What Do We Do Now II
November 17, 2016 § 2 Comments
What is our Task?
Several times on this blog I have expressed my belief that the Democratic Party must resurrect its partnership with organized labor. I believe the results of the presidential election affirm my belief. We cannot hope to recover from this loss unless we change our party’s response to the angry working class voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan who lost patience with the Democratic Party and chose the only alternative to “more of the same” by voting for Donald Trump. I mention those workers because those states figured so prominently in the debacle of the election. They are only examples. Their brothers and sisters elsewhere in America share a lot of their despair and anger.
The Past Fifty-One Years
Why did a significant share of working class white people in these states vote for Trump? I reject the answer from outraged Hillary supporters: “They are racists and were attracted by Trump’s racist bigotry.” I think it is more complicated. Here is the experience of those voters during the past fifty-one years, i.e. two generations: Beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and continuing to the present, we have had a significant cultural and political shift toward tolerance of racial, ethnic and religious minorities; toward equality of opportunity for women and toward acceptance of GLBTQ life styles including marriage equality. Especially during the eight years of the Obama administration, this progress has been embraced and celebrated by the Democratic Party. I don’t mean these problems have been resolved, but progress has been made and the Democrats’ proud role in supporting those changes is well known.
During that same period of time we have experienced a loss of manufacturing jobs due to globalization, changes in technology and the political disappearance of any meaningful support of or attention to the interests of organized labor. The victims of those losses have been told to re-educate themselves, abandon the skills learned on factory floors and, so far as concerns their rage at losing their status as successful middle class workers with decent incomes, they have been told to “get over it”. Their unions have been politically ignored and, largely because they have been unable to offer any effective response to these changes, their members have seen less reason to maintain solid political opposition to “Right to Work” laws that further weakened the strength of unions.
So, to summarize, while the Democratic Party has supported significant progress for women, blacks and gays, the labor movement, which is the only way to empower working class Americans, has been rarely mentioned by spokesmen for the Democratic Party and absent from agendas for the Party’s political efforts.
In the presidential election of 2016, Donald Trump based his campaign on a set of promises aimed straight at the white working class. He railed against the trade pacts that he claimed were responsible for the export of jobs. He opposed immigration policies he claimed would endanger the homeland as well as take jobs from white American workers. He promised to rebuild America with indigenous workers.
Is it logical or fair to assume the white workers’ attraction to those promises was based on Trump’s bigotry? I don’t think so. Of course, American culture still harbors a distressing strain of bigotry, but I do not believe it motivates a majority of Americans. That would presume that the past fifty years of effort had little or no effect. I long ago discovered that racism and bigotry are more prevalent in silk stocking neighborhoods than working class neighborhoods. It is an old and discredited canard that middle class workers are racists and well educated wealthy upper crust members are not.
One more thing I should mention: These angry voters were not poverty stricken. People who face daily struggles to stay alive have no energy for political struggles. The working class whites who were attracted to Trump’s message were those, or the children of those, who had enjoyed a comfortable middle class life, during the fifty’s, sixties and seventy’s , but whose jobs had disappeared with factory closings and technological displacement. The culture in which they thrived had disappeared and Trump promised its return.
Here is a link to three episodes of Van Jones’ interviews with working class families in Gettysburg Pennsylvania concerning their support of Donald Trump. Episode One is shown first on the screen. Episodes Two and Three can be watched by clicking on their panels on the right column beside the screen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60YG8RFGWfo These interviews illustrate some of the ideas in this blog post.
A Personal Aside: The Texas Experience
I am old enough to remember the fifty’s and sixties. I remember the union organizing in the refineries and steel mills and the telephone industry in Texas. The Steelworkers union, the Oil Workers union and the Communication Workers union struggled to overcome the racism that threatened the solidarity necessary for the power of those efforts. Union halls were educational institutions persuading workers who moved into Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur from East Texas, that racism was a divisive barrier to successful collective bargaining. It was difficult and required lots of painful trial and error, but, by 1963, the former CIO unions joined political coalitions with Chicanos, black activists and white liberals and the combination of those alliances and the motivation based on collective bargaining became a powerful force in Texas politics.
Ralph Yarborough was elected to the Senate after being defeated in a race for governor by about 3,500 votes. In 1962, Don Yarborough, no relation to the Senator, ran an openly pro civil rights campaign for governor, defeated Price Daniel, a U.S. Senator who returned to Texas to oppose him, and was defeated in a runoff by John Connally, a protege of Lyndon Johnson, who was dispatched to Texas to prevent the emergence of a liberal political organization capable of holding Johnson accountable when he backed measures like Taft-Hartley, a law that significantly thwarted the ability of unions to organize workers. Yarborough lost to Connally by about 25,00 votes. Texas conservatives were leaving the Democratic Party to become part an emerging Texas Republican party. It is a strong likelihood that, in 1964, due to this split in conservative forces, Don Yarborough would have become governor of Texas in 1964 (governors were elected to two-year terms in those days). In 1963, JFK was assassinated in Dallas and John Connally was wounded. That made him a hero and prevented a liberal takeover of the state house in Austin.
Johnson’s determined opposition to a strong Democratic Party organization in Texas was prompted by his loyal alliance with his longtime benefactor, Brown & Root Construction Company, which, with his unflagging support, became a world wide behemoth through mergers with M.W. Kellog and Halliburton and later absorbed other corporate giants to become KBR. This corporate network gave us Dick Chaney, former CEO of Halliburton and finally Vice President and tutor of President George W. Bush.
Texas: A Model For Other States
I have just started reading a new book by Max Krochmal, “Blue Texas. The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era”. It is a model for re-designing the political effort necessary for recovering from the recent election. I am confident Trump will furnish more than adequate motivation for that effort.
The danger is that we try to respond with more of the “triangulation” strategy of the past 30 years. Political strategy can no longer be based on the assumption that direct appeals to the “base” (blacks, Chicanos, labor unions and an assortment of white liberals) is unnecessary because they have no place o go except to support whoever is opposed to the current corporate stooge or neofascist billionaire who is running for office. Thus, “our” candidate has been free to “reach out” to Wall Street friends for money and political moderates with assurance that no radical changes will occur to threaten their political power and prestige.
That kind of political coalition has suffered from the absence of union organizers and leadership for the past fifty years. In the so-called “rust belt” of our midwest, the displaced and disempowered white workers were eager for radical changes. Hillary Clinton was the embodiment of “more of the same”. Her problem was not racism. Her problem was her lack of appeal focussed on the anger of disempowered white voters. Her acquired skill at triangulation politics no longer worked. It served her well in her intra-party contest with Bernie Sanders but the America that elected Bill Clinton no longer exists and the political skills appropriate for it are no longer effective.
I am hopeful that the election of Trump is a sufficient shock to spawn a new Democratic Party; an activist political party which will lead the opposition to Trump’s presidency. I am not opposed to negotiation of issues which do not conflict with the interests of our natural allies but I hope we will use the information from this election to forge new alliances into a nationwide coalition similar to the one I have describe in this essay from the past experience in Texas.
The kind of communication technology now available should make that kind of organizing much easier than it was in Texas in the fifty’s and sixties. We have inspiring leaders in Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. We need to embrace their counterparts in the Black Lives Matter community, recruit young people into Young Democrat organizations in every college, junior college and University in America.
And, above all, we must make closer alliances with labor unions, especially unions like the Service Employees international Union (SEIU). The labor movement needs to be transformed to use boycotts and street demonstrations to organize unskilled workers in retail, janitorial and food service industries. This will be hard and will require the partnership of liberal whites, blacks and Chicanos, the way the grape boycott did in the sixties under the leadership of Cesar Chavez. I don’t want to wait until steel mills return to America and heavy industries become centers for union strength. We need all parts of a liberal community to coalesce into a powerful force for justice. Our motto should be