The Democratic Party Needs to be a Workers' Party

 /  Jan. 26, 2020, 9:08 p.m.


democrat worker policy

Pete Souza


Michael Bloomberg, billionaire and former mayor of New York City, joined the fray of the Democratic primary this past November. Amazingly, someone whose campaign exploited the labor of prison inmates for phone banking has decided that he himself is the best fit for today’s Democratic Party. Bloomberg’s delusional self-belief in his candidacy is indicative of the Democratic Party failing to deal with rot from within. Until the Party cleanses itself of misguided corporate politics, plutocrats like Bloomberg will always hold influence, and the Democrats will not serve the American people they claim to fight for.

With the painful decline of organized labor in the United States, the Democrats are losing a core support group. The dismally low margin of support for Hillary Clinton from unionized workers in 2016 was nearly twenty points lower than for President Barack Obama’s margin from the same group in 2012. In many crucial swing states, the decrease in union support was enough to change the result statewide. In Pennsylvania, the union vote went up by 1.2 points for then-candidate Donald Trump; in Michigan, 1.7 points; in Wisconsin, 1.1 points. Each of those margins was larger than the margin of victory in the state. If Clinton had maintained Obama’s levels of union support, she would have hit the 270 votes needed to win the electoral college, and thus the election overall. Lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic party among organized labor helped hand the election to Trump.

The Democratic Party is struggling at a national level to retain and expand its vital political capital among workers. The Party has slowly moved away from even a façade of progressivism. Party politics now privileges candidates who sound smart and present no risk to the status quo instead of uplifting candidates who inspire deep solidarity in the working class. Political aesthetics have replaced substantive principles; the big picture of democratic politics has become divorced from the raw issues that face Americans on an intimate, everyday basis. The Democratic Party of today acts as if it is more concerned with attractive pedigrees for its most popular showmen than it is with liberatory policy for Americans.

A prime example is Mayor Pete Buttigieg. When he announced his candidacy, the level of media coverage surrounding Buttigeig’s elite education was stunning. The media endlessly fawned over Buttigieg for his multilingualism and Rhodes scholarship, and he was described as “smart, articulate, and personable.” Yet when it was revealed that Buttigeig’s McKinsey consulting team once recommended privatizing the Postal Service, or that the Buttigieg campaign’s Douglass Plan for Black Americans falsified endorsements from Black South Carolinians (many of whom were actually white), the press retained its pro-Buttigieg centrist bias. Political media chose to gloss over his real political shortcomings and continued to hype up his candidacy. 

Buttigieg imbues wealthy white liberals who are passionate about politics with a warm, fuzzy feeling. His candidacy sends the message that the professional white careerist with an elite education, youthful energy, and a burgeoning career, who can impress an audience with eloquence, will always be given a leading space in national dialogue—one that marginalizes people of color, women, and truly progressive candidates with proven track records. In short, a vote for Buttigieg prioritizes the aesthetic of intellectualism over principled and effective policy positions. Buttigieg’s rise in the 2020 campaign cycle is illustrative of the Democratic Party’s decrepit identity.

Rich white liberals are ideologically apathetic. Changing the world is not their priority, nor is it the reason they are invested in politics; the same decisions that determine the livelihoods of working class voters are simply an intellectual game for them. Workers and oppressed communities are no longer the focal point of the Democratic Party, and they are the ones who bear the brunt of our crave for aesthetic intellectualism. There is a direct connection between the Democratic abandonment of workers as a political body and Trump’s improbable election in 2016. To win in 2020 and in years to come, the Party has to find its working class identity once more.

Letting Workers Down

Democrats have consistently failed workers in recent memory. To start, the promotion of open trade deals with other countries has led to massive job losses. In 2000, then-president Bill Clinton signed a trade deal with China that created Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), a legal designation in the United States for free trade with a foreign nation. Despite predictions that PNTR would benefit American workers and move China towards liberal democracy, the deal had disastrous effects. Clinton failed to bargain for higher standards in Chinese workplaces, such as increased wages and improved working conditions, which would have raised operating costs in China and improved America’s competitive advantage. The United States hemorrhaged jobs. Economist David Autor famously concluded in a 2014 study that PNTR cost the United States between 2 to 2.4 million jobs throughout the early 2000s.

Even today, many Democrats have terrible stances on trade. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is Trump’s “NAFTA 2.0.” He promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which he calls “perhaps the worst trade deal ever made.” Trump is correct that NAFTA, signed by Clinton, failed American, Mexican, and Canadian workers by lowering wages and living standards in all three countries. But the USMCA makes few improvements. It makes minor changes on labor and environmental standards, but many of these standards are already functionally useless. Enforcement of labor standards in Mexico is overwhelmingly difficult and unlikely, meaning that jobs will still leave the United States in favor of Mexico. Just as with NAFTA, USMCA helps corporations to streamline profit by finding the easiest location for them to suppress workers. 

After more than a year of negotiations, House Democrats relented and threw their support behind USMCA en masse—displaying once more their timeless disregard for workers on trade policy. Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer noted that the House was simultaneously working to hold Trump accountable and “to deliver on our promises to the American people to focus on economic opportunity.” Yet the Democrats have made themselves instrumental in the triumph of one of Trump’s central campaign promises, and it will afflict workers for years to come. 

The Democrats’ recent relationship with domestic organized labor is another example. Labor unions are crucial for workers. The average wage of a worker covered by a union contract is 13.2 percent higher than that of a nonunion worker, and unionized workplaces are far less likely to see racial pay gaps. Union workers also have more and better benefits. And as the AFL-CIO—America’s largest union federation—demonstrates, states with high union density are the safest for workers. In addition to negotiations with employers for safer workplaces, unions fought for the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and keeps millions of workers safe.

Unfortunately, Democrats have ignored the importance of unions. Obama dropped the ball on labor law reform. He refused to expend political capital on the issue when Democrats controlled Congress. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia gained a majority in the state legislature, but said he does not plan to repeal the state’s disastrous right-to-work law, which has made the state the single-most hostile place for workers to live. Right-to-work laws allow workers to skip union dues, undermining union bargaining attempts for better wages and benefits. They lower union density and wages

Some argue it is immoral to force workers to pay dues, but the record of unions in delivering positive results to workers proves universal dues benefit everyone. If a majority of workers vote to organize, the minority who oppose the union cannot refuse to pay dues and claim the benefits brought by the union. Northam issued no explanation for his decision. He likely does not believe in repealing right-to-work or sees repeal as politically counterproductive. Either line of reasoning is both unfortunate and telling of Democratic establishment priorities. 

The struggle for strong unions a national one. When I went to the primary debate in Detroit last July, I sat in on an AFL-CIO strategy session with labor leaders and representatives from the Democratic campaigns. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka had a pointed and clear message for the Democratic establishment: “you can’t offer campaign rhetoric or count on workers’ votes simply because you have a ‘D’ next to your name.”

Democrats should have pushed aggressively for pro-worker and pro-union labor law reforms decades ago. An example of a potentially effective reform is the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which bans right-to-work legislation, simplifies the organizing process, and provides recourse for workers being suppressed by their employers. The Act is currently on standby in the House, and it would be an excellent way for Democrats to strengthen the position of workers. Unfortunately, Democratic House leadership has moved slowly on moving the bill forward, despite bipartisan support.

Democratic policy has ignored workers at its best and harmed them at its worst. It is unsurprising to see why working class enthusiasm for centrist Democrats is woefully low. Hillary Clinton had the triple misfortune to have a poor record of standing up for unions, to have been first lady with a president who destroyed working communities, and to have pitted centrist positions against a right-wing populist who raised a firestorm. The voters who shifted from Obama to Trump overwhelmingly opposed Democratic policy on free trade and labor law reform. They support economic progressivism. Stubborn reliance on status quo Democrat economic messaging allowed the “Blue Wall” in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to fall apart.

Where the Left Goes From Here

The Democratic Party needs to overhaul its economic message to rekindle sentiment with workers. Democratic voters and politicians ought to dismiss centrist concerns over the “electability” of a given candidate and the need for “compromise” as a means of regaining political power. Democrats have to make clear that the Party will do everything it can to stand up for workers. They must choose between giving in to an arbitrary aesthetic of centrist intellectualism or finding their moral compass and taking a stand.

The anti-worker agenda of Republicans and centrist Democrats is not only an economic agenda. It is also a political project. Pundits have argued for centrist candidates to implicitly tell progressives, especially young ones, that swing voters cannot and will not accept a progressive candidate for the presidency. Whatever the specific group that they argue are the lynchpin of an election—whether it is older men in the Midwest, or disillusioned Republican women in the suburbs—pundits use their interpretations of mostly white electorates as a fallback to hold America back from progressivism. Tragically, the media wields identity politics to divide working folks across the country and prevent public opinion from reorienting itself towards the substantive change that it desperately needs.

But the data does not support them. Specific issue polling shows that Obama-Trump voters are terrified by global trade and the assault on unions. Swing voters, many of whom suffered as a result of Democratic policy, feel abandoned. They voted for Trump thinking he would bring them economic prosperity. Democrats will win back voters when Party leadership realizes that, as political analyst Thomas Frank says, “radicalism lurks just beneath the surface,” for voters in the Midwest.

Democrats face a simple choice that has profound implications for the viability of their political platform in the decade to come. They can continue to claim to be the preeminent political choice for American workers while refusing to break away from their favoritism for aesthetics, doing damage to working communities and American industry through policymaking, and allowing their support from organized labor and the working class to slowly leak away. Or, they can refashion themselves as America’s Party of the working class and be unapologetically pro-worker. This cannot be just in rhetoric, but also in action by leaders who understand how to build grassroots strength. 

Liberals think that they have the moral high ground over Republicans, particularly as a result of the Trump presidency. Embracing economic progressivism will show Americans that their claim to moral superiority is grounded in reality, not a convenient fiction of political imagination.

The image featured with this article exists in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original was taken by Pete Souza and can be found here.


Daniel Harris


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