Tuesday, September 07, 2010

How the Democratic Party Fell Apart

Joan Walsh's excellent discussion of Jefferson Cowie's new book, Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class and subsequent interview with Cowie provide an enlightening discussion of the split between the New Left and the American working class that has weakened the Democratic Party for the past 30 years.

Cowie's book just came out today so I haven't read it, though I highly recommend his 2001 book Capital Moves: RCA's 70 Year Quest for Cheap Labor for a brilliant discussion of deindustrialization and globalization.

Cowie spreads plenty of blame around on the fall of the New Deal coalition, including to the AFL-CIO, to the architects of the New Deal itself who left out workplace protections for everyone who wasn't a white man, to American capitalists who moved jobs overseas just as grassroots unionists and the federal government were forcing workplace integration, and, to a lesser extent, the new identity politics intentionally alienating the white working class. Most of all, he blames AFL-CIO President George Meany and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley for refusing to support George McGovern in 1972, thus showing to the New Left that the old racist white establishment would never support them, even in a fair fight. The book sounds fantastic and I can't wait to read if (if I can ever find the time).

I do want to qualify one point from the interview.

You also explain the way the New Deal set up some of this conflict by leaving out service and agricultural workers, largely blacks and women, from a lot of  protections -- Social Security, the Wagner/labor relations act. Then, when we turn to the agenda of individual rights in the '70s, those protections get administered very separately, through the Civil Rights Act. So we created equal opportunity, but there was never an integrated approach to women as workers, or black people mainly in their economic context. The New Deal that we hail now built in that separation and segregation.
Definitely. I'm trying to get around this very common problem of pitting some ideal sense of class politics against identity politics, which is often the way the debate goes here. There's probably a little something to upset both sides on this. As this vibrant rights movement takes off, it really does present that zero-sum problem you were talking about. But then there are these ideas that show people were kind of aware of that moment. Like the Humphrey-Hawkins [full employment] Act. Now it just seems like crazy talk: "We can guarantee a job to everybody." But it provided a material foundation for everybody to be able to have economic rights.

If everybody's going to have equal opportunity, you are probably going to have to make sure you also expand opportunities.
Exactly right, and when the steel mills are closing, at the same time that blacks are getting positions in the steel mills, that's not going to do any good.

OK--but I think the racial problem is about quite a bit more than the government forcing the all-white unions to allow black people into the workplace. I agree entirely that declining economic opportunities combined with white racism and the civil rights movement's success to make whites believe that black people and a federal government they believed served black people were at the root of their problems. But even in a period of expanding opportunity, racist politics within the white working class moved union members to the Republican Party, at least on the local level.

As the exploding historical literature on conservatism's rise has shown, in cities like Detroit and Chicago during the 1950s, public housing and desegregation of schools moved white working-class people to revolt even as their union victories with the active assistance of Franklin Roosevelt's administration were fresh in their mind. Just because an activist government helped them didn't mean they wanted an activist government to help other people. Race trumped class, as it has through much of American history.

None of this contradicts Cowie's interview, but I think that even without declining economic opportunities and deindustrialization, the white working class probably still more or less abandons the Democratic Party by 1980 over the issue of race and other cultural changes associated with the New Left and identity politics. I'd call deindustrialization more the nail in the coffin than the bullet that killed the New Deal coalition.