all means available, including force, the U.S. government itself was not neutral, but sided with the the anti-union forces time and again. -- I've already cited Grover Cleveland's actions above. I don't have time to go into details; there are hundreds of books on labor history available: a new one is called "There is Power in a Union." I haven't read it yet but there is a favorable review here: In These Times.

On the other hand, the various socialist and anarchist parties in the U.S. as well as the Communist Party U.S.A. were whole-heartedly in support of the union movement. This enabled the anti-labor forces to tie the unions to the socialists and communists. In fact, they did the same for anyone who made pro-union statements; this is what red-baiting was and still is about: a way to fight proponents of social justice by smearing them with charges of pro-communism.

With the failure of Republicans Coolidge and Hoover to stem the Great Depression, the labor movement and even socialism became more significant factors in the U.S. Whatever his other motivations were, F.D.R., unlike the Republicans and even most Democrats, realized that government opposition -- legal and military -- to workers' rights might be seriously counter-productive. With the New Deal, Social Security, and the National Labor Relations Act (1935) Roosevelt instituted some of the basic worker-friendly institutions to American life, and may even have saved the capitalist system here. Unfortunately, he also gave the wealthy elite and its Party the opening to apply red-baiting to the Democrats (and any party or group that supported New Deal-like social programs).

One of the great faults of the Democratic party (and parts of organized labor) is that it never had the guts to come to terms with red-baiting. In fact, it periodically tried to purge itself of members who were "too left." That was one of the raps against Hubert Humphrey and George Meaney (of the AFL). Instead of pointing out proudly, over and over, what America gained from the militancy of the labor unions (child labor laws, 8 hour day, workplace safety, end of sweatshops etc.), and attacking labor's foes, it shamefully tried to point out over and over that it hated commies and socialists as much as the Republicans did. This defensive strategy never worked, and over the years working people forgot what the labor movement had accomplished, but carried the association of Democrats with defensiveness weakness -- especially after Roosevelt and Truman were gone. On the other hand, Republicans never disavow their friends, no matter how greedy, racist or homophobic. The result is that everyone knows, especially working people, that the Dems are wimps -- even if they can't exactly remember why.

(Here's a typical example of Democratic wimpiness. In the first presidential debate of 1988, Bush Sr. complained that Michael Dukakis -- his very forgettable opponent -- was a "card-carrying member" of the ACLU. The moderator probably recalling the old Joe McCarthy line "card-carrying member of the Communist Party", questioned Bush on what was wrong with that. Bush simply listed positions of the ACLU with which he disagreed, throwing in a lot of references to porno and X-rated movies etc. Dukakis was given time to comment. He spent all his time saying how what a loyal American he was etc. etc., and never once mentioned the ACLU and why he supported it. You can read it here.)


  1. There is a distinction between "the Democrats" and "the Left," despite the claims of Beck et al. Democrats were, by definition, NOT Socialists, though in the early twentieth century both groups had some overlapping policy goals. And later in the 20th century, Democrats were among the architects of the Cold War, engaging in plenty of awful anti-communist foreign policy and red-baiting at home. To say Dems 'never had the guts to come to terms with red-baiting' assumes an affinity with the "reds" that probably wasn't/isn't there in force in the first place.

    Anyway, as soon as I'm finished I will lend you Kim Phillips-Fein's _Invisible_Hands_. It's great.

  2. Interesting history on dems in this article.